What do we want out of Brown?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

For many seniors, including myself, the hordes of starry-eyed pre-frosh who swarm onto campus in spring leave us feeling unsettled. I remember being one of those enchanted students. I applied to Brown early decision, smitten by the New Curriculum, the quirky and vibrant student body and the prestigious academic reputation. Brown seemed to be the place where I could further become myself.

In many ways, it has been just that. But academically, it fell short. Brown’s advising is notoriously poor, as we all know. But despite that, I always thought Brown’s administration was on my side.

I shouldn’t have been so naive. This past year, I had a personal and academic revelation: I wanted to major in English as well as international relations, and I wanted to complete a nonfiction writing thesis on culinary culture. But I wasn’t allowed to do this. The process dragged on for months and I was ultimately rejected by President Ruth Simmons herself – whom Brown undergraduates have described as a grandmotherly figure who will bake you cookies.

All this has made me question the priorities of Brown’s current administration. At this point, if I do pursue a career in writing about food, it will be despite Brown, not thanks to it.

What did I want out of Brown? I wanted Brown to understand I’d made mistakes and to help me grow. Perhaps the dean of the College’s office was right to reject me. But I don’t think so. And I seriously question Brown’s choices as an institution because of it.

Late-Night Inspiration

Last fall, on a night when I probably should have been doing something else, I realized how disappointed and uninspired I felt with my academic choices. That night, by clicking on random links on the English department’s Web site, I learned that I could have written a nonfiction writing thesis, which would have allowed me to work with a few professors on a long work of nonfiction writing over the course of a year. I already felt like the bastard child of the English department – I’d taken a lot of English classes, my favorite professors were in the English department and I’d worked at The Herald and post- magazine for years, surrounded by English majors.

I was one course away from finishing my concentration in international relations, but I was inspired. It was a completely unexpected punch in the stomach, but I suddenly realized that I wanted to be writing a nonfiction writing thesis in food writing,

I know I probably should have studied my options better instead of by chance discovering an amazing course of action in the middle of my senior year. But my advising has always been a bit shoddy. I didn’t have an adviser at all sophomore year, and after I declared my concentration, my adviser became the international relations adviser, who has over 300 other advisees. Not exactly the best setup, I think. I counted myself lucky that I found out about the program when I did.

What’s in a Deadline?

When I came to Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron in November 2007 to ask to write an English thesis for the Fall 2008 semester, I had the approval of my parents and my professors in the English department. All that remained was for the dean’s office to grant me ninth-semester permission, which is usually reserved for students who have taken leave or who did not do well and need their academic term extended to meet graduation requirements.

This year is also the first year that the deadline to declare a second concentration was moved up five months, from the April before graduation to November – ironically, only two weeks before I went to the dean. I was told that I had missed the deadline and could not file another concentration.

Deadlines are serious, but it didn’t seem like enough to deny my request, especially considering Thanksgiving break was one of those two weeks I’d missed. I embarked on a lengthy journey with the Committee on Academic Standing, a body chaired by Deputy Dean of the College Stephen Lassonde that reviews the academic progress of all undergraduates.

I had already explored every other option, including staying for a fifth-year masters’ degree – impossible because English doesn’t offer a nonfiction writing masters’ degree – and purposely failing a class or two and forcing an extended stay (but since I’d have to declare my concentration in English to write an English thesis, failing wouldn’t accomplish much). I couldn’t see any other way to achieve my goal except to go through the CAS.

My petitions to the CAS were probably the most heartfelt and honest statements I’ve written while at Brown, certainly far more so than the rote paragraphs I’d written for my original concentration declaration. I tried to express how much it would mean to my sense of self and my academic progress to be able to write this thesis.

I was rejected. Twice, actually – once when I tried to add English as a second concentration and once when I gritted my teeth, threw out the ten credits I’d already completed for international relations, and tried to switch my concentration entirely to English.

Strangely, Lassonde assured me before my second petition that if it had just been an issue of missing the deadline, the CAS would have pardoned me, but there was some other principle I was unable to grasp that I would violate by taking a ninth semester. Though the deadline was the only rule they could enforce, it was acknowledged by Lassonde to be a rule worth breaking. But if the deadline wasn’t the problem, what was?

Lassonde had already rejected me, and Bergeron offered me tissues, sang me a few bars of a song about Paris and promised to investigate options for me – which she then forgot about.

I didn’t know what else to do. So I drafted an e-mail to Simmons – admitting my mistakes, but hoping that someone in charge would be willing to overlook them. The response was anticlimactic, but a blow all the same – I was not going to be helped, her assistant informed me.

With Simmons’ silence sealing the deal, I was down, out and without a thesis – and I didn’t know why. I was willing to pay Brown for an extra semester. My professors were willing to read my thesis and support my journey. What difference could it possibly make to the University administration?

Unanswered Questions

When I decided to write this column, I e-mailed Lassonde to ask him to explain. His response was, more or less, that I needed to learn from my mistakes.

“It’s important for students to carefully think about what they want to study and to understand that they have to live with the choices they make. There are many opportunities to explore the curriculum over the course of a student’s four years here, but there are also doors that close along the way, as students choose one path over another,” he wrote.

I find this extraordinarily patronizing. I cannot go back and live these past four years again, so what do I learn from this? I’ve already made my mistakes, and I was simply trying to fix them, to make the $160,000 my parents have spent here work for me a bit better.

I am not an example for other students, a warning to figure out your life quickly. I am a casualty of a poor advising system and inflexible rules – and possibly of an agenda that is barely articulated. Lassonde also wrote that the Committee on Academic Standing “has consistently determined that students who have enough credits to graduate and who can complete the requirements of their concentrations by their eighth term, may not be approved for an additional term of study to satisfy the requirements of a second (or third) concentration, or to change concentrations.”

In short, the dean’s office wants me out. Maybe this is Brown’s version of tough love. Maybe Brown didn’t think that I was sincere in pursuing my thesis. Is the dean’s office concerned with making everyone graduate in eight semesters because that statistic is on a ranking somewhere, or are they driven by academic purpose?

These days, the University is eager to ask me for money
– at present through the senior gift, which implies at times that I should “give back” to this grand institution I am about to graduate from. Well, as far as I’m concerned, Brown owes me. I don’t want to be at an institution that makes you graduate in four years rather than fulfill your goals. There is no one-size-fits-all learning experience, we’re all told as we begin our time here. But they neglected to tell me that every learning experience has to fit into eight semesters.

What do we want out of Brown? Do we want inflexible deadlines and rules? An impersonal administration with an eye for statistical glory? Brown’s administration should be sympathetic – not just to the students with personal problems or academic struggles, but to every story, to every individual. That’s all I wanted out of Brown. What about you?

Sonia Saraiya ’08 was editor-in-chief of post- and a Herald senior editor.

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