Sandlund: Academic Rigor Mortis

The fight for our hearts and minds was lost before it began.

by William Sandlund | 1/19/17 12:20am

One has to wonder at the fortitude of winter’s merrymakers. From the depths of January, on evenings worn black by nights already eight hours old, you can observe something strange. Scurrying about Webster Avenue in the freezing cold are spectral lumps. These creatures mill over icy roads and through weather-biting winds, and a stench of beer incubates beneath their heavy winter layers to be released as a heady perfume upon arrival at some familiar destination … The cold air often invigorates these inebriates, and it is perhaps at this moment that one of the creatures recalls those now indelible lines from College President Phil Hanlon’s Moving Dartmouth Forward plan: “Our vision is for Dartmouth to be a place of around-the-clock learning.” The student grumbles, to no one in particular, “Around-the-clock what?” before continuing a jumbled march onward, unsure about what this sentence could mean in a world as cold and confusing as ours.

Two years and millions of dollars later, Dartmouth has moved sideways. The dust has settled in the wake of yet another effort by the College to manufacture a new image from the ashes of our exceptionally poor publicity. One of the most ineffectual aspects of this effort has been the attempt to introduce “academic rigor,” which in itself is a rather terrifying buzzword hardly evoking of the idyllic liberal arts education the College markets. It is not clear why the more edifying “academic vigor” was passed up in favor of this portentous term. Perhaps the idea of “experiential learning,” a veritable buzzword behemoth, was seen to offset the hardness of “rigor.” In any case, over the past year, the administration has shifted its emphasis from “academic rigor” to “intellectual engagement,” but we all remember the original, terrible term best. Regardless of titles, the result of the initiative has been a minor inconvenience to students without a tangible intellectual shift on campus. The annual MDF report devotes less than a page to this part of the effort and focuses on “implementation” rather than results, simply because there aren’t any.

Readers might feel it is unfair for me to try and measure “intellectual engagement;” however the objection raised here is not to the effects of MDF, but the methods used. There is a carrot-and-stick strategy employed by the powers that be. We have a short-term stick, in the form of classes on Saturdays, earlier classes and fewer cancellations of classes. The long-term carrot? It is the end of negative publicity garnered by us, the idiotic pride and shame of our school, guaranteed by the gradual edging out of independent student life in favor of chaperoning and houses. Students gain a more valuable degree from the perception of Dartmouth as a sober hotbed of research and academia than they do from its current national image as a school whose only more notable virtue than its drunkenness is its frozenness.

This forms part of a trend to pamper and pander to fashionable concerns. Yet the one constant in the ever-changing world of higher education is the student body. As adults, we often thrive when given the opportunity to run organizations on our own. When I ask affiliated friends what they like so much about their respective houses, it is the sense of community formed independent from our school yet still of our school more than anything else.That said, this article is not an entreaty to preserve the Greek system; rather, it is about addressing Dartmouth’s failed attempts to effect meaningful change in our intellectual community. In a March 5, 2015 article on MDF, professors are quoted calling for more “magic moments” of late night intellectual discourse and more fraternity debates à la the 1850s Dartmouth of their fantasies. Instead of making any real effort to realize these cotton candied dreams, however, we simply have more class. What happened?

Perhaps it was just a publicity stunt, as Dartmouth Review writer Kush Desai suggested in his Feb. 26, 2015 article. That is a tempting explanation, but it has also been a lost opportunity to create an immediate sense of agency amongst students. If something as simple as a quarterly academic publication of the finest work from each undergraduate department was to be organized amongst upperclassmen, there could be a tangible step toward creating a more intellectually serious community. It would be a form of citation that would see essays, projects and proofs publicized in a forum that would help resumes and increase exposure to ideas. This is a simple idea, and perhaps it is impractical, but it demonstrates a different approach based on reward and empowerment rather than control and punishment. With a little luck, we all could be having more of those “magic moments” — just be careful, if your dose is too high, you may end up having a bad trip and realizing that, for all the bluster of academic rigor, the magic was a sham.

And so each year we fall forward, steered ever closer to the source of the autumnal winds of change. The breath of Hanlon, moving past his mustache and into our awareness, breaks us out of an impenetrable alcoholic stupor every now and then.

I want to end this article mentioning that some of my fondest memories from finals are the mirror image of “binge drinking.” Where binge drinking entails drinking too much with friends, as many young people are wont to do, there can be an academic equivalent of such risky behaviors — staying up all night desperately writing papers, regretting going out in the days after classes ended, hating every ounce of my horrible, stressed-out self. These were learning moments, I think. For every one-time, part-time, full-time Dartmouth degenerate, I know there is also someone underneath passionate about learning and ideas. The violent shift from wasted wastrel to engaged student, finding a last minute paper or problem set surprisingly interesting, is a skill in life as well as a crash course in experiential learning. The College should not demand we prepare for well-adjusted balance without any experience of the prior state of intemperate imbalance. Enjoy the weekend and its requisite “around-the-clock learning.” Have fun, be safe.