Columns, Opinions

Calvelli ’19: Brown is hard. It should be harder.

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, April 19, 2019

We all know the stereotype of the stressed out, overworked college student. Since you’re at Brown, it probably has applied to you — if not as a permanent character trait, then as the version of yourself that springs forth when you’ve got two midterms next week.

It makes sense to feel overworked when you have a lot of work. Writing papers takes serious intellectual energy. Memorizing material for tests requires admirable discipline. Reading impossibly dense academic articles is a chore.

If we’re being honest, though, Brown is not nearly as hard as it should be. It’s too easy to leave here with an impressive transcript, a loaded resume and an endless repository of fun stories. All of those are important — especially the last one! But I believe the fact that we can have it all comes at the expense of a demanding and sufficiently challenging education.

There are two types of students who take advantage of the ways that many Brown courses don’t force you to put in that much work. The first group are students who simply don’t try that hard. You know who I’m talking about: that friend of yours who’s never done the reading, is on Facebook during class, goes out Thursday to Sunday, and is more up to date on Game of Thrones than their problem sets.

I hope I don’t sound judgmental, because that sounds like a really fun life. What frustrates me, though, is that rampant grade inflation and low academic expectations mean some of those students will likely graduate with an elite degree and a flashy transcript.

That’s unfair. It perpetuates the undue privilege that attending a high-ranking college conveys, giving students the benefits of an educational pedigree without requiring the academically rigorous work that this status is supposed to reflect. I’m not saying school should always come before fun; I’m saying that if you want to choose fun, you shouldn’t be able to signal that you really chose school.

Then there’s the other group of students. They are the ones who seem to do everything, and then some. The kind of kids who get straight As in 5 classes, are on the e-boards of 6 clubs, volunteer in the community, work a campus job and maintain an active social life. Is this impressive? Definitely. Do I think it should be feasible? No. To me, this is only possible when it’s too easy to ace classes without putting in real time. This is, of course, assuming you take the time to eat and sleep.

It’s tempting to think none of this is a problem. Isn’t it good that students are able to contribute in areas beyond school work?  Shouldn’t we make sure that our students aren’t overcome by academic stress? My answer is yes and yes. But there are caveats.

A system that enables these superkids creates a false picture of perfection’s seeming achievability. The fact that it’s possible to do everything can feel like an inherent reason to do it. Many students here grew up in cultures of excessive over-achievement — told to get that A+, learn a new instrument, apply to every leadership position, be the star athlete.

However, sometimes it’s just not possible in the real world to do everything well. There are tradeoffs people have to face in life: between work and family, money and free time, happiness and security. Thinking through tradeoffs like these is an important part of personal growth.

When some Brown students realize they can spend all their time on extracurriculars and still have an Ivy League 4.0, they don’t have to make hard, reflective choices about how they think their time is best spent. Instead, they can just do, do and do more, without asking themselves what their limited time in college is really for. For a lot of people, their answer won’t be academics, and that’s perfectly fine. They should have to own the consequences of that decision.

I do, however, have this antiquated view that academic learning should be a big part of the college experience. That’s why the relatively low expectations in many Brown classes are troubling. Of course, some classes and concentrations are really challenging, and some students will work hard regardless of expectations because they are internally motivated.

But before you dismiss my diagnosis, ask yourself these questions: have you ever gotten an A on a paper you wrote the night before it was due and did not proofread, let alone edit? Ever aced a test after skipping class for weeks and studying via a last-minute all-nighter? Ever received full credit for “participation” in a class you rarely spoke in? I’d bet my diploma that you answered at least one of those yes. (I am a yes for two, but that’s just because I rarely ace tests).

Many of us complain about how hard Brown is, but how hard can it be when we can get perfect grades while working and studying in ways we know are suboptimal? Editing makes for better writing! Studying in advance is more effective! Doing the outside readings is what’s supposed to be a class’s biggest time commitment!

To maximize the learning that happens at Brown, we need to raise academic expectations. Many students will only do the minimum required to get an A, so if we want students to put more effort into school, we need to incentivize them to do so. Stricter grading practices are one surefire way to do that.

My first college paper was in a subject I’d never studied, and I got an A- without editing. Either I’m a genius, or grading is too easy. (I’ve re-read the paper and can confirm I am not a genius). A friend of mine once got a B+ on an essay in which the grader said it did not have a thesis statement; a paper without an argument doesn’t deserve to be praised.

Anyway, the point is this: Some classes at Brown are hard, but too many allow us to skate by without much sustained effort. College is supposed to be challenging — a space to give the time and effort necessary to engage with big ideas. When our academic system makes it easy for some not to put that much thought into school, we all miss out on those invaluable learning opportunities.

Aidan Calvelli ’19 is (probably) not trying to say that you don’t work hard enough, and is (definitely) saying that he should have edited more of his own work. You can rant at his arrogance at aidan_calvelli@brown.edu. Please send letters and responses to opinions@browndailyherald.com.