Swarthmore's independent campus newspaper since 1881

Tag archive


CS tenure talks reflect department’s unprecedented growth

in News by

In the last two weeks, the computer science department, known for its increasing size and consequent lotteries, conducted tenure talks in order to hire a new tenure track professor. The first talk was marked by a joke about the CS lottery amongst the students in attendance. While tenure talks are not unique to CS, they do come at a critical time in the department’s development due to its unprecedented growth.

According to Professor Jeff Knerr, CS only had two professors when it began in 1985. It now has 12 — eight tenure track professors and four visiting professors.

Knerr has taught CS 21, the intro class, many times, and he reminisced about a time when there were only 10 CS majors and he taught a CS 21 class with only 16 students.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “I got to know everybody.”

Now, it’s rather difficult to imagine a class that small when there are about 60 CS majors and 10 additional minors each year.

“It’s a crazy time right now,” Knerr said, referring to the number of students who are now taking CS.

However, the department is experiencing growing pains when it comes to the expansion. Knerr said that there are currently not enough professors to meet student demands. This shortage of professors has led to CS 21 classes that have almost 40 students and a lottery that helps cap these high-demand classes.

“The CS department is always looking for more professors to expand the department because it is definitely growing exponentially,” said Kyra Moed ’20, a student member of the search committee for the tenure talks.

Moed feels that the shortage of professors hasn’t caused any noticeable problems in the quality of education for students, whether it’s the class size or accessibility to professors.

“I think the department does a really great job at ensuring that no matter if it’s your first CS course or your senior year [they provide] a lot of support … All of the professors I’ve encountered are really passionate about teaching,” she said.

Michael Davinbry ’19, another student on the search committee, would not comment on the effects of the class sizes, but he said that the one of the department’s long-term goals is to hire more professors.

“I do think the CS department is trying to grow, so they’re hiring more professors. So I think that would benefit students and the faculty in general,” he said.

The tenure talks are necessary to hire a new professor who might help the CS department meet the demands of students.

There were four talks in total, with two occurring each week. The talks had three components: the research presentation, an informal lunch interview with CS students, and a mock class. The search committee in charge is comprised of tenure track professors and three student members, who were chosen by the faculty.

“My job is to gather feedback on candidates from other students and … summarize those feedbacks and present it to the faculty,” Davinbry said regarding his role in the interviewing process.

One of the themes of these tenure talks is student involvement. This is reflected in the nature of the three parts, the student component of the search committee, and the invitation for student observation and feedback on the candidates.

“I would imagine that the CS department values student input, and Swarthmore is an institution that values teaching as well as research, so having input from students in a way to get student opinions on a candidate [seems] … valuable,” said Davinbry.

The first part of the tenure talks was the research presentation. This involved the candidate explaining research that they were conducting and featured interaction between the candidate and faculty and CS students in attendance.

During the first research presentation, the classroom was nearly full with students and faculty in attendance. It lasted for approximately an hour.

After the research presentation was the informal lunch, which was coordinated by the students on the search committee and was independent of the faculty. Students were able to get to know the candidate in a setting outside of the classroom.

The final part, the mock class, started in the evening and lasted approximately 30 minutes. Students in attendance were asked to be “silent observers” while the faculty on the search committee took on the role of students in the “class.”

The first mock class was about binary trees. The instruction was short due to the limited time frame and was intended to be a lesson from a lower-level CS class.

The expansion of CS and shortage of professors that have resulted in the tenure talks are not unique to Swat, according to both Knerr and Moed.

“It’s really impressive how quickly it’s grown and how popular it’s become. And I think that’s true at every college and every university that there’s just this struggle to find people who aren’t just drawn by the money to [computer science],” said Moed.

There are many open computer science positions available in the job market today, which is leading to the growing number of students interested in the department. Knerr noted that it’s critical for everyone looking for a job to have a basic understanding of computer science, which is why there is not just an increase in CS majors but CS 21 students as well.

