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Getting requirements wrong

Topics/tags: rants, Grinnell, individually advised curriculum

As most of my readers know, Grinnell is one of the few schools [1] that has made and maintained a commitment to do without general education requirements. Unlike most schools that say You need N math classes and M foreign language classes and P [2] creative expression classes and …, Grinnell says You and your adviser will negotiate the liberal arts education appropriate for you. When it works right [3], it’s a powerful model; it helps students think about the purposes and goals of a liberal arts education and it gives us students who are enthusiastic about taking courses that they might normally take only because they are told that they have to, or at least who acknowledge the value in the courses.

Of course, we don’t just trust individual advising. Hence, Grinnell has a variety of things that we often refer to as anti-requirements. These generally represent limits of what you can count toward graduation. For example, we don’t generally let students count more than 24 credits of AP or pre-Grinnell coursework toward the 124 credits required for graduation [4]. Here’s the official statement on anti-requirements, taken from the 2017-18 Student Handbook.

Requirements for Graduation

To be eligible for graduation, a student must have at least 124 credits, a 2.00 cumulative grade point average (GPA), and must have satisfactorily completed the tutorial and a departmental, interdepartmental or independent major and the College residency requirement.

The following criteria apply:

Credit Limits

The maximum credits that can be included in the 124 credits are listed below:

  • 48 credits in any one department (For the purposes of this requirement, Chinese and Japanese and Studio Art & Art History credits are to be considered as belonging to separate departments.)
  • 92 credits in any one division
  • 8 practica credits with no more than 4 credits in Physical Education (PHE 100 or PHE 101). Practica credits include: MUS 101, PHE 100, PHE 101, THD 100, THD 205
  • 16 credits in performance. Performance credits include: MUS 120, MUS 122, MUS 220, MUS 221, MUS 320, MUS 420, THD 104, THD 204
  • 6 credits in Music 101, 120, 122, 220, 221, 320, and 420 in any one semester
  • 12 credits of individual study work (Plus-2, 297, 299, 387, 397, 399, and 499) in one department
  • 8 credits of internship study (300)
  • 16 credits of D grades


I’ve been surprised to see administrators get this policy wrong in at least two recent cases. How do you get the policy wrong? You state these as hard caps, rather than as caps on the number that can count toward the 124 credits required for graduation. Here’s what the new advising handbook says.

Graduation requirements: Requirements for tutorial, total credits, major field, and residence are in the Student Handbook. Rules to watch:

  • Practicum credits — no more than 8 credits
  • Performance credits — no more than 16 credits
  • Independent study — maximum of 12 credits (plus-2, 297, 299, 397, 399 and 499) in one department may count toward graduation
  • Internship Study — maximum of 8 credits
  • Departmental limit — no more than 48 credits in one department
  • Divisional limit — no more than 92 credits in one division

A student with a well-balanced program in the first two years should have no difficulty with these limits [7].

These are not the same. How do they differ? It sounds like these are hard caps, rather than caps toward the number that count toward graduation. That implication is reinforced by the special note for independent study.

Now, let’s turn to the draft text for the College’s reaccreditation review. That text has been reviewed by dozens of eyes. So it should be correct, right? Let’s see.

Each student must complete the First-Year Tutorial, complete 124 credits toward graduation while maintaining a 2.0 grade point average, and complete the requirements of one major. As noted, students are responsible for course planning, closely collaborating with their faculty advisor. Students execute plans for study within the parameters of a limit of 48 credits in any one department; a limit of 92 credits in any one division; and credit limits on practica, performance, internships, and independent study. The Catalog section entitled A Grinnell Education describes the dimensions of student planning, particularly the emphasis on students gaining experience in six elements of a liberal education [8].

No, that’s not right. Once again, the 48 credits and the 92 credits sound like hard limits, rather than counting limits. Even if we take a more generous interpretation, they are incorrect in other ways, because we seem to limit by discipline, rather than by department: Chinese and Japanese count separately, as do Art History and Studio Art, even though Chinese and Japanese share a department, as do Art History and Studio Art [9]. How would I fix that phrasing? Let’s see.

While close advising generally ensures that students develop a broad liberal arts education, some limits on credits provide additional incentive for students to diversify their courseload. Students may not count more than 48 credits from one discipline toward the 124 required for graduation nor may they count more than 92 from any one division. There are similar limits on counting credits from practica, performance, internship, and independent study [10].

Or perhaps we should state the affirmative policy that the Registrar’s software enforces.

Students must take at least 76 credits from disciplines other than their major and at least 32 credits from outside the division of their major.

