The Tufts Daily published an editorial on Monday suggesting that giving distribution requirements a pass/fail option will improve students’ experiences. No, it won’t.
They claim that people err away from difficult classes because they don’t wish to damage their GPA, and instead of taking Intro to Chem they take Plants and Humanity. Here’s the problem: If someone is trying to avoid work, passing Intro to Chem will be much harder than passing Plants and Humanity. This will just allow students to ignore their distribution requirements even more. Why should we care about that? Because Tufts is a liberal arts institution, and we should aim to have a genuine understanding of many disciplines, not allowing us to find loopholes to make these requirements as easy as possible.
More importantly, distribution requirements allow first years and sophomores to find potential majors and minors. Most students come in to Tufts undecided; I took Intro to Cognitive Brain Sciences (CBS) to fulfill my natural sciences requirement. Had taking it pass/fail been an option to still gain distribution credit, I would have. It would have made me less likely to major in CBS, both because I would have been less engaged in the class, and even had I paid enough attention to realize I was interested, I would have had to retake the class not pass/fail to gain credit for the major.
This would be especially problematic for non-male identifying students. Why? Because, as Professor Lenore Cowen told the Daily in 2006, many women “stumbled” upon the field from an introductory course. Considering classes like Comp 11 are considered particularly daunting classes by many former students, it’s likely that many taking it would opt for the pass/fail option. While reducing stress for some students, it also means the ones who are interested are cut off from the major, unless they choose to take the class again next semester for a letter grade, and most likely losing potential non-male students going into Comp Sci and other STEM fields. It’s similar to how female applicants are likely to wait until they’re 100 percent qualified, while men will apply after meeting 60 percent of the qualifications: For students suffering from impostor syndrome (which is most of us during our first year, and especially non-cis-male students), we are likely to not consider ourselves ready to take on difficult classes. Allowing students to take these classes pass/fail gives a fallback that many will take advantage of, and in turn, take themselves out of the running to become a part of that major.
We want to encourage students to fully engage with classes, not give them more opportunities to take an easier route. The idea that allowing students to take a class pass/fail will make them engage more is ludicrous — I don’t deny that it would make the requirements less stressful for students, nor that some students would perform better with the option. But on the whole, we’d be making our education less well-rounded and giving more ways for students to work around the requirements without fully engaging. We’d also be cutting out a key way that many students — especially non-male ones — find their way into new majors and minors they weren’t planning on choosing before coming to Tufts. There are ways to improve learning at Tufts, but giving a way out of fully engaging with our distribution requirements is not one of them.