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Your Brown transcript, off College Hill

The New Curriculum at Forty: Part three of four in a series

By
Senior Staff Writer

At the end of four years, students have surprisingly little physical evidence to show for their time at Brown. Graduating seniors leave with only a transcript, a diploma and lingering questions about how their education will be received by the world beyond College Hill.

Though high school seniors clamor to study under the New Curriculum, its impact on students’ lives after Brown is less clear.

“There’s no way to know what a Brown education does or doesn’t do for someone,” said Associate Professor of Music David Josephson P’00, who has taught at Brown since 1972.

Forty years after its implementation, the New Curriculum is no longer a trial run. Elements that were once shocking — like the option to take any course on a Satisfactory/No Credit basis and the elimination of distribution requirements — are now inseparable from Brown’s identity. Yet current Brunonians find it hard to gauge just how well graduate schools and employers understand the curriculum.

‘Forty years of experience’

Before the implementation of the New Curriculum, Brown did not have a nationally recognized identity, said Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 P’10, who led the original Group Independent Study Project that proposed overhauling the Brown education.

The school attracted “brighter people” in the decades after the New Curriculum’s implementation, Josephson said, adding that it was “vital in putting Brown on the map.”

The New Curriculum is now an essential component of Brown’s image. When the Admission Office asks matriculating students their top three reasons for choosing Brown, they most often cite the curriculum, according to Dean of Admissions Jim Miller ’73.

The “self-selective group” of students who come to Brown are seen as “intellectually adventurous and more creative in what they’re doing” than students at the University’s peer schools, Magaziner said.

Brown students have “never been hurt” by the curriculum in applying to the University of California at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, said Edward Tom, its dean of admissions. He added that Brown has a strong reputation as one of the law school’s top feeder colleges, and good grades from Brown stand out more than a “3.8 from the University of the Bahamas.”

Brown transcripts are not viewed any differently in graduate school admissions because of the New Curriculum, said Pamela Schirmeister, associate dean of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Rather than evaluating a student’s undergraduate work as a whole, she said she focuses on students’ performance in the field for which they are applying.

Even if employers are not familiar with the details of the curriculum, they understand the openness and diversity of ideas that Brown students offer, said Laura Joshi, manager of employer relations for the Career Development Center.

Employers “value what a Brown education represents,” said Barbara Peoples, interim director of the CDC. The center sends information packets to employers to explain Brown’s curriculum, but Peoples said not many employers ask for transcripts.

Peoples said she has never known the New Curriculum to be “anything but a positive” for students in their post-college endeavors.

“Graduate schools and faculty elsewhere have long experience, 40 years of experience, with undergraduates as products of the so-called ‘New’ — the aging New Curriculum,” Dean of the Graduate School Sheila Bonde said.

“That said, I think people regularly, not just in graduate schools but elsewhere, kind of misunderstand and assume that there are no requirements” at all, she added. Though there are no distribution requirements, Brown requires that students complete 30 classes, finish a concentration, and demonstrate proficiency in writing.

“By and large, Brown has a very strong reputation as a producer of competitive and creative students,” Bonde said.

‘All of that crap’

The original student proposal for the New Curriculum, produced by Magaziner’s GISP, suggested eventually phasing out grades altogether in favor of written evaluations. This idea was eventually scrapped over concerns that it would impact graduate school admissions, Magaziner said.

The committee that finalized the curricular proposal decided to instead eliminate “the pluses and minuses — all of that crap” and give students the option to take any class on an S/NC basis, he said. That professors can now grade any class on an exclusively S/NC basis is an option members of that committee envisioned many courses would take advantage of, Magaziner said.

All literary arts workshops and non-fiction writing courses are currently mandatory S/NC. This “makes a lot of sense,” since such courses require qualitative rather than quantitative assessment, and giving students “grades, pluses or minuses defeats the purpose of what I’m trying to do in the class,” said Senior Lecturer in English Catherine Imbriglio, who teaches several small non-fiction classes.

One disadvantage is that students assume S/NC courses will be less work, Imbriglio said, adding that she tells students on syllabi not to take one of her writing courses as a fifth class.

The University generally advises undergraduates to take courses in their concentration for a grade. This is, of course, impossible to do in full for literary arts and non-fiction writing concentrators, which “may pose a little bit of a problem” for students who want to continue on to graduate school in a discipline other than writing, Imbriglio said.

Though transcripts mark classes that are mandatory S/NC with an asterisk, Schirmeister, associate dean of Yale’s graduate school, said she was not aware that some courses at Brown required such grading.

Grades of “satisfactory” are “kind of hard to assess,” Schirmeister said. “You’d have to be pretty terrible to fail.”

