Sunday, January 5, 2014

Breaking New Ground in Gut Courses

Probably every college has its "guts"--easy courses. At Harvard they serve a variety of useful purposes. To be sure, the number of varsity athletes who reportedly have developed an interest in classical Chinese philosophy is probably not the result of some search for the moral dimensions of tackling above the waist. And no, it is not an indicator of some return to Harvard's religious roots. The truth is that lots of computer science students take these courses too--because courses like mine take more than the average and CS concentrators are trying to even out their weekly workload. So I don't mean to complain--if everybody made the demands that are pretty much the norm in CS, the system would break down. Happily, Harvard's requirements force students to take a certain number of courses outside their concentration, and they can't be blamed if they respond by seeking out the less demanding courses. So we need courses like the late lamented Gov 1310 of the infamous "cheating scandal"; as the Crimson noted,
The consistently well-enrolled course … gained a reputation for its lack of difficulty and its collaborative atmosphere; the reading assignmentswere usually fewer than 100 pages a week, and participation was not graded. Students’ grades were calculated solely based on their scores on four equally weighted take-home essay exams.
Some professors who teach such courses thrive on their ability to draw huge enrollments, though few have taken the outreach effort as far as the Gov 1310 instructor did. His Twitter feed from two years ago is interesting:
Hardly shocking that some athletes signed up for this course.

For all the recent drama about grade inflation at Harvard, which continues to ripple through the media, it seems to me that the variability in the course unit is a more serious concern. There is probably an order-of-magnitude workload difference between an easy course and a hard course, and in certain concentrations it is not too hard to load up on easy courses. I am less bothered by the fact that the outside world can't know what a B+ or A– means on a Harvard transcript than I am about the fact that Gov 1310 has the same value in Harvard's hard currency as CS 121.

Of course, a high workload is not an educational objective in itself. It is a means to an end. And there are other ends than developing expertise. I have no doubt that many Harvard students have learned something about Congress from Gov 1310 and something about philosophy from Ethical Reasoning 18. As I said, these courses have their place.

Which distinguishes them, very sharply, from AFAM 280 at the University of North Carolina, a course on "Blacks in North Carolina" that never met. The New York Times account ("A's for athletes, but charges of fraud in North Carolina") is gripping. The students got their grades and the professor (a retired department chair at UNC) got his stipend, but it seems that both stretched what Ted Sizer dubbed "Horace's compromise" (the teacher won't push the students and the students won't complain about the teacher) to its logical conclusion. All but one of the 18 students in the course were football players, and the last guy was a former player. And word about the course came not from the student social network but from UNC's official academic advisers. Moreover, this course was only one of dozens that seem to have been partially or wholly fraudulent. The criminal justice system is involving itself.

The money quote from the story is from the UNC provost. "Universities for a very long time have been based on trust. One of the ramifications of this is that now we can no longer operate on trust." We shall see whether UNC can really impose some quality controls. I do think universities have to operate on trust, but I think that at many places, including Harvard, the social fabric of obligation and commitment has become weakened by the incentive structure (the pursuit of money, publications, invited lectureships, enrollments, favorable student evaluations, and so on), and we may be ready for some greater oversight of what actually happens in the classroom.

But I would also renew the suggestion I made about changing the honor system so as to provide a different set of incentives for students. If honors were granted by actual faculty vote after inspecting transcripts, a bunch of A's in well-known guts might come to be seen as a negative, and students would be motivated to take more interesting and challenging alternatives. The system might rebalance itself a bit.

Just a thought, with many unspecified details rife with devils. But the current system has its satanic aspects too, doesn't it?


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