“[There are] lots of jobs, lots of opportunity. And some of them are lucrative,” Knerr added.

Because of this trend in available jobs, many colleges and universities nationwide seem to be experiencing difficulties finding professors who are willing to teach when they could have a more lucrative job elsewhere.

“I have heard in general that there’s a shortage nationally of CS professors,” Moed said.

The CS department has used the lotteries and now the tenure talks as ways to deal with its over-enrollment of students and subsequent shortage of professors. While the lotteries have been implemented to control class sizes, the addition of a new professor is needed to support the increase of students. But despite the problems that the department is facing, the heightened demand for CS majors in the job market will maintain its popularity in the years to come.

Campus Bookstore Initiates Push Towards Textbook Affordability

in News/Uncategorized by

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, college textbook prices in the United States have, on average, increased by approximately 88% between January 2006 and July 2016,. In response to this rising trend, the college has been making efforts to make textbooks more affordable to students. While students often turn to finding alternatives to purchasing books, the college’s administration, bookstore, and Textbook Affordability Committee continue to seek more affordable ways to provide textbooks for students. The most recent push to cut the cost of textbooks is the reduction of the prices of print textbooks in the bookstore.  

“In response to the high cost of textbooks, we have been steadily making changes on several fronts,” Paula Dale, Director of the Swarthmore Campus and Community Store, wrote in an e-mail. “Lowering the price of printed textbooks in the Store is the most recent change.”

According to Dale, textbook prices have been on the college administration’s radar for several years. In the past, the bookstore enacted efforts to make textbooks more affordable such as introducing rental options, lower-priced electronic formats, investing in a website for students to compare the prices of books and purchase them from various providers, and teaming up with a national wholesaler to buy textbooks back from students at the end of the semester.

According to Dale, the store management realized they could make a strong contribution to the efforts to make textbooks more affordable by cutting prices across the board for the spring semester of 2018. Dale said, depending on the book publisher, each student saved approximately 20% as compared to the fall semester of 2017.

Despite these savings, students who get their books from the bookstore haven’t necessarily noticed an immediate decrease in prices.

“While I appreciate the effort to make textbooks cheaper, I didn’t really notice a difference in prices,” Gabriella Small ’19 said.

Small chooses to get her books at the bookstore because she doesn’t trust online sources, such as Amazon, for used books. As a physics major, she feels that the used book prices in the bookstore are basically the same price as the used books listed online.

On the other hand, Lia D’Alessandro ’21 prefers to get her books as soon as possible and therefore buys them through Amazon Prime. According to her, the books she needed for this semester weren’t in the bookstore and she did not opt for the e-books because she prefers having a hard copy of all her books.

“Prime is convenient and faster than the community store, and the used books on Amazon were cheaper than the used books in the store,” she said. “Also, since they ran out of used books [for my class], I didn’t want to make them order a new set of books for me.”

Shaoni White ’21 also found that there were no used books left when she made a trip to the bookstore at the beginning of the semester. Although she usually uses Amazon to get her textbooks, the time it would take for her textbooks to be delivered would have inhibited her ability to complete one of her assignments on time. She ended up purchasing a new copy at the bookstore to save time.

“I got a book that was about $100 for about $50, and for that I am grateful, but my reading was due on Friday and I had no time to get the book,” she said.

White expressed that the lack of used books at the bookstore did not bother her because there was an insignificant difference between the new and used books anyway. She also said that, without the time pressure of having to finish an assignment, she would have ordered books from Amazon because of convenience and cheaper prices.

Rohit Nair ’19, however, usually finds a way around having to pay for expensive textbooks either from the bookstore or from Amazon. He was able to find alternatives for all of his fall semester of 2017 classes and didn’t buy any textbooks.

“I usually find PDF copies online or will just use the reserve copies kept in the libraries,” Nair said.

While Nair didn’t have to purchase any textbooks last semester, he did have to buy some books for his honors Economics seminars for the spring. He, like D’Alessandro and White, found that there were few copies of the used books left at the bookstore.

