The past year has seen unprecedented changes on college campuses. Specific to those changes, and specific to Wooster’s campus, is the new and updated semester schedule put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. One of the more unpopular and controversial changes that has occured revolves around the lack of any significant break during the spring semester. This is especially significant for seniors, who are facing the fast approaching deadline of I.S. Monday. Amelia Kemp ’21 took it upon herself to speak up for the seniors and their needs when facing the daunting task of completing their Independent Studies.
Initially, Kemp created an email campaign to address the conflicts that the spring semester has created for seniors. However, with the help of Maresa Tate ’21 and Alexis Sotelo ’21, the email was soon turned into a petition that has since been signed by over 450 students, faculty, staff and alumni. The petition is prefaced with an acknowledgement of the importance of the senior Independent Study thesis, as well as the hardships the College has faced this year. The petition states, “According to The College of Wooster website, the Independent Study senior thesis is a significant piece of original research, scholarship or creative expression that demonstrates ‘what one has learned and skills they have honed at Wooster’ and is ‘tangible proof that you have developed key skills and abilities that employers and graduate schools alike value.’” Challenges have been faced far and wide on Wooster’s campus as well as across the globe, especially by those who belong to marginalized groups. While Kemp acknowledges the steps that the College has taken in response to Scot Council’s request for mental health days, she believes there is still more that should be done for the class of 2021.
The petition proposes three steps that should be taken in the spring semester for the seniors. First, “during the weeks of March 8 and ideally also March 15, seniors should be able to choose whether or not they would like to attend class.” All other class years would still be expected to engage in their courses during this time, but seniors would have the option to have an on-campus break to focus on their Independent Studies. Second, during the week of March 22, faculty I.S. advisors must meet with their I.S. students at least once.”
Kemp continued, “Seniors have not been and will not be working under circumstances that [they] have been prepared for during [their] undergraduate careers. Thus, it is insincere for seniors to be denied help from their I.S. advisors and instead rely on their advisor’s benevolence because the College has failed to firmly stand with students’ need for extra support this academic year.” The third and final request is for “professors [to] allow seniors to work on midterms and other exams after March 29, the final deadline for I.S.; seniors will then be allowed to work effectively on I.S. without feeling immense burn out. It is imperative for seniors, who—for the first time in years—will not have the normal two week spring break, to not be assigned any midterms or exams that require extensive studying hours in order to pass.”
In response to the support of the hundreds who signed the petition, the College released a statement on Jan. 29 to address the concerns and requests shared by Kemp. Provost Lisa Perfetti, the dean for curriculum and academic engagement (DCAE) Jen Bowen, Co-Chair of the Educational Policy Committee Amber Garcia, elected faculty across a range of disciplines and two student representatives had come together earlier that week to discuss the aforementioned requests. Rather than restructuring the semester for everyone, this group noted that “every I.S. is different and every class of seniors completing it is different, so what might help one student’s situation may well not be helpful in another situation.” They instead acknowledged the extraordinary pressure faced by Wooster seniors in regard to their Independent Studies, and proposed a statement for I.S. advisors, all faculty, department chairs and students in an attempt to engage a productive dialogue for those in need of assistance during this time.
However, despite the urging from this group for the seniors, faculty and advisors to communicate their needs with one another, Kemp and Tate were not impressed. Kemp states that “after lengthy conversation with them, they basically said that the deans have no power over what professors do in terms of meeting students’ needs as outlined in the petition — they literally did not have the power to tell professors to implement my plan. Ultimately, they agreed with my plan, and they released that email that seniors and faculty received as a way to try to support students in asking for these accommodations.” Tate further expressed that there is still work to be done to help Wooster’s seniors, stating, “I am very disappointed with the College’s continual failure to put students first. The Education Policy Committee (EPC) reviewed the petition, and ultimately decided that they could not make a “blanket statement” for all seniors, despite many seniors being in support of the proposals, because they simply do not have the authority to tell faculty what to do. As a student who has worked with faculty, staff and administration throughout my Wooster career, this is not something I have not heard before, but I hoped that that would not be the case when so many seniors have expressed dissatisfaction with the current plan.”
When asked if there was faculty support, Tate said that “there were a number of faculty and staff members that expressed to me that they thought the proposals were reasonable and that the College should seriously take them into consideration.” However, she continued, “When the EPC chairs contacted Kemp, Sotelo and me about meeting, I told my peers that my main worry was a response of denial due to preserving faculty autonomy, and that is exactly what we were told.” On the other hand, Kemp pointed out the issue of faculty independence when formulating a college-wide change. “The inability of deans to implement a plan like this across the board because of ‘faculty independence’ is an issue that I feel needs to be addressed even outside of this specific issue,” she said. “In a perfect world, the school would have implemented the plan as laid out in the petition across the board. I suppose that, considering the limitations of power, the solution they’ve given is basically the best they can do at this time. I did speak to several faculty members who thought the plan was good and reasonable, which makes me hopeful that many will be willing to adopt the plan if students ask for it.”
Overall, despite the urging of the provost and DCAE to promote a better environment for seniors working on their Independent Studies, both Kemp and Tate feel as though students have yet again been left to fend for themselves. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on many of the issues the College faces, and unfortunately, students have had to suffer from the faults of the College,” said Tate; similarly, Kemp stated that she is “not happy that the onus has fallen on the students once again to advocate for their own wellbeing, but that is currently the only way to really get this specific need met.” However, Kemp emphasized,: “You are allowed to ask your professors for the accommodations laid out in the petition. If your professor refuses to find some kind of accommodation, you can elevate that request to the chair of the department, and after that to Dean Bowen.” Seniors, and all students on campus, are encouraged to ask for help, reach out to faculty and get through this semester as best as they can.