Campus / News / January 28, 2010

Proposal to lower graduation credits

A proposal to cut the number of courses required of students and faculty has triggered a debate.

On January 4 in the first faculty meeting of 2010, Professor of Psychology Tim Kasser proposed a change that, if instituted, would drop the number of credits required for graduation from 36 to 34, making the official course load from three trimesters of three credits, to two trimesters of three credits and one trimester of 2.5 credits.

Faculty’s teaching requirements would also drop from six credits per year to 5.5 credits per year.

Pros and cons of the trimester system and its alternatives were among topics covered in the faculty meeting, though the proposal makes no mention of changing Knox’s academic calendar.

Kasser estimated forty-five minutes of discussion preceded a decision to refer the proposal to the Faculty Executive Committee.

“The [Executive Committee] itself might work through it, or EC may create a task force or a subcommittee to consider it,” said Dean Larry Breitborde, chair of the committee. “In any case, I don’t anticipate any quick decision.”

Kasser believes that the average Knox student is too busy to perform optimally. He believes that, under his proposal, students would experience less stress.

“From my perspective as a professor, students tend to be a bit too over-involved,” said Kasser. “When you ask someone how they are, the modal answer is ‘busy.’”

Kasser believes that students tend to wear this allocation of time to class work, jobs and co-curricular activities as a “badge of merit.”

“There’s an attitude that, ‘I’m busy, therefore I’m important,’” he said.

He notes that a busy lifestyle is detrimental to an individual’s mental health, contribution to his or her community and his or her likelihood of considering the environmental sustainability of his or her actions.

“There’s a lot to be gained from not being busy,” he said.

“It’s easy to believe you’re too busy to take the time to sleep, to eat, to see your friends or go for a walk,” Kasser said. “There are more important things in life than those two extra credits.”

But the proposal is not without its opposition. Professor of Classics Brenda Fineberg suspects that such a cut would not significantly impact the quality of life of students and faculty.

“I’m not persuaded that faculty teaching load or student course load is the major source of the stress that Professor Kasser hopes to address,” said Fineberg. “Before moving on this proposal, I’d like to see some persuasive evidence that such a very small reduction in course load would significantly reduce stress, or that current stress is in fact the result of course load. It seems to me that any number of other factors might significantly contribute to stress at Knox College.”

Fineberg also argues the half-credit courses may only increase faculty anxiety.

“Small departments that can scarcely staff their majors […] might be unable to do so if they offered even one or two fewer courses per year,” said Fineberg. “So, if some departments cannot take advantage of this change, the resulting unevenness in teaching loads might itself be a source of additional stress and tension among faculty.”

The advantage of the half-credit course, Kasser suggests, is that professors may have ideas and interests too specific to fill a full credit’s worth of class. Professors might also be interested in expanding existing courses to the weight of 1.5 credits.

“If it comes to happen, I believe faculty will be quite creative with these,” said Kasser.

Still, Fineberg believes that such courses might favor some departments more than others. She does, however, submit an equal opportunity alternative.

“One alternative that I hope we might consider is a full course reduction, for both students and faculty, perhaps every other year,” said Fineberg.

Students are divided by this issue as well.

“There’s an argument that students would be even busier,” said Kasser, admitting the possibility that students would join more clubs and participate in more activities if class work were lightened.

Some students believe that if presented with such an option, they would reject it in favor of a potentially heavier workload.

Senior Tasha Coryell said that it is her nature to take on more work rather than less.

“Maybe there are people out there who would do 2.5 credits,” said Coryell, “but I don’t think there are as many as you would think there would be.”

The proposal addresses financial concerns.

“We spend so much money to go here, I want to do as much as I can,” said junior Krista Ahlberg.

Kasser’s proposal does not suggest any change in tuition costs, though he does suggest that student’s may be able to graduate a semester early under the suggestion. Students would only be required to pay an overload fee if they exceeded 3.5 credits in a given term.

Students in support of the proposal cite different reasons for their backing.

