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With classes, less is more

| Thursday, February 20, 2014

I love this University. But lately I think I’ve discovered a serious flaw.

In writing this I asked as many people as I could the question “What is the biggest problem with Notre Dame?” The answers were many, and I list the most frequently-cited ones here in no particular order.

It turns out that Notre Dame is both too conservative and too liberal. Notre Dame is too Catholic and simultaneously failing to live out its Catholic founding. Our rigid sexual mores stifle everyday interaction with the opposite sex, as evidenced by our rampant hook-up culture. Notre Dame students are too shy and too arrogant. Notre Dame students don’t care enough about politics, and Notre Dame shouldn’t be suing the federal government. Notre Dame students are busy, but not truly involved. Notre Dame students are so involved they can’t really concentrate on learning. And SAO is a suffocating bureaucracy that overcomplicates extracurricular involvement. Admittedly, nobody argued for the other side on that particular point.

These are all legitimate criticisms in the sense that the students who expressed them believe as they do for reasons that are logically valid and based in personal experience and perceptions. But I will counter that the real problem with Notre Dame is that the space necessary to sort these issues out — to debate them, discuss them and act on them to make the University better — is currently occupied, not by Facebook and Twitter or drunken hook-ups or even athletics, but by the time and mental energy necessary to balance five different classes at once.

I wanted to get a sense of whether students at our peer institutions have the same predicament. I did what I could on the research end within the limits placed on me by midterms week and Olympic hockey. What I can tell you is that for those pursuing a degree at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Michigan or Emory, taking five classes per semester is the exception, not the rule. Most of the students there take four and they seem unharmed. Other institutions such as Stanford, Northwestern, Dartmouth and University of Chicago have quarter or trimester systems that have their own costs and benefits. The point is that the common practice of taking five or even six classes in a semester is really not all that common outside of Notre Dame.

That so many of our peer institutions do something does not make it the right path for Our Lady’s University. A vast majority of our peer institutions are not Catholic, but I don’t believe we will (or should, for that matter) oust the Virgin Mary from the Golden Dome any time soon. But I think in this case it might be best to take a page out of our secular peers’ playbook. To me this is a clear-cut instance of “less is more”.

I have had this thought since I took a class in American intellectual history last semester. The layout of the class was simple — midterm, 10-page paper on an important American intellectual, final exam. That picture was complicated, however, by the actual content of the course. In addition to intense lectures that consistently yielded a sore right wrist and about six sides of notes, we had to read four books outside of class. Each was separate in content from the lecture notes but provided relevant contextual background (and were tested on accordingly), and a bare minimum of four books or 16 long articles (or some combination of the two) written by the person you chose for your topic (not to mention secondary sources), in order to meet the threshold of  “well-researched”.

This was also one of the three most interesting courses I have taken here, and I recommended it to friends of mine with the following caveat: Don’t take the class unless you’re only taking three other classes this semester.

I’m not suggesting that we’d all be better off with four classes like the one I just described. Rather, I’d like to communicate that in my six semesters here I always felt I had four core courses and one that I cut corners on out of necessity. This diminishes the value of the class that a student skates by in as well as the four core subjects that he or she tries to really engage in. It’s no good for the instructors either. No one wants to grade a half-baked essay from a half-committed student.

In short, the students and professors will benefit if Notre Dame streamlines our current workload into four classes per semester rather than five. I think everything from class participation to outside research to sleep patterns to the robustness of our student newspaper would improve. And we don’t even have to say we got the idea from Michigan.


Alex Caton is a junior living in St. Edward’s Hall.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


About Alex Caton

Alex is a junior political science major living in the caves and ditches of St. Edward's Hall. He has written for the Viewpoint section since spring 2013

Contact Alex