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Four years in: Do QRE’s work?

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“There is nothing magic about the number three,” explained Dean Associate Dean of the College George Shuffleton. He was referencing the three quantitative reasoning encounter (QRE) classes required of all Carleton students.

“A lot of faculty think it’s really important,” said Shuffleton.

However, some faculty and students express frustration with the requirement and feel it is unfair and disproportionate compared to other requirements. “To say that you need three quantitative reasoning requirements but you only need one international studies requirements is to say that quantitative reasoning is more important than international studies and more applicable to your life and being an informed world citizen, which I just don’t think is true,” said Kate Abram ’17, a double major in English and Asian Studies.

Lori Pearson, chair of the Religion Department explains that the Religion Department does not have a problem with the QRE requirement, however, “we are cautious about potentially privileging quantitative studies over other valuable humanistic dimensions of a liberal arts curriculum. We would like to see more requirements that direct students to our courses, just as QRE directs them to other valuable courses,” she said.

Indeed, students wishing to fulfill a QRE requirement this term are most likely taking classes in chemistry (18 QRE offerings) or in economics (13 QRE offerings). History and classics (1 offering each) are the only humanities disciplines to offer QRE coded courses.

Shuffleton, who also teaches as an Assistant Professor of English, compares the QRE requirement to the writing portfolio. “There is no one class at Carleton where you are going to go and learn how to write. It’s the same for quantitative reasoning. It’s not an inoculation, you can’t just go in and learn it and then you’re done.”

Implemented first for the 2010 matriculating freshman class, all Carleton students are required to take 18 credits, or 3 classes, that are coded as QRE. According to the Academic Course Catalog, classes that fulfill the QRE requirement “will include at least one substantial assignment or module designed to enhance” quantitative analysis skills.

Before the new distribution requirements were implemented, students needed to take 18 credits of mathematical/natural sciences. The requirement made no differentiation between formal/ statistical reasoning and quantitative encounters.

When the curriculum was revamped, three independent teams of faculty and staff proposed what they thought the curriculum should look like, starting from a blank slate. Economics professor Nathan Grawe, who was part of a separate faculty-led initiative to have a more stringent QRE requirement, said, “all teams said there should be more than just the formal mathematics requirements.”

The desire to expand the quantitative requirement stemmed from faculty frustration spanning multiple disciplines with students’ capabilities to explain information in graphs or tables, write using quantitative arguments, and differentiate between causation and correlation, according to Grawe.

“Students shouldn’t be expected to do things well when they haven’t been taught,” said Grawe, “but a key fact like a mean can make all the difference in conveying the importance of a story.”

After these realizations, Psychology Professor Neil Lutsky landed a grant that provided funding for faculty to work over the summer to create quantitative reasoning assignments for classes they already taught.

Before the QRE requirement existed history professor Andrew Fisher reworked a course he taught on the African Diaspora in Latin America to include quantitative analyses. He taught it once after the QRE requirement existed as well. For a third of the course, his students did a project using a database that included 227 variables about 27,000 slave ship voyages.

Fisher has not taught the class in several years, however, and said, “the quantitative exercise itself was fraught with so many logistical and philosophical problems that I would very much hesitate to use that aspect of it again in the course.”

“It was alienating for students who wondered, ‘why are we just reading this bland quantitative history of this era, as if to treat African slaves as if they have been completely stripped of their humanity and are nothing more than just tallies on a chart,” Fisher said.

Other humanities professors have found more success in adding quantitative components to their classes. History professor Susannah Ottaway ’89 teaches a class History of Health and Welfare in Industrializing Britain that focuses “particularly on economic and demographic changes, so it is important that students become comfortable with using and assessing data,” she said. Ottaway finds that many of the history students with whom she works “are reluctant to engage in even the most basic forms of quantitative reasoning when they pursue independent research, often to the detriment of their projects.”

Although Shuffleton and Grawe both expressed hopes that all departments could, ideally, integrate quantitative analysis into their courses, Peterson argues that quantitative skills are not important to emphasize in the religion department. “Do I think quantita- tive skills gained in other academic disciplines could help someone be a more astute interpreter of certain religious phenomena and questions? Sure. But the methods and sensibilities employed in religion and some other more quantitative social science courses are quite different.”

Grawe would add that “the implementation of QREs is incomplete.” He hopes faculty will become more comfortable in coding their courses as QRE and utilizing available resources.

Despite concern about QRE requirements discouraging students from engaging with certain disciplines, Shuffleton cites an Education and Curriculum Committee survey to ease those fears. “We didn’t find evidence to connect the QRE requirement to changes in enrollment patterns. To the contrary, most of the evidence we saw suggested that the new graduation requirement have had relatively little effect so far on long-term trends in enrollments,” he said.





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