April 6, 2011

Proposal faces opposition

A memo recently released by Dean of the College Larry Breitborde expressed the discontent of the Executive Committee of the Faculty with a proposal by Professor of Psychology Tim Kasser aimed at decreasing student and faculty stress.

Originally brought before the faculty last spring, Kasser’s proposal suggests targeting three major sources of stress: the number of credits required for graduation, the number of credits students are expected to take per term and the number of credits faculty are expected to teach per year. On the first point there was some support from the Committee.

“If a student’s having academic trouble, let them get through it without worrying about keeping pace with credit accumulation,” Breitborde said. “It’s about giving students a little flexibility, so if they do run into problems they can deal with…issues without exacerbating them by falling behind the pace.”

Whereas Kasser had suggested reducing the graduation requirement from 36 to 34 credits, the Committee only supported a reduction to 35 credits. Both 34 and 35 are consistent with several of Knox’s peer institutions according to research done by Kasser.

The committee was less enthusiastic about the second part of the proposal, which would reduce the student course load from three credits for each of three terms to three credits for each of two terms and 2.5 credits for one term.

“Stress comes from things like academics…but it’s also the extent to which people balance co-curricular and residential activities with studying,” Breitborde said. “The problem is that this balance is out of whack for some.”

According to data from the Office of the Registrar, 59 percent of the class of 2010 graduated with 37 or more credits, indicating students’ willingness and ability to go above and beyond.

Still, questions have been raised about whether taking on more work than necessary is healthy for students. In recent years, Counseling Services has seen more and more traffic from students for issues of mental health, something Kasser sees as evidence of the pressures of academics.

“I see his point, but how do you know that is there? [Knox] is a challenging place. Does it cause stress? Yes,” Breitborde said. “But holding 26 different club offices? That causes a lot of stress.”

There is little that the faculty or the administration can do to target non-academic stress, however.

“You hear that Knox has over 100 clubs and organizations,” Breitborde said. “Is that a good thing? That’s not for me to say.”

Finally, the Executive Committee took issue with Kasser’s suggestion to decrease the yearly faculty teaching load from six credits to 5.5 credits, citing commitments including sponsoring independent studies and serving on committees as adding to the faculty workload.

“I think it’s the other stuff that creates a sense of running on empty,” Breitborde said. “The question is how to balance commitments.”

Although Breitborde acknowledged that the burden on faculty is a serious issue, he sees no immediately apparent way of addressing the problem at this point.

“You could add more faculty, and we’re just not in a position to do that right now. Second, we could have bigger class sizes, and nobody likes that. The third way is Tim [Kasser’s] way,” he said.

Under Kasser’s proposal, most faculty members would have to develop a half-credit course in order to teach 5.5 credits a year. The new plethora of half-credit courses could incite some departments to change the requirements for their majors.

“It’s an awful lot of initial work,” Breitborde said.

Still, Breitborde stressed that the ultimate decision on all aspects of Kasser’s proposal will rest with the faculty, who are charged in the college bylaws with overseeing the curriculum.

“Tim’s proposal was great because it got us to really think about this,” Breitborde said. “The Executive Committee is a committee, and we may be totally out of step with the majority of the faculty. That’s why it’s important to have the discussion.”

Kasser declined to comment on Breitborde’s memo or the future of his proposal.

Anna Meier

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