“It would be nice for people who don’t come in with extra credits,” said senior Erin Souza, noting the amount of students who enter Knox with AP and community college credits on their transcripts.

Junior Lexie Frensley mentioned the opportunity to focus on specific courses as an advantage of the proposal.

“There are classes that feel like they’re 2 credits worth of work. There are just certain courses that are very vital and very time consuming,” said Frensley. “It would give professors a chance to beef up 300 level courses and it would be a good stress alleviator.”

Regardless of the proposal’s success, Kasser hopes to encourage discussion between students and faculty about stress and commitment.

“Part of the spirit of this proposal is to […] open up a broader conversation about whether or not this place is just a little nuts with regard to how busy it is,” said Kasser. “Maybe this could change the culture around here.”

The following is Kasser’s proposal in full, with the exception of a chart comparing Knox to other schools

January 4, 2010

To: The faculty

From: Tim Kasser

I propose the following:

1. That Knox College reduce the number of credits required for graduation from 36 to 34.

2. That the “official course load” for students change from 3-3-3 to 3-3-2.5 (with the 2.5 taken in whatever term a student might want).

3. That the “official teaching load” for faculty change from 6 to 5.5 credits per year. Thus, the typical teaching load would be 2-2-1.5 (with the 1.5 taken in whatever term the professor might like).

Rationale:

My sense is that life at Knox for students and faculty is overly hectic and stressful.

Many factors certainly contribute to the hectic and stressful pace of life at Knox. These factors include broader social forces that equate work with meaning in life, Knox’s cultural ethos of high achievement despite low resources, high levels of involvement in committees and clubs, the trimester system we use, and the personalities of those who work and study at Knox. There are other factors as well. Most of these contributors seem unlikely to change any time soon.

My proposal would address one factor that could have some benefit for Knox faculty and students in these regards.

By reducing the credit load from 36 to 34, students could “ease up” at least one term per year, taking a slightly less ambitious load. Alternatively, if they withdrew from a class at some point in their career and/or studied off campus at a program that gave fewer credits than they earn at Knox (a particular problem in winter/spring), they would be less likely to have to take an overload in later terms or to spend a portion of their summer making up the credit. The reduction in course load and the increased flexibility that this proposal provides holds potential for reducing student stress levels, with consequent benefits for students’ physical health, mental health, and academic performance. Another benefit of a reduction from 36 to 34 credit hours would be a potential increase in the percentage of our students who graduate in 4 years, which would help our rankings (not that this is a sufficient reason to make this change).

For faculty, a reduction from 6 to 5.5 teaching credits per year has the potential to reduce workload, assuming that professors truly make a .5 credit class less work for themselves (and for students) than a 1.0 credit class would be. It might also allow professors greater flexibility in teaching, either by teaching a topic that they are interested in but don’t feel necessitates a full credit, or by taking material out of an over-full course and making it its own .5 credit course. This proposal would also theoretically reduce the denominator in the salary/work hours equation that many of us implicitly calculate, and thus perhaps increase faculty satisfaction with their salaries (which most of us know are low relative to our ACM peers). Finally, I would note that the proposed reduction in teaching load would likely help attract new professors and retain them once they are here.

Replies to seven possible arguments against this proposal.

1. Some might be concerned that a reduction in credit hours from 36 to 34 could jeopardize students’ financial aid packages. I have spoken with the financial aid office and have been told that this is not the case. Full-time status at Knox requires registration for 2.4 or more credits per term, an amount consistent with the 3-3-2.5 schedule proposed here.

2. Some might argue that this proposal would make a Knox education look less rigorous than our peer institutions. To examine this, I asked a research assistant to summarize the credit requirements at a variety of other highly-ranked U.S. liberal arts colleges and ACM schools that use a 1 course = 1 credit system. The Table below summarizes the results of that small study.

