Vanderbilt’s website has an “about” section which prominently displays a quote that is likely meant to encapsulate the spirit of our university. It reads:
“Over the years, we’ve discovered that you can’t contain a neuroscientist’s love of dance any more than a mechanical engineer’s fascination with pre-Columbian tribes. We have long encouraged students to study across disciplines, then bring them together to address problems from new perspectives. It’s a school of thought that favors collaboration over competition in true Vanderbilt fashion.”
It’s a beautiful quote, and largely rings true across campus. I have a suggestion, however, that I believe (if implemented) would further this commitment to intellectual curiosity: Vanderbilt should allow students in the College of Arts & Science to take one of their AXLE courses on a pass/fail basis.
AXLE, or “Achieving Excellence in Liberal Education,” requires Arts & Science students to take courses across a broad range of disciplines. This is a fundamental piece of what makes Vanderbilt a liberal arts university. Personally, I’ve loved my experience taking classes in subjects like Greek civilization, philosophy and art history and believe that the opportunity to step out of my academic comfort zone (I’m a math and econ double major) has facilitated personal growth.
I do believe, though, that there is a problem with this system. Some students view AXLE as a nuisance and choose to take only “easy” classes or courses that play to their academic strengths. This is in part because students in the College of Arts and Science are not allowed to take courses on a pass/fail graded basis if they want them to count for major/minor requirements or AXLE requirements. Not being allowed to take pass/fail courses for your major makes sense: you should be evaluated on your focus of study. However, not being allowed to take any pass/fail courses for AXLE does not. At least, not if the purpose of AXLE truly is to promote curiosity, “encourage students to study across disciplines” and to “favor collaboration over competition.”
GPA matters, and taking hard classes that you’re interested in often isn’t pragmatic.
Let me give a brief example. AXLE dictates that students must take three courses in Math and Natural Sciences. Some students struggle with math and science and are intimidated by the prospect of taking graded courses in these subjects. Thus, at present, some students fill these MNS credits with courses like General Logic, “football physics” or “baby bio.” Students purposefully take “easy” courses because they are worried about their GPA. That’s not excellence in liberal education. That’s “let me take the easiest class I can find so it doesn’t ruin my GPA.”
GPA matters, and taking hard classes that you’re interested in often isn’t pragmatic. The reality all students face is that one’s admittance into graduate school, or ability to secure a dream job or chances of securing a prestigious fellowship nearly always requires having a high GPA. And so, when posed with the question “should I engage my interest in statistics by taking a course on it (knowing full well I may get a B or below) or should I take General Logic and not risk hurting my chance at a prestigious job or getting accepted into law school,” many students reasonably elect to do the latter.
Liberal education is a beautiful thing. Anxiety about doing poorly in a class that doesn’t come naturally to you and screwing up your future prospects, however, is not so beautiful. What’s more, that same anxiety tends to crush curiosity. This is especially true for students who, possibly because of their family’s socioeconomic status, see college as an investment towards a more stable financial future and are relying on a high GPA to help achieve that future.
One might counter that A&S students can take courses pass/fail outside of AXLE and their majors and minors – in other words, that students already have this opportunity. Let’s examine that claim. A typical A&S student has, say, 14 required AXLE classes and two majors (or maybe one major and two minors). Some students have more requirements than this. At approximately 33 hours/major, 18 hours/minor and three hours/AXLE class, that’s around 110 hours that absolutely cannot be taken pass/fail. When you consider that many students bring in at least ten hours of AP credit and that no courses taken abroad can be counted for AXLE, we very quickly hit the 120 hours required for graduation.
It’s very common among conversations with A&S students to hear statements like, “I’ve always been curious about neuroscience but just couldn’t take the GPA hit.” Personally, I’ve always wanted to take organic chemistry but knew the grade I would get wouldn’t be worth it. I find that troubling. What’s more, the other colleges at Vanderbilt seem to have figured this out. Students in Peabody and Engineering are allowed to take liberal arts requirements pass/fail, and they have no cap on AP credits. This gives them even more room for exploration.
We can create a whole culture around this one AXLE pass/fail class.
Say we implement my suggestion. What’s the worst side effect that could result from this change? Maybe we see students use this policy as a chance to focus on major/minor classes and not devote their full efforts to this pass/fail class. However, that’s not the typical A&S student I know. On the contrary, they are impassioned, curious and eager for intellectual stimulation. After all, each of us was accepted to and decided to attend an elite liberal arts institution. So sure, we might allow a few students to slack off in one class. But we might also allow a great deal of students to discover a new passion, engage with a part of the academic experience previously left unexplored to them and challenge themselves with a course that pushes their intellectual limits. I, for one, find that a welcome tradeoff.
Imagine the opportunity this presents to the A&S community. We can create a whole culture around this one AXLE pass/fail class. We can establish the precedent that you can use this pass/fail class in order to challenge yourself. This policy makes sense, is perfectly aligned with our core values and has little to no downside. And so, the question now becomes – what does this university want to incentivize? Is it grades, or is it curiosity? We should recognize the need for the former, but celebrate and cherish the latter. By ingraining this change in our curriculum, we can better nurture this curiosity.
Tim Rice is a senior in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at email@example.com.