A bad decision, poorly made

Our faculty, it seems, are a rather cheeky bunch.

That, at least, is the impression we are left with in the wake of their recent pronouncement that the length of the spring semester’s reading week and senior week will be reduced in order to have graduation a week earlier. It was a decision supposedly made in large part to help students, particularly graduating seniors, begin internships, jobs, or research earlier. Yet it was done without any real consultation of the students or any effort to figure out if seniors did, in fact, feel burdened by the later graduation.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to change something as significant as the school calendar, supposedly for the students, without ever asking the students what their opinions on the shift were. And no—three student representatives on the curriculum committee who are supposed to keep committee meetings confidential does not constitute consultation.

Thus, no one ought to have surprised by the strongly negative reaction from the student body, demonstrated by a recent Moodle poll that tallied 90 percent of its participants as being opposed to the changes and had one of the highest turnouts of any student vote. Indeed, such opposition should have been expected, given the clear negative consequences the new calendar has for students. The six-day reading period between the end of spring classes and the beginning of finals was an invaluable opportunity for students to not only study, but for finishing up extracurriculars, for groups to put on end-of-year shows and for students to celebrate the year’s end at events like Worthstock and the Large Scale Event, which have no fall semester counterpart.

Now, Swarthmore students, already among the most notoriously overworked in the country, will see the amount of time they have to prepare for exams and conclude their year cut in half. Indeed, given that there is so much to do, six days was already barely adequate, especially considering that some professors abuse reading week, assigning essays and projects that are due during it. It seems difficult, if not downright impossible, to condense it all into a mere 72 hours.

This places a uniquely unfair burden on honors seniors, who constitute up to a third of each class, and typically must take twice as many exams as non-honors students, if not more, at the end of each spring. For them, the six-day reading period was anything but a luxury. It was a critical period in which to prepare for examinations that serve as the culminating experience after two years of intensive seminar work.

Administrators have made clear that they did not agree these concerns were particularly legitimate. “The faculty thinks that this is manageable for students given the workload that students have,” said Provost Tom Stephenson. Can the faculty telepathically determine what workload students find manageable?

It has now become clear that students do not, something that the provost has since stated he understands. Yet he continues to insist that the faculty and administration are still “committed to making this schedule work,” an almost direct acknowledgment that our faculty and administration hold the very patronizing belief that they know what constitutes a manageable work schedule for students better than do the students themselves.

Since many seniors may now find that it is not possible to attend the end-of-year festivities that so many look forward too, they might at least take solace in the fact that they still have senior week after their exams, seven days in which those about to depart from Swarthmore for good are allowed to commemorate four years of hard work and friendship. But that too has been curtailed in the name of a generalized sense of being “efficient.”

It is true that senior week has not been eliminated altogether. Seniors still have four days to celebrate and say their goodbyes. But combined with the reduced reading period, it creates a hasty end of year schedule with almost no room for students to breathe. We understand that seniors must eventually graduate. But that does not mean rushing them out the door.

The faculty and administration have tried to argue that this will be good for students by citing notion that “thirty days is an awfully long time between the end of classes and graduation” and asserting that the old graduation date was burdening seniors looking for work.

The first point is so incredibly vague it does not even require a response, though one need look no further than our honors program to find ample reasoning for the extended time. The second makes reference to a problem that is seemingly nonexistent, especially considering the variety of other prestigious schools that have graduation even later than did Swarthmore. We highly doubt that the recent graduates of Williams, Northwestern, Dartmouth, Carleton, and the University of Chicago are experiencing endemic underemployment because they graduate in mid-June. Perhaps our curriculum committee has information to the contrary. But given that they did not study whether this was an issue before acting upon it, we doubt that they do.

Faculty and administration have also made a variety of statements intended to assuage fears that this schedule will make it more difficult to prepare for exams and, for graduating seniors, enjoy the end of their four years. The provost, in an email to the Class of 2015, pledged to meet with department chairs “to make sure that they carefully consider” student concerns, promised that professors will be made aware of their worries and assured us that the dean’s office is already considering “adjustments” to the timing of end of year social events.

We are not convinced. The provost and faculty ought to have taken the time to “carefully consider” student concerns before they acted. Taken together, these assurances amount to nothing more than a collective “trust us,” something that is difficult to do given that neither faculty nor administrators could be bothered to do so much as ask students as to what their opinions were before changing their academic and social calendar in a significant way.

Nor have faculty and administrators explained how, exactly, they intend to make good on their word. Short of gutting syllabi, it is difficult to conceive of how any “redistribution” of work and social events could seriously reduce the net gain in stress students will face, especially given that the rest of the academic year is already jam-packed with work and extracurricular activities.

Some might be left wondering why they would change the calendar. They do not need to look far for an answer. One has been readily admitted: doing so benefits the faculty. The provost made clear that this decision was also made for our professors, who felt that the June 2 graduation date burdened their summer plans, including research.

Indeed, we must credit the faculty for being quite forward about the benefits they will accrue from this change. “It will give them an additional week to stop and think, clean up after the semester, and begin to get organized for the summer travel that they do for their research or the meetings that they’ve had to postpone with colleagues at other schools,” said Diane Anderson, the associate dean of academic affairs and an associate professor of educational studies. “And, quite frankly, still have time in August to spend a week or so on vacation with their families.”

No one begs to differ. But it is ironic that Anderson has paid careful attention to how this decision will improve quality of life of faculty (ensuring that they have ample vacation time in August), but that no comparable consideration was given to the negative consequences it will have for the quality of life of students.

Given that the provost has already apologized for “the abrupt notification to students” and acknowledged that the school could have discussed this change ahead of time, he would no doubt agree that more attention could be paid to student concerns. But apologies only go so far toward righting a wrong. The only adequate remedy is reconsideration, complete with a campus-wide discussion of what this change might mean.

Barring that, it is impossible to escape the sensation that the faculty acted in its own self-interest, voting for a calendar that benefits them but harms us, without even asking what our opinions are.

We deserve better.

One Response to "A bad decision, poorly made"

  1. Anonymous  June 20, 2014 at 12:17 AM

    Very well articulated argument. I voted against the schedule and I truly hope that some discussion and reconsideration takes place this fall...

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    Reply

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