At 4 p.m. on April 12, students who chose the exam track for Departmental Honors in Government joined in the end of theses celebration on the steps of Olin Library. However, while those who took the thesis route had reason to celebrate—10 out of 11 received honors, one of whom was awarded high honors—only seven out of 16 students who took the exam were granted honors, and not one of them was awarded the distinction of high honors.
This discrepancy has sparked a debate among Government majors over the merits of the dual track system, which the Government Department unveiled for the first time last spring.
“In retrospect, I was not as worried as I should have been,” said Harrison Polans ’11, one of 16 students who pursued the exam track. “The sense I got when I enrolled in the class is that no one quite knew what it was going to be. It was my anticipation that it was going to be fun chaos.”
Out of roughly 80 rising senior majors, the Department nominated about 20 students as potential candidates for honors. These students were invited to submit their thesis prospectus to the department for approval. According to Government Professor Donald Moon, the program was created with students’ interests in mind.
“We developed this program in the hopes of providing a more effective structure for students who were writing theses to develop the research competencies necessary for first rate work, and to enable more students, including those who do not have a burning interest in a particular topic, to stand for honors by developing a non-thesis track for honors that would be rigorous and demanding in different ways from the traditional thesis track,” Moon wrote in an email to The Argus.
Eric Mandell ’11, who was in the honors exam track, wondered whether the Government Department graded exam-takers more harshly than thesis writers.
“We were all top government students who were selected for the class, so it’s weird that only seven of us got honors,” Mandell said. “I had conflicted feelings about trying to getting honors this way. It seemed less rigorous than writing a thesis, but one government professor also pointed out that the course was supposed to be a reward or a way to get honors for four years of honors level work.”
However, according to Assistant Professor of Government Michael Nelson, who taught the Capstone Thesis Seminar that thesis writers are now required to take, the Department has seen an overall increase in the number of students receiving honors.
“I can tell you, anecdotally speaking, that in the short time I’ve been here, this year we’ve given far more honors than in the past,” Nelson said. “There is some variation from year to year, but that could just be due to chance.”
Honors-eligible students who did not obtain approval for a thesis from the Department or who did not submit a thesis proposal were recommended for the new examination track. These students enrolled in the Capstone Seminar in Political Science, taught by Associate Professor of Government Douglas Foyle. Foyle declined to comment due to student privacy concerns.
Despite multiple attempts by The Argus to contact Chair of the Department John Finn, he did not respond to questions about the exam track.
Dan Levine ’11, who took Foyle’s seminar, was less surprised by the number disparity.
“I’m not shocked that the numbers balanced out differently, but it’s disappointing because I know that everyone is very smart,” Levine said. “At some point, though, it may increase integrity of the program.”
Students were required to submit two 10-page essays, each of which was assigned two different readers. In order to receive honors, both essays had to be considered honors-worthy. For high honors, six different readers (three on each essay) would have to confirm that the student was deserving of the distinction.
“You have to get honors on two different questions, so getting honors, let alone high honors, through this track is less likely,” Mandell said. “I got honors on my subfield question, but I didn’t get honors on the general political science question. This is the only course I’ve taken that directly prepared me for the general question.”
Exam-takers received the two exam questions before spring break and discussed the questions as a class. The first mandatory question on political science tested students’ understanding of the main intellectual connections among the four political science subfields. For the second question, students were given a choice of four questions, each pertaining to one of the four subfields within the field: political theory, international relations, American politics, and comparative politics.
One member of the class of 2011, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was disappointed with the questions themselves.
“I thought the questions were very broad,” he said. “We spent three classes trying to hack at the theoretical connections question, but the frustration I felt was that there was no way to answer that question in 10 pages without it being a regurgitation of material. The first question in itself could have been a volume of encyclopedias.”
According to this student, the page limit was originally five pages, but Foyle expanded the number to accommodate students. This student found the entire process unnerving.
“On the last day of class, Foyle opened up the class, and I sat there for half an hour, having not slept, and just submitted both my essays, to the shock and appall of the class,” he said. “On paper it was easier for us, but in reality it was much more difficult to demonstrate mastery in 10 pages.”
Levine sees it differently.
“I recall Foyle telling me that the program was designed so that about the same percentage of people would get honors as the entire thesis program, including those who begin theses but don’t wind up completing them,” Levine said. “But of the entire thesis program, I’m of the opinion that at the point when you spend a whole year working on a research project, you’ve already demonstrated a greater degree of mastery than turning in a couple of ten page essays.”
While many students in the exam track, especially those who received honors, were met with resentment from thesis writers, who saw the exam track as a less challenging route to honors, Polans points out that all government students eligible for honors were given the choice.
“It’s not the same as writing a thesis, I don’t think anyone in our class would say that,” Polans said. “On some level, it’s fair that a lower percentage of us got honors.”
Another senior government student who wished to remain anonymous said that comparing the two tracks is like comparing apples to oranges. He started in Nelson’s thesis seminar in the fall, but switched to the exam track this spring.
“Both seminars were really challenging,” the student said. “The main difference is that they test different things. The exam track was intensive; we had to read and process so much information, and write two honors-worthy papers. The thesis track tests endurance, while the exam tests your ability to withstand stress and pressure.”
Foyle organized the seminar thematically into broad topics, assigning more than one hundred pages of reading for each class. Foyle, who was not one of the readers for the exam essays, will determine students’ grades in the class based on participation and the two essays, which students can edit and resubmit before turning them in for a grade.
According to Nelson, the Department conferred with other colleges with similar honors programs, as they put together the syllabi for the two seminars. Because students were only notified of their results last week, the faculty has not yet met to discuss the results of the first year. However, Nelson says the issue is high on the Department’s agenda.
“Our hope was that the seminar would help students,” Nelson said. “I was the first to teach the thesis seminar, and it was the first time we’ve ever offered it. It’s public knowledge that this is a trial process for us, and we will be reviewing it on an ongoing basis.”
Levine took the exam track with the understanding that the program was new to students and faculty alike. He says the seminar was a valuable experience which cemented his knowledge of readings across the field of political science.
“It was certainly an evolving program, and in writing my essays, I was thinking of ways it could have been structured differently, and how I could have been better prepared,” Levine said. “The Department knows it’s new, and they know that we’re the guinea pigs, but it’s something they’re ianterested in continuing and improving.”