Amazon provides options that influence students’ decisions as to where they will purchase their books, and the relationship between prices on Amazon compared to the used book prices at the bookstore can vary. D’Alessandro and White find Amazon prices to be significantly cheaper than the used book prices at the bookstore while Small and Nair feel that there is little difference between the prices of used books on Amazon and those at the store. While it is possible to find considerably cheaper options on Amazon, Dale feels there is a more consistent, affordable supply of textbooks at the bookstore.

“Using the Store’s own textbook price-comparison tools, we can see first-hand Amazon’s pricing volatility; their textbook prices rise and fall, based on demand. Some students might score a cheaper textbook, but others won’t have that option,” Dale wrote.

The college’s faculty plays a role in helping the bookstore obtain more affordable, used textbooks by giving them time to find cheaper books. Previously, Megan Brown, an Assistant Professor in the History department, has encountered students who could not afford the books for her class and had been too shy to say anything until midterms or other big assignments were on the horizon. Thus, she tries to stay aware of textbook affordability and access to alternatives.

“I felt bad about not knowing about this and not being able to help find alternatives for students,” Professor Brown said. “I try to be sensitive about how students can access readings.”

According to Professor Brown, the bookstore helps lower the cost of textbooks by asking for book lists from professors ahead of time and ordering books months in advance when they are cheaper.

Our faculty members have made a significant contribution toward lower prices by submitting more of their course materials lists on time. When the Store gets the list on time, we can source more used copies, which are significantly cheaper than new [copies],” Dale wrote.

Dale believes there will be continued collaboration by the store management and faculty to make access to class materials cheaper and more convenient.

“Our next steps will require the guidance and expertise of our faculty members. We would like to increase the use of less-expensive formats, such as electronic texts and Swarthmore-created Open Education Resources,” Dale wrote.

According to Dale, the college is also exploring inclusive-access options that would automatically give classes of students digital copies at a discounted rate as opposed to having individual students buy books on their own.

“We are interested in various alternative pricing models, such as Inclusive Access, where a text is pre-purchased for all the students in a specific class, giving the College bargaining power with the publisher for lower prices and, not insignificantly, ensuring that all the students have their text in hand on the first day of class,” Dale wrote.

According to Dale, it is unlikely that there will be any further cuts to the cost of textbooks unless the prices in the market go down. However, the administration, bookstore, and Textbook Affordability Committee are continuing efforts to find cheaper alternatives for purchasing textbooks.

The Famous Sophomore Slump

in Uncategorized by

Ah yes, the dreaded and much talked-about Sophomore Slump. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you it’s as real a thing as you and me, and it’s affected almost every sophomore I’ve talked to right here on our beloved campus. I did not believe in this terrible syndrome until this semester, though everyone warned me about it. I thought, in the classic, know-it-all Swattie way, that I was much too smart to fall into such a slump, that I was too driven and dedicated to reach such a lack of motivation and energy. However, as tends to occur, I was wrong.

Coming back to Swarthmore after your first year is pretty much impossible to do without slumping. Slumping is when sophomores hit peak procrastination and can’t find any kind of motivation to do their work. Although they know that it’s of absolute importance to get cracking on their assignments, they just can’t find any way to get it done. It’s hard to return from a summer of minimum wage jobs and plenty of relaxation time to hours of essays and problem sets. It hits you as soon as you come back, with deadlines looming immediately ahead of you. The fear of failing and not having the stellar grades you’ve always wanted is sitting in the back of your mind at all times. And this is the best part: as soon as these extreme feelings hit you, they stay with you for the entire semester. There’s never a break, not even when it’s technically break, because there is simply no way to forget about all the essays and all the responsibility left back in the academic buildings.

