Balancing the scales

As I glanced over my transcript the other day, something very odd occurred to me. I somehow earned the same grade in two 100-level science courses, one for which I had clocked countless hours working on problem sets and studying and the other for which I frequently skipped class and barely studied at all. Yet on my transcript the same letter sits beside both, equating two courses that could not have been more different.

The credit system at Williams makes my situation a fairly common one. With four courses per semester weighted equally in GPA, the same amount of credit is given for every course, introductory or advanced, lab or language. Like me, friends have mentioned certain pairs of classes that are designated same-level but are clearly not comparable: Astronomy 101 and Physics 151, Italian 101-102 and Latin 101-102, Math 375 and Math 305, to name a few. Some may disagree with these particular comparisons, but the general concept is clear across all departments.

Although this is an academic injustice at Williams, there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution. An attempt to discover these discrepancies could be the course evaluations we fill out each semester. Maybe changes are in the works, but I am doubtful because the student evaluation program began over 20 years ago, and these differences still exist today. Increased intradepartmental collaboration is one way to partially fix this issue; however, the level of difficulty of any given class is ultimately subjective and thus may be impossible to remedy in some cases.

There is one purely objective indication of how challenging a course is, that is, the amount of time spent in class. For most lab courses at Williams, lab meets three to four hours every week on top of regular lectures. When time spent on lab write-ups is factored in, one lab course is arguably equivalent to two non-lab courses in terms of time commitment. Introductory language courses also meet for more hours each week than other courses. I am by no means advocating reducing language meetings or eliminating labs, but this extra time commitment at least should be reflected on our transcripts. The fact that only 25 percent of my GPA accounts for 40 percent of my workload in a given semester seems unreasonable. Restructuring GPA calculation could solve this problem.

With a new system of assigning credits, a wider variety of classes could be offered. At larger universities, students have more courses to choose from, which is obviously the case due to the larger student body. Yet there are also more practical or peculiar classes, such as the Google-ization of the world, or the birth of the comic strip, which are both offered at UCLA. This genre of courses is similar to that of Winter Study courses, but they are offered during the semester. They are often less of a commitment, and as such are worth fewer credits compared to more academically intense courses. Williams prides itself on offering such courses during Winter Study, but their availability to individuals is deceptively limited despite the wide range of classes available to the student body as a whole. There are always many intriguing Winter Study courses, but I can only take one. Moreover, most first-years don’t get into their top choices, and it is only marginally better for sophomores. If a junior abroad program overlaps with Winter Study, some students will take only one WSP class that is their absolute top pick. Even if I love all of mine, I am still only able to take four out of the 225+ that are offered during my time here.

Since seniority is the only way to determine Winter Study placement, offering similar courses during the regular semester would give more students access. With a credit system that better reflects the actual workload of existing courses there would be room for these additional classes as there is at larger universities.

A friend at another small liberal arts college in New England took a brief summer course at her school on presentation technology as it applies to the corporate workplace. One afternoon she said to her professor, “This class is so helpful; why don’t you teach it during the year?” The professor responded, “We are a liberal arts college. We’re not allowed to teach anything practical!” While limitations are not this extreme here at Williams, our semester course offerings do reflect an incredible commitment to rigorously academic material. This may be aligned with the traditional view of a liberal arts education, but I believe a re-evaluation of this ideal is in order. The highest praise of a liberal arts background is often that we, as students, have experience in many different areas. Therefore, enriching course offerings, which could be accomplished by altering the credit system, would signify a giant step towards the goal of a liberal arts education.

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