November 3, 2021

LORENZEN & VALDETARO | A Cornell Conversation: Two Columnists Debate Curriculum Reform (3/4)

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Several weeks ago, two opinion columnists got into an argument about curriculum reform at Cornell. They decided to record their disagreement and transcribe it as a discussion column inspired by “The Conversation,” a weekly column between New York Times opinion columnists, Gail Collins and Bret Stephens. Below, Cornell Daily Sun opinion columnists Andrew V. Lorenzen and Giancarlo Valdetaro discuss changes to Cornell’s academic policies. This conversation is divided into four parts to be released each Wednesday for the next week. This is the third installment of A Cornell Conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.  

Giancarlo Valdetaro: You talk about how we shouldn’t stop people from pursuing something they want to when they’re paying this much money.  Should we let someone take 40 credits? Credit limits already exist, but it’s where you choose to put them that reflects your values and the institution’s values. I think it would be much more powerful to make people petition or go through extra hoops if they want to take more than 18 or more than 20 credits. Wherever you set the ceiling, just make sure it’s lower than it is now. If you lower the credit max, that would be more powerful than telling freshmen “Oh no, you shouldn’t overburden yourself because it’ll be bad for your health” when the institution still lets you.

Andrew V. Lorenzen: I think that’s fair. It’s a difficult discussion about where you draw the line. Is it at 22 credits? 25? 30? In my opinion, I think there’s going to be self-selection here. Most students are not going to want to take a ridiculous amount of credits. I don’t think that a student taking 40 credits is something that will realistically happen as a common occurrence. I don’t think that’s an outlier we should be fixated on.

GV: But once again, I think the actual options provided by the institution are a more powerful and more effective way of having people take care of themselves than just basically asking people: “Please don’t get addicted to this stress” when you’re giving them the ability to get addicted to that stress by letting them take as many classes as they want.

AVL: But Giancarlo, let’s say in your world we have a strict credit limit. Let’s say extremely strict — 16 credits. It’s pretty low. And let’s say most students take even less than that, they take between 12 and14 credits. Do you really think students aren’t going to find a way to be stressed? I would argue that they’ll still find a way. It’ll just be moved to other areas. It’ll be extracurricular clubs, which already are extremely cutthroat at Cornell and are extremely time consuming, particularly the ones that are application based. It’s going to be part-time internships on the side now that you can do remote internships. Students can be working a ridiculous amount completely outside of the classroom. You’re not going to stop a student from doing a massive amount of work when that’s how they fundamentally operate. You can’t legislate it out of their system. The way you do that is a cultural and mental health intervention in which you try with the next generation of students to instill in them the notion that it’s simply not a good idea for them to overcommit themselves, and when they do, it’s not going to lead to academic success. So, if it’s at all possible, they should avoid overloading themselves with work.

GV: I just do not have faith in that. And the thing is, a credit limit, or messing with majors or distribution requirements, are the tools the University has that can make an immediate impact in a way that simply asking people not to take more classes wouldn’t. I really do not think that would have an impact because people are overachievers, and unless they are literally never introduced to anyone from years ahead of them, they would be in contact with people who were existing under this prior paradigm.

AVL: I think this really comes down to what trade-offs you’re willing to make. Because the reality is that neither system is going to be perfect. In your system, students will be less overburdened than they are in the status quo, but you will also have a system in which students are less able to pursue disparate academic interests in the level of depth they want. In my system, students probably will have a little more stress than they would in yours because they have the choice and not all students will make the best choices even if you have these cultural/mental health interventions, but you’re also going to have a dynamic where students can study whatever they want to study. In my eyes, if we’re going to continue to spout this motto “Any Person, Any Study,” my system is the one that stays true to that. I think you need to change the identity of the school if you’re going to adopt a system in which we’re dramatically limiting student choices. I just don’t think that’s what Cornell wants. And personally, I wouldn’t have attended this school if they didn’t allow double majors. That was absolutely the first question on my mind when I looked at schools.

GV: I mean, at what cost is my only question… What if there was a limit on how many for-credit classes could be taken, and then you could audit classes after that? Because if the whole thing is about actually learning, then that would seem to satisfy that desire. You can still attend lectures. You can still learn the material. But there would be no motivation to take things just for the certificate.

AVL: Does auditing appear on your transcript?

GV: I guess it could.

AVL: That’s my question. Because yes, of course, if it’s for intellectual curiosity, it doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s on your transcript. But if it’s in a major where certain skills are needed in order to be employable…  For example, let’s say you’re going into the film industry and you want to be a cinematographer. If you have a class that you audited in filmmaking, in production techniques, that will help you if it’s on your transcript whereas if it’s not, it won’t. This would also be the case for computer science with programming classes. So, if it was listed on your transcript and you could audit it, and obviously you’re not doing the same level of work, I think that would be an improvement on that system. I still, personally, wouldn’t support it, but I’d be more amenable to it.

Agree? Disagree? Comments can be sent to [email protected]A Cornell Conversation runs every Wednesday for the next week.