February 16, 2011

Students mixed about faculty’s role

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a three-part series on the student voice at Knox.

After spending 15 years listening to students complain about being overwhelmed by their workloads at Knox, Professor of Psychology Tim Kasser decided to act.

In order to ease the burden, Kasser has proposed changing from a 3-3-3 system, in which the school year consists of three terms in which students take three classes each, to a 3-3-2.5 system. This would effectively reduce the number of credits needed for graduation from 36 to 34, thereby allowing students to have one lighter term each year.

“I’m sure there are students who float through Knox without having any problems, but at week eight of the term, it sure doesn’t seem like it,” Kasser said.

Although Kasser’s proposal would lessen the amount of work expected from students, the initial student response was mixed.

“It’s the faculty’s job to advise students when they’ve bit off more than they can chew in terms of overloading, independent study, Honors projects…but I think any help beyond that runs the risk of dumbing down the education experience,” senior Aaron Palmer said.

Palmer’s statement highlights the controversy over what role the faculty should play in student affairs. Although college bylaws give the faculty the final say on issues of the curriculum and student life, to what degree this should be implemented is less certain.

“I think the faculty should have some role…but of course this depends on the level of involvement the faculty wants and is able to have, and there would have to be limits to the oversight,” junior Stephanie Lashway said.

The curriculum

Over the course of his professional research, Kasser has time and again encountered the notion of time poverty—that is, that the modern student involves him or herself to the extent that he or she constantly feels short of time. Despite having less time, students tend to take on larger and larger amounts of work.

“We live in a culture of always wanting more, more, more,” Kasser said. “All the evidence suggests that this attitude is not good for people’s well-being. I don’t think Knox needs to have policies in place that support this mentality.”

In the process of formulating his proposal, Kasser had a student research assistant investigate the credit requirements at other liberal arts colleges that utilize a system in which students receive one credit per course. Of the 52 schools examined, 45 have lower credit requirements than Knox, including top colleges such as Amherst, Reed and Swarthmore.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re one of the few schools that requires as many credits as we do,” Kasser said. “Is this pedagogically sound? I don’t think it is.”

Palmer disagrees.

“I never felt particularly stressed with 36 credits, even when I dropped a class and had to make up the credit,” he said. “I don’t think that 34 credits is the worst thing in the world, but in my experience it’s not really needed.”

“I feel like you come to college to do work,” sophomore John Budding said.

For Kasser, ideas like this are indicative of the very mentality he is trying to counter.

“I’m interested in health, not in turning out a bunch of workaholics,” he said. “[My proposal] gives people more options. I don’t see what it takes away.”

In response to the notion that extracurricular commitments are the primary reason Knox students feel overly stressed, Kasser points to the bylaws.

“I do think students are way too over-involved, but it’s not my place to address that,” he said. “As a faculty member, I can do something about the curriculum, or at least I can try.”

In formulating his proposal, Kasser drew largely on his past experiences with his students and advisees. Soliciting the opinions of a variety of students was not high on his list of priorities, but his interactions with students over his time at Knox are difficult to discount.

“For 15 years, I’ve had advisees come into my office and tell me how overwhelmed they are,” he said. “I’ve heard it over and over. It’s not like I have this abstract idea.”

Kasser stresses that, although the time poverty problem is a multifaceted one, addressing the curriculum is the most appropriate way for faculty to provide a solution.

“I don’t have much say in how students organize their extracurricular lives and I don’t want to,” he said. “I think that’s where students would get really angry.”

Student life

And sure enough, there was something of an uproar in 2007 when the faculty began discussing a moratorium on new Greek organizations. This sparked the creation of the Greek Task Force, a body made up of faculty and students and charged with the task of compiling the hard facts about Greek life at Knox.

“There was a feeling on the part of a segment of the faculty that there were problems with the Greek system. These were based almost entirely on subjective perceptions and anecdotes,” Professor of Psychology and Task Force member Frank McAndrew said. “[Our task] was to organize and collect any information we could and try to get a sense of everything that was going on.”

The Greek Task Force spent months talking with students about their perspectives on the Greek system and holding open forums for both Greeks and non-Greeks. The resulting report ultimately spoke against the moratorium, acknowledging the more negative aspects of Greek life but not forgetting about the positives.

Throughout the process, questions were raised about the place of faculty governance in student life that are still asked today.

“I think faculty should limit involvement [in Greek life] to situations which cannot effectively be handled by students for whatever reason,” senior Britt Anderson said.

Currently, college bylaws state, “The faculty shall have supervision over disciplinary action and over student activities, including such matters as … fraternities [and] sororities.” For McAndrew, his time on the Task Force only reinforced his belief that this was an outdated idea.

“The system we have now is a holdover from 100 years ago, when there was the president and the faculty and that was it,” McAndrew said. “Now we have professional administrators … I’m happy to let them take care of student life.”

Under the current system, however, the faculty retains oversight of student life, which brings with it a need for responsibility from both parties.

“Part of the problem was that faculty were not very interested in the early stages of the process [of approving new Greek organizations],” McAndrew said. “They blamed lot of people for this, but they chose not to be informed.”

Paige Barnum, ’10, noted that a lack of student responsibility only spoke to the need for faculty involvement.

“We can’t expect to have full autonomy when historically, many campus groups, not just Greeks, have created circumstances that gave our administration little faith in our ability to responsibly self-govern,” she said.

Getting involved

That the faculty retains oversight of the curriculum and student life does not mean that students cannot have a say in institutional self-governance. When Student Senate invited non-Senators to apply for positions on various faculty committees in the fall, freshman Philip Bennett jumped at the chance and applied for the Diversity Committee.

“In high school, I was active in the diversity club and I wanted to continue doing that,” he said.

In his role on the committee, Bennett provides the student perspective on issues and reports back to Student Senate when developments occur, such as a suggestion that the diversity requirement of First-Year Preceptorial (FP) be more explicitly integrated into the course.

“You have the opportunity to voice your opinion. It’s a very unique experience,” Bennett said.

Given the faculty’s role in oversight of the curriculum and student life, it would seem that an opportunity to work with them on the development of policy would be a welcome one. Despite this, Student Senate president senior Sam Claypool recalled that Senate barely received enough applications to fill the open spots on faculty committees.

“There’s this mentality among students—‘nobody’s going to listen to me,’” McAndrew said. “What most students say most of the time is important and I don’t think most students appreciate that.”

“Having a student’s voice on certain issues is necessary,” Bennett said.

Before students complain about faculty oversight, Bennett stresses that they should look at the venues already available to students for involvement in the decision-making process, whether they be positions on faculty committees or simply opportunities to participate in institution-wide decisions such as the Greek discussion.

“It’s their education,” he said. “The fact that they have the opportunity to change or alter their education, to have a say in the way things work, is really special.”

Anna Meier

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