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Swarthmore academic quality is dropping

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Year after year, Swarthmore College ranks as one the top institutions in the country. This year, the college currently ranks as number ten on Forbes’ Top Colleges list. Although a top ten ranking is not new for the college, it is still concerning. The reality is that the college has not been performing better, but rather worse, in Forbes’ rankings over the past several years. We once ranked as high as three, but have since clearly fallen to the tenth spot.

The downward trend is a concern to some, but for many students at Swarthmore, there is nothing to worry about. Swarthmore is an academically challenging institution, and students get reminded of that nearly every day. For some reason, many students correlate rigor of academics with quality of academics, and thus have no reason to fear that Swarthmore may one day fall out of the top ten.

But could they be wrong? Has the quality of academics at Swarthmore declined over the past several years, and has this decline been reflected in our ranking? The reality is that sometimes, students, faculty, and administration turn the other way and ignore the flaws within the college that have begun to harm the academic experience of Swarthmore students, and instead hide behind the statement that, “Swat is one of the best colleges in the country.”

We at the Phoenix no longer believe that Swarthmore is a great school, and that hiding behind the truth of the past has tarnished the quality of academics at Swarthmore. The decline in quality can be seen not only inside the classroom, but in the curriculum and academic structure overall.

Swarthmore brags about having small classes, but in reality, classes at Swarthmore are not very small, especially in departments with high enrollment. Although the student to teacher ratio is eight to one, according to the Common Data Set (most data in this article is pulled from the CDS), the average class size at Swat is 16.1. Some would say that the size of the larger classes are compensated by smaller subsections. However, the subsections are not much smaller than the classes, averaging at 14.3.

Although 16.1 is surely a small number, especially in comparison to larger institutions, the college uses several techniques to effectively lower this number as a statistic without actually providing students with the benefit of smaller classes. It is easy to see this if we ask the question, “Do most students at Swarthmore take courses that are, on average, of smaller sizes.”

The answer is no. Most students at Swarthmore College take courses that are much greater than 20 people in size. According to the Common Data Set, the top five degrees at Swarthmore are Economics at 16.4 percent of students, Political Science at 12.8 percent, Biology at 12 percent, and Computer Science at 10.6 percent, and Mathematics at 8.1 percent. These five majors alone sum to 59.9 percent of all degrees given by Swarthmore. Since about six of every ten students will major in one of these five departments, Swarthmore’s academic quality heavily relies on the experience of the students within these departments.

Unfortunately, in the top five departments, many of them have class sizes that are above twenty students, effectively falling into the “medium size” range. Microeconomics and Macroeconomics, which are both courses required for the Economics major, are both about 100 students in size every semester. With the exception of honors courses, many upper-level Economics courses are much greater than 20 students in size. Cellular and Molecular Biology is easily over 100 students every semester, with labs usually greater than 20 students. Without including the incoming freshman class, 38 students are already registered for this class for next fall. Every Intro to Computer Science section is easily over 30 students. Many reports have been posted before regarding how the Computer Science department is severely understaffed at the college.

Even in departments that fall out of the top five, some of the most important courses are large. Organic Chemistry, one of the most difficult courses at the college, will currently feature a robust 58 students. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course is set to feature 61 students with no subsections to complement the course. General Physics with Biomedical Applications has already reached 53 students for the upcoming semester.  

“At least courses are getting smaller.” This statement is false. In Fall 2010, the average class size was 14.8 and rose to 15.7 in Fall 2015. Subsections are rising in size as well. In the Fall 2000 semester, subsections were 9.9 students on average. In Fall 2016, they were 14.3.

“So the courses might be a bit larger than we hoped, but at least everyone always gets their classes.” Wrong again. For this upcoming semester, 74 Computer Science students were lotteried out of courses. This included upperclassmen in the department lotteried from upper-level courses. Many courses at Swarthmore end up being small because the college lotteries out students and forces them to take other courses in departments with empty seats. Foundation Drawing has already reached its enrollment limit of ten each for both sections, needing to lottery students to do so. Real Analysis I, a Mathematics major requirement, is also a vital course that was also lotteried out several students.  

It is easy to see that 16.1 is a skewed number, and that the College, on average, cannot provide its students with easily accessible small courses.   

“The College is financially in a place to fix this.” One could argue this statement is false. For the last four years, the College’s operating budget has broken even, so the College is not “losing money” in that sense. However, other financial trends are concerning. The Market Value of our endowment has decreased over the past three years. This is concerning because not only is the spending rate as a percentage of endowment been the highest since 2009-2010, but also that the college is not being compensated from its spending by return on investment. In 2013-2014, the spending rate was 3.5 percent and the College received 17.8 percent return on investment. In 2015-2016, the spending rate rose to 4.0 percent but return on investment dropped 19 points, falling to -1.6 percent. The College is not only eating into its endowment to cover operating costs and projects, but is also losing money on its investments.  

Although class sizes are an important factor in determining academic quality, it’s not the only thing. Other things to consider for academic quality include advising, quality of professors, resources outside the classroom, and quality control techniques. However, some students on campus would say that Swarthmore College also fails to meet its own standards in those categories, but that discussion is for another time.

We at the Phoenix encourage the administration to fix this problem by adding more sections to larger classes, which will decrease the average number of students per section and limit the total number of students lotteried out of classes. To do this, the administration might want to consider analyzing the amount of funds given to each department to make sure departments with larger numbers of students receive more adequate funding.

Hopefully, the College can find a way to reverse its current track and begin providing students with the educational experience we were promised.

