Editorial: Standardizing independent work and considering dual concentrations| Dec 8, 2016
Continuing our analysis of the General Education Task Force’s recommendations, the Board will comment on the fourth recommendation proposing the standardization of junior independent work across departments through “a credit-bearing junior methods seminar” and a “single, spring JP that counts for 2.0 units of credit.” In addition, we will consider a proposition from the Humanities Task Force calling for the creation of dual concentrations. The Board supports part of the first proposal; we concur with the authors of the report that students are more attentive and dedicated in credit-bearing courses. However, considering the variability between JP requirements across departments, it should be up to the discretion of each department to determine the value of assigning one JP per semester. Furthermore, we urge the Humanities Task Force to clarify their position on creating dual concentrations to allow us to articulate a concise position on the recommendation.
While the University’s first-year writing seminar prepares students in the “fundamental strategies of academic writing,” the General Education Task Force argues that the seminar lacks focus within “particular conventions and methods” specific to students’ disciplinary concentrations. Despite the fact that a particular student may be competent in writing a strong academic paper following the completion of first-year writing seminar, he or she may not be well instructed on how to adequately construct a discipline-specific argument. The University’s current solution to this problem is the creation of some form of “disciplinary training and mentoring” during junior year. However, each department approaches this challenge in ways that best suit their specific discipline. For example, the politics department requires its students to complete a credit-bearing methods course in the fall term, with a mandatory workshop and plenary section rotating on a biweekly basis. Class participation and completion of assignments account for 60 percent of the student’s final grade. The economics department requires its students to attend some, but not all, lectures on a non-credit basis. Likewise, departments within the sciences provide a breadth of strategies for preparing students to complete independent research. The molecular biology department offers a 1.5 hour-long fall tutorial once a week in which small groups of students “learn to read and analyze critically the primary scientific literature” within the field. The tutorial is followed by completion of a single junior independent research project in the spring term. Finally, students in the computer science department are instructed to sign up for a spring semester independent work seminar at the end of the fall semester.
Despite the structural differences in junior independent work instruction across departments, the Board concurs with the authors of the report that all University students would benefit from the creation of a single credit-bearing methods course for students in their junior year. The proposed course should be credit-based so that students are motivated to be diligent in the completion of their assignments and ultimate finished product: a strong JP. In addition to supporting the creation of such a course, the Board encourages departments to specialize class instruction to match the needs of specific academic tracks. This challenge is present in departments with multiple, distinct academic tracks. Students who are concentrating in politics on the political theory track gain little insight from the quantitative-based instruction provided in the department’s current methods course. Therefore, the Board proposes that in such instances departments make an exception to the standard of mandating all students take an identical credit-bearing methods course. Departments should play an active role in creating curriculum that is not only discipline-specific, but also specific to the individual tracks within each discipline.
The second half of the General Education Task Force’s proposal calls on departments that currently require two JPs to consider the possibility that “their concentrators might be better served by a single, spring JP that counts for 2.0 units of credit.” The Board strongly advocates against this measure. While it may be better suited for some departments such as sociology and anthropology to assign one single spring JP, for the purpose of recognizing and respecting the distinct methodologies and approaches specific to each of the University’s departments, the Board argues that this standard should not be extended to all disciplines. The methodological tools required for independent work vary across departments. For instance, many students concentrating in politics or economics are required to master novel techniques in quantitative analysis that are best executed within a single long-term project. However, independent work within other disciplines such as history or english involves a cumulative understanding of previous knowledge that is more suitable to the completion of multiple independent projects. Moreover, some departments offer two JPs which are drastically different from one another. For instance, third year students in the Wilson School complete independent work for a fall Policy Task Force and a spring Policy Research Seminar. Therefore, the Board recommends that departments retain their own jurisdiction in determining whether to assign one or two JPs for independent work.
Finally, the Board concurs with the the General Education Task Force that dual concentrations would be difficult to integrate within the Princeton curriculum. The Board further emphasizes that given “the importance of the Senior Thesis as the capstone experience for undergraduate students”, allowing students to pursue multiple concentrations would result in a distorted and unfocused thesis. We urge members of the Humanities Task Force to provide further information on the proposed recommendation, specifically on whether students would be permitted to trim off departmental requirements, before the Board can provide a concrete stance on the issue. One solution prior to such revisions might be to allow students to attain minors. The certificate programs currently offered by the University allow for students to both “pursue a special area of interest that closely complements their departmental concentration,” and “pursue intellectual passions” unrelated to their primary field. While the ability to attain an interdisciplinary education is possible within the certificates options currently offered by the University, these programs are specific in their content which ultimately limits students’ flexibility in choosing a secondary or tertiary field of study. Whereas the University does not offer its students the opportunity to minor in Sociology as a general subject matter, the field is broken down into various certificate options such as African American studies or American studies . Furthermore, instead of offering a minor in economics, the University offers separate certificate programs in entrepreneurship and finance. The Board encourages the Humanities Task Force to explore the possibility of allowing students to minor within existing departments, such as sociology and economics, as an alternative to pursuing dual concentrations.
The proposals offered in the fourth recommendation of the General Education Task Force’s report all reflect a general motive of providing students with more specialized instruction during the process of writing a JP, while also attempting to expand the current University-constraints upon pursuing more than one academic concentration. The Board firmly advocates for the department-wide standardization of a credit-bearing methods course during junior year but encourages departments to retain autonomy in deciding the number of JPs to assign to its students. Furthermore, the Board takes a neutral stance on the Humanities Task Force’s proposal to allow for dual concentrations, given the limited details provided within the report. However, the Board does encourage the Task Force to consider the possibility of allowing students to pursue departmental minors as an alternative to dual concentrations.
Connor Pfeiffer ’18 recused himself from the writing of this editorial.
The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief.