Yesterday, we reviewed the details of the Gaudino option. Here is my critique:

First, the main push — from the sort of smart students who talk with Professor Burger and whine about GPA concerns — is driven by the fear that the B+ they get in some upper level philosophy course is going to keep them from graduating summa cum laude. Instead of caving in to that sort of superficial thinking, Williams should fight it. Just explain (over and over again) that no one will ever care about small differences in GPA, even if it drops you from summa to magna. So, stop being so superficial, silly students! A 0.05 difference in GPA (much greater than the difference that the vast majority of students will ever see from the use of the Gaudino option) will never matter for anything.

Now, as midprof points out, convincing students to worry less about GPA is no easy task. But, as best I can tell, Williams makes little/no effort to do so. Even worse, it excessively worships GPA by, for example, allowing the Valedictorian to speak at Commencement and enforcing GPA minimums for students (in some departments) seeking to write theses. Get rid of this GPA-fetishization and students will worry less about GPA.

End grade inflation by copying the Princeton plan. Get rid of gut courses by requiring departments to only offer courses that count for major credit. Fix these three problems (expectations, inflation and guts) and whatever legitimate issues are associated with GPA-concerns-influencing-course-choice will go away, to whatever extent they can (or should).

Second, Williams already has too many requirements and/or special cases. We should simplify things, not complexify them further. Get rid of them all except for 4 (or more) classes per semester and one (or more) majors. It took me several readings to understand the rules and, even now, I could be mistaken. For example, just how will the College prevent students from “invok[ing] the G–option on a course used to satisfy divisional or other college requirements?” Consider a sophomore selecting a course this fall. It is highly likely that almost any course she picks will be satisfying some requirement just because the College now has so many. So, even if she plans to take more, say, Division I classes next year, she can’t use her Gaudino option for one this year because it is only her third Division I class and three total are required for graduation. If that interpretation is correct, then virtually no sophomore will be able to declare a Gaudino option class this fall. Am I missing something?

Third, beware of abuse. You can’t just take PHIL 315, get a B+ (because Joe Cruz is a hard-ass who doesn’t give everyone an A) and then, after you get your final grade, “invoke” the Gaudion option. Such a simplistic system would have been abused. Instead, you need to “declare” that PHIL 315 is one of your Gaudino classes at the start of the semester. Since you can only declare that twice, abuse is limited.

But abuse is still inevitable! Keep in mind the Gaudino option is not even allowed for the majority of classes (fall first year, spring senior year, major classes, requirements, et cetera). So, instead of thinking about this as (possibly) affecting only 2 out of 32 classes, it is more like 2 out of 10. (If the above interpretation is correct, then it might be more like 2 out of 5.)

Why wouldn’t the vast majority of students declare at least 2 of these 10 (or 5) as Gaudino options even if these were classes that they would have taken otherwise and which do not represent an attempt to “explore uncomfortable worlds?” After all, declaring the Gaudino is a free option. You can always just accept the grade you get. If the grade is below your current GPA, just “Gaudino it.” (Our WSO readers should feel free to steal this slang.) And, given that other students will surely use this free option (the desire to graduate highly in your Williams class runs deep in most of us), who could blame a student for such cynicism? Not me.

The easiest test to quickly measure the amount of abuse in this system is to see how many seniors declare it this fall. I would guess that there are only 25 (10? 50?) seniors who are honestly confronting the dilemma of wanting to choose hard class X but needing to take easier class Y out of GPA concerns. To the extent that only these 25 students declare the Gaudino option, then abuse is limited.

But if 100 or 200 or 500 Williams seniors declare a Gaudino option (and, after all, this is their last chance to do so), then abuse is utterly rampant. To our student readers: What do you predict will happen? What do you plan to do?

Fourth, to the extent that Williams really wanted to explore this, the better way would have been to require a (simple) application at the start of the semester, submitted to the registrar and (almost) always approved by the CEP. Force the student to provide a few sentences about why this class represents an intellectual stretch for them and, therefore, justifies the special Gaudino option. This would allow for the few (25?) plausible users each semester without setting up a system in which abuse is inevitable.

As usual, the central problem with policy-making at Williams is never the goodwill of the people involved nor the reasonableness of the goals that they favor. The problem is almost always the competence of the policy-making process itself. More on that another day.

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