S/NC grades can make graduate schools rely more on letters of recommendation and personal statement essays, Bonde said.

Taking every class S/NC, though possible, would be a “very poor decision on the part of the student,” said Professor of Music Emerita Rose Subotnik, who is retiring in May after teaching at Brown since 1990. “The outside world doesn’t want to work that hard. They don’t want to read all those course reports.”

Course performance reports, which a student can request for any class, include sections written by both the professor and the student about the student’s work in the course.

Schirmeister and Bonde both said graduate schools read course performance reports carefully.

But professors worry that “they don’t get read nearly so much as a clean grade does,” Josephson said.

Rather than tell graduate schools what grade a student would have received in a course, the reports should function as a dialogue between the student and the professor, Imbriglio said.

Course performance reports were cre
ated to make evaluation a part of the educational process, Magaziner said.

“The idea that you’re doing it in order to get graded or sort of classified in some way by a letter — as if a letter could represent the sum total of what somebody is or has accomplished — was offensive to us,” Magaziner said.

‘Loading the dice’

Forty years later, the freedoms of the New Curriculum may have had unintended and possibly negative results, especially for students who prioritize the strength of their transcripts over the quality of their undergraduate experiences.

Because the lack of distribution requirements makes it easier to complete multiple concentrations, around 20 percent of each class completes two concentrations, and a few students each year even complete three, according to Registrar Michael Pesta.

Tom, the law school dean, said having two majors does not necessarily improve an applicant’s chances.

“A lot of people falsely think that having a double major gives you brownie points,” he said. “It does not.”

Josephson urges the students he advises not to double concentrate just because they can, even if they are only one or two courses away from fulfilling the requirements. “I ask them, ‘What do you mean, if you just take one more (course)?’” he said. “It means you deprive yourself of 150 others.”

But Gale Nelson AM’88, lecturer in literary arts and assistant director of the program, said he encourages the students he advises to “seriously consider” double concentrating — or at least to take clusters of courses in disciplines other than their concentrations — so as to have as many options after graduation as possible.

Jeremy Goodman ’10 is one of just a few students who have three concentrations, though he acknowledged his choice could be a “failing on my part of not exploiting the Brown curriculum to the fullest.”

Goodman, who is concentrating in physics, philosophy and cognitive neuroscience, has only taken two courses that do not count toward any of his concentrations. “It’s been pointed out to me to me that it’s kind of insane,” he said.

“I wanted to take certain classes regardless, so it just ended up happening,” he added. “I didn’t go into this trying to triple concentrate.”

Though the New Curriculum can make it easier for students to add achievements to a transcript, its lack of structure makes it difficult for graduate schools and employers to get a complete view of a student, Josephson said.

Just as there are mandatory S/NC courses, he said, students should be forbidden to take introductory courses that teach essential skills for a discipline on an S/NC basis. Allowing students to take even core concentration courses S/NC and not recording failing grades denies external reviewers a “full, transparent, honest accounting of how you did when you were here,” he said.

For example, Tom said, taking a course S/NC would only hurt an applicant if he or she were to receive an NC, but that situation would never appear on a Brown transcript.

The New Curriculum is “loading the dice against the academic standards” in some areas towards the interests of students, Josephson said. While most students do not try to abuse the system, some would choose to fail or drop a course when “faced with a recorded C versus a hidden NC,” he said.

But students are not the only ones who prioritize final grades over educational experience. In the 2007-2008 academic year, over 50 percent of all grades recorded by professors were A’s.

Not having pluses and minuses increases grade inflation, Subotnik said. Teachers “end up knocking that B-plus to an A when it wasn’t really deserved,” she said. “If you can give a kid a B-plus, then it’s clear that the kid was in the top echelon and you don’t feel quite so bad that they didn’t get an A.”

But grade inflation is “so rampant” across the country and around the world that not having pluses and minuses could only account for a “minor wrinkle” in that, Bonde said.

Grade inflation can mostly be traced to the “intense” pressure for students to get into graduate institutions, which fuels a “natural impulse to give students the benefit of the doubt” in order to see them succeed, said President Ruth Simmons. But because grades are now expected to be high across the board, “they start to fade into the background” in admissions decisions in favor of other methods of evaluation, she said.

“You’re rarely looking at grades anyway,” she added.

People see the curriculum through many lenses, Josephson said. It is its individualistic spirit that makes its effects so hard to understand and leads to disagreement about its value.

“This is a Swiss cheese of a curriculum,” Josephson said. “And whether you see the cheese or the holes depends on who’s doing the looking.”