A comprehensive analysis of athletes and their majors

in Columns/Sports by

Do all athletes really major in Economics? Conventional wisdom at many Division I schools might lead us to believe that yes, they do. Economics at most colleges and universities is perhaps the most popular major among athletes, with many Division I athletes following traditional business paths. A 2015 study in the Bleacher Report of the “Big Five,” the five power Division 1 Conferences for football (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, and the Pac-12), found that an overwhelming number of football players participated in business and related majors. Other popular majors included sports administration, communications, and kinesiology and exercise sciences. However, some famous Division I athletes have followed much more non-conventional paths. For example, Dikembe Mutombo, the former NBA star, majored in Linguistics and Diplomacy in his time at Georgetown. Michael Jordan majored in Geography during his time at the University of North Carolina. This is all to say that particularly in the Division I sphere, majors are more often centered around pre-professional tracks: those that create a direct path into a job in finance, sports administration, consulting, or for athletes like Michael Jordan, a side-career in mapmaking!

What is different about the Division III scene, particularly Swarthmore College? Are there discernible differences between a student-athlete at Swarthmore College and their educational experience versus a football player at the University of Michigan? The Phoenix Digital Ops team put together a comprehensive analysis of male and female athletes in the 2015-16 sports season, and their declared majors. We aimed to hypothesize what a top-tier liberal arts education pushes for our student-athletes. Do our athletes follow similar tracks to the ones Division I athletes are on, or does Swarthmore push a different type of academic creativity that transcends the traditional pre-professional tracks?

For the ten varsity male sports in the 2015-16 season, there were 103 declared majors among the juniors and senior classes of each team, which includes double majors. For example, if a Men’s Varsity Tennis athlete double majored in Engineering and Psychology, this would be counted twice in our tally. 26% of male athletes majored in Economics. Men’s Lacrosse had the highest percentage of Economics majors on a single sports team, with 52% of the players having declared Economics majors. The second highest declared major for male athletes was Engineering, at 14.5%. This was followed by political science, computer science, psychology, and math. Majors that were not represented among men’s athletes during the 2015-16 year included Environmental Studies, Greek, German Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies (many being regularized special majors).

Ian Cairns ’20 responded to the data compiled by the Phoenix Digital Ops Team, and added his own experiences as an athlete choosing his prospective major.

“I’m from Detroit, Michigan and I’m a member of the Men’s Varsity Soccer team. Currently, I’m an intended Economics major, with an undecided minor. I’m not surprised by the amount of Economics majors on some of the male sports teams. That being said, at a place like Swarthmore, there are a lot of abstract and non-traditional majors that are offered too.”

Cairns went on to comment on the difference between a Swarthmore education and once at a bigger university.

“I would definitely say at Swarthmore, there is encouragement for athletes to go outside the traditional majors. I know at larger institutions, it is common to apply to a certain school within the university for your major. I had a lot of friends who went to the engineering school at the University of Michigan, where the distribution requirements make it much different from a liberal arts school like Swarthmore. That being said, both have their benefits; I don’t really have a bias to either.”

This sentiment reflected by Cairns is largely backed up in the data. Some varsity athletes end up going outside the traditional majors, while many do major in traditional majors like Economics, Biology, Engineering, etc.

For the ten women’s varsity sports in the 2015-16 season, there were 85 declared majors among the junior and senior varsity athletes. Interestingly enough, the data compiled was vastly different in comparison to the male athletes results. The most popular major among female athletes was biology, which accounted for 14% of the declared majors. This was followed by psychology at 11%, political science at 10%, education at 8%, and economics and history at 7%. Majors that were not represented among women’s varsity athletes included cognitive science, and Chinese.

The data shows us that Swarthmore varsity athletes are really not that much different than the average Swarthmore student. The most popular majors across gender were Economics, Engineering, Biology, Psychology, Political Science, Computer Science, and Math. This almost directly mirrors the most popular majors among the Swarthmore student body as a whole. The largest majors discrepancy for athletes versus the student body was Economics, as 18% of athletes majored in Economics, as opposed to 13% for the student body, which isn’t particularly  significant. Is there something about a Swarthmore education that differs from a larger institution? For one, our data shows us that while Swarthmore varsity athletes follow many of the traditional majors that athletes and students across the country declare, there also exists a diversification in the data that we might not necessarily see at a non-liberal arts school. Out of every major in the school, every single one is represented by at least one varsity athlete. From gender studies to economics, a critical analysis of the data reveals that the varsity athletes at this school are just as academically diverse as the rest of the school. While many traditional majors are represented, athletes are declared majors in every single major on campus. It is clear that the stereotype that all athletes are some type of Economics or business major is transcended at Swarthmore. Our academic mission promotes intellectual curiosity and the liberal arts as a tool to discover your passion. Swarthmore varsity athletes and the student body at large embody just that.

Is study abroad really worth it?

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

My fantasy of studying abroad began on the college tour I took during my senior year of high school. Swarthmore College, a floral, east coast school with a tiny acceptance rate was promising to ship me off to Europe and change my life. I was sold and began preparing for my junior fall abroad on the first day of college in Introductory French.  

Throughout my first two years here, the excitement of going abroad lived up to the hype presented by admissions. The Study Abroad Office bombarded us with pictures of students smiling in front of castles and beautiful jungles, while Swatties who were fresh from abroad provided us with unwelcome anecdotes about how much they miss the Spanish way of life, or how the crêpes at ML breakfast are “just not the same as in France.” Yes, we know.

I, however, do not plan to reiterate that narrative. I am not about to declare myself a global citizen who suddenly sees what he was missing all along. I learned many things while I was abroad and gained irreplaceable experiences, but I want to share what happens when you do not have the time of your life. I want to share what it’s like when going abroad is very, very difficult.

Before going to Strasbourg, France during my junior fall, I had never been out of the country. Well, I had been to Canada for an underwhelming 16 hours while touring McGill University, but that didn’t exactly douse me in multicultural knowledge. Traveling was never something my family did, and my parents didn’t have any advice for navigating a new country. Even Swarthmore’s gatekeepers Rosa Bernard and Pat Martin couldn’t predict what I was going to experience in parts unknown.

In France, I first learned a lesson of language. My main goal was to learn French, the language of Voltaire and Pepé le Pew. I had risen for 8:30a.m. classes for four semesters straight, and I felt it was time to collect my reward for all my hard, tiring work. I didn’t want to simply learn more French, I wanted to be fluent by the end of my semester. I wanted utterances about baguettes and the Eiffel tower to slip off my tongue without a second thought. I wanted to seem like I wasn’t American. For reasons I never really figured out, this seems to be a common goal of foreigners traveling abroad.

When I listened to others talk about their language immersion programs, I heard a lot of rhetoric about a “click” moment, during which one experiences what seemed like some sort of linguistic nirvana. The “click” advice promised that, after a few weeks of frustration, I could rest assured that I would start to “get it.” My vowels would sound more exact, the syntax of my sentences would align naturally, and native French would no longer sounds like gargling and random tongue flips.

Click.

This may have been the worst piece of advice I received. As I learned in Strasbourg, acquiring a new language is a never-ending battle. It’s the look of confusion and possibly insult on the waiter’s face when you try to order water and you’re not sure if you want “eau” or “de l’eau” or “d’eau.” It’s starting out your semester reading “L’étranger” by Camus, giving up after a week, and exchanging it with a translated version of Charlotte’s Web, which you still need a pocket dictionary to get through. It’s the daily struggle that I experienced in trying to understand my professors and internship director during my program.

The second half of my program was an internship in a linguistics lab. It mostly involved asking my director to repeat herself three times in a row and on the fourth time nodding my head and not answering the question that I didn’t know she had asked. I know that my French improved while I was there, but the linguistic barrier drove me crazy, if not made me feel lonely. It accentuated my status as an outsider and, for the first time, brought my identity as an American to the front and center of my attention.

Fall of 2016 was not an easy time for anyone to be an American. In my young memory, politics had never been more vicious. I watched with anxiety as the presidential race unfolded into a cock fight during September and October. I eagerly awaited the end of it until I woke up the morning of November 9th to the living nightmare that no one expected. It was not easy to feel like the only American on that day. There were other Americans in my program, but by that time, I had started working in a linguistics laboratory with only French people, who were, to my surprise, not feeling the same sense of tragedy that I was. The American election was of course covered by French media, but the French people around me were not offering me their shoulders to cry on. France may as well have been a different planet. They were French, and I was an American in France at a time when many in my country were questioning what it meant to be an American. In the moment when everyone I loved was in turmoil over an uncertain future and I was across an entire ocean, I could only think, “what am I doing here?”

I certainly experienced a plethora wonderful things in France. I miss the beautiful cities, food, and language—everything my textbook promised me. I grew accustomed to biking through the narrow streets and sipping little, bitter cups of coffee. At the end of my internship, I wrote a 31-page paper in French on regional French lexicon, something I was quite proud of. I had a touching goodbye with my internship director, too. When we parted ways, she even started to tear up. To be honest I thought it was a little weird, seeing that I never understood a word she said in the three months we knew each other and didn’t realize we had that kind of relationship. Touching, nonetheless.

Most people will say that everyone should go abroad during college. You might never get the opportunity again, or you should do it “while you’re young.” While there is no part of me that regrets going to France, I am happy to be home, and I don’t agree that everyone should go abroad. It is a challenge that, if one is not emotionally ready, can be a miserable experience. If I go back to France, I won’t be ashamed of acting like a tourist. I won’t be embarrassed for shaking a hand rather than kissing someone’s cheeks when greeting them. What I value from my journey was not the tutorial on how to live like the French—it was the lesson on how to love living like an American.    

Athletics as a Benefit or Detriment to Academic Performance

in Columns/Sports by

A common concern surrounding the community of student-athletes is whether or not the incredible time commitment warranted by athletics serves as a benefit or detriment to academic performance. Many varsity athletes at Swarthmore, given the rigorous academic standards, are well aware that they are students first and varsity athletes second, as the term “student-athlete” suggests. All Garnet athletes have encountered the predicament of balancing team practice and school work. There is certainly merit to both sides of this debate, leaving many to seriously consider the prospect of participating  collegiate athletics.

        Some student-athletes, like Tom McGovern ’17, member of the Men’s Swim team, believe that athletic time commitment does improve academic performance.

       “I find that having a regimented routine actually helps me perform better academically,” says McGovern. “The structure of the athletic season forces me to exercise, regulate my diet, and get enough sleep, which are all harder to prioritize when I don’t have the immediate physical consequences staring me in the face during practice. Athletics certainly help my general performance in classes.”

        In season, most varsity athletes practice six days a week, creating the regimented routine McGovern talks about. A 2012 article of the Chicago Tribune titled “The Blessings of Routine” contends that “patterns of behavior, properly harnessed, help keep life on track.” The article features input from University of Southern California psychology professor Wendy Wood who states, “Habits help us get through the day with minimal stress and deliberation.”With a large portion of the day going to class and practice for student-athletes, time devoted to school work must be regularly carved out and fit into a student-athlete’s busy schedule.

        Further, time spent on school work must be extremely productive as it is limited by athletic commitments.

        “Having the responsibility to be on top of my work not only for myself but for my teammates helps me stay motivated and focused when I feel like slacking off,” says McGovern.

        Of course, for some student-athletes, there is seemingly not enough time in the day to balance sports and school, given the burdensome academic demands here at Swarthmore.

        Nicole Khorosh ‘20, member of the Women’s Tennis team adds,

        “As an athlete you learn to manage your time well. However, when school work really picks up, you don’t have any time left to manage.”

