Park: Expecting Too Much

by Annika Park | 5/28/15 7:57pm

This spring marks the first full term since College President Phil Hanlon announced the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative. Students on campus have already been noticing changes both small and large. Beyond the availability, or lack thereof, of hard alcohol at on-campus parties — arguably the most visible change in student life — students have increasingly noticed the College’s focus on strengthening academic rigor. The plan to hold Saturday classes this fall term no doubt contributed to a discontent among students, most of whom were dissatisfied with the prospect of having to spend Friday nights in the library finishing work for their classes early the next morning. Yet none of this compares to the proposals of the ad hoc committee on grading practices and grade inflation to completely revamp the grading system, with the goal of making As and Bs more difficult to achieve and the potential elimination of the non-recording option.

There is a difference between inflating grades and the interest and effort that students put in to a class. There is also a difference between giving grades that are a true reflection of the student’s ability and performance and significantly withholding good grades from deserving students. The committee’s report suggests adhering more strictly to current criteria for the grading scale, so that As are only awarded for “excellence,” Bs for “good mastery” and Cs for “acceptable mastery.” The issue with this rubric is not in that an A is awarded for excellence — as it should be — but that a C is for “acceptable mastery.”

Conventionally, a C is a passing average. Yet for many, a C would be a stain on their transcripts. While that is perhaps revealing of the mindset that the typical student has on campus, there is nothing wrong with wanting a stellar academic record. It would be wrong to expect the best without giving your best, but the fact that “adequate knowledge” of a certain topic only warrants a C is a scary thought. If a C is “acceptable mastery,” which is often the case given the short 10-week terms at Dartmouth, would a struggling student then immediately be handed a D or lower?

For instance, consider students who are capable of following a professor’s guide sheet on logging data into Stata, the software used by the Government 10 and Economics 10 courses. Yet it takes them awhile to remember commands off the top of their heads and manipulate data dexterously. According to the guidelines set forth by the committee, they will likely receive B-minus or a C-plus.

Adjusting grading standards in this manner has the potential to negatively impact future career plans. While the College might perceive a C as “acceptable mastery” of a skill or a topic, a potential employer looking at our transcripts will probably view it as incompetence. The discrepancy of a C at Dartmouth and a C in the outside world will likely hit future graduates hard, and the College cannot just assume that employers will take its grading rubric into account.

In a May 28 story in The Dartmouth, computer science professor and committee member Thomas Cormen criticized students for putting their extracurriculars before their academics. In other words, he is accusing students of prioritizing the Dartmouth experience ahead of the quality of learning they take away from this place. This is a valid criticism, seeing as the College is known for its “Camp Dartmouth” vibe as much as it is for the quality of its undergraduate teaching. Yet Cormen misses the bigger picture. What defines the character of the Dartmouth student — and, by extension, Dartmouth College — is the energy with which students pursue an eclectic mix of interests, inside and outside the classroom. That professors can insinuate that students lack academic passion because they are committed to and passionate about their extracurriculars is, in my opinion, insulting.

Enforcing academic rigor does not come from making higher grades a more exclusive distinction. It comes from improving the quality of the professors and the teaching material so that more students have the drive and support to achieve As and Bs. Before finding fault with students who are apparently undeserving of good grades, faculty and administrators should reflect on whether the bigger threat to academic rigor comes from the dropping quality of teaching and curriculum content in certain departments and courses.