Towle: Easy A
Dartmouth students should take courses on social justice seriously, or not take them at all.
This column is featured in the 2020 Freshman special issue.
The summer before my freshman year at Dartmouth, I, like every new student, received a course catalog highlighting classes offered in the coming fall. I pored over the catalog, reading every description and thinking how lucky I was to have such a range of options to choose from. Realizing how expansive the list was, I asked my mom for advice. “Take what sounds interesting,” she said. “Learn something new.”
I took heed of this advice and ended up with an earth sciences class and an anthropology class, in addition to my required writing seminar. Having taken neither an earth sciences nor an anthropology class before, I jumped at the chance to explore beyond my comfort zone. After years of taking required core curriculum classes, the opportunity to study rocks and the origins of our ancestors gave me a refreshing and optimistic outlook on my next four years at Dartmouth.
My optimism quickly faded the first time I heard the term “layup” — Dartmouth’s term for an easy A. This occurred during my freshman fall, in the earth sciences class I was so eager to take. One of my classmates asked if I had found the course through Layup List, an online guide to Dartmouth classes frequented by many students. Confused, I did a quick Google search and was immediately enthralled by the amount of personal advice and anecdotes submitted by students throughout the years. From that point on, Layup List became my personal consultant whenever course selection came around.
Layup List, however, is easily taken advantage of. Students can see which courses are ranked the “easiest,” and often choose these courses over ones that might offer more thought-provoking material. Even worse, students choose classes that have thought-provoking material but also have high medians — and then do not actually participate or show up. This phenomenon occurs year round but is especially prevalent during sophomore summer, as students typically want more free time to enjoy activities with friends in the nice weather.
By failing to attend class or participate, students devalue certain subject material based on perceived “rigor,” rather than actual content. This devaluation is extremely discouraging for professors and other students who actually care about the subject material. For instance, engineering and math classes are typically considered more academically rigorous than classes in the humanities departments, such as women’s, gender & sexuality studies and African and African American studies. Students therefore devote more time and attention to these “harder” classes, while failing to give the same attention to equally important but less intensive courses. Oftentimes, this failure to participate worsens the class experience for those who do actually care by forcing the same few students to carry all the class discussion, reducing the richness of the discussion overall. What’s more, professors can tell when their class is not being taken seriously based on the quality of work submitted and the amount of attention paid in class.
Apart from disrespecting the professor and other students in the class, unengaged students may be taking the place of those who actually want to educate themselves and participate in meaningful discussion but are unable to due to limited enrollment. Indeed, a majority of “layups” have enrollment caps, yet have a very high demand. This results in a lot of students never being able to take a course that they are truly interested in.
While it is always tempting to fall into the trend of selecting courses based on easiness or grade medians, I decided to prioritize subject material this summer, leading me to a course on racial justice. I selected this course before the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing came to the forefront of the world’s attention, and now realize even more so how important the subject matter is. Throughout the summer, however, it became clear to me that some of my peers did not feel the same, and had simply chosen this course as a “layup.”
The racial justice course I took was crosslisted with both WGSS and AAAS — two programs under which plenty of Dartmouth students take courses to fulfill their distributive requirements, while hoping for less “rigorous” material. It was clear in my class that many students were taking the course for its “layup” designation, given that we began the term with roughly double the amount of students showing up to class than we ended up with. Those that stayed to the end were the students who actively engaged in class discussions and paid attention to our assigned readings and lectures, while those who showed less interest simply stopped coming. This phenomenon is not only discouraging for professors and students, but it also undermines social justice movements by perpetuating a lack of awareness.
We all need to be advocates for social justice movements such as the fights for racial justice and an end to sexual violence. But, we can’t advocate for these topics without first learning about their history and what they represent. I can admit that when Black Lives Matter posts first began circulating on social media earlier this year, I had little knowledge of the history of the movement and the diversity of perspectives involved. After taking a course on racial justice, I realize just how broad the Black Lives Matter movement is and how many voices are marginalized by mainstream protests and social media representations. By being aware of my own ignorance, I am able to change my actions to lift up the voices of those who are marginalized and silenced by collectivization.
This is not to suggest that we should only be taking courses that have large-scale social significance and that are intended to challenge our perspectives. These courses can often require a lot of commitment to fully understand and appreciate the gravity of the issue at hand, and may simply not fit in among certain students’ major and minor requirements. Rather, I argue that students should at least try to incorporate these classes into their Dartmouth experiences when they have flexibility in their schedules. Equally importantly, though, students should not take these classes if they are not willing to actually give them the respect they deserve through attendance and participation.
Layups are meant to de-burden our hectic lives and give us more time to enjoy college life and non-academic interests. Sure, we can continue to prioritize free time, but the world will still be fighting the same battles. And we can’t fight ignorance with ignorance. It is thus essential that we take courses on social justice movements and treat them with the respect they deserve, so that we can take an active role in movements like Black Lives Matter and be a part of the solution.