Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Ponder College"
One year ago on Round and Square (9 March 2013)—China's Lunar Calendar 2013 03-09
Two years ago on Round and Square (9 March 2012)—Structure, History, and Culture—Introduction
Three years ago on Round and Square (9 March 2011)—Beginnings (1): We the Tikopia
|[a] Structure RF|
It always is; that's how we roll here.
It also portended the tides of change on our little campus.
|[b] How Many? RF|
Students are well into the second semester right now, and nearing the minor crescendo called "midterms" before heading off to their full-week spring break in the third week of March. Right now, students (and faculty) are experiencing the brief lull that occurs between third, fourth, and fifth week papers (usually the first round) and the midterm crank-up. No one feels particularly relaxed. The visions of academic sugar plums picked from the academic catalog have turned to real work.
Felicia Ortiz '17 (a second semester student at Ponder College) sums it up well. "When I was looking through the courses, I saw so many that attracted me that I didn't really know how to choose. I wanted to pick a dozen of them, and think that I could have made a go of it with six. My advisor told me to think again. Now, about a third of the way into the semester, I can't even imagine how I am going to manage the work in these four classes." It all looks easy in the first week, but then the work starts."
|[c] One-two (three?)...RF|
English professor Amanda Cruz echoes this, but with a twist. "I went to the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, and we took three courses at a time. The downside was that we had final exams in December, March, and June. The upside was that I only had to balance three courses at a time. I don't know how the students do it with four (more is a ridiculous waste of time—if they can manage five, they're not taking the right classes)."
Chester Torkelson, an associate professor of geology, added "Even as a faculty member, I would rather be on a quarter system (three ten-week terms). With a six course load (a formidable amount), it would still only be 2-2-2. With a semester system, one of the courses (if the load is that high) always gets "lost" when it is 3-3. College administrations that require six (or more) courses a year don't understand what is really happening. Something has to give. Why not move to a 'quarter' system and enhance teaching and productivity?"
|[d] Items RF|
Provost, Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and Dean of the Faculty, Ahmed Khoury agrees, at least in principle. "We want the best for students and faculty at Ponder College, and see ourselves at the cutting edge of comprehensive higher education. If students can focus on three things at a time—think of juggling—and faculty members can focus on two courses and the research that makes their classes richer, well, that would be best for everyone. I am in close talks (as we speak) with President Andrea Blume about this, as well as the academic affairs committee of the Ponder College Board of Trustees."
He continues with one caveat, however: "There is a downside, and we need to speak with students, faculty, administrators, staff members, and alumni to gauge its seriousness. A semester system with four courses is a challenge, as we have seen. A 'quarter' system has three finals weeks. These are stressful. While there is less to balance at any one time, it raises the stress load during the course of the year. For that reason, I have created a committee of faculty, students, staff, administrators, and alumni to do a thorough study of the subject."
Even at the most innovative college in the world...we still have committees.
|[e] Ponder Web RF|
Students have mixed feelings about the potential change. "I love the idea of having only three courses at a time," adds Ortiz. "On the other hand, I really would dread a set of final exams in March—that would be right now." Arvid Swenson '14, feels quite otherwise. "Having a quarter system would have changed my whole education. That fourth course always gets lost when the pressure is on at the end of the term. I feel like I would have three courses every year that I would know much better, if only for the structure of the term. I love the education I got here; it would be even better if we changed the system."
Faculty members were more ambiguous about their feelings. Those who had come from semester systems themselves spoke of the drastic alterations that they would have to make in their teaching. Even the possibility (a very real one, according to Dean Khoury) of two- and even three-semester seminars, was not enough to persuade Tanya Cavendish, Stephen J. Hawking Professor of Physics and Astronomy. "So I'm supposed to take all that I pack into even introductory physics into ten weeks? This would require a fundamental rethinking of everything I do...and I think that the students would suffer in the long run."
|[f] Bifurcation RF|
Professor Georg Keeler, a tenure-track professor of German, disagrees. "There is no such thing as a curriculum that is set in stone. Think of our professoinal work. Sometimes we need to give twenty-minute lectures, such as for a conference paper. At invited lectures, it is usually forty minutes, followed by questions. When I lectured at Beijing University last year, I was told that I had two hours (or more if I needed time), followed by questions. The whole key is to adapt what we have to convey to the structure. It is not that difficult. My colleagues need to calm down, and reconsider things that they assume to be etched in stone. If academic knowledge were so-etched, we'd be lost. We already have enough problems without this nonsense."
Professors Cavendish and Keeler have a history. More on this later.
We'll leave it there this week at Ponder College. The committee will begin its work in April, and you'll see a few updates on this site as they continue their discussions. There is one thing, however, upon which everyone agrees—the very structure of the academic year is pretty much the foundation for everything else that follows, and we probably make too many assumptions about how "knowledge" fits into the "structure."
As President Blume notes, "As the most innovative college in the world, we are committed to considering the very foundations of what we do. This challenge is not different. We will not follow the herd...unless the herd is (upon our careful consideration)...clopping in the right direction."
Sunday, 16 March 2014
Ponder College (2)—Study Abroad
Some students study abroad. Not everyone does, though, and everyone at Ponder College recognizes that as a good thing (so long as everyone has thorough advising and an opportunity to do so). Moreover, study abroad at Ponder College is a little bit different in emphasis at most American institutions of higher education. We'll ponder the whole package next week.
|[g] Brooding Structures RF|