News | Academics

Despite guidelines, varied requirements affect rigor of Core classes

When most Columbia College students were in the middle of their Literature Humanities midterm last semester, those in a handful of classes were not.

Some instructors do not require an in-class midterm, despite the grading guidelines prescribed by the Committee on the Core—a group of faculty members, administrators, and student representatives responsible for all matters regarding the Core Curriculum. These expectations are given to instructors at the beginning of each semester, but Core administrators do not prohibit faculty members from deviating from them.

For Lit Hum, the general requirement standards consist of 20 percent participation, 30 percent papers, 15 percent midterm, and 25 percent final. But because these guidelines are not explicitly enforced, actual grading breakdowns differ—some instructors base half of a student’s grade on participation, and some eliminate in-class exams entirely

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Margaret Corn / Staff Designer

These differences in expectations can result in inconsistencies in the overall rigor across the sections. Additionally, although students are required to take Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization, they do not have a choice in instructor—a distinction that separates Core courses from others.

While for other courses, students can switch sections based on reviews of course rigor and assigned workload, students are assigned their Core instructors and must coordinate a switch with other students if they wish to change sections.

The committee has identified this lack of standardization as an issue and has initiated discussions about the possibility of grade variability, according to Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum Roosevelt Montás.

“These are variabilities that are inherent in the University in general,” Montás said. “What we are looking at is trying to quantify how much that variability is and to see if we should take some steps in trying to minimize that.”

Spectator requested grade distribution data for the most recent Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization sections, but Columbia College declined to make this information available.

But faculty members and administrators argue that instructor autonomy is an essential component of the Core and is crucial in attracting faculty members to teach a curriculum in which they do not get to design the syllabus.

Some faculty members acknowledged that they purposefully deviate from the standard guidelines. For Contemporary Civilization, the guidelines for the course’s instructors are even more flexible than Lit Hum, as there is no set final exam to be distributed across the sections.

Lit Hum instructor Konstantia Zanou said she assigns 40 percent of a student’s grade to participation because she values discussion in a literature class and does it to provoke students to talk.

“I want it to be a seminar,” Zanou said. “[Having a discussion based class] is one of my guiding principles.”

But classes like hers differ from classes such as the Lit Hum section of Olivia Pollack, CC ’20, in which her instructor does not distribute initial percentages for each assignment, such as 15 percent for the midterm or 25 percent for the final. Rather, Pollack’s professor forgoes the midterm and gives a curtailed, hour-long final, electing rather to weigh assignments based on each student’s highest level of achievement.

“I think he aims to create a stress-free Literature Humanities environment, which is very uplifting and encouraging,” Pollack said. “It encourages everyone [in the class] to do their best work.”

Although all Lit Hum faculty members are to administer the same final exam, it is up to the instructor’s discretion how much of the assessment they wish to administer.

While Ned Grady, CC ’20, said his professor maintained the same 15 passage identification questions as on the original final distributed by the Committee on the Core, he found it unfair that students in other classes could take abridged versions of the same test.

“I just don’t understand why there are standardized exams but there’s not standardized grading,” Grady said. “I feel like it kind of defeats the purpose of having a Core class if it’s not graded the same, because then is it really a common experience that all students go through?”

But given the varying pedagogical backgrounds of Core instructors, who range from English professors to Slavic studies experts to historians, Core administrators ultimately believe that course teachers should maintain the freedom to run their own classes, an independence that standardizing Core requirements could restrict.

Zanou would oppose standardization in the Core, “because if it’s a standardization where it wouldn’t fit me and wouldn’t fit the students, that would be terrible,” she said.

The ability for instructors to construct their own assignments to accompany the prescribed reading syllabus is a draw for faculty members to teach the Core, and further regulating the curriculum could bring down faculty participation, which currently consists of less than a quarter of total Core instructors.

“To teach in the Core is to compromise a significant portion of your faculty autonomy, which is something faculty are entitled to,” Montás said.

Despite the academic freedom that faculty autonomy permits within the two courses, the discrepancies across sections ultimately lead to inequity in the student experience.

“I’m trying to figure out if the system is fair or not, because I think the system is unfair,” Amaya Mangaldas, CC’19, said. “If we’re doing one course, and it’s called CC, and everyone’s supposed to do it, then I feel like that workload should be the same across the board rather than not.”

yeewen.new@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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