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Faculty consider proposal to expand S/U grading in Trinity College for spring semester

<p>The Arts and Sciences Council discussed a proposal to expand S/U grading in the spring semester at their Oct. 22 meeting.&nbsp;</p>

The Arts and Sciences Council discussed a proposal to expand S/U grading in the spring semester at their Oct. 22 meeting. 

For those pining for satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading, keep your fingers crossed: It may be easier to get one of those stress-relieving S’s in the spring in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, with details depending on the department.

The Arts and Sciences Council, Trinity's faculty governance body, reviewed on Thursday a proposal to expand voluntary S/U grading for the spring 2021 semester. If approved, the proposal would allow students to request multiple courses to be S/U without having them count toward the current limit of one voluntary S/U course per semester and four voluntary S/U courses during an undergraduate’s time at Duke. 

Under the proposal, students would have until the end of the third week of classes to opt for S/U, and they would be able to return to a letter grade until four weeks from the last day of classes. S/U courses would carry all curriculum codes, and departments would decide whether these courses count toward major, minor and certificate requirements and associated prerequisites.

“Similar to last spring, we want to provide students with relief options in an attempt to mitigate the inevitable stress they will feel in regards to their grades,” said sophomore Effie Mehbod, a DSG senator for academic affairs and a representative on the Committee on Undergraduate Teaching, Academic Standards and Honors, which designed the proposal. 

The proposed S/U option would only be available to students enrolled in less than five credits. Faculty would have the power to approve or deny a student’s request for S/U grading, and deans would provide “advisory approvals.” 

“We believe that this is the most equitable, as it will serve as a form of relief for students should they feel too overwhelmed by their courses but will still allow them to make progress toward graduation requirements,” Mehbod said. 

The proposal reflects input from deans, the vice provosts, the registrar, student representatives and policies from peer institutions, said Jakob Norberg, associate professor of german studies. 

“You may rest assured that the proposal reflects many weeks of conversations with multiple stakeholders, campus constituencies, and executive officers in the college and across the university,” said José María Rodríguez García, associate professor of romance studies and chair of the council. 

Some members of the council raised concerns about the proposal. 

Professor of Classical Studies Micaela Janan asked why voluntary S/U was chosen instead of a mandatory policy, noting that the latter could be more equitable. 

There was “tremendous pushback” against mandatory S/U grading from faculty, said Connel Fullenkamp, professor of the practice of economics. He added that the “overwhelming majority of students actually preferred letter grades” in the spring, when undergraduate courses moved to default S/U grading because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Concerns were also raised about the role of faculty in approving a student’s request for S/U grading. 

David Malone, professor of the practice of education, said that although he approved of the proposal as a whole, this aspect seemed “more faculty-centric than it’s student-centric.” 

“It’s more teaching-centric than it’s learning centric,” he said, adding that the proposal doesn’t “go far enough in empowering our students and their own self-determination.”

Fullenkamp said the approval powers given to faculty and deans were designed to prevent “gaming” of the system, ensuring that S/U grading would primarily apply to students in particularly difficult circumstances.  

“I’m hoping that if the student really does need to have four courses S/U, it’s because they’re living in terrible circumstances, bad internet, and other types of problems and still trying to make progress to their degrees,” he said. “Those are the types of students that we have in mind … rather than students who are trying to be purely opportunistic.” 

The proposal would leave this fall’s policy on mandatory S/U grading unchanged. The policy allows departments to make grading S/U for individual courses at the 0 to 199 level. These courses still carry Trinity codes and count toward major, minor and certificate requirements and associated prerequisites.

The proposal would also bring changes to the underload policy. Deans can allow students who experience “unusual stress” to underload without counting that toward a student’s limit of two underloads throughout their undergraduate years. 

The Arts and Sciences Council will continue their discussion of the proposal Nov. 12. 

New programs approved

The council also approved a proposal for a new interdepartmental major in visual media studies and computer science and a new minor in computational media in the art, art history, and visual studies major. 

“We wanted to think a little bit more about how we can participate in a larger trend that we’re seeing in U.S. higher education towards having computational media exist in its own right—really, as a growing, coherent set of programs,” Victoria Szabo, research of professor of art, art history and visual studies, said of the IDM at the council’s Oct. 9 meeting, when the proposal was initially discussed.

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