In addition to the typical stress of Swarthmore, sophomores are required to choose a major, and it feels like such a make-or-break decision. It’s as though the rest of our very long lives is dependent on this one decision (which it’s definitely not – you can change your major several times after your first decision!), and all we do is stress and freak out about it until we somehow manage to make a decision. Personally, I remember switching my projected major about seven times in just the short summer between freshman and sophomore year. This led to drastic amount of stress; however, it feels nice to have started figuring it out. After that, it seems that everyone starts comparing inadvertently, creating cliques dependent on who’s majoring in what, trying to find common ground with people we may or may not even have known about before this very trying year.

Well, now that I’ve got one semester of this terribly long year (almost) under my belt, I can feel myself starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, I know, we’ve got another entire semester left, with four to five new classes that are sure to kick our asses, but it’s spring semester. Everything is better in the spring semester. Not only are we moving towards warm weather, but there’s spring break and the wild trip that may entail, as well as the end of the semester which promises sun and relaxation for, like, three months. And for some of us, it even means going abroad and getting to avoid Swarthmore for an extra six months!

So yes, the sophomore slump sucks a lot, and getting through it may take all the sanity you have left in your being, but it gets better if you just choose to look at the bright side of it all (as long as the whole jaded junior concept isn’t a thing).

The Art of the Flip Flop (or Not)

in Campus Journal by


I recently came in contact with a high school classmate through the powers of Snapchat, which I’ve been clumsily using for about a week now. Last I’d seen him, our plans were pretty much the opposite of each other — he was off to a large, public California university as a pre-med, hoping to become a doctor and help people. I had my heart set on studying English at Swarthmore, with absolutely zero career paths in mind (I never quite recovered from being told I couldn’t be a princess at the age of seven).


To his family’s shock, he is now a linguistics major — he took one class and fell in love with the subject. It made me wonder how we get there, from a simple major as declared on our application, occasionally lying through our teeth, to whatever we’ve decided to pursue. Shayne Rothman ’20 hasn’t written her sophomore plan yet but has already considered a variety of majors.


“I applied as a classics major with possible minor in either French or linguistics. I’ve changed that plan a few times. I went from just majoring in linguistics to majoring in linguistics and language to majoring in linguistics and minoring in French to creating my own special major around speech pathology. Now I’m thinking of declaring a major in linguistics and a minor in computer science,” said Rothman.


Rothman has made most of her decisions thus far based on her interests. Her interest in Latin got her interested in language structures in general, and she unexpectedly fell in love with linguistics. She freely admits there is also a more practical component around her choices: she loves CS, but also recognizes it is a useful and lucrative field of study. This attempt to balance passion and practicality feels familiar. When I started working towards my teaching certification, I often reminded my parents that it was good to have something that would lead me directly to a job. English major, education minor, it felt like an airtight plan. I even felt confident enough to plan to take Italian at Bryn Mawr, maybe study abroad in Italy at some point.


The Plan barely lasted a year. I came back to campus freshman spring emotionally exhausted but determined to see it through. To give myself a break, I took what I assumed would be an easy class: Transnational Graphic Fiction, which I hoped would help me reconnect with French culture. It all spiralled out of control from there.


I fell back into my love of French literature in a heartbeat, realized that the department had something to offer and that yes, a French person could study Francophone literature at an American college without wasting their time. As I grew increasingly drawn into “pure” literature, I felt increasingly uncertain about my future. The summer didn’t help; my boss cheerfully asserted no one actually gave a damn about what you majored in until I wanted to strangle him. Didn’t ANYONE understand my MAJOR EXISTENTIAL STRUGGLE?


This fall, I reached a semblance of peace, mainly thanks to a professor who took the time to talk to me for hours, help me figure out multiple major/minor combinations, and guide me through my existential angst. I owe her a lot, so she may be disappointed to hear my newfound balance is basically “I don’t know what the f*** I’m doing, but neither does anybody else so let’s go along with it.”


“The people who you tend to remember are the people who are very passionate about something. It’s hard to be at a school where it seems as though everyone else has it figured out and knows what they want to do. I understand that this isn’t necessarily the truth, but it still feels sometimes like you’re the only one who hasn’t got it all together,” Rothman pointed out.