        Choosing between an assignment and practice is something many athletes face, certainly hindering their performance in the classroom. At the Division 1 level, student-athletes must often miss class to travel across the country for sporting events. Fortunately, this is a rarity at Swarthmore, an institution whose athletic coaches understand the priority of education. However, the sizeable time commitment to athletics, even at the Division 3 level, has numerous negative externalities.

       “My sleeping schedule becomes a factor I didn’t feel I had to watch when I wasn’t playing sports,” says Khorosh. “Not to mention the constant fatigue and soreness that you just have to get used to.”

       The NCAA’s website features an article on sleeping disorders from the Sports Science Institute by author Michael Grandner. In the article, Grander states “given the timing of practices, travel and competition, student-athletes are likely at high risk of sleep difficulties. In addition, extra time demands, including balancing athletics with academics, can reduce sleep opportunity.”

       In season, student-athletes are significantly more susceptible to sleep deprivation, which, given the importance of sleep,  can seriously interfere with academic success.

       “Sleep is not a passive state of rest, but an active state of rebuilding, repair, reorganization and regeneration,” says Grandner.

       That opportunity to repair and rebuild, is essential for student-athletes, not only for their success on the field, but more importantly, off it.

       All students at Swarthmore face a tremendous challenge when it comes to effectively managing their time. Student-athletes, in particular, face a unique challenge given the physically demanding nature of the substantial time commitment. Whether or not that time commitment serves as a benefit or detriment to their academic performance truly does vary from person to person. A regimented routine offers some students a regular opportunity to do schoolwork and be incredibly effective during such time. Additionally, the routine created by athletics can lead to a healthier lifestyle by regulating diet and sleep.

       Conversely, for many student-athletes, there simply is not enough time in the day, and balancing both requires cutting out sleep and hindering academic performance. Overall, student-athletes are students first. If athletics impedes with their success in the classroom, stepping back and re-evaluating the decision to play sports is a good choice.

 

Students embrace a liberal arts approach to the pre-med track

in Campus Journal by

The college’s approach to a pre-medical track for undergraduates is clear from a statement on the Health Sciences Office’s page of the website.

 

“Swarthmore students are not “premeds” or “prevets” in the conventional sense,” it reads. There is no premed major, minor, or concentration at the college, and this is not a decision made lightly.  The website’s explanation continues, “[The college] offers instead an exceptionally strong science program with first-hand laboratory experience and close faculty/student interaction — which, in fact, has trained four Nobel laureates and many National Science Foundation award recipients.”

 

The tone of college marketing is apparent here, but the sentiment is echoed by many among the college’s faculty and its pre-med students (for lack of a better, less conventional label).

 

Health Sciences Advisor Gigi Simeone, who has worked at Swarthmore since 1996, said that the absence of a pre-med major is one of the benefits of coming to Swarthmore if you intend to continue to medical school.

 

“People can really do whatever they want academically,” she commented.  In fact, around a third of the college’s pre-med students are humanities or social science majors.

 

Professor of Chemistry Paul Rablen, who teaches two of the required pre-med courses, agreed that not having a distinct pre-med track has a positive impact on students’ education.  At some colleges, he noted, science courses are divided into different tracks for pre-med students, biology majors, and other groups.  Though the intention in these cases is to provide a course more targeted at students specific interests, Rablen said this does not always come to be.

 

“In reality, when they try to do that they end up with something that doesn’t have the intellectual coherence [of a course designed for chemistry majors],” Rablen said.

 

Professor of Biology and Department Chair Amy Vollmer thoroughly rebuffed the notion that “pre-med” is a valuable label for a student.

 

“Are you pre-citizen?  Are you pre-parent?  Are you pre-consumer?” she asked.

 

Abigail Dove ’16, a neuroscience major, who formerly intended to minor in chemistry, appreciates the absence of pre-med major for her own reasons.  Due to her academic interests, Dove fulfilled most of the pre-med requirements incidentally, before she ever decided that medical school might be in her future.

 

“I couldn’t have been pre-med if it had been the major you choose,” Dove pointed out.  Because she didn’t plan to be pre-med until after she declared her major, she is grateful that the two tracks are distinct.

 

Most of the biology and chemistry professors interviewed for this piece said they rarely tailor their courses towards medical applications of the science, apart from an occasional in class example. The courses are also not specifically geared towards preparing the students to take the MCAT exams, which students study for separately.

 

Professor of Chemistry Bob Paley pointed out that at Haverford, they have recently restructured their curriculum to be more aligned with what the medical school application committees want to see. He says this is not a strategy his department will be adopting any time soon.

 

“We as a department don’t teach [to the MCAT] … We’re teaching science,” said Paley. Vallen has a similar attitude, and added that the type of learning that the science departments strive for will benefit any student, including those who go on to medical careers.

 

“We are teaching students how to think about biological problems and systems, and that will serve them well as physicians,” she noted.

 

Daniel Lai ’17 counts himself among pre-med students, but has used his time at Swarthmore to immerse himself in a variety of subject areas. Lai started out as an intended engineering major, but shifted his track after a summer internship at a hospital. He is now an Honors Biology major with a minor in Sociology/Anthropology.  He does not consider “pre-med” to be the defining part of his academic trajectory.

 

“I don’t really consider myself hard-core pre-med,” Lai said. “I’m more interested in health as a social science.”

 

In contrast, Misha Mubashar ’19 entered Swarthmore knowing that she ultimately wanted to go to medical school and become a surgeon.  Mubashar grew up and was educated in Pakistan, where there students apply for medical school straight out of high school without an undergraduate experience in between.  Because of this, students who want to be doctors generally have to make that decision around the age of 14, and fulfill a set of requirements while in high school.