As can be seen, there are other excellent colleges on a credit system like ours that require fewer than 36 credits for graduation; further, there is some variation among schools that share similar calendars. The couple of other schools that are on the trimester system seem to have credit requirements similar to Knox’s. Nonetheless, I would propose that just as there is variation among the number of credits required by schools on the semester and 4-1-4 calendars, there could be variation among schools on the trimester program as well. Further, I would argue that because all schools listed here are on the 1 course = 1 credit system, it shouldn’t really matter what calendar a school uses in determining the number of credits needed for graduation.

3. Some might argue that students and professors will want to take 9 credits per year or teach 6 credits per year, respectively. I would note that nothing in this proposal would stand in the way of such desires, so long as the overload fee continued to apply for students who take more than 3.5 credits per term and so long as the Dean remains willing to adjust the salaries for faculty on those occasions when they teach more than the standard load.

4. Some might argue that this plan requires that the price that students pay for tuition should be reduced, which would negatively affect the college’s main revenue source. I would reply that the college’s current tuition fee is not based on “per credit” except in cases of overloads, December courses, etc. That is, students currently pay the same amount per term whether they take 2.5, 3.0, or 3.5 credits. Thus, there is no reason to reduce tuition by the 1/18 per year that this proposal might suggest, and thus there should be no negative effect on revenue. However, it could be the case that students would graduate a term earlier under a 34 than a 36 credit system, thus reducing revenue for the college. I acknowledge that this is a possibility, but would note that many students have 36 credits before spring term their senior year and complete an entire 12 terms at Knox anyhow.

5. Some might argue that this proposal will cause increases in class sizes or more close-outs. This seems unlikely, as Knox would still be asking students to take 9 classes per year (with one of them being .5 credit) and professors to teach 6 classes per year (with one of them being .5 credit). Thus, so long as there is an adequate supply of .5 credit classes, and so long as supply and demand of the .5 credit classes are reasonably well distributed across the three terms and across the 100-, 200-, and 300-levels, class sizes should not be affected. If anything, class sizes may decrease slightly under this proposal as students feel less pressure to get into extra classes in order to graduate on time.

6. Some might argue that this proposal will not reduce faculty workload. I imagine that these arguments would be based on the claims that: a) it will take some work to design and implement new .5 credit classes; b) it will take some work to incorporate .5 credit classes into departmental and/or college requirements for graduation; and/or c) teaching a .5 credit class will be just as much work as teaching a 1.0 credit class. Points a and b are acknowledged, although I would note that the work required will likely be relatively short-term. Regarding point c, as a professor who has taught three different .5 credit classes over the course of my Knox career (Psych 283, Psych 380, Psych 300c), I agree that some elements of teaching a .5 credit class are little different in work load than teaching a 1.0 credit class (e.g., writing the syllabus, filling in grade sheets at the end, etc.). However, I also have found that if I rein myself in and really consider what a .5 credit class should entail in terms of workload for students and for me, such classes can be significantly less work than a 1.0 credit class. I would add that two of the .5 credit classes I regularly teach (Psych 380 & Psych 300c) are only offered on a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory basis. An earlier draft of this proposal included the idea that that .5 credit classes under this new plan would all be offered S/U. My rationale was that such a proviso would: a) help even more to reduce faculty and student work load; b) give students the opportunity to learn without grades hanging over their heads (an interesting experience for them, based on my experience in these two classes and in AMST/ENVS 272 (a 1.0 credit, S/U class)); and c) give faculty the opportunity to teach without having to grade (which I think most of us acknowledge is one of the worst parts of our job). While I continue to believe that ultimately it would be best to have the .5 credit classes offered on a S/U basis, I did not include that as part of this proposal, in the recognition that nothing in my proposal precludes faculty from offering the .5 credit classes on such a basis.

7. Some might say that other factors (e.g., clubs, committees, independent studies) are the primary contributors to the hectic pace of life at Knox. I would argue that the existence of those other factors as contributors to time pressure at Knox does not mean that course loads for students and professors are irrelevant to time pressure; if course loads are irrelevant, it strikes me that we aren’t doing our jobs! Further, I would argue that nothing in the current proposal prevents the faculty from developing proposals to address those other factors; indeed, I would welcome such proposals.

Sarah Colangelo


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