Scott Candey ’20 is one of these people. He came in as an engineering major and hasn’t wavered. Engineering is notoriously difficult to pursue due to its lengthy list of requirements, but Candey has remained nonetheless.


“The main reason I’m seeing it through is there’s nothing that fits me better. I like creating things, I like science. The best place to build new things on campus right now is the engineering department.”


Candey added that he does sometimes wonder what else he could study or consider other paths, but ultimately, this is what feels right. A few weeks ago I would have burst into tears, shaking him by the shoulders and asking how dare he be so confident. I’d like to think I’ve reached a more mature stage of acceptance — some have it figured out, some don’t, that’s okay. I will never haul myself out of bed early enough to go to Bryn Mawr five times a week and pick up a new language, and that’s also okay. Even the ever-looming Sophomore Plan is starting to look less ominous. Max Weinstein ‘19 had some perspective on this plan.


“The sophomore plan was an invitation to think about the next two years, without being demanding or scary, […] I’m glad I switched from Political Science to English, because English is harder from me, […] But I’ve become more interested in science lately. I still have two years, so I’m sure it will all get wrapped up with a bow by graduation time.”


Say what you will about Swarthmore — at the very least, it’s not an especially relaxing environment — but if nothing else, it gives us room to explore. It would be too cliché of me to say something like, “Incoming freshmen, try something completely new and discover new passions!” There are brochures and orientation pep talks for that. I will say that the IC courtyard is always a nice place for a little existential cry as you contemplate your future. Besides, as my more sympathetic professor pointed out, absolutely nobody knows what they’re doing, so why not put on a good show?


College to go through Middle State’s accreditation process again

in News by

Every eight years, Swarthmore must evaluate their quality of education to be approved by Middle States, a Philadelphia-based accreditation organization. The school’s most recent cycle of reaccreditation began last year and will continue into 2019, during which time the college reports on aspects of its work, ranging from the effectiveness of the curriculum and the college’s mission to the student experience and institutional integrity.

Accreditation ensures that institutions of higher learning are meeting expectations put in place by a private organization. Although the mandatory process is tedious and labor-intensive, the parties involved see it as an opportunity for the college to reflect on its institutional goals and constant improvement.

The process is overseen by co-chairs political science professor Carol Nackenoff and director of institutional research and assessment Robin Shores and a Core Committee, comprised of Provost Tom Stephenson, Dean of Students Liz Braun, Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown, General Counsel Assistant Secretary of the college Sharmaine Bradham LaMar.  

Middle States recently condensed the number of standards an institution must create and adhere to from 14 to seven. These standards include “Mission and Goals,” “Ethics and Integrity,”  “Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience,” “Support of the Student Experience,” “Educational Effectiveness Assessment,” “Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement,” and “Governance, Leadership, and Administration.” To tackle this, the process leaders assigned a working group, comprised of several students, faculty, staff, and sometimes board members, to each standard.

The college must also prove that they meet the 15 requirements of affiliation imposed by Middle States. Most of these fit under a standard, the co-chairs reported, but to handle the unmapped requirements of affiliation, an eighth working group was created.

According to the college’s website, last year, Middle States approved a Self Study that outlined the college’s standards and set up for the completed report. This year, the Core Committee is aiding the working groups in finalizing their respective reports up for review next year. This includes reviewing materials, gathering input, analyzing findings, and writing a final report.

Nackenoff and Shores agreed that even after decades of grappling with the accreditation process, it still requires a tremendous amount of work. The co-chairs reported that they spend a quarter to half of their time every day working on the process, averaging 10 hours a week, including summers, because of the ever-changing process and ever-changing college.

We do self-reflection and self-assessment periodically because we want to always be improving,” Shores said. “The institution evolves, and we should be continuing to reflect on how we are doing.”

Nackenoff called the process a catalyst for valuable self-evaluation that might not normally have been be prioritized.

