Address discrepancies among workloads, grading standards in different first-year Encounters classes

Christopher Hankin

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Whitman College prides itself on an Encounters program that helps to initiate new students and get them up to speed with the expectations that the school holds for writing, reading and critical thinking. Encounters students grapple with difficult texts that will challenge their preconceptions and hopefully expand their minds to a world of new possibilities. Unfortunately Encounters is the source of a lot of stress for some students. Discrepancies in the grading policies and workload expectations create resentment towards the program.

I personally love Encounters. I am not lying when I say that I wake up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday excited to go and discuss whatever our reading was for that day. This is because of the constructive and positive environment fostered in my classroom. Students feel free to share their thoughts on the reading, and we really challenge one another to think critically. We are also led by a phenomenal professor who is incredibly dedicated to our class and the overall mission of the Encounters program. He manages to balance workload and learning in a way that is both challenging and inspiring.

Bayard Blair is a first-year in the Encounters program who is considering a biology major and will hopefully be heading off to medical school after Whitman. He has struggled with the grading standards in his class.

“It seems to me as if the grading is a lot harder in my class than in many others,” said Blair in an email. “I see so many people spending very little time doing work for Encounters and receiving A’s, compared to my class where I see so many people working very hard and not getting the same grades.”

Though everyone at Whitman subscribes to the general philosophy that grades are far less important than learning, sometimes it is hard to focus on the learning if your grade is in jeopardy. This is especially true for students heading off to graduate school and who are genuinely and understandably concerned about their GPAs.

“Some people will have worse grades just because they had a harder professor,” said Blair in his email. “That’s not what shows up on your transcript, though. All that shows up is the grade you got and the class that you took.”

Though Blair recognizes how much he has progressed as both a writer and a thinker, he wishes that his grade reflected that development in the same way that grades do for students in other sections.

“I understood when I came to Whitman that Encounters would not be easy. It just seems that not every professor is pushing their students as hard, and I don’t think my effort and improvement should be minimized by a bad grade on my transcript,” he said.

The purpose of this article is not to complain about how hard Encounters is, but rather to call for a better standardization of the curriculum and grading rubrics between sections. Obviously, expecting teachers to use the same teaching method would take away from the beauty of the program. Getting a unique perspective on the readings from your professor’s area of study is an amazing opportunity.

With that said, there should not be such a significant disparity in the difficulties of various classes. Professors should compare both curricula and grading rubrics in order to make the system fair for all students involved. This would ensure a more equitable standard of both quality and quantity of work.

The inequality in terms of difficulty often makes students prioritize Encounters less than other classes. Students in the “harder” classes might feel cheated, and those in the “easier” classes might feel as though they don’t really need to do the readings. Were the expectations more comparable, students would get more out of reading and discussing the texts. Encounters is an amazing idea in theory, but the implementation of the program leaves something to be desired.

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