Gaudino committee proposes curricular experiment

Tonight at the 7:30 p.m. College Council (CC) meeting, mathematics professor Edward Burger will represent the Ad Hoc Gaudino Advisory Committee in inviting students to enter into discussion about a new curriculum. The goal of the proposed curriculum is to encourage students’ enrollment in courses outside their comfort zones by cushioning the potentially negative impact on their GPAs. The Committee is currently comprised of faculty members from across the three divisions and representatives from the administration and the Committee on Education Policy (CEP) but is actively seeking student involvement.

Burger said he will put forward to CC the question: “Would students embrace an invitation to go out of their intellectual comfort zone with the understanding that if it results in a less-than satisfactory grade, then that mark might be erased for their transcripts,” he said.

Within recent weeks, Burger brought this proposal to the CEP as an idea very much in its formative stages. A possible model that might arise out of the proposal would allow a student to take a class far afield of his or her usual interests with the understanding that the student must demonstrate intellectual presence and involvement. If the student should receive a final grade that meets a certain requirement but is not personally satisfactory – and the instructor of the course believes he or she was intellectually present in the class – then the student could choose whether to accept the grade or keep it from factoring into one’s GPA (invoking what might be called the “Gaudino Option”). There would also be a limited number of classes with this option available. Although the Committee proposal provides a set of very mutable specifics, Burger explained that the current proposal is entirely a work in progress with a future wholly dependent on student and faculty feedback.

“If there’s no student interest, that’s absolutely fine, but then it is difficult to imagine moving forward,” Burger said. “Here’s a potential change in our curricular culture that, in my mind, is now in the hands of students.”
The underlying concept that Williams students act “risk averse” came under discussion in the spring at the Gaudino Faculty Forum, a series of faculty lunches and dialogues moderated by Burger, the current Gaudino Scholar as of 2008. In reviewing the experience of the classroom, faculty members communicated a general sense that an unfamiliar class’ potential impact on a student’s GPA seems to become an inhibiting factor in course selection. The curriculum proposal seeks to help solve this contentious culture that works against a true liberal arts education.

A professor of comparative literature and German – Division I subjects – Gail Newman participates in the ad hoc committee in a double role, as she is also a member of the CEP. Since lecturing at the Gaudino Faculty Forum last spring, Newman has given the idea of constrained course selection much thought and was one of several faculty members considering this proposal throughout the summer. Newman said she senses a divide between the divisions in the minds of her students.

“From the perspective of somebody who teaches what I teach, there’s a great deal of aversion or fear among students I hang out with to Div. III,” Newman said, recalling her desire and hesitancy to take a physics class – citing the Williams course on phsyics and light as an example – during her time as an undergraduate. “Anything that can facilitate that kind of crossover and exploration is fantastic. I find that I get very few students from Div. III in my courses. When I do, I love it. I love the way scientists think.”

Furthermore, Newman says there was general, real affirmation of the initiative among the CEP and that the group is currently concerned with refinement of the logistical implementation of the policy.
Charles Toomajian, associate dean of the College and registrar, serves on the Committee not only due to personal interest but also as an administrator who would have a hand in practically implementing any changes to the grading system. “There is a lot of merit to the idea of the proposal,” he said, adding that he is working to provide assessment on the logistics of a new curriculum from his standpoint as the registrar.

Magnus Bernhardsson, professor of history and member of the Committee, said he feels that students sometimes maintain too firm a focus on the “perfect resumé” after coming to the College. He said that, in his discipline, geographical divisions or other disciplinary confines often separate students that could benefit from working together. “[The students] should not set perfection as the standard, but that maybe should be the direction rather than the destination,” Bernhardsson said. “Allowing students to make a mistake might be liberating.”

Bernhardsson expressed the hope that the careers of undergraduates will be enriched by the novel academic experiences this initiative seeks to foster. “I want students to feel the curriculum and the college experience is open, wide open, and inviting for them to explore new things they have never thought about,” he said. “This would enable students perhaps to learn for learning’s sake and be introduced to a mode of thinking or new assumptions they have never been exposed to before.”

Burger hopes that the CC meeting will become a successful jump-off point for engaging with students. “I am hoping for a lively discussion, suggestions, questions and reactions,” he said, “and then to ideally see if they can help in recruiting student interest in continuing this conversation and moving the proposal forward.”