Rethinking Reputation

Editor’s note: This essay, by Terri M. Howell, is the latest installment of a Clarion Call special series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” which offers different perspectives of the college experience. Howell graduated from North Carolina State University in 2008 with a B.A. in psychology. She plans to be a freelance writer and teacher.

I have taken college courses at two campuses in Raleigh – one a famous research university and the other a women’s college with a mostly local reputation. As far as academic rigor goes, the comparison between the two is striking. You might expect that the courses as the research university would be far more demanding – but it’s exactly the other way around.

I entered the 23+ Program (for students at least 23 years of age) at Meredith College in 1998. The Dean of Students gave a speech to the entering class which set the academic tone for the school: “Do not come to us and say, ‘Dr. So-and-So gave me a ‘D’ in her class.’ At Meredith, we don’t give grades, you have to earn them.” Over the next four years, I realized the truth of that statement many times. Meredith was small, but its standards were high.

A good example is the rigorous requirements of the English Department. Much grumbling accompanies the incessant grammar and composition exercises that define English 111, but the course greatly improved my writing ability. Near the semester’s end came the Competency Test, a two-part examination containing a grammar section and an essay. If a student either passes the Competency Test but fails the course or passes the course but fails the test, she must repeat the class.

When freshmen lament the woes of ENG 111, upperclassmen might ask, “Have you taken British Authors yet?” The implication is, “Just wait, you haven’t seen anything yet.” In that course, students are required to memorize, recite, and interpret thirty-five lines (in Middle English) from the “Prologue” to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Successful recitation of the lines is considered a rite of passage, which I conquered in 1999. Between recitations, we read volumes of literature, including Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which was considered a “fun” novel to be read over spring break.

Lest you think the academic obstacle course is restricted to Meredith’s English Department, consider Religion 100, in which students read not only a textbook but also the entire Bible! Modern Western Civilization was another memorable course that gave the student an intellectual workout. Dr. Michael Novak’s syllabus revealed Meredith’s secret weapon against lazy students – pop quizzes. He advised, “I reserve the right to give unannounced quizzes to encourage good preparation for class,” to which he adds, “Please don’t make me resort to this unpleasantness.” The students got the message.

Meredith College was – and from what I hear still is – a school where students were strongly challenged in every course.

In 2002, I transferred to North Carolina State University. I was concerned about the rigid academic standards that I thought would characterize this large research university. My first two courses (in statistics) were indeed challenging, and I assume that many courses in science, technology, and other quantitative disciplines are also rigorous. My experience after the statistics classes, however, has been something of a shock.

The first red flag appeared in a sociology course. There were none of those preparation-inducing pop quizzes, and the instructor allowed handwritten “cheat sheets” during tests. That certainly reduced the amount of study time needed. Also, instead of formal lectures, class sessions degenerated into groupthink labs where every random opinion was validated. The course was more about what students thought than about teaching a body of knowledge.

At first I thought these changes were course-specific, but after several semesters of similar events, I could see that a movement was under way – a movement to make college more like high school, or even middle school.

I have just completed Adolescent Psychology (PSY 476), which provides a clear illustration of this downward trend. The following is an example of a typical class period. One day the teacher asked, “At what age do you think the average teen first tries alcohol?” Before she gave the answer, fifteen minutes went by, as students shared their thoughts about everything from the prom to their perceptions about the ineffectiveness of intoxication simulation experiences in high school driver’s education classes. All student comments, which covered anything from the textbook to reality TV, were deemed equally relevant by the teacher. Moreover, when “research” findings were presented, they usually consisted of nothing more than correlations rather than empirical studies. We watched MTV’s top ten music videos and viewed the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue to learn about media influence.

The only written assignment was a short essay in which the students were assigned to identify eight course concepts with specific examples from an approved list of movies such as Clueless, Napoleon Dynamite, or Love Don’t Cost a Thing, to name a few. There were reading assignments, but students quickly figured out that all they really needed to know were a few specific passages that the instructor recommended before tests. And even the word “test” had been replaced with a more politically correct term –“Mastery check.” If a student was dissatisfied with his or her grade on a “mastery check,” the student could demand a take-home “mastery check” and the two grades would then be averaged.

That was seldom necessary, however because students were allowed to use an 8 ½ x 11 two-sided, typed cheat sheet during the in-class “mastery check.” A student could put down nearly everything that might be covered on that.

The “dumbing down” I observed at N.C. State (except in statistics) is evident in grade distribution reports, which show a lot of inflation. For example, in the spring of 1995, only 27% of Western Civilization (HIS 205) students made an A, but the figure doubled to 54% by spring, 2008. Similarly, only 20% of students made an A in Biology in the Modern World (BIO 105) in the fall of 1999, but in the fall of 2007, 53% received an A. Furthermore, over 90% of students received an A or B in three of twelve sections of SOC 202 (Principles of Sociology) classes in spring 2008, and only 13% made below a C in all sections.

Objective 3.2 of the university’s Diversity Initiative states: “N.C. State Faculty will increase their awareness of the factors that enhance equity in the classroom while continuing to emphasize student success” (emphasis mine). It appears that lower standards are a factor for “enhancing equity” in the classroom. I simply don’t see what is “equitable” about watering courses down to the point where it takes little effort to get a high grade.

Meredith College and North Carolina State are only a mile apart, but in some subjects they’re light years away from each other when it comes to the level of academic challenge.