Woodward: The Road to Intellectualism

by Aylin Woodward | 2/22/15 7:52pm

A major point of College President Phil Hanlon’s “Moving Dartmouth Forward” plan is the emphasis on strengthening academic rigor. As I discussed with my peers and some faculty members at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, however, perhaps the phrase “academic rigor” is merely a red herring — one that has become conflated with Hanlon’s goal of a more intellectual campus. I maintain that the best way to have a holistic “positive impact on student life and behaviors” at Dartmouth is not “to increase the rigor of our curriculum.” Rather, we should strive toward a culture that rewards and prioritizes learning and curiosity outside of the classroom, where conversations among friends and peers are dominated by relevant academic discourse instead of trivialities and student life issues. Curbing grade inflation or increasing the number of early classes will not achieve that end. If Hanlon wants us all to be “24/7/365-day-a-year learners,” he must focus on encouraging the development of our collective intellectualism in lieu of proposals that will likely change nothing but our already excessive stress levels.

The road to a more academically engaged and intellectual campus lies in strengthening student and professor relationships and creating more opportunities for them to interact in new settings. How can we break down the barrier between the roughly 10 to 15 hours we spend in the classroom each week and the rest of time we spend living our day-to-day lives?

Some programs are already in place to help bridge this gap. The “take a faculty member to lunch” program is one fantastic example of such a program, but it represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be done. The College must consider creating more opportunities for students to interact with professors outside of office hours and lectures — interactions that go beyond having simple conversations. Perhaps there should be a program that encourages more faculty to join and interact with students in dining halls, in which students bring their professors to a meal in the Class of 1953 Commons. This would give professors the chance to chat with past and present students about topics that extend beyond the next class assignment or problem set.

Events hosted by Greek houses that invite student-nominated faculty to come for meals already facilitate student-faculty interaction. As a student community, however, we need to do more to bring professor and student relationships out of the classroom, and administrative groups like DCAL can help create and support these forums of interaction. The new residential house system in “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” which envisions professors and graduate students living with undergraduates and is one of the strongest points in Hanlon’s mosaic of changes, is one example of an initiative that DCAL can contribute to.

Student-faculty meals in less formal settings may also enable students to be more open about their feedback — an improvement to the anonymous and impersonal course evaluations required by the College. Such conversations could eventually form a culture that heightens student interest in professors and the courses they teach, while simultaneously allowing professors to teach more effectively, as day-to-day student feedback would provide them with a moving metric of their relative success.

A culture of increased student-faculty interaction could have further advantages. Perhaps instead of “layup” lists circulating the halls of Greek houses or the blitz lists of athletic teams, we might see more “best-courses-I’ve-ever-taken” lists shared among students, lists of the most intellectually stimulating or valuable classes. Students would hopefully seek out academic excellence rather than easy, high-median courses. If students select and enroll in classes with an expectation of first-rate teaching, then faculty who are well regarded by students will have an incentive to keep up their work, and their colleagues could be inspired to adopt the same high standards.

New interactive environments and experiences that bring students and faculty together would yield a push in the right direction not just for students — who would benefit intellectually — but also faculty, who would benefit from honest feedback on their classroom teaching practices, ultimately paving the way for a concrete change in Dartmouth’s academic culture.