Of course, that doesn’t help with the other limits. I can’t, for example, find an elegant way to phrase the alternate to [students may count no more than] 12 credits of individual study work […] in one department [toward the 124 credits required for graduation].

Whatever the language we use, we should get it right.

Why is this a big deal? Because it’s important that we know and express our requirements accurately. I’ve encountered students who were told by their advisor that these limits meant that they could not take another course in a division, even though they were on track to many more than 124 credits. Now, I understand that there are other reasons that we would discourage students from taking more than the specified number of credits. But we shouldn’t misstate the policy to achieve those goals. There are also times that it makes sense for a student to take more than 48 credits in a department.

Consider, for example, a student who took AP Calculus (4 credits) and AP Stats (4 credits), did a MIP (4 credits) and a MAP (4 credits), and took the minimal major in Mathematics (32 credits). They already have 48 credits in Math/Stats. Does that mean that they should not take an additional Math class? I’d certainly be comfortable with them taking another upper-level class in Mathematics or Statistics, particularly given that the AP courses do not represent courses taken at Grinnell. I’d feel similarly about a French Major who had taken AP French (4 credits), French 102 (5 credits), a year of Arabic (8 credits), and the French major (32 credits). If they wanted to add a MAP in French, I’d allow them to take it, even if it would not count toward graduation [11].

It may be that I feel particularly strongly about this issue because of the way the College treated the combined department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Even though Mathematics and Computer Science are no nearer to each other than, say, Mathematics and Physics or Chemistry and Biology, Mathematics majors were limited to counting 48 credits in both disciplines.

I also know that 12 courses (48 credits) in a major is considered a small major at some institutions. Now, we’re not other institutions. I appreciate that we have eight-course/32 credit majors [12]. I’m fine saying 48 credits is all you can count. But I’m not fine saying by fiat that That’s all you can take.

And I worry that when incorrect descriptions of our policy propagate, the incorrect descriptions do, at times, suddenly seem to become the official policy. So I consider it important to pay attention. It’s one of the reasons I argue about issues that may seem as trivial of the switch of a word in a policy from and to or [14].

It may be that the Faculty wants to revisit this issue. If we vote as a faculty that 48 credits, 92 credits, and the rest are hard limits, then I’ll accept the change. Until that time, we should convey our policies clearly.

Postscript: Until I went back to look at the Student Handbook language, I had not realized that we treated Studio Art and Art History as separate with regards to the 48 credit limit. Did we vote on that [15]?

I’d like to see us vote on similar separations for Mathematics & Statistics and for French & Arabic and for any other joint departments we have [16].

[1] or at least one of the few elite schools that take this approach

[2] O looks too much like 0. (Oh looks too much like zero.)

[3] And it often does.

[4] You may be surprised to hear that if a student takes more than 24 credits at Grinnell before they matriculate at Grinnell, Grinnell still limits the number of those credits they count toward graduation.

[5] Grinnell College (2017). Grinnell College 2017-2018 Student Handbook, Academic Policies and Procedures: Requirements for Graduation.

[6] I found this in a section of the page that is currently at But the handbook and catalog links do not seem to remain consistent.

[7] Grinnell College Academic Advising (2018). Adviser’s Handbook. Section 1: Nuts and Bolts: Graduating on Time: Overview of Regulations. Found on the Web at

[8] Email from Dean’s office, 4 April 2018.

[9] Mathematics and Statistics share a department. Will we see a similar split for those topics? Given my experience with the faculty’s response to the joint Math/CS department before I came to Grinnell, perhaps we will not. French and Arabic also share a department. I wonder whether Arabic courses count toward the 48 credit limit in French.

[10] Samuel A. Rebelsky. Getting requirements wrong. Online document at

[11] It may be that Grinnell does not apply the department limits to French Majors who take Arabic. But it’s a joint department of French and Arabic. And I don’t see an explicit exemption for them like I see for Chinese and Japanese or Art History and Studio Art.

[12] Of course, many majors have hidden requirements or requirements that don’t count toward the eight courses/32 credits. I keep finding new ones each time I look. For example, in writing this musing, I learned that Art History does not count their introductory course. Studio Art doesn’t count it either, but does require an Art History course beyond intro, which means that studio art students must also take Intro Art History and not count it toward their eight courses/32 credits.

[14] More about that issue in another musing.

[15] The answer from one of my readers is Yes, around Spring 2016.

[16] Well, there’s Theatre and Dance, but they’ve tended to treat themselves as a single major in Theatre and/or Dance.

Version 1.0 releaed 2018-03-07.

Version 1.1 of 2018-03-08.