Editorial: Mental health and academic culture: Reevlauating our undergraduate experience

Fifteen years ago, the University announced the creation of a Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE). This Commission aimed to evaluate the Hopkins undergraduate experience and give recommendations on how to improve it.

Building off of their previous work, the administration convened a second CUE (CUE2) last spring. Since then they have been soliciting feedback from students, faculty and alumni to reevaluate our undergaduate experience once again in a world that has changed dramatically since 2002.

In light of this, The Editorial Board would like to reflect on it as well. While there are many parts of this experience — housing, advising, career support and others — we would like to focus on two particular facets of our lives that we find to be most pressing: our academics and our mental health.

This school perpetuates a culture of stress and pressure through rigorous academics. Similar to other distinguished schools, students here are intensely driven to get high grades in demanding classes. This pressure to succeed can too easily create a culture where we feel we can never attain success.

 

Academic culture

In a recent interview with our reporters, President Daniels remarked that he believes Hopkins has a distinct “work-hard culture” and that the University wants to find ways for students to “gain perspective and balance.”

We appreciate the fact that President Daniels recognizes this reality. It’s hard for students to “gain perspective and balance” at Hopkins because of our academics. Any time spent not studying can often leave many us feeling guilty. There are always more lecture slides to review. There’s always another paper due next week. When students feel guilty for simply not working, that’s a problem.

Part of this guilt comes from the way students approach academics at Hopkins. It is normal to take five or six courses here during a semester, when students at so called “peer institutions” frequently take just four classes.

When we register for our many classes and overload on credits, it is often difficult to determine exactly how much work we have for the upcoming semester. While we want professors to have the freedom and autonomy to design their own classes, we need a better system to measure the amount of work that we would have to do.

For example, writing intensive classes usually indicate that students will write more than 20 pages a semester. This label is a helpful tool and we believe that it can be applied to other categories as well. For instance, many classes across many fields require varying levels of reading. Reading a hundred pages a week versus twenty pages a week makes a huge difference. Designating a “reading intensive” course label would be a step in the right direction.

Another memorable feature of the Hopkins education is the grading curve. With a curve, grades are contingent on the performance of other students in class. We believe you should be evaluated solely on your own performance and not on that of anyone else.

Additionally, professors, especially those in STEM fields, design exams where the average grade lies anywhere between 40 percent to 70 percent. Even though some students can get an A with a 60 percent raw score, taking exams where professors expect you to know only half the material is demoralizing and pointless. Is this really what classes and grades are about?

 

Bring back covered grades

Two years ago, the University announced during finals period that this current freshman Class of 2021 would not have covered grades. Covered grades, which had been a part of Hopkins for over forty years, was a policy where a freshman’s first semester grades would not appear on official transcripts or affect their GPA.

We believe that this policy had an overall positive impact on the undergraduate experience. Students from all backgrounds were able to adjust to the academic rigor of Hopkins, take classes they might not have taken otherwise, and explore passions and interests outside of the classroom. Regardless of where students grew up or the high school they went to, covered grades helped level the playing field for all freshmen.

The University pointed to several reasons on why they took covered grades away. Some professors argued that students took advantage of the policy to slack off and not properly learn class material. Especially in sequential classes like calculus or organic chemistry, these professors said that students did not learn the material they would need the next semester. We acknowledge that this may be a concern; however, using this blanket policy to address a portion of students fails to recognize the holistic benefits that covered grades provided.

Bringing covered grades back is an important step in addressing the unhealthy work culture and mental stress at Hopkins.

 

Mental health

It is not surprising that our school’s unhealthy academic culture would translate into an toxic climate for mental health. Many students struggle with their mental health, and we believe competition, pressure and a lack of resources only worsen the challenges students face every day.

We are not asking the University to abolish grades or attempt to overhaul campus culture entirely. It’s true that many Hopkins students thrive with a certain amount of pressure placed upon them. We are all driven, but that does not mean that we should be expected to drive ourselves into the ground.

We need the University to work with us to better support the mental health problems that stem from this stressful and competitive environment.

There are many concrete steps the University can take, from making it easier to make an appointment at the Counseling Center to better advertising the resources that are available.

However, when discussing mental health, we frequently talk about the “stigma” associated with it. People talk about mental health in abstract, removed ways and we understand why ­— it’s hard to talk about intense personal struggles when they are our own.

If we want to honestly address the mental health stigma, we need to be honest with ourselves. Five out of the five members of this Editorial Board admit to struggling with their mental health over the past semester.

This is something the school cannot readily address but this step starts with us.

We encourage you, our fellow students, to think about your own experiences at Hopkins. Tell your deans and administrators what you think of the CUE2. This is the time to make a difference at our school and strive towards creating a healthier undergraduate experience for all.

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