Students Grade Dartmouth Departments

In a move to further empower students, the Student Assembly released their “letter grades” for academic departments on Tuesday. The SA report grades departments using three criteria: major-to-faculty ratio (20%), class size (30%), and a student survey (50%). The Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literature received the highest grade. The Biology department received the lowest grade.

The logic of the results is quite flawed. By considering major-to-faculty ratio (the lowest ratios score the highest), the results penalize the most popular departments. The report admits this, but does nothing to rectify it. Just because the biology department, for instance, has a large number of majors does not mean it is inferior to less sizable and popular departments.

The weight on class size is also somewhat disturbing�again this benefits the smaller departments. An introductory Latin course may have, at most, twenty students while an intro biology course may have over 100 students. This does not mean that the bio course is worse than the Latin course, just that more students are interested in the material.

As for the student survey, it seems to amount to a mere popularity contest. Any student who is dissatisfied with his choice of major will undoubtedly give his department a poor rating. This again benefits the smaller departments. A student who majors in economics is far more likely to be disappointed with his major than a classics major. Students become econ majors so that they can graduate and become I-bankers for a Wall Street firm; classics majors (read Greek and Latin students) wish to read Plato in the original. Obviously, there will be a difference.

The central problem comes with the empirical method of analyzing departments. Why give them letter grades. What does it mean when the AMELL department gets an ‘A’ and the Bio department gets a ‘C?’ Not much. A comparative study of all the departments at Dartmouth is useless and, moreover, meaningless.

The SA’s Undergraduate Teaching Initiative prompted this study. Unfortunately, it is just a popularity contest and more feel-good politics for the undergrads.