In a dramatic decrease from last year, only two students in the School of Foreign Service scored high enough on the Oct. 7 exam to place out of the SFS’s required Map of the Modern World course.
Last October, 65 SFS students tested out of Map of the Modern World, which was a significant increase from that of previous years. The high passing rate added fuel to student criticism of the changes James Reardon-Anderson, senior associate dean of the SFS and a Sun Yat-Sen Professor of Chinese Studies, made to the course when he took over the helm from Keith Hrebenak, a professorial lecturer in the SFS, beginning last fall.
Drew Peterson (SFS ’10), who chaired the working group established by the SFS Academic Council to examine the new course, said the exam result may not in and of itself be a means to judge the nature of the exam.
“It is impossible to evaluate this year’s exemption exam on the pass rate alone,” he wrote in an email, “though it does seem more fitting that [two students], rather than 65, be exempted from the School’s mandatory geography requirement.”
Student concerns about the class’s focus linger in response to Reardon-Anderson’s revisions, which placed greater emphasis on physical geography and earth science.
“The new passing rate means nothing. … The same concerns about the class still exist from last year,” said Josh Mogil (SFS ’11), president of the SFS Academic Council. “It is my perception that everyone in the dean’s office is hoping that this [student response] just goes away.”
Reardon-Anderson, however, maintains that last year’s changes were sensible shifts in the syllabus in the first place.
“I believe that physical geography is an approach to international affairs that has largely been neglected, to the detriment of students who are going out into the world,” he said.
The previous version of the course, he said, had other flaws as well.
“[The previous version] was really designed as a course in the map of the colonial and post-colonial world,” he said. “It paid virtually no attention whatsoever to North America, Europe, Russia, China and Japan. I thought that was not in the students’ best interest.”
He added that about three-quarters of student comments from the past year’s course evaluations were positive, and that he had added more specific case studies in response to the criticism.
Students’ interest in the changes to Map has faded somewhat since last year, when Reardon-Anderson’s move drew complaints that he was damaging a curricular institution and ignoring student concerns; more than 700 students joined a Facebook group named “Take Back Map of the Modern World.”
In a viewpoint in THE HOYA, Tom Zuzelo (SFS ’11) explained one of the strands of criticism.
“Judging from Reardon-Anderson’s lecture notes and his own comments,” he wrote at the time, “this survey course has been watered down and transformed into a `Rocks for Jocks’ crash course on earth sciences.”
But concerns persist among Mogil and other students in the SFS.
“It’s not about the old class versus the new class anymore,” Mogil said. “It’s about what the best Map class would be. . I look forward to addressing this issue with the deans in a cooperative and constructive way.”
The working group of students and alumni organized last year is continuing to study the changes. According to Peterson, the group is waiting for the SFS administration to distribute a survey it has prepared to the students who took the new Map course last year. If the Office of the Dean does so within the next month, the team should be able to release its final report before the next group of students begins to take the 1-year-old class next semester.
The reaction of new freshmen to the emphases they saw on the exemption exam were mostly favorable.
“I think the vast majority of what was on the test made sense,” Evan Smith (SFS ’14) said. “I think, though, that there was undue emphasis on some topics, like trade winds. . If you didn’t know the Tropic of Capricorn from the Tropic of Cancer, you were guaranteed to miss five questions.”
He added that he had heard about last year’s high pass rate but was not aware of the disputes over the curriculum.
Mary Oeftering (SFS ’14) said that she was satisfied with the test, although she added jokingly that since she planned to major in science, technology and international affairs, she might not be representative of most SFS students.
“I’m not completely aware of what was on [the exam] before, but it seemed to me that everything on there was basic, fundamental ideas that everyone going into foreign service should know,” she said.