“It’s a great opportunity for members of the community to reflect on where we are in terms of meeting our goals and aspirations and to think about areas where improvement might be appropriate,” she said. “You take what you learn and feed back into discussions on how you can do better in these different domains. This process of using feedback to improve is the point of assessment, and it is ongoing.”

Nackenoff said that although she doesn’t believe the college’s accreditation is in jeopardy, it’s important to take the process seriously. She added that scheduling meetings is the hardest part of the process.

“The timetable is pretty ruthless,” she said, referring to the three years allotted to complete the process. “It made us pretty nervous. There is not much room for slippage.”

Braun mentioned a different difficulty.

“I think the most challenging part is managing just the sheer volume of information that needs to be collected, analyzed, and digested into a coherent report,” she said.

Despite the difficult work that still remains, Shore said that a great part of the process is watching different community members learn and engage together.

“For students, faculty, staff, and board members to work together and learn about the college has been a really great opportunity,” she said.

W course for int’l students has promise

in Columns/Op-Eds/Opinions by

Several weeks ago, I received an e-mail inviting all international students to meet with Dr. Natalie Mera Ford, who currently serves as a Swarthmore’s Multilingual Writing Specialist. As an international student, I was interested in how college-level writing in the US differ from that in other countries, especially here at Swarthmore where every student must take at least three writing courses in two distinct disciplines in order to graduate. Moreover, because most of my professors had yet assigned any major essay (an indication that they soon would), I believed it would be useful to know beforehand the challenges international students often face while attuning their writing skills to the level expected at Swarthmore. Therefore, I attended the session and was surprised: some international students did not have trouble with their writing skill or their writing fluency as much as with the academic writing norms to which they have no prior exposure.  

Before addressing anything further, I would like to define two terms pertinent to our discussion: writing skill and writing fluency. This article defines writing skill as the ability to formulate a grammatically correct sentence. The greater one’s writing skill is, the fewer grammatical mistakes one makes while conveying an idea. Standardized English exams evaluate students primarily on this area. On the other hand, writing fluency refers to how natural one feels while crafting sentences with appropriate syntax and word choice. Indeed, all fluent writers make minor grammatical mistakes once in awhile, but we would still call those writers fluent if those grammatical mistakes do not significantly interfere with the message they wish to convey. Hence, writing skill does not correlate with writing fluency. With these definitions established, I will explain why writing skill and writing fluency do not trouble international students at Swarthmore as much as some may assume.

First, because the admission process at Swarthmore is extremely selective, it is highly unlikely that non-proficient English users could enter the institution. To elaborate, Swarthmore tests its applicants’ English proficiency on several instances before offering them an acceptance letter. Numerically, applicants demonstrate their English skill through their GPA and their standardized test scores (e.g. SAT, ACT, TOEFL, and so on). Pragmatically, they demonstrate how fluent they are as an English writer through their personal essays via Common Application. On top of that, some applicants may be interviewed by Swarthmore admission in English. These rigorous admission process applies to all students at Swarthmore, domestic or international.

Therefore, we could assume that international students have an English proficiency equivalent to that level of native English speakers.

Second, the learning environment at Swarthmore is conducive to the development of English skill. At the most superficial level, all classes except foreign language are conducted in English at Swarthmore. Every day, students read texts in English, listen to lectures in English, and complete the homework their professors assigned in English. At the more meaningful level, we analyze, criticize, and synthesize every claim we come across as we embrace the spirit of liberal arts education, all in English. In other words, because the amount of reading, listening, and speaking in English required in this institution is tremendous, every Swarthmore student develops their writing skill, their writing fluency, and other areas of English proficiency as a result. Thus, even if you do not buy into the argument set forth in the previous paragraph and still believe international students are somewhat less proficient than native English users, the gap between the former and the latter will eventually diminish thanks to Swarthmore education.