 

In navigating a new set of requirements, Mubashar has found faculty, upperclassmen, and Simeone all to be valuable resources. She noted that upperclassmen who are pre-med have given helpful advice, as have upperclassmen who were originally pre-med but changed their mind at some point while at Swarthmore.

 

Lizzy Stant ’19, an intended neuroscience major and pre-med student, has also found Simeone and faculty members to be vital resources in pre-med advising, and added Career Services to that list.

 

Stant also noted that, though she has met a number of other pre-med freshmen in her classes, she hasn’t found much of a pre-med community at Swarthmore.  She said she would’ve appreciated a club or monthly meeting for pre-med students to convene and swap advice.  A student club with this aim did start meeting this semester, and will hopefully grow to fill the gap Stant noted.

Lai, for his part, has downplayed his pre-med status for a number of reasons. It is partially because he has not been sure of his path and is still slightly indecisive about, but he also noted a sense that being pre-med can affect social life at Swarthmore.

 

“You’re on this track that’s sort of unique, and that sort of carries with it certain perceptions of expectations,” Lai said. Though Lai said he often hangs out with other pre-med students, and turns to them for advice, he doesn’t like the idea that it might be an exclusive social group.

 

While students have varying experiences of how a pre-med identity interacts with social life at Swarthmore, professors who encounter a lot of pre-med students say, for the most part, that they rarely even know which students are, or are considering, pre-med.

 

“I feel like I would be doing everyone a disservice if I was paying attention to that,” Professor of Biology Liz Vallen commented.

 

Vollmer noted that while students may turn to professors they are fond of or work well with for both academic and career advice, it is a deliberate and meaningful choice, on the part of the college, that the designated pre-med advisor is a part of the Dean’s Office, not a member of the faculty.  Simeone’s office in Parrish, down the hall from Career Services but buildings away from any classrooms, is symbolic of the fact that pre-med is not an academic track.

 

Every student on the pre-med track has at least one faculty advisor, like any other student, and can also meet with Simeone any time (she keeps an appointment sign-up sheet on her door), or refer to her mass emails for information on relevant opportunities.

 

One senior, Natalie, who chose to remain anonymous, noted that there is a perception among some students that Simeone may talk students out of applying to medical school if they do not have great grades in their science classes or aren’t don’t seem to be on track in completing their requirements.

 

Natalie added, however, that this may not necessarily be a bad thing, and that Simeone may be advising students well and steering people away from medical school only when appropriate.

 

“She’s a great resource — you just have to use it wisely,” Natalie said. For her, that means that she will refrain from going to meet with Simeone again until she feels more confident about her plans, at which point she may ask for suggestions about which post-bac programs to apply to.

 

Vollmer similarly noted that Swarthmore’s high acceptance rate to medical schools (in 2014, 87 percent overall compared to the national average of 46 percent) is due in part to Simeone’s judicious advising.

 

Simeone herself said that she there is no GPA cut-off for applying to medical school, and that she hopes students do not write off the possibility because they believe their GPA is too low.  She will, however, be honest with students about what she believes their chances of acceptance are.

 

Simeone also said she often advises people to work through their required courses slowly, or to complete them in a post-baccalaureate pre-med program.

 

Many students choose to take this option.  According to Simeone, a large portion of the approximately 40 medical school applicants from Swarthmore each year are recent graduates.

 

Completing the pre-med requirements after graduation allows for more flexibility in scheduling while at Swarthmore, and makes space in a student’s time here to take more classes outside of of both their major and the pre-med courses.

 

Cecilia Paasche ’16, a neuroscience major, intends to complete a post-bac program to fulfill her four outstanding pre-med course requirements. She decided she wanted to go into medicine when she worked as a translator at Bellevue Hospital in the summer after her sophomore year.  Because she made this decision fairly late, and still wanted to study abroad, a post-bac program made the most sense for her.  The only pre-med courses she took while she was here were the ones within her major or that interested her personally.

 

“[Pre-med] wasn’t my priority with my time here,” Paasche concluded.

 

In contrast, Dove said that she would recommend taking the pre-med courses at Swarthmore, and that she believes students will learn the material more thoroughly and deeply if they do so.

 

She was encouraged and pleased by listening to a panel of Swarthmore alumni working in science fields, which was held over the summer for students doing research on campus.  Two doctors were on the panel, one who completed their pre-med requirements at Swarthmore, and one who attended a post-bac program.  Hearing about the professional success of people who had taken different academic paths was valuable to Paasche.

 

Vollmer, though she is excited by students interested in her own department, highlighted the value in majoring outside of the sciences.  She noted that the recent drop in humanities majors at Swarthmore is highly concerning, and that humanities majors can often make incredible doctors.  She recommends that students explore fields that they haven’t been exposed to before, take risks, and pursue a major that they are passionate about.

 

“It’s really the liberal arts training that’s going to make you a good doctor,” she said.

Special majors forge own innovative academic paths

in Campus Journal by

While most students at the college choose to major in one or more of its nearly fifty academic departments, some forge their own path. Pursuing their intellectual passions and often generating innovative interdisciplinary work, a handful of students graduate each year with special majors in subjects ranging across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Some students with special majors can follow a relatively well-established existing curriculum, one created by previous special majors or with programs at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, or the University of Pennsylvania. Others, such as Claudia Lo ’16, who is a special honors major in gender and digital culture, design entirely new programs, working closely with faculty mentors.

Lo’s special major seems to have grown naturally out of her life experience and her penchant for academic analysis. As a child, Lo spent much more time playing video games than watching movies or television, or listening to music.

“That’s what I did, and so for me it was unthinkable not to study them,” Lo said. Growing up queer and Asian, Lo added, increased her desire to study video games — in which these representations are rarely included — and figure out her relationship to these works.

