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Reflections on some Grinnell policies

Topics/tags: Rants, Grinnell, things I need to write

This past week, I’ve been in a Grinnell faculty and staff workshop on Academic Success and Student Wellness. On the first day of the workshop, we read a variety of materials from Simon Fraser University, which we were told is a leader in thinking about wellness. One of my favorites was entitled Embedding Conditions for Well-Being in Academic Settings [1]. It provided a variety of case studies of the ways in which departments were changing policies and procedures to better support student wellness.

While I found some of the suggestions somewhat obvious [2], I do appreciate the more general approach of reflecting on an institution’s policies and how they do and do not support wellness. Since we did not have the time for an in-depth review of Grinnell’s policies in the workshop, I thought I’d reflect on some here. I would prefer to discuss these issues with a group of people; long-standing evidence suggests that I often miss some reasons that we have policies. Nonetheless, I see many reasons that we should consider changing the following policies.

Add/Drop Deadline. For most of my career, the Add/Drop deadline was at the end of the third week of courses. Recently [3], we changed that deadline to be at the end of the second week. There are clearly some reasons for the earlier deadline. For example, it’s almost impossible to catch up on three weeks of course work. However, it’s really hard to tell whether or not you’ll appreciate the material in a class or be willing to handle the rigor or workload until you’ve had the opportunity to deal with real assignments. And most classes don’t really start digging deeply into material and giving large assignments or exams until at least the third week [4].

Is the week-three deadline better? It is from the perspective that students have a better chance to understand our classes. It isn’t from the perspective that students may not have something to substitute. As I suggested, it’s hard (but not impossible) to catch up with three weeks of work. At one time, students might choose to add an independent study at that point. But the Dean’s office decided to add a policy that students need to declare independent study courses in the prior semester. One possibility would be to allow students to audit a possible replacement course for the first three weeks. But our courses overlap enough that it may be unlikely that the possible replacement would be at a different time.

What do other institutions do? I’m told that most also have the drop period at the end of the second two-week. I’ve also been told that the practice of other institutions is one of the reasons we changed our deadline [5]. But I’m pretty sure that many of our peer institutions also allow students to shop for courses, enrolling in more than they plan to attend. Course shopping is a difficult issue at Grinnell; many of the classes students might consider are already at capacity and, as I suggested, it’s often hard to find time in your schedule for a fifth course.

Still, I’d like to see us provide students with the opportunity to better assess the workload in their classes before they have to make a decision about dropping a class.

Withdraw deadline. After the add/drop deadline, students may still withdraw from a course. Withdrawing from a course results in a W appearing on the student’s record. For some students, that W is stressful. They wonder what potential employers or graduate schools will think [6]. Still, the W is better than our old policy, which had the faculty member assess the current state of the student in the class, and give them a WF (withdraw failing) or a WP (withdraw passing).

You’d think that we’d allow students to withdraw from a class until the end of the semester. But that’s not the case. After week ten or so, students are no longer allowed to withdraw. In some ways, that’s a policy that helps students; if a course is getting in the way of their success, it’s better to withdraw at week ten rather than week fourteen. But I’ve encountered a large number of students who don’t realize that they need to withdraw until after week ten. In some ways, that makes sense; many courses ramp up the work at the end of the semester. That’s when your big papers or projects are due. Hence, I’d like to see us consider a later withdraw deadline.

Course load when returning from suspension. At times, students realize that taking a semester or a year away from the College is in their best interest. Sometimes the College helps them realize that they need some time away. I would term the former a leave and the latter a suspension.

The time away can help them develop some study skills, address health concerns, or just break some cycle of problems that gets reinforced while at the College. When the College requires that students take time off, the letter often indicates that the students are then expected to take sixteen credits in their first semester back [7]. But a student who needed time away may also need an easier semester to adjust back to the pressures of Grinnell. I’d much rather that we tell students that they can take twelve or fourteen credits.

I realize that there are reasons to insist on sixteen credits. In part, we’d like to make sure that students can handle the standard Grinnell workload. In part, many students who take time away from Grinnell are behind on credits and need to catch up. But I’d rather that our default were a statement of the form Every situation is different; we’ll work with you to determine the right course load rather than We expect you to enroll in sixteen credits of courses.

Number of courses taken while on leave. Some students, while on leave or suspension, decide to take a few classes. There are many reasons to do so. In some cases, it’s an opportunity to build study skills. In others, it’s an opportunity to make up credits.

It used to be that we had a relatively low limit on the number of credits students could bring back from leave or suspension. I’d swear it was no more than two courses. That’s a policy that needed to be changed. Amazingly, I think it was [8]. At least we have new information about it in the student handbook.

The number of credits allowed to transfer while withdrawn, on suspension, and/or on leave from the College is subject to the maximum allowable transfer credits for first-time, first-year students and transfer students. (See above Transfer Policy) Studies to be undertaken elsewhere must be approved in advance by the student’s adviser and by the Registrar, or credits will not be accepted. Catalog descriptions for such courses must accompany the Transfer Course Approval Form when submitted to the Registrar’s office for approval. [9]

Should the courses be approved in advance? Once again, there are good reasons to do so. It keeps the student in touch with the College and their advisor. It helps ensure that students take courses that will count toward graduation. But it would be nice if we more explicitly allowed exceptions. That is, while I’m pretty sure that we allow exceptions with the approval of CAS or the Dean, the language could read must normally be approved in advance.

And there we are. Four policies that I worry interfere with student wellness and that I would like us to revisit. It appears we’ve addressed one of the four. That’s great news. We may even have addressed two of the four; I’m not sure what expectations of students returning from suspension are. But that leaves two policies worth revisiting.

Postscript: While I began this musing with an expectation that I would not be able to consider multiple sides of these policies, I found that I could reflect on various issues. Still, I know that there are issues that I have not considered. I look forward to hearing other perspectives on these issues.

[1] I think it’s available on the Web. But the link that Google provided did not work.

[2] Here’s one.

For example, Economic Advisors in tandem with advisors from SFU student central come into one of the required classes for [the] Economics major, and speak to students about the options available to them, in the case that they are not successful in the course.

I’d rather see them provide resources to ensure that all students can be successful in the course or to reflect more clearly on why students are not being successful.

Here’s another,

In addition, preparation courses were added in the first and second years that provide specific foundational content that directly feeds into challenging higher level courses with high failure rates.

Shouldn’t majors already be designed so that the foundational material required in the upper-level courses are covered in the earlier courses?

[3] And, if I recall correctly, without any faculty-wide discussion.

[4] Many years ago, I started distributing the first take-home exam in CSC151 in the third week of the semester because it gave students just that sense of rigor. Now that our policies have switched, I’m not as sure that it is necessary.

[5] Best practices and such.

[6] I usually tell them that most employers and graduate schools understand that life happens and even appreciate that students are will to make a decision about balance or the ability to succeed. I also let them know that their advisors will likely be willing to write letters that explain just that.

[7] I haven’t seen such a letter recently. It may be that the policy has changed. I’m reflecting on the policy I know.

[8] What’s amazing is not that I think, but that the policy was changed.

[9] I found that text at Given the way the College treats Web pages, I will guess that they link will break within the next year.

Version 1.0 of 2018-08-04.