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What's up with P/D/F?

A conversation with Ben Dinovelli, Ye Eun Charlotte Chun, Bennett McIntosh, and Prianka Misra

Prianka Misra (PM): So I can understand why some might have an issue with PDF option because they might think that it detracts from the overall academic experience of the Princeton student, in the sense that he/she might feel like they can simply do enough work in the class to “get by.” On the other hand, it might imply that you benefit more from the learning experience by not concentrating on grades, and by just absorbing the material.

Ye Eun Charlotte Chun (YC): Ok, so I can see merit to that argument but I think what actually ends up happening is that tons of students who are legitimately interested in a subject or class end up dropping it because they just can’t afford to do all the work for all the classes they want to enroll in. I understand that there’s an opportunity cost involved while focusing on a particular field, but if I want to take a philosophy class and don’t want to risk my GPA on something so completely out of my realm, what’ll end up happening is me graduating without ever having taken a philosophy class my entire life.

PM: So do you argue that the PDF option allows students to explore more academic options? I think that it’s important to be able to experiment with your classes, so having the PDF option is great--- having too much of it, on the other hand, can be troublesome.

Ben Dinovelli (BD): I think that you bring up an excellent point about those who don’t want to risk their GPA, but are still interested. In a rapidly changing world, where computers are becoming more and more prevalent, it is important to prepare our students for the technology that we will most likely be using on a daily basis in our future occupations. At the same time, I completely understand the school’s original decision to rescind the PDF option. According to COS 126 Professor, Robert Sedgewick, the reason that the option to PDF for COS 126 (in addition to COS 217, 226) was a lack of resources. While the student size has grown above 5x in the last 5 years, the faculty has not. Due to a lack of resources, the focus was placed on students who would be most likely to care about the class - and the option to PDF was used as a sign of one’s dedication to the course. However, instead of using the PDF option as a measure of dedication, I believe there should be a cap placed on class size. Like Charlotte mentioned, people from multiple disciplines may express a legitimate interest. Limiting the cap size makes it fair for all students.

Bennett McIntosh (BM): While I appreciate the desire to keep an introductory programming course open to all comers, I think the elephant in the room here is COS 109 (Yes, “Emails for females.”) In it’s current state, it may not be the most stellar or rigorous introduction to computing, but the focus of the course -- on the societal importance of computers, the policies and controversies surrounding their use, et cetera, is pretty important and very cool. I’d argue that such a survey course is more in-line with the overall demands of a liberal arts education, and that, all else equal, a COS 109 student would have far more to think about regarding, say PRISM and NSA’s other exploits revealed this summer. That said, a course description which includes the phrase “what programming is and why it is hard” hardly inspires confidence. If the COS department and students paid more attention to 109, there might not be as much of a resource strain on 126. The same goes for intro classes in general -- the intro course that students majoring in the topic are going to want is pretty different than the one for those who definitely aren’t.

BD: As a student who is both currently enrolled in “Emails for Females” and planning on taking COS 126 in the future, I think it’s important to note that many are willingly taking COS 126 because they want an education in programming that they haven’t experienced prior. While I understand the necessity of keeping certain classes non-PDF, which normally apply to smaller seminars, I think more general classes that affect more students should have the option of PDF - so as not to deter students to try something new.

YC: Hm, well there’s also been the issue of PDFing language classes, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. Do you guys have a particular opinion? On one hand, I think it’s great to learn a new language without having the pressures of grade deflation on you, in fact for many this is the reason why they choose to quit learning a language they would’ve loved to learn in a different environment. On the other hand, I’m not sure if PDFing language classes will add students who truly want to learn the language and are passionate about it, or will simply lead to sloppy work and ill-attended classes.

PM: I actually think that PDFing language classes (especially higher level ones) could be okay. Although it’s important to get grades on assignments to assess how well you’ve mastered the language, it’s not always important to get a letter grade. You pretty much only need to know whether you can sink or float in terms of basic communication. This would allow you to know whether you’re geared up for further instruction.

BM: There’s a massive difference between the harm a non-committed student can have on a 300-person lecture and on a 10-person seminar, where everyone needs to be actively engaged in the language just to get by. Especially for new languages, where education depends on constant practice, not having the grade pressure would be extremely detrimental to both the PDFing student and the seminar. Once you get to a higher-level course, though, where people have perhaps “proved” their commitment to the language more, I think PDF is more reasonable.

BD: I think the lesson that we can get out of this is that the ability to PDF is a valuable part of our liberal arts education. By being able to experiment and learn new things that we wouldn’t have studied otherwise (because of a fear of ruining our GPA), the PDF option has allowed us to expand our horizons. In doing so, we are able to contribute more to society, and thus fulfill Woodrow Wilson’s words of serving in the nations service and the service of all nations.

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