Lo first got the chance to take an academic approach to her fascination with video games during a film and media studies department seminar entitled Women in Pop Culture during her freshman year. The next year, Lo took another class in the department, the History and Theory of Video Games, and realized she could actually pursue video game studies as a potential major.

Video game studies, Lo explained, do not really exist at the undergraduate level in the area in which Lo is interested — these tend to cover game design rather than the theory-based critical approaches Lo takes. This was one of the challenges of designing Lo’s special honors major, she said, since besides the History and Theory of Video Games class, there were barely any courses which specifically related to what Lo wanted to study.

To meet the requirements for designing a special honors major, Lo combined a wide variety of different courses in film and media studies, sociology and anthropology, and gender and sexuality studies. She also conducted an independent study and is in the process of writing a double-credit thesis, looking at the relationships between video game players and the controllers they use and thinking about digital bodies, drawing on feminist theories of embodiment. Lo is also writing her thesis using a text adventure game engine called Twine.

Though the process has been complicated, Lo’s special major has allowed her to guide her work in her classes towards exactly the topics in which she is most interested. She greatly appreciates this flexibility and freedom.

“A large part of my major has been, ‘How far can I get away with this?’ It turns out, pretty far,” Lo said.

Lo has found the different departments her major fits under extremely supportive of her plan of study and her interests. All of her professors have been very excited, she said, by the prospect of reaching out to contacts who might have knowledge about the different areas Lo has studied in order to find Honors examiners.

Now, Lo is searching for and applying to graduate school programs relevant to her area of study. Part of this has been a hunt for the departments under which critical theory approaches to video game studies are housed — Lo says that these can range from “New Media” departments to “Screens, Arts, and Culture” to English literature and sociology departments.

“It’s incredibly interdisciplinary, on account of no one knowing what they’re doing. You can get away with anything, and that’s part of what makes it really exciting,” Lo explained.

Students can also create special majors in established programs, such as Black Studies, for which many courses are specifically cross-listed. Kara Bledsoe ’16 spent several semesters as a chemistry major before declaring a special major in Black Studies.

“I took a Black Studies course just on a whim, because I thought, I’ve never taken a class like this before,” Bledsoe said. She took both an introductory and a history class listed as Black Studies courses.

“I just really enjoyed the material and it felt like it was relevant to my life,” Bledsoe said. “I really felt like it informed my life experience and it gave me the framework I needed to actually study what I was interested in.”

Bledsoe has greatly enjoyed the professors, classmates, and material she has encountered in the course of pursuing her special major, in which she has combined courses from history, sociology, and English. A highlight included her independent study with Professor of History Tim Burke, in which Bledsoe and Burke researched and discussed Black American scientists throughout history.

“We talked about the implications of race for scientific discovery,” Bledsoe said. “Not just biological race and all of that nonsense, but asking, how has race shaped who does science? Who is science done for? Who has access to what science says and who defines it? That was really illuminating and wonderful.”

Bledsoe is currently working on her thesis, which has taken a nontraditional form. As Bledsoe’s interests in Black Studies lie at the intersection of science and historical and public representation (such as museums, libraries, monuments, archives, etc.) she is working to create documentary shorts and curating an exhibition focused on the historical experience of Black Americans working in science.

“I’ve been very, very satisfied just as a baseline but also pleasantly shocked by the support I’ve gotten,” Bledsoe said of her proposal to create a multimedia exhibition rather than writing a paper for her thesis. “Everyone has been like, ‘Great, this is a great idea,’ and then they challenge me to do it well. The relationships I’ve formed with the professors that have been mentoring me have been really positive, and that’s been nice.”

The challenge for Bledsoe has not been to find Black Studies courses but to find those that relate specifically to her interests. While some education courses and sociology/anthropology courses, for instance, address some aspects of the intersection of race, representation, and science, Bledsoe has not found the exact perspective she is looking for in these. Thus, she has had to broaden and make more abstract her interests, taking classes which she must work to make applicable to her major.

“It has been difficult to find classes, but the classes that I’ve chosen I think have been really compelling and interesting, even if they aren’t directly related to Black Americans in science,” Bledsoe said.

 

A large part of Bledsoe’s decision to declare a special major came from her desire to develop the specialized skills and knowledge she needs in order to achieve her eventual goals of curating a museum, where she hopes to engage with the creation of official memory and access the ways in which people interact with historical information.

In the immediate future, Bledsoe hopes to work at the new Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“They’re really shaping what history is going to be like in that museum,” she explained.

Overall, Bledsoe has no regrets about declaring Black Studies as her major. She believes that her experience of creating her own academic program has taught her advocate for herself and thinking through exactly what she wants to study.

“I’ve had to really concentrate on what it is that I wanted, and I’ve had to articulate that, and I think that’s going to be really useful going forward,” Bledsoe said. “You have to have a plan — you can’t just be like, ‘I want a special major,’ and then fuck around.”

As a special major, Bledsoe feels she has learned to continually push for the chance to focus on her academic interests, rather than allowing professors to steer her in a different direction.

“You have to be willing to say, in the face of professors, ‘These are great ideas, and I respect what you’re saying, but this is what I want to do,’” Bledsoe said.

As Bledsoe explained, much of the advantage of declaring a special major can come from the chance to do innovative interdisciplinary work and to focus more narrowly on exactly the courses and subjects one is interested in rather than fulfilling a more general established set of major requirements.

Danny Hirschel-Burns ’14, for instance, found that the biggest benefit of designing his own major in political conflict was the opportunity to write an interdisciplinary thesis on nonviolent strategies civilians could use to survive mass atrocities.

Hirschel-Burns knew going into Swarthmore that he was interested in international politics and mass violence.

