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Sunday, Sep 25, 2022

Rethinking Distribution Requirements

Each January and May, as hundreds of students shake President Patton’s hand and receive their own copy of Gamaliel Painter’s cane, we often think of the hard work each student put forth in their major coursework. But before students get their diplomas, they must complete another set of requirements: their distribution requirements. A cakewalk for some, a tightrope walk for others, it feels cloudy and arbitrary for all, at times. We see a lot of benefits to having distribution requirements, but we also acknowledge that there are improvements that could be made to this system.

Distribution requirements oblige students to take classes in a variety of disciplines, pushing them beyond their comfort zone. Because we are a liberal arts institution, we believe it is valuable to encourage students to take classes they may otherwise not have taken. If students were able to take a class Pass/D/Fail and have it count for a distribution requirement, more students might have the courage to venture further into a new subject. Under the current system, this is not allowed.

[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]If students were able to take a class Pass/D/Fail and have it count for a distribution requirement, more students might have the courage to venture further into a new subject. [/pullquote]

Although we recognize why some would be concerned about expanding the Pass/D/Fail program, we are skeptical that it would be abused. It seems that most Middlebury students hold themselves to a high enough academic standard to try reasonably hard in their classes, regardless of whether they are taking them for a grade. And if the college is worried students would take advantage of the system, they could impose a limit on the number of Pass/D/Fail classes which can count toward distribution requirements.

We also believe including more cross-listed course options within the catalog could help students fulfill requirements, and cultivate analytical skills specific to interdisciplinary classes. Of course any class that focuses on theory and analysis will deepen critical thinking skills, but classes that use theory, theory applications and comparison analysis — often the components of interdisciplinary classes — will push students to think beyond the four walls of the classroom.

We think including a “social justice” distribution option could push students’ critical thinking skills further and help them “address the world’s most challenging problems,” as the college’s mission statement states. This wouldn’t necessitate adding another requirement — the college already has a lot — but simply adding another “academic category” option. This way, students can take their classroom knowledge into the real world and attempt to address challenging social problems without sacrificing personal interest or schedule flexibility. Peer institutions like Bowdoin and Williams have categories devoted to social difference and power. Middlebury should consider taking a cue from these schools, and adding a similar category as its ninth, from which students complete seven courses.

In addition to academic distribution requirements, all students are required to take two non-credit physical education classes. We suggest that instead of focusing solely on physical well-being, the college consider dropping one of these required classes in favor of a class that focuses on mental and emotional well-being. This would promote more holistic student wellness and align with the college’s increased efforts to support student mental health.

Distribution requirements offer students a valuable opportunity to be forced outside of their academic comfort zones but it seems that sometimes the values behind the system can be lost as students are experiencing it. We’d like to see distribution requirements align more closely with the college’s mission while maintaining the flexibility it gives students to meet all requirements.