Reconsidering course credit

How many credits are you taking next semester?” is a question many of us were likely to encounter over winter break. It is the type of small talk that often finds its way into family functions. My explanation of our course system is inevitably followed by confusion and more questions. A common response is amazement that a student receives no more credit for a lab science than for any other class.

As I am sure most of you are aware, most colleges and universities attach a greater amount of credit to courses that have laboratory meetings. It is unclear why Williams has its unique course system, but there are evident disadvantages to this system for science majors. Additionally, there may be interesting consequences for those in the pre-med program. Due to the unique demands of laboratory science, I propose that lab sciences be counted as 1.5 courses under the current system.

After consulting with friends at many other schools, there appears to be a fairly standard and consistent practice of assigning a lab science 50 percent more credit than a non-lab course. Looking at meeting time only, even this system appears to give inadequate credit to a lab science. A three-hour weekly lab doubles the class meeting time. However, class meeting time is not a reliable standard to judge the total work required for a class.

Those students majoring in Division I or II will surely be quick to mention the hours of reading done outside the classroom. Although this is undoubtedly true, the science major does similar out of class work over a problem set or in the laboratory, as well as completing pre-lab exercises and lab reports. Other colleges and universities have recognized that a lab science is more demanding than a course without a lab and reward students accordingly. Williams has yet to recognize this truth and is leaving its science majors out to dry.

I have no doubt that the idea of a Williams student taking only three classes in a semester outrages the protectors of our liberal arts tradition among the administration. They would conceive of this as a lost opportunity for the student to explore the vast spectrum of social sciences and arts. Academically, they would be entirely correct. However, a student enrolled in two or even three lab sciences during a semester is stripped of most of his free time to participate in the Williams community. They are less able to contribute to an athletic team, to a campus group or even to the friends with whom they live.

Approaching the idea of a broad liberal arts education from another perspective, I doubt I am the only humanities-focused student who has been discouraged from taking a lab science by the extra time it entails. Providing an incentive to take lab sciences will undoubtedly bring more interested non-majors into the sciences.

In joining the majority of schools that reward their science students for extra work, Williams would fairly compensate science majors and encourage non-majors to broaden their education with lab science. Furthermore, prospective science-minded students would no longer be discouraged by the lack of credit for lab sciences at Williams.

The most damning criticism to this change in course credit derives from the extraordinary amount of courses a pre-med student must take to fulfill pre-med requirements and major requirements. Allowing lab sciences to count as a credit and a half would either reduce the total number of classes for pre-med students or encourage them to enroll for more than four course credits. Many students would undoubtedly graduate with more credits than necessary. Although admirable, this academic intensity conflicts with the ideas of community and extracurricular experience addressed earlier in this article.

The obvious answer to this problem is the creation of a pre-med major. I have heard many biology and chemistry students lament the nonexistence of a pre-med major and the ideology behind it. Presumably, there is no pre-med major because the idea of pre-professionalism is contradictory to the ideals of Williams College.

I like the stories of art history majors going to Harvard Law as much as the next guy, but the reality of medical schools is that you need to be on a specific track with specific courses in order to successfully enroll. Williams recognizes this by providing a pre-med program. However, students pursuing this program still need to fulfill major requirements. This leaves them few courses to pursue other academic interests in the social sciences and arts. It appears that the ideals of the liberal arts education are not applied uniformly.

The creation of a pre-med major eliminates the largest obstacle to rewarding our hard working lab students with one and a half course credits. As with any consequential action, there are both advantages and disadvantages.

However, in weighing the reality of fewer courses against the many advantages enumerated throughout this article, it is evident that augmenting lab science course credit would have a positive effect.