Faculty to vote on graded WS class

At this afternoon’s faculty meeting, Williams College faculty will vote on a proposal to create a regularly graded course during Winter Study. This course would both count as Winter Study credit and make up for an academic deficiency, that is, a dropped or failed class. The course would be available to any student who withdrew from a class in the fall before the Winter Study registration period at the end of October. If space remained in the class after Winter Study registration, the class would subsequently be available to students who failed a course that fall semester.

The Committee for Educational Policy (CEP) took up the proposal last September after Charles Toomajian, associate dean for the College and registrar, raised the issue. The idea for the course stemmed from the observation that students were making up deficiencies by either taking fifth classes or, more commonly, taking a summer course, according to David Zimmerman, professor of economics and CEP chair. The College requires that students graduate in eight semesters, and make up deficiencies within one semester plus one summer. Zimmerman said that concern arose because students often have difficulty carrying a fifth class. Furthermore, many students have had difficulty accessing acceptable courses over the summer and summer courses often have been of “marginal quality.” If the motion passes, the CEP will examine the class’s effectiveness after three years and then give a report to the faculty.

The proposed Winter Study course will meet for a total of 60 hours so as to account for the combined time of a typical Winter Study class and a semester-long class. “We used a guideline of 60 hours to make sure it was clear that it was a substantial time commitment,” Toomajian said. A typical semester-long class meets for approximately 30 hours, while a typical Winter Study class meets for 18-20. According to Toomajian, the class will not have prerequisites, though the “actual course will depend on the faculty member who agrees to offer it,” and use of the class time will be at the discretion of the professor.

Zimmerman said that if the motion passes, implementation would likely be up to next year’s CEP, which would take proposals for courses from faculty members. “One issue with the course is that it is a single course in a single subject and will probably be offered at a single time,” Zimmerman added. “We will not able to cater to students’ interests as precisely and as well as we are normally able to.” He said it is likely that the course would only be offered to students who have a deficiency in the fall semester preceding Winter Study because the class will be “a pilot to see whether students take advantage of it.”

The proposal says that the course will be especially designed for students who have experienced “academic difficulty,” though how that will be accomplished is unclear. “Study skills is an issue we have to think about more, because deficiencies may not be the result of weak study skills,” said Zimmerman. “We are thinking about that particular component, and it’s going to depend on who is taking the class and whether it is useful or not.”

The new course would entail added costs if the proposal passes, but the College could ultimately save money. “There will have to be a salary or a credit toward the faculty member’s regular teaching responsibilities,” Zimmerman said. “It does entail some additional resources to staff this course, although there are also savings, because when financial aid students take courses away over summer, to the extent that financial aid students will take this course, the College will save some money.” The College currently funds the summer courses for first-years on financial aid who must make up a deficiency over the summer. It also assists any financial-aid students who have a parental contribution under $4000.

Toomajian and Peter Murphy, professor of English and department chair, first brought the idea to the CEP and the Winter Study Committee during Murphy’s tenure as Dean of the College in 1998, but the faculty rejected the proposal. “The majority [of the faculty] did not believe that an intensive course would be the equivalent of a regular course at the College,” Toomajian said. “I personally believed those opposed for this reason missed a major point – the course should be compared to summer courses taken elsewhere that are used to make up deficiencies, not our regular courses. In that comparison, I contend an intensive course taught by one of our faculty would almost certainly be ‘better’ than a summer school course offered elsewhere.”

Toomajian noted that the proposal was revived when the CEP discussed “alternative ways to provide flexibility in our curriculum [this year], it seemed it was time to bring back our proposal.”

Murphy has not been involved with the idea since his time as Dean ended, but he said that the motion is “almost exactly the same now as it was.” “It was a good idea [in ’98], as it is now,” Murphy added. “I think the faculty did not understand the issues as well then as they do now, so I have hopes it will pass this time.”