by Joe Sheppard
With a little help from his friends...
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
Shep's Place 43: Make it Relevant Man
A couple of months ago, I completed a project for LA that only a retiree could love: retrieving and digitizing the academic transcripts of alumni from as far back as the active files go (sometime in the 1950s) through 2006, the last year that transcripts were printed on paper. The job was dusty and occasionally tedious — scanning some 4700 documents — but it provided a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of LA’s curriculum, along with a few smiles.
When I had finished and stood back to survey the product of my digital prestidigitation, I found myself poking around in the late 1960s and early 1970s — the waning years of the “old” LA and the emergence of the “new” school. The first wave of academic changes came in 1970-’71, Ben Williams’ second year at the helm.
The first big change was to the curriculum itself, as term-length elective courses appeared in several departments, notably in English. At first the new classes had fairly straightforward titles: “The Short Story”; “Understanding Fiction”; “Two New England Poets”, and the like — descriptive but not always appealing to that restless, hirsute generation for whom education had to mean Edutainment. And it had to be Relevant Edutainment, man. So, taking the challenge (and ourselves) very seriously, we came up with a smorgasbord of spectacularly Relevant electives like “Out of Their Minds,” “Bad Guys in Literature,” “The Irrational Eye,” “Violence in Literature,” and “Find That Fairy” (a study of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene). For history, you could take “Media,” “Social Problems,” or, of course, “Nukes and Commies.” (The sole survivor of that era, now officially called Senior Honors History, John Curran’s course has remained a most-wanted class for generations of seniors. And it’s still “Nukes” to everyone except the Registrar’s office.) By 1972 there were so many elective courses that the college transcripts had to add a second page for the senior year. That problem was solved by the adoption of a legal-sized transcript form a couple of years later, but the flashy course names hung on for a while.
All this Relevance, man, may have kept our shaggy young scholars Edutained, but it created a minor nightmare for the College Office, where I had begun to work, with Dick Jeffers, around 1972. We knew that colleges like nice, clear high school records that enable them to evaluate an applicant’s academic program quickly and easily. However, like many of our sister schools at the time, we were sending out transcripts that left admissions people scratching their heads:
Math IV and “Black Studies” made sense, but what about “No, But I Read Bk” or “Limits of Heroism?” Course descriptions and lots of phone calls helped, and gradually the sillier names morphed into something more recognizable.
In passing, it’s interesting to note that exactly 39 courses, plus one non-credit “developmental reading” class, were offered at Lawrence Academy in 1967. Here’s the course “catalog” that was sent home around that time:
The 2016 – ’17 online LA course catalogue lists 123 offerings; about 40 are term-length, mostly in the arts. Somehow, the transcript sent to colleges has managed to shrink back to a manageable size.
The other big change in that stormy year concerned the way all those Relevant courses were evaluated. Letter grades took the place of numbers, which, as a few sharp kids quickly figured out, effectively lowered the passing mark from 65%, equivalent to a D, to 60%, — a thank-God-I-squeaked-by D minus.
If elective courses caused confusion for some, the conversion to letter grades made life easier for most. Every year, a few of us would have some poor kid in a class who just couldn’t get it, and he would end the term or, worse, the year, with a 64.3 average. This was a failure, and if it was a year-end grade, it meant that the boy had to repeat the course at an accredited summer school. (In those days, LA did not allow students to repeat courses at the Academy.) Assuming he passed, he still had to live with the humiliation of having “Summer School” forever emblazoned on his transcript. If he didn’t, he became what my own prep school rather snobbishly called the chaff: the kids who couldn’t hack it and left before their class graduated.
If situations like these were stressful for the students, they could be just as hard for the teachers. If a kid ended up with a 58 or a 61, no problem — he flunked. But the boy with the 64.3 was a different matter. Do you round the grade up, thereby passing him and sparing him a horrible fate? Had he worked hard, or had he spent half the year sleeping in the back row? If he was a junior or a senior (this did come up once for me), what about college? A 65 was bad enough on his record, but that failing grade could spell disaster. What would Mom and Dad do to me, a green young teacher, if I flunked their kid? Would they sue? Would I be fired? Would the kid corner me behind some building and beat me to a pulp? (The closest I came to the latter scenario happened in the spring of my first year, when, emulating my friend Alan Whipple, I threw a chalk dust-filled eraser at a snoozing football player in the front row. Brushing the white powder off his navy blue LA blazer, he informed me that I would look good with my nose behind my ear.) Making these life-or-death decisions became a bit easier with letter grades; sometimes it’s easier to justify turning an F into a D- than it was to add five points to a grade average.
We owe a debt to those shaggy-headed kids who cried for Relevance. They made us re-examine the school’s curriculum for the first time in decades, launching a process that continues even today. They pushed us to experiment with new course content and new ways of learning, two examples of which thrive today as Winterim and the I.I.P. (LA II to you oldsters). Out of the chaos of those early years came a new order: not carved in stone, as it had been for ages, but a growing, dynamic one that adapts readily to this fast-changing world while maintaining high standards. Some of the kids who helped shape today’s LA are coming up on fortieth and fiftieth reunions. We hope they’ll all come back and admire their handiwork.
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