Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Blogosphere Roundup: Q Difficulty Ratings

I'm planning to compose a much longer post on the recent announcement that the Harvard Q Guide will no longer report course difficulty ratings, but in the mean time, I've rounded up a few of the insightful writers I've found around the web, with excerpts and links through to the full sources.

The Harvard Crimson: Q Guide Will No Longer Display Difficulty Score, Harris Says

A straight news piece, the Crimson article is noteworthy for including several quotes from professors defending the change:

Richard F. Thomas (Prof. Classics)

"[Difficulty ratings] could create an impulse in the instructor to make the course easier in order to attract students."

Mark C. Elliott (Prof. Chinese History)

"[Difficulty rating] is not really the most important thing about a class."

"One hopes that after everything that our students have done up to the time they get admitted to Harvard ... they recognize the value in a challenging curriculum and in taking courses that may not be an easy A, but will add in some way to their intellectual enrichment or development."

Ore Babarinsa '15 (comment on the Crimson article)

For once, sense is spoken in the comments section of the Crimson; my friend and classmate Ore speaks to a student perspective on the necessity of difficulty ratings:

I'm sorry, but the stated rationale given is completely disconnected from any understanding of how, or why many students desperately need that difficulty rating for courses on the Q quide. I've been in the hospital because of having too much academic work on my plate at Harvard, and I think the administrators need to understand that students need to be able to adequately balance the difficulty of their course-load, whether that be because they want to take one, extremely difficult course for which time estimates can literally be over 20 hours a week sometimes (for example, CS161), or simply because they have jobs, extra-curriculars, family, thesis-writing or other things they'd like to focus on during a given term.

Do these administrators really think that undergrads are utterly adverse to any sort of a challenge, and thus can only be duped into taking difficult courses because they won't know hard it will be? ... If they think so little of us, they should likely have never admitted us in the beginning.

Prof. Harry Lewis: Harvard Stops Offering (Information About) Easy Courses

Harry Lewis '68, former Dean of Harvard College and current DUS of Computer Science, gets right down to business ripping Dean Harris a new -- I mean, offering insight from his unique background and experience:

Since when does a university decide what information to provide students based on our institutional judgment of whether they are likely to use it well or badly? Our entire purpose is to teach students how to use information, not to curate it for them so they won't misuse it.
Imagine if the librarians or the health service started to go down the road toward curating information we feared people might misuse.

All of which gets us back to first principles. If the worry is that too many students are opting to take easy courses, why don't we try teaching fewer easy courses? That would seem to be educationally more constructive than managing the information about them.
Today again, if there are any calls to the faculty to stop teaching easy courses, I haven't heard them. ... Not one word has been whispered to the faculty at large that we are being too soft on our students, and we shouldn't be trolling for enrollments by lightening our workload.

And the money quote:

With all our discussions about honor this year, wouldn't it have been more honorable to call on the faculty to stop teaching easy courses than to pretend we could prevent students from finding out about them?

Connor Harris '16: Regarding recently announced changes to the Q guide

In an open letter to Dean Harris, my friend and classmate Connor doesn't hesitate to speak truth to power, explaining not only why difficulty ratings are necessary, but also other ways that the Committee might address their race-to-the-bottom concerns:

A few other students and I are working with the Committee on General Education in their review of the Gen Ed program, where the problems identified by the faculty seem the most severe. We have discussed the ways in which the current program promotes low standards; we have also mooted several possible reforms of the program which would obviate students' incentives to find the easiest courses.

I believe that fixes like these, understanding why students look for the least demanding courses and designing curricular changes to guide them otherwise, would be optimal. Leaving in place a curricular design that encourages students to search for the least rigorous courses in certain departments, only to set up roadblocks to that search, will make students hostile to the administration; given the number of e-mails asking about the most painless ways to fulfill Gen Ed requirements that I have received over large mailing lists, I doubt that it will stop them from finding the least rigorous courses if they so desire.

Satire V: In Streamlining Bid, Dean Jay Harris Announces Removal of Course Titles from Q Guide

As usual, Harvard's only actually-funny satire magazine gets it spot-on:

Cambridge, MA — As part of a broader effort to "make the Q a more accurate, sophisticated, and helpful mechanism for learning about and choosing courses," Dean Jay Harris today announced that course titles would no longer be included in the Q Guide. The announcement was buried in the middle of a longer speech on the impact of Harvard’s yard fertilizer choices on matriculation rates. The decision to change the system was made in September, but the formal announcement had been delayed until the Faculty Council felt it was appropriate.

The fact that anyone who could possibly be impacted in any way by this decision would be off campus during the announcement was "not a factor in our decision-making," according to a spokesperson for Dean Harris.