Ecology & Evolutionary Biology 110b, “Environmental Science,” was easily the worst class I have taken at Yale. It wasn’t just Robert Dorit’s inept lecturing or excessive preaching of socialism. While these were probably enough to doom the course, its fate was sealed by the apathy of the students.
If you asked the members of the overflowing lecture and sections why they were taking the course, at least half would give you the same answer: “I needed a Group IV, and this was the only Credit/D course that fit my schedule.” I know this because I was one of those students, and having been part of the Credit/D/Fail problem, I want to become part of the solution.
Credit/D/Fail policy was originally instituted in an attempt to encourage students to explore new fields without fear of adverse consequences for their employment and graduate school opportunities. This feature continues to be the policy’s greatest advantage. Yet the Credit/D/Fail option condones mediocrity, rewarding A work and C- work with the same mark on the student’s transcript. What is one student’s opportunity for adventure becomes another’s incentive for complacency.
Yesterday’s masthead editorial (“Cleaning up the Credit/D/Fail mess,” 4/16) was correct that Credit/D/Fail’s disadvantages outweigh its advantages. Less-than-serious students gravitate toward classes offered Credit/D/Fail, decreasing those classes’ quality of student participation and written work and detracting from the classroom experience of all students.
Understandably, those professors for those courses stop offering classes Credit/D/Fail, resulting in a greater concentration of “slackers” in the remaining Credit/D/Fail classes and pressuring those professors in turn to remove the Credit/D/Fail option. While the caliber of student work and participation eventually returns to normal, the opportunity for exploration disappears, and the Credit/D/Fail system loses its value.
In an effort to retain Credit/D/Fail’s advantages while eliminating its drawbacks, I would suggest a new policy: replacing students’ Credit/D/Fail options with an equal number of opportunities to take courses on a “non-major” basis.
Students electing the non-major option for a given course would receive a letter grade accompanied by a mark of “non-major” on the transcript section where “Credit/D/Fail” currently appears. While all student grades would be awarded according to the traditional five-letter system, non-major enrollees would be graded separately from those enrolled for normal credit.
In large introductory classes where grades are typically “scaled” based on problem sets and exams, non-major enrollees would receive grades based on their performance relative to fellow non-majors, whereas students enrolled for normal credit would be judged against one another.
In smaller courses where papers factor into students’ grades, non-majors’ written work would be graded on a rubric less rigorous than that used for normal students. The non-major option thus retains an incentive to submit quality work while protecting less experienced students from the competition common within majors.
As is obvious, the non-major option would not be open to students currently majoring in a course’s field. In addition, to discourage students from abusing the system by delaying their choice of major in an effort to obtain better grades, a course’s non-major electors who later choose to major in its field would not be allowed to count the course toward their major’s requirements.
This system is not right for every course. Many professors, especially those who lead smaller lectures and seminars, will doubtless object to the “double standard” described above, even if that standard is noted and explained on transcripts. In many cases, they have good reason to do so: some classes are simply not meant for exploration. Advanced courses are meant to call for specialized and detailed investigation of their subject, and for these courses the only appropriate standard is one that assesses whether the student has paid the subject the rigorous attention it deserves. Professors are best able to determine how much focus their courses demand, and Yale should continue to offer them the option of exempting their courses from the non-major policy.
By restoring the letter system’s distinction between students who dedicate themselves to their studies and those who do just enough to get by, the non-major policy would restore the incentive to submit quality work, in addition to having the likely effect of improved attendance and participation. At the same time, removing the competition from students experienced — and often obsessed — in their majors would allow for serious exploration by students genuinely seeking experience outside their primary field of study.
Ned Andrews is a junior in Saybrook College.