Verbum Ultimum: Deflating with Caution

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 2/5/15 8:12pm

While there may be no scheduled classes today, on any given day it’s likely that at least a few students have pulled an all-nighter to finish an assignment or exam. Enter Baker-Berry Library at any time throughout the term and you will see hundreds of students studying for hours on end. While College President Phil Hanlon has asked faculty “to consider a number of ways to increase the rigor of our curriculum” through unilaterally curbing grade inflation or having earlier classes, he should instead look to increase rigor by fixing structural inadequacies in the academic resources Dartmouth offers its students.

First, it is a fallacy to assume that students who take earlier classes are inherently more academic. There is nothing intellectually superior to taking a class at 8 a.m. on a Thursday instead of 2 p.m. Earlier class times hurt students with jobs that start early in the morning or end late at night, athletes who have morning practice and any other students with a number of legitimate reasons to take classes later in the day. Presumably, earlier class times could stop some students from consuming alcohol on a Monday or Wednesday night, but this group of students will still have the option not to take these classes, or simply deal with going to class hungover. A two-hour difference is not enough to dissuade students, especially considering how little sleep the average Dartmouth student often gets.

Grade inflation is a problem in many departments, but it cannot be solved through unilateral grade deflation. Last year, the government department instituted median limits for both seminars and lectures. In doing so, they effectively addressed grade inflation while allowing for differences in class type and size. All departments should adopt a similar policy, but go further in recognizing the discrepancies between various courses. Introductory classes should have higher standardized medians in order to encourage academic exploration. Low medians in introductory courses only serve to “weed out” students who do not perform well in those classes and discourage them from further exploring the department. A high grade only demonstrates that a student was successful in that particular course. Considering the role that externalities, such as prior education, the status of a student’s mental health and other personal factors during a given term, one grade is an insufficient indicator of a student’s potential for success in a department.

Further, increased non-recording option availability goes hand-in-hand with standardized medians. Curbing grade inflation, while important, can discourage students from taking risks in course selection. By increasing the amount and kinds of classes that students can NRO — and thus take without fear of lowering their grade point average — the College would mitigate the negative impact grade deflation has on academic exploration.

Dartmouth offers a variety of academic resources, yet there is still room for improvement. Professors and academic deans should have more office hours that take students’ schedules into consideration. Academic support services should ensure that students have consistent and accessible resources across all subjects and course offerings. There is, for example, a significant difference between a good English paper and a good economics paper.

In considering ways to improve the academic experience, we should also revisit the quarter system. Having a ten-week quarter incentivizes students to take the easy way out, as each missed day puts students irrevocably behind. There can be no sick days, no personal traumas and no stumbling blocks. Students are already overworked, overbooked and struggling. The D-Plan was intended to be a short-term solution that would allow coeducation without decreasing the enrollment of male students. It was not meant to be seen as innovative, let alone permanent. The College should consider changes to the academic schedule, perhaps by looking at the J-term schedule at schools like Williams College or adapting features of a semester system to Dartmouth’s calendar.

As we said in last Friday’s Verbum Ultimum, “Moving Dartmouth Forward” left more questions than it gave answers. While the details still have to be worked out, the College will need to do more than simply mandate lower grades if it wants to increase academic rigor.