Perspective on “The List”

March 9, 2011, 1:00 p.m.

I remember when I first saw “The List.”

It was the middle of freshman year. One my housemates showed it to me, explained that it was provided to him because he was an athlete, and asked if I wanted to take a look. I did. It was unremarkable, particularly to someone who had, at that point, little knowledge of the difficulty level of Stanford courses. Never did it cross my mind, even as a young reporter, that it would be worthy of a news story.

Now, The List is in the open. The Daily, along with the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News, published today a story by a group of a Stanford student journalists—many of them, staffers for this paper—about the perceived easiness of The List and the University’s reaction to it.

But three years and countless Stanford academic experiences after first viewing The List, my view has not changed. The List, on its own, is not a story. Why? It is not exclusively a list of easy courses. If it were, that would be worth noting. And there are some there, to be sure. But they’re mixed in with classes of varying difficulty, and aren’t organized to give the reader any conception of which ones are less of a burden than others. Set up instead by time slot, it presents a sample of courses across disciplines. It’s easy to see why many perceive it to be geared toward younger athletes who may still be finding their way—it’s a way to try different fields. That upperclassmen use it too is irrelevant; breadth does not imply ease.

I echo Austin Lee, director of academic services at the Athletic Academic Resource Center (AARC), which produces The List, when he says:

“An objective evaluation of the courses included on The List reveals several courses that most students would consider to be academically rigorous.”

I will say, unequivocally, that The List contains two of the hardest classes I have taken at Stanford. PoliSci 114S is taught by the titans of the security field, includes an intensive, two-day simulation and papers graded as harshly as any I have produced in my time on the Farm. Excellence and dedication is demanded. And for someone without a civil engineering background, CEE 64 presents a significant challenge—I spent countless hours a week relearning chemistry just to perform at even a proficient level on the course’s biweekly tