I. Departmental Distinction at St. Olaf College
Each department’s faculty may award “Departmental Distinction” to selected graduating majors at Commencement. The department’s faculty determines the criteria for such distinction and the opportunities available to distinction candidates, subject to guidelines established by the Special Studies Subcommittee and administered by the office of the Associate Dean of the College.
Departmental Distinction is granted to those students who exemplify the qualities most valued in their discipline. The definitive criterion is the student’s demonstrated ability to produce, independently, work of the highest scholarly or artistic standard consonant with his or her training.
II. English Department Policy on Departmental Distinction
In the Fall Semester of 2021, the English Department faculty voted to discontinue the awarding of distinction in our department. This decision was the culmination of several conversations over several years–conversations that acquired greater urgency as the department began a more rigorous and wide-ranging discussion of equity, inclusion, and antiracism during the 2020-2021 academic year. While we know that some students have appreciated the opportunity to pursue distinction, we feel that the has come to bring it to an end. In making this decision, the English Department joins several other St. Olaf departments and programs that have made the same decision in recent years, including Theater and Environmental Studies. We also join a number of other departments and programs that have not offered distinction for many years.
Let me share several reasons for ending distinction that came up in our deliberations:
- As is true in other departments, eligibility for distinction in English has centered on a GPA requirement. In our case, we restricted eligibility to students with a GPA of 3.8 in the major, with a minimum of seven graded courses in the English major, six of which needed to be taught by St. Olaf faculty. While GPA guidelines like these have the advantage of providing an unambiguous, quantitative dividing line between those who are eligible and those who are not, GPA is not always the best measure of achievement, particularly in a discipline like ours. In some cases, this system has disadvantaged students who took English classes early in their academic career as they were making the transition to college-level expectations for writing and analysis. A GPA requirement like this also tends to reward students who entered college with a stronger foundation in writing and literary analysis–perhaps because of the education that they received prior to enrolling at St. Olaf. The eligibility criteria have also posed challenges for students who came to St. Olaf as transfer students as well as those who have studied abroad for a semester or a year.
- For many years, pursuing distinction has meant being able to set aside time to undertake extracurricular academic work during the second semester of senior year. In recent years, this has meant working on a distinction portfolio. Some students have time to work on a distinction portfolio while pursuing a full slate of classes in the spring semester of senior year; some students do not. This creates an equity issue. Some students are unable to pursue distinction because they need to work or are undertaking an internship or taking part in co-curricular activities. Many English majors need to devote time to a job search or explore other options for post-college life. This is valuable work that deserves attention. We want to support our students as they plan for their lives beyond St. Olaf. Ending distinction will make this easier to do.
- St. Olaf offers many honors for its students. The college maintains a Dean’s List to honor students for their work in individual semesters; awards cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude based on GPA at the time of graduation; elects students to Phi Beta Kappa and the Blue Key Honor Society; and announces a lengthy list of honors on Honors Day. In the English Department, we have the Sigma Tau Delta Honor Society, creative writing contests, the Sarah Ferguson Publishing Award, and the Spohn Award. While “distinction” sounds impressive, it is an honor that only has a recognized meaning on the St. Olaf campus. “Distinction” is unlikely to make a difference in landing a job, graduate school applications, or other post-college opportunities.
- For professors in the English Department, April has often involved setting aside a considerable amount of time to review distinction portfolios. While this has often been rewarding work, it has also meant that we have focused our energy during this crucial month on a relatively small number of students. Going forward, our hope is to find ways that professors in the English Department can support all of our students as they prepare for life after graduation.
Should you have any questions about our policy on distinction, you are welcome to reach out to me.
– Jonathan Naito, Associate Professor and Chair of the English Department