Faculty Votes to Limit Independant Study Contracts
DROPPING ENROLLMENT NUMBERS PROMPT ADMINISTRATORS TO RE-THINK THE EVERGREEN CURRICULUM, BUT A RECENT DECISION TO LIMIT CONTRACT CREDITS SPARKS DEBATE
BY EMILY McHUGH
In January, the Evergreen faculty voted to limit the number of credits individual students can earn from Independent Learning Contracts (ILCs) to 48 from an originally unlimited number. Though the proposal was widely supported, some faculty and students feel it represents a more complex shift in the institution’s identity as an increasingly dire budget crisis forces the college to reimagine itself in order to compete in the market environment.
The proposal was first set in motion at the faculty retreat in the fall of 2012, where faculty were presented with a random sampling of student contracts to evaluate. According to Ruth Hayes, an Evergreen professor and co-chair of the Long Range Curriculum Disappearing Task Force (DTF) charged with drafting the proposal, the sampling of contracts revealed a “consistent lack of specificity around what the student was undertaking and a lack of specific learning objectives.”
“There were contracts that appeared to be getting credit for just living life,” said Hayes. “That led us to do a lot of questioning regarding how to assess whether a contract is really college-level work, which is important.”
Over the last few years, steadily dropping enrollment numbers caused college administrators to take a critical look at the college’s curriculum. At the same faculty retreat, faculty read through what the proposal deems “excruciating ‘why I didn’t come to Evergreen feedback’” and analyzed possible aspects of the school’s curriculum that contribute to the college’s reputation as a “slacker school.” Hayes said that poor quality contracts were a focus of that discussion.
Among examples of negative feedback from potential students, one student said, “Almost everything I read about Evergreen, both here on the Facebook wall and online, says the school is no good and education here will get you no where.”
Another such example reads, “From what I have gleaned, Evergreen has a reputation of a slacker school for people who are afraid of the rigor of other institutions.”
According to Hayes, these examples exposed to faculty the negative reputation Evergreen has within Washington state, although she added that the college’s reputation remains strong in the national spectrum.
In an effort to discuss ways to improve the quality of an Evergreen education and the school’s reputation, the Long Range Curriculum DTF was formed in the spring of 2012, including a fluctuating number of faculty that peaked at 18 and bottomed at 13 throughout the drafting process.
To retrieve ideas and criticism from the student community, the DTF formed student focus groups and surveyed them about their Evergreen experience. Hayes said, some students found learning in programs “more satisfying” than independent study.
Numbers provided by Evergreen’s Institutional Research Assessment indicate that only an average of 60 out of 1,100 students per year graduate with more than 48 credits earned from ILCs. As such, the faculty decision to limit credits to 48 will only affect an average 4 to 5 percent of the student population.
Music and consciousness professor Terry Setter, who was one of only seven faculty to vote against the initiative, said he is concerned the newly imposed limit will be extremely detrimental to those students who may not have the resources to attend campus daily and would not be able to receive a bachelor’s degree without extensive independent work. Setter said that the root of poor academic work seen in contracts is not due to the unlimited number of contracts students were formerly permitted to pursue, but is rather linked to the elimination of a contract pool, placing faculty under pressure to take on excessive workloads.
“I believe that Evergreen advertises contracts—look at the cover page of our website, it says ‘Education your way,’” he said. “What do you think that implies to the student? And then I get all these students who come in and say, ‘I can create my own degree program, but no one will take my contract because they’re too busy.’ There seems to be some disconnect between how we advertise how we are different and how we actually implicate that. There is a rhetoric of ‘design your own future, your own education,’ and that’s a beautiful concept, but I believe it’s becoming harder for students to do that.”
Setter said the essential elimination of a contract pool, a collection of faculty who volunteer to take solely contracts in a given quarter, has forced teachers to take on contracts only when their programs do not reach full enrollment in order to fulfill the 25 students to 1 faculty expectation. As a result, Setter said, professors are taking on an excessive amount of work and are not always able to provide sufficient instruction to their contract students.
Hayes disagrees that independent work is truly at the core of an Evergreen education, emphasizing her belief that students who take on more than 48 credits worth of contract work are neglecting the community-oriented study essential to the Evergreen experience.
“We like to say our curriculum is based on the idea of the program, the learning community, interdisciplinary education, etc. And so when a student is able to graduate with 176 credits from independent work, which was the highest we’ve seen, well, that’s a shocking number.”
Evergreen student Tom Carlson, who also attended the Long Range Curriculum meetings, conferred that the cap on ILCs may serve to enrich the educational experience of students who, without a limit, may have relied entirely on the college’s independent learning model without fully experiencing the community structured learning core to the college’s philosophy.
“Everyone knows about Evergreen’s sort of whimsical reputation and the reality is that there are plenty of people that just ride the contract train the whole way through,” Carlson said.
Hayes said the Provost’s disapproval of a contract pool stems from the number of students wanting seats in programs, who might be denied if too many faculty are involved in exclusively sponsoring contracts.
While the initiative proposes an appeal process for students who want to take more than 48 credits worth of contract work, that process has yet to be codified and jurisdiction will fall to administrative bodies outside of the Long Range Curriculum DTF, such as the agenda committee.
Setter said he was concerned that this faculty decision is only one in an ongoing trend to conventionalize the college’s curriculum due to fear dropping of enrollment numbers.
“I believe that the institution has been finding itself moving towards more conventional structures. I believe that Evergreen has moved towards greater conventionality and I think we are feeling pressures to do that which are in part coming from fears of our enrollment numbers dropping and putting us in danger of not having enough students,” he said.
Evergreen student Dante Garcia, who attended some of Long Range Curriculum DTF meetings, said he tends to sympathize with the college faculty who are concerned the ILC model sometimes enables poorly researched, “slapped-together” work to receive college credit.
“A lot of the time ILCs become sort of a safety valve,” he said. “[Earlier in the college’s history,] there might have actually been some more premeditated thought as to what an ILC can be, whereas today it sometimes seems faculty are just looking to pick up a whole bunch of stuff or students are just looking to scrap something together.”
But Garcia, who has immersed himself in a wide-spectrum of the conversations ongoing amongst faculty and administrators, also said the college is at a critical moment in its history as an institution, due to bleak enrollment and retention figures—a loss of 398 students over the last few years—as well as a $10 million loss in state funding from the, inducing a “reflective state” as faculty attempt to navigate through those issues and make Evergreen more appealing to prospective students.
In relation to the DTF’s initiative, Garcia criticized the school for basing it’s strategy “mainly around enrollment rather than the student experience.”
“The faculty have a lot of power in the institution, so when it comes to the concern around ILCs, as a student, I would advocate that they actually help us develop our capacities to flourish in an ILC or an environment of complete academic freedom rather than trying to create a scarcity for us to act rationally around something like this,” Garcia said. “I also just think that the curriculum that happens here on campus is awesome and if you’re going to go here, I think you should experience it.”
In lieu of the college’s currently poor retention rates, which have caused extensive faculty reflection in order to adapt to student needs, Garcia said that now is a crucial time for students to voice their concerns in order to see palpable change.
“[Retention] says something about the quality or the experience of this institution and are people finding it actually a meaningful one?” he said.