Woodward: Social Science Syndrome

by Aylin Woodward | 4/6/15 6:42pm

When giving tours for prospective students, tour guides like myself like to advertise the College’s liberal arts character, praising its lack of a core curriculum and assuring that, despite our distributive requirements, the breadth of academic possibility the school offers is as vast as the number of departments we have — that the Dartmouth name on our diploma offers the same prestige whether we choose to study chemistry or studio art. I used to buy wholeheartedly into that assertion. Now, in my senior spring, I’m not so sure.

As a government and anthropology double major, I like to self-deprecate, claiming that I am illiterate in mathematics, physics and all things engineering. I’ve never had a natural aptitude for STEM subjects beyond what I had to forcibly memorize to limp my way through AP Calculus, and I promised myself that I’d minimize their presence in my Dartmouth education.

Doing so seemed to work out pretty well for me — choosing what I considered a practical major and a major about which I am passionate, seemed to yield a fruitful and fulfilling intellectual experience, and my interest in the classroom was reflected on my transcript. The secret to good grades and academic success seemed to be passion and diligence — or so I thought.

Then I started dating someone with a major in engineering and a minor in computer science and joined a few groups around campus that had many students involved in the STEM fields. Vicariously or no, I began to see what the academic experience is like for students who do not pursue the social sciences or the arts and humanities. My perception of my own academic excellence soured. How could the difficulty of my critical lens essays and policy memos ever be considered on par with engineering problem-sets, six-hour biochemistry labs or C++ coding assignments? Perhaps my higher grades were not a result of my own diligence, but instead merely consequences of the fields I had chosen to study.

It’s a common perception that some majors and departments are “harder” and more “legitimate” than others. Many students likely don’t consider a 3.8 grade point average in the mathematics major to be equivalent to a 3.8 in the music major — and that perception needs to change. Why should those uninterested in STEM fields be demonized as academic freeloaders and underachievers? At a liberal arts college, our greatest freedom is the ability to pursue divergent interests under the same umbrella of academic excellence. Due to no fault of the student body, however, such a freedom is colored by heuristics and misperception. As I wrote in the Feb. 6 Opinion Asks, “Where does the perception of a major being traditionally ‘harder,’ such as engineering, biochemistry or mathematics, versus ‘easier’ come from?” The answer is complicated, but much of it seems to arise from inconsistencies in the College’s grading system, especially pertaining to grading differences between departments. Many of these inconsistencies can be connected to one of campus’ hot-button topics — grade inflation.

Since the genesis of the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” plan, much of the debate surrounding the juxtaposition of student life and academic rigor has centered on grade inflation. The creation of ad hoc faculty committees and lofty administrative mandates aside, maybe there is no effective solution that can address this symptom of higher education. I’m not professing to have the answers, but I am demanding there be a culture of greater accountability among the faculty at this school. As students of Dartmouth, we should be able to feel supremely confident in the value of the grades we earn. The qualifications that make one an A or B student need to be consistent and comparable across all disciplines so that we can have the most accurate perception of our academic success — an accuracy of perception that will prove essential when we enter the professional world.

The only way to bridge the divide between the STEM fields, social sciences and arts and humanities is for students, faculty members and potential employers alike to be confident and secure in the knowledge that the grading severity is equal across departments and majors. That is the direction in which the campaign to increase academic rigor must go. It doesn’t have to necessitate harder classes, but it does require a professional consistency upon which we as students can stake our academic integrity.