“A big part of it is that my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, so I’ve been hearing stories about those things as long as I can remember,” Hirschel-Burns said.

At the college, Hirschel-Burns took a class on nonviolent resistance which sparked his interest in social movements, and after taking classes with Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Shervin Malakzadeh, he became intrigued by broader forms of contentious politics. Additionally, Hirschel-Burns’ desire to think more deeply about violence developed through his membership in Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, a student-led movement to end mass atrocities, he said.

Hirschel-Burns’ decision to design a major in political conflict, which was housed in the Peace and Conflict Studies department and also incorporated classes from the Political Science and History departments, was motivated by his desire to take the exact set of classes he was interested in and ultimately apply them to his thesis.

“I knew my interests didn’t lie squarely in history,” Hirschel-Burns said.

Hirschel-Burns added that there were many classes he could have included in his major that he chose not to in the end because of the college’s 12-course limit on credits towards a major.

The interdisciplinary focus of his special major gave Hirschel-Burns the flexibility to write the thesis he had been thinking about since his sophomore year, he said.

“I think it would have been challenging to write that thesis as a history major, because of the lack of archival sources,” Hirschel-Burns said. “Even political science probably would have wanted a smaller scope and more rigid structure.”

The content of Hirschel-Burns’ thesis has guided his post-graduation experience as well. He spent one year working at a human rights foundation, conducting research on theories of atrocity prevention, which he said he would not have done without the familiarity with extant literature that came out of his thesis work. Now, Hirschel-Burns is applying to PhD programs in political science to study violence, governance, and state-building.

“Basically, my thesis was a scholarly jumping-off point to what I imagine I’ll be doing for the rest of my life,” Hirschel-Burns said.

As Lo, Bledsoe, and Hirschel-Burns all stated, special majors can provide students with a more tightly focused and more applicable knowledge for future academic and professional work. Eliana Cohen ’17, a special major in organizational behavior, hopes to pursue a career in business in the future, yet has been able to follow her more liberal arts-focused interests in psychology and sociology thanks to her special major .

Cohen has always wanted to understand how people are motivated, and how these individual motivations affect one’s ability to work together to create organizations, infrastructures, and societies, she said.

“When I came to college, I kept thinking about the question of motivation and its implications and soon found that it was not only central to what I was learning in my psych courses — I originally intended to become a psych major — but also to what I was learning in virtually all of my other courses and to my social interaction as well,” Cohen explained.

Cohen noted that Andrew Ward, professor of psychology at the college, was instrumental in her decision to pursue her special major. During her freshman spring, Cohen took Ward’s class in social psychology, which furthered her interest in organizational behavior.

“I became absolutely fascinated with studying how people work in groups since essentially everything we do as humans involves some sort of collaborative effort,” Cohen said. She also linked her interest in organizational behavior to the small size and emphasis on collaborative learning that are both characteristic of the college, contexts which she feels led her to see the role of individual motivations in shaping people’s ability and desire to work together.

Following her desire to gear her education towards what appeared to be a broad field, Cohen decided to declare a special major which would be housed in the psychology department but would incorporate courses from the economics and sociology departments as well.

Cohen felt that the college provided her with a great deal of resources in order to design her own educational path. The process involved meeting with a special major advisor; researching organizational behavior majors at other colleges and universities; choosing 12 courses that would meet the major requirement, including a course in organizational psychology not offered at Swarthmore but available at University College London, where Cohen is currently abroad; reaching out to a student who had majored in behavioral economics a few years previously and could give her advice on her proposed curriculum; and meeting with the chairs of the psychology, economics, and sociology departments along with the registrar, before her major could be approved.

At present, Cohen is deep in thought about her senior comprehensive exercise, a research project in which she hopes to examine the effect of individual personalities of group members on the efficacy of on-campus organizations and to see if her findings are supported by existing literature.

Despite enthusiastic professors and what seems like a solid amount of institutional support for students who wish to design special majors, there can be difficulties as well. Lo, for example, has occasionally felt isolated as a special major doing her thesis research. Unlike students working on their theses as groups within departments, who might be writing about vastly different subjects but all overlap in some way thanks to sharing a major, Lo relies solely on half hour meetings twice a month with her advisor for feedback on her ideas.

“I don’t have a lot of contact with other people doing similar things,” she said.

For all of this, though, Lo feels that the college possesses unique attributes, such as its size, the liberal arts environment, and the availability of close relationships with motivated professors, all of which enable students whose interests do not fit within established programs of study to pursue their ideal special majors. At another school, Lo added, she might have used her interest in video games to generate paper topics rather than designed an entire major around it.

“This isn’t something every institution has,” Lo said.

 

Editorial: spring break for…never?

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

The term “spring break” may be a misnomer for the week without classes given to students at the college each March. A “break” would imply a pause in work or activity, however, we at the Phoenix believe that when professors schedule midterms for the week after spring break, they remove the possibility of their students obtaining the benefits of this pause and inherently disadvantage certain students.

spring break is important for its ability to provide both academic and health benefits. It has long been observed by psychologists and educators that time off from work or activity improves the performance of students in the classroom. This same argument, which legitimizes naptime and recess in elementary school, should also legitimize the need for time off at the high school and college levels. Especially in the context of an institution like Swarthmore where a vast majority of the student body is made up of full time students who live on campus, the academic experience becomes an all-consuming aspect inherently involved in every part of student life.

Given the fact that Swarthmore students face a considerable amount of academic pressure during the semester, the need for a break is all the more essential. Periods of rest serve to alleviate stress and allow students to recharge before completing the semester. Such a break from academics improves mental and physical health and in turn improves the student experience.

By scheduling midterms for the week following spring break, professors prevent students from accessing the full restorative benefits that spring break is intended to provide. The pressure of an impending exam or paper can loom over a student’s break, demanding that they dedicate time to preparing for an evaluation, and monopolizing the time set aside by the registrar with the specific purpose of providing a respite from academic life. For students with midterms after spring break, spring break becomes nothing more than a reading week akin to the week without classes scheduled by the registrar before final exams.

Organizing midterms after break is further problematic because it prevents collaborative study as well as the opportunity for students to meet with their professors in person to ask questions and to review. Given the fact that over break most students leave campus, they are encouraged to prepare for their exams in isolation. This places those students who are accustomed to relying on study groups and office hours at an unfair disadvantage in their preparation for an assessment.

Finally, demanding that students spend their break studying is unfair to spring athletes who spend their breaks on spring training trips where they are called upon to be essentially full time athletes, practicing and playing games for hours on end each day. To ask these students to also dedicate significant time to studying for an exam allows them no time for relaxation and recuperation. Furthermore, students traveling to places where they may not have access to internet or may not have the ability to bring half a semester’s worth of books to prepare for an examination are further placed at a disadvantage.

Ultimately, we at the Phoenix believe that in order to ensure that spring break is utilized as a restorative period and to ensure that there is equity in the academic experiences of all of their students, professors should exclusively schedule midterm examinations for before spring break.

Data demonstrates fewer students are declaring humanities majors

in Around Campus/News by

As the world becomes increasingly dependent on technology and educational policymakers continue to push for STEM education in American schools, the balance and nature of humanities and natural science courses at Swarthmore are changing.

A Daily Gazette article published earlier this month reported that the sophomore plans for the class of 2017 included a noticeable drop in the number of anticipated humanities majors at the college, falling from the class of 2015’s 20 percent to 16 percent. The trend appears to continue with the class of 2018, with 11 percent having indicated interest in majoring in the humanities.

Provost Tom Stephenson confirmed in an email the general trend away from the humanities and towards the social and natural sciences, citing data from Swarthmore’s Institutional Research website.

Stephenson said that when the college experiences a shift in academic interests toward a particular division of the college — such as the shift that is currently occurring — the first response is to allocate temporary faculty in that area, since the college is reluctant to make more permanent commitments until they certain that the demand will hold up. As time passes, the college allocates tenure lines to overenrolled departments in response to stable student demand. However, Stephenson noted that the power to increase resources to a particular division of the college is not unlimited.

“There is a limit to what we can do, since our resources are not completely flexible — we have minimum critical mass considerations in other areas of the curriculum that need to be maintained to have a healthy broad based liberal arts experience for students,” Stephenson said.

Even though Swarthmore is able to adapt to the changing academic demands of students, Stephenson expressed concern over the trend towards the natural sciences. He believes that the national push for more students to major in the natural sciences is a short-sighted practice, and one that Swarthmore should work hard to defy.

“I don’t think that we should change our overall goals in response [to the trend], except to redouble our commitment to a broadly based education, and to increase our efforts to attract a student body that is interested in the full range of subjects that we offer here,” he said.

Professor of English and Coordinator of Environmental Studies Betsy Bolton agreed that the increase in the number of students majoring in the natural sciences is a concerning trend, both for the natural sciences and the humanities. Bolton explained that as fewer students choose to major in the humanities, departments like English Literature are left with no choice but to offer fewer courses, and the courses that remain contain fewer students. She noted that the increased interest in the natural sciences puts huge strains on departments like Biology to keep up with student demand and ensure that majors are able to take all the courses required to graduate.

Chair and Professor of Biology Amy Vollmer confirmed that her department has seen a steady increase in the number of tenured professors in recent decades. The department added its 12th tenure track faculty member in 2013, a conservation biologist who will arrive in fall 2015. The last new tenured position was granted in 1997, for an evolutionary biologist.  Vollmer also expressed a need for even more expansion in the department as student interest continues to increase.

“We need to expand even more, given the fact that all of our courses are lotteried nearly every year.  We have put in for 2 more positions, one new and one to replace a

retiring faculty member, and will hear from the Provost in May about the

decision,” she wrote in an e-mail. Vollmer also stressed that curricular decisions

in the Biology department are made by the faculty. They are not based on student interest, but rather on what fields of biology are expanding.

The Philosophy department is also being forced to adapt in response to the changing academic climate at Swarthmore. According to Professor and Chair of Philosophy Tamsin Lorraine, the department graduated from 13 to 20 majors a year from 2005 to 2010, while from 2011 to 2015 it graduated from 7 to 15 majors each year.

“Of course, we are, like other humanities, aware of changing student interests that relate to changes in the larger culture,” she wrote in an email. She mentioned several different ways in which the department is adapting to changing student interests, such as offering new courses, including Environmental Ethics, The History of Analytic Philosophy, and Philosophy of Literature and Film, and updating the syllabi of current courses like Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics in order to respond to the emergence of new topics and problems.

On the ground, students are also noticing a shift in the way in which different academic interests at Swarthmore are perceived. Bill Fedullo ’16, an Honors Philosophy major and English Literature minor, believes that Swarthmore and other liberal arts schools are always dealing with the drive to make the humanities more “practical.” He admitted that it may be difficult to justify studying the humanities in contemporary society, but recognizes real value in the timeless questions that the humanities discuss.

“The humanities and the sciences are different things. Yes, the humanities are less amenable to objective testing than the sciences. Imagine how tragic it would be if that weren’t the case,” he wrote in an email. “If philosophy could just be reduced to a set of facts that can be learned and memorized, it wouldn’t really be worth anyone’s time.”

It remains to be seen whether the current trends toward the natural sciences are going to continue past the Class of 2018. Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock said it was too early to tell what the prospective majors of the Class of 2019 will be, since they have yet to officially make their college decisions.

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