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Conversations with Walker: Fear the Turtle

Because of Bennington’s devotion to experimental and student-driven education, the college has fewer standards in place than many schools in regards to students’ academic progress. It can seem to some students like it is much easier to experiment outside of your discipline than it is to get advanced classes suited to you, and even more troubling, many classes that should be advanced are watered-down to serve a broader range of students. With that in mind, I’m devoting this column over the coming weeks to disparities in how students of different backgrounds and dispositions interact with the college.

As always, please reach out to me if you have any questions you’d like asked in a future interview ( or 

Well thank you for joining me again, I’d like to start off talking about academics, similar to last week, but a little bit more specifically. The pass fail grading system allows for great variability in the quality of academic performance amongst students all pursuing the same Bachelor of Arts degree. Do you think this variability is compatible with an environment of high academic achievement?

Walker: I do. I think it’s important to reiterate that all grades at Bennington, be they letter grades or pass fail, are accompanied by narrative evaluations that describe the strength of student work and their success and achieving the learning outcomes that are part of that class. Students, of course, who are doing exceptionally strong work will have that recognized on their transcript, in a way, and through the grades, and if they’re just doing a pass fail, in both cases, in narrative evaluations. In addition, the pass fail option, I think, encourages experimentation by students, allowing them to take courses beyond their comfort zones. I think we’re convinced as a college that such experimentation will lead to richer and more substantial student work over the arc of the Bennington careers, and in that way enhances student’s education. I think having said that, I think it’s important to recognize that not all students take that pass fail option in that way. And I think it’s important to define in this next period of time and to continually look at what excellence means. Excellence is risk taking. It is about, as one of the faculty members said to me, it’s about failing, but failing brilliantly, and taking those learnings from failure and taking that into one’s plan and one’a expectations of oneself. I do think that we as a college in every way, and every day, should be asking ourselves, how can we be better? How can we be stronger? And, and how do we make sure that we’re providing the experience for students, that they’re stretching, and they’re working to their potential and beyond in terms of what they think their potential is, but that experience also includes the ability to take some major risks.

Absolutely. And, I have benefited from pass fail, I’ve taken classes pass fail outside of my discipline in the past. And I agree that that risk taking is important. I’m curious if you would be receptive or supportive to a stricter standard than the current pass fail kind of guidelines for advanced classes, for 4000 level classes where you have juniors and seniors who are within their own discipline. A higher standard of workload, a higher standard of academic grading, to hold the students to a higher standard when they’re not risk taking. They’re not doing something that’s foreign to them, they’re in their plan, they’re in their field of expertise. 

Walker: I think that the advanced work has to be about becoming advanced, it’s about becoming excellent. It’s about becoming proficient. And I think the value of the degree has to reflect that. And so I wouldn’t necessarily say that means that we shouldn’t offer things pass fail, even at that high level, because hopefully, students have understood that the value of their education and their feedback is in the plan sessions and in the narrative evaluation. And I guess I would take a little exception with your premise that when you’re advanced, you shouldn’t be taking a risk. I actually think that in some ways you can be at any level, creators at any kind of level of proficiency, if you will, are taking risks. I think the heart of this in some ways is that it is about the risk and the brilliant risk that ought to be reflected. Taking a great risk that stretches you should be reflected in a grade or an evaluation as a thing to do.

Absolutely I agree that advanced work can be risk taking, I’m just concerned that “risk taking” can be an excuse for mediocre effort, and wish there were some stronger requirements to remedy that. Thanks so much for joining me again this week.

Walker: Thank you, Luke. See you next week.

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