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The decline in departmental distinctions and academic honors

Screenshot 2023-05-11 at 4.38.23 PM

Each year, every department chooses how distinctions are granted to graduating students within their major. However, departmental distinction offerings and participation in department-specific honor societies have declined in recent years. 

In most departments, students must present a research project expanding upon an existing course-specific assignment or an additional paper or presentation relating to their major’s subject matter. Other departments granted distinction based on a student’s major GPA, usually those with a GPA of 3.8 or above.

Most departments have few students attempting to get a distinction or have discontinued their distinction program. In Fall 2021, the English department decided to stop offering distinctions. Previously, the department offered distinction to students with a GPA of 3.8 or above who had taken seven or more English courses, six of those with St. Olaf faculty. 

English Department Chair Professor Johnathon Naito’s statement about discontinuing the distinction, found on the department webpage, explained that the faculty found these requirements unfair to students who studied abroad and transfer students. Additionally, the need to make a distinction portfolio created inequity as many students cannot take on this extra task due to other responsibilities, including jobs or internships. Professors also spent a significant amount of time looking over distinction portfolios, overburdening faculty.

Other departments have shifted to focusing more on celebrating coursework than additional work when considering which students stand out as exceptionally accomplished in their major. In a statement to The Olaf Messenger, Sociology/Anthropology Department Chair Professor David Schalliol wrote, “the department hasn’t granted distinction during the time I’ve been at St. Olaf. I was not part of the conversations that originally created distinction or its elimination. As of now, we primarily feature and interpret work in the context of courses, both through the electives students choose and the sequence of the major.”

Honor societies and other academic honors offered by St. Olaf also complicated awarding distinctions. In their statement, The English department cited this with mention to the Dean’s List, Phi Beta Kappa, the Blue Key Honor Society, and a lengthy list of honors read at graduation. Although not mentioned in the statement, the English department also nominates students to the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta. 

Schalliol also mentioned honor societies as a form of recognizing student accomplishment. “We do also participate in the sociology honor society, Alpha Kappa Delta, which adds a social component to academic work. So that’s the current situation. Given the comprehensive nature of the ongoing departmental decennial review, I’m sure we will be discussing elements of distinction and student assessment in the near future,” wrote Schalliol. 

The decline in departmental distinction will surely change how students’ academic accomplishments are recognized. However, there are still many ways in which the college and faculty will continue to honor students. Whether it be by making it less department-specific or integrating the social aspect of a student’s commitment to their major.

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