However, based on the conversation I had with my international friends, Dr. Mera Ford, and people who worked closely with international students, the consensus is that even though a significant number of international students believe they are proficient in English, they do not feel confident in their writing ability as much as they should. As mentioned earlier, such lack of confidence arises because some of the international students do not know how Swarthmore professors expect them to write. Although this problem applies to other student populations as it affects international students in particular: the latter may internalize the blame, believing they struggle because of their inferior writing ability even though such explanation is untrue. Culture significantly affects how one writes. This article will now provide several examples to support the claim and put forth some possible solutions.

To begin, the first major problem is that, whereas the writing at Swarthmore emphasizes content and clarity, the writing style with which some international students are familiar focuses on the beauty of the language. My experience in Thai education system warrants this claim. In Thailand, students learn Thai as their first language. By the age of six, the age they presumably have a solid foundation in Thai language, they will start studying English. English, therefore, is not a first language for the majority of Thai students. To determine how knowledgeable each student is in English and reduce the potential gap in knowledge, Thai teachers focus upon the language usage in an essay rather than the content. Thai education, in essence, values big words over small words, indirect over direct communication, and rhetorical beauty over logical clarity. In contrast, to write well in American settings, one must be as clear and concise as possible. I, along with many international students I know, struggle tremendously while transitioning from the former writing style to the latter. In essence, such difference in writing culture between the United States and other countries cause some international students to focus more on the language and less on the content, which is contrary to what Swarthmore professors prefer.

Another major problem regarding the expected norm of writing is citation. In some countries, citation is not expected. Rarely are students in those countries penalized for failing to cite properly. The opposite applies to the United States: one could face a serious academic probation from failing to cite oneself, let alone other authors. One of my international friends once told me that she felt awkward every time she cited because citation is not “a thing” in her country. To exacerbate this issue, because there exist so many citation formats (e.g. MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.), chances are students unfamiliar to the citation culture forget to cite or fail to cite properly. Indeed, neither forgetting to cite nor failing to cite properly indicates how skillful or fluent one’s writing proficiency is. Rather, they reflect how cultural difference could potentially impact international students’ ability to write.

Lastly, the last problem pertains to the extent to which Swarthmore students use the writing resources Swarthmore offers. To answer this question, I created a survey with several questions regarding each student’s writing experience from “How confident are you in your writing skills?” to “What are your writing background prior to entering Swarthmore?” To make pertinent to our discussion, only the data gathered from surveys international students complete will be reported in this article.

One of the survey questions asks students to describe how content they feel towards the writing resources Swarthmore offers on the scale of 1 to 5 (1 = Not at all, 5 = Nothing to complain). Another asks how often they use those resources through similar scale (1 = Never use them, 5 = Use them whenever I could). Interestingly, eleven responses to the first question fall between 3 to 5, which means they believe Swarthmore, at the very least, provides sufficient resources on writing. However, when asked how often they use those resources, six responses fall either into 1 or 2, indicating that half of the surveyed students barely, if never at all, utilize those resources. Some justification include: “I procrastinate to the last minute, so I don’t have enough time to visit any WAs”; “I feel no need to use it”; “I am simply too busy.” Even more interestingly, for students who have taken or are taking a writing class, more than half believe the taking writing course does not help improve their writing skill as much as they had initially expected. Few even argue the non-writing courses they have taken improve their writing skill and fluency more than the W-accredited courses. Also, whereas two-thirds struggle with expressing ideas clearly and citing properly, virtually every student has problem with spending too much time on writing.

Overall, even though this survey by no means represents the general consensus among international students because of its small sample size, we still learn that some students know the writing resources exist but do not use them for several reasons. Common struggles among international students include spending too much time on writing, expressing ideas clearly, and citing properly, with the last two pertaining specifically to international students. How should we solve these problems?qqq

First, every class should make explicit what style of writing the class expects every of its students to adopt: if students worry less about how to write, they could devote more time into thinking what to write. Second, Swarthmore should provide sessions on citation, plagiarism, and basic writing processes, and so forth to all students who are interested. Indeed, because not every student who struggles with writing could take the Transition to College writing class, it is essential that these sessions be provided early so that the struggling students could fix whatever problems they may have with writing before taking more advanced, writing-heavy courses. Lastly, students and Writing Center should reach out to one another more. Perhaps, if the Writing Center has more flexible operating hours, students will be encouraged to use the center more. Writing is difficult. Addressing these issues will make writing way easier.  

