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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Freeman: NR(Lack of)O

Changing the NRO policy would further Dartmouth’s liberal arts tradition.

Two phrases every Dartmouth student knows and loves: “distrib” and “NRO.” These terms epitomize the unique Dartmouth experience — a wide range of knowledge gained through 14 required courses, colloquially known around campus as “distribs,” and the safety net that comes along with learning a new subject, the Non-Recording Option. Dartmouth prides itself on its liberal arts focus, claiming to offer students (albeit forcibly through graduation requirements) a “breadth” of knowledge. The College encourages its students to take advantage of this breadth through the NRO — a relieving way for students to exclude a grade from their transcript if it doesn’t reach their selected threshold. Unfortunately, Dartmouth does not allow these two aspects of its curriculum to work together. The NRO, if used on a distrib, will bar the distrib from fulfilling its graduation requirement. This has deterred many students from choosing a distrib by interest, and has caused them instead to fill their distribs using course-difficulty indicators, such a past medians, syllabi and Dartmouth’s version of RateMyProfessor: LayupList.

Looking back on my freshman orientation last year, that one word —“breadth” — blatantly sticks out in my mind. I heard it time and time again, as each faculty member attempting to explain Dartmouth’s liberal arts curriculum presented speeches to the Class of 2021. At the time, I was amazed. The message was clear: a Dartmouth student gets to pursue subjects beyond their primary focus throughout their college career. These liberal arts requirements will enable them to immerse themselves in topics about which they know little, and the NRO will give students a parachute as they embark into studying this unexplored topic, maybe one they have never even thought about. One year in, I am starting to see the disconnect between these two great Dartmouth perks.

Dartmouth’s distributive requirements currently consist of 11 “Distributive” requirements and three “World Culture” requirements, and they are a common topic of debate on campus. Many students believe that they should not be required, as Dartmouth only offers three courses a term making it difficult for students to choose which major-focused course to replace. Others, however, have found their favorite classroom experiences within their distribs. Earlier this year, the requirements were consolidated into fewer categories with the goal of offering students the ability to learn “not just by exposure but by principle.” However, I do not believe this reform will have the desired effect. 

As long as distribs are barred from the non-recording option, students will feel pressure to choose an unfamiliar topic to study by looking at which course offered is the easiest, or which has the highest past medians, rather than deciding based on interest. On one hand, students are still exposed to a breadth of knowledge: the distrib offers them new ideas and skills regardless of the difficulty level. On the other, many students are dissuaded from taking courses on subjects they have a lot of interest in. No one wants to risk their GPA being tanked.

For example, a good friend of mine is an aspiring editor. While her major is English with a focus in creative writing, she has always had great interest in linguistic studies. She decided to fulfill her quantitative and deductive science distrib (QDS) through Linguistics 001: Introductory Linguistics, a notoriously work-intensive course on campus. As it was already a heavy term for her because of major-required courses, she decided to NRO the course to make sure it didn’t completely destroy her GPA. To be fair, it had nothing to do with her major; this was just her way of using Dartmouth’s breadth of knowledge to cultivate her interests. However, she was not able to do that. If her final grade had not exceeded her chosen NRO limit of the course, it would not have counted toward her graduation requirement.

Every major at Dartmouth is work-intensive, so distribs should not be something students have to worry about. The fact that we take merely three to four classes a term only exacerbates this, because majors are difficult to complete — especially when chosen late in the game — and each major requirement is packed with readings, problem sets, exams and more. Maybe there’s a chemistry major reading this who really wants to know more about the history of education, but is dissuaded from the course by its low median. Or, a history major who would love to understand basic physics, but opts to fill their science distrib with a human biology course because of its great ranking on LayupList. Whether someone is STEM oriented or studies humanities, Dartmouth’s distribs should offer them a break from their intense, depth-driven focus, and allow them to explore a topic they genuinely want to know more about. With a technique as great as the NRO that is so poorly executed in practice, Dartmouth is missing an opportunity to let students do just that.