Why study English?

in Columns/Op-Eds/Opinions by

When I tell people outside of Swat’s intellectual community that I want to be a Computer Science and English Literature double major, the response is usually something along the lines of, “Why study English?” The first time this happened, I was slightly taken aback. Why did I have to justify a passion for literature when one for coding is lauded as smart, practical, and even exemplary?

When people hear “Computer Science major” attached to my name, they are sometimes shocked, as I don’t exactly fit the stereotypical, general perception of a CS major: some guy who spends all his time in a basement gaming and playing Dota. Still, they are usually impressed, often commenting that I will have an easy time getting a job or that they think I will be really successful.

With English, this is not the case. When people hear the words “English major,” their minds jump to a picture of an idealistic idiot who, twenty years later, will be living under a rock writing poetry, attempting in vain to find a publisher interested in their 1,000 plus-page novel on 18th-century Russian idealism; or a picture of a professor in a lecture hall at a school in the middle of a cornfield wearing a tweed jacket and preaching about the importance of Medieval Literature to a group of half-asleep freshmen who could not care less.

Although these stereotypes do not cover the breadth of options English majors have after college, it is true that such majors have an average starting salary far lower than that of most other disciplines. This is a fact that turns many away from the department, even if they are one of the dwindling few who may have a passion for literature. As someone who is also studying Computer Science, arguing that starting salaries don’t matter would be hypocritical. So why study English when sticking solely to Computer Science would be the more practical choice?

English as a discipline is far more valuable than most believe. People who have never taken a college English class often assume that the department concerns itself solely with the contents of novels when, in fact, English classes — at least the ones I have taken so far at Swat — employ novels as portals through which we engage in sociological and political analyses of the time periods in which they were written and read. For example, in Professor Patnaik’s first-year seminar Literature and Law, we discussed the various ways in which Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” helped spur the 19th-century English Property Law reform movement that eventually granted women the right to own land.

The ways in which fictional works influence the way we live our lives are infinite. So many societal trends and behaviors evolve from characters and themes formulated inside authors’ imaginations. The cultural influence locked inside novels affects the way we behave and interact with each other, especially across social and political differences.

In her critically influential text “From Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel,” Nancy Armstrong states, “Fiction alone enables very different individuals to sit down to dinner in entirely unfamiliar places without finding them particularly strange, to shuffle into classrooms with people they have never met and with whom they might have little else in common … In this respect, the most powerful household is the one we carry around in our heads.”

Widely circulated works of fiction, and the themes that emerged from such stories, have molded behaviors throughout history and continue to touch the present, tying together people across large swaths of distance and time. Throughout her piece, Armstrong emphasizes not only the supreme power of reading fiction but the necessity for writers to keep creating it.

“In suppressing the fact and agency of writing, we also suppress the historical process by which these spheres of self, society, and culture were created and held in equilibrium … and thus the political power exerted by fiction — beyond our power to question.”

We have the privilege of attending one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation, and our English department is fantastic. The professors are renowned in their respective fields, brilliant in lecture, and constantly pushing their students to achieve a greater level of understanding of the text and of the world.

Further, there aren’t a lot of places where you can take both English Literature and Computer Science every semester, and the fact that Swarthmore permits its students to open their minds to new disciplines, and diversify the range of subjects explored is an opportunity of which I think more of us should take advantage.

So when you’re signing up for classes come December and you scroll past the English Literature section, give it a second glance before moving on. Even if you’re a STEM major who took Modern Algebra to fill a writing credit, you may actually enjoy learning through novels. The classes are pretty incredible; I recommend giving one a chance.

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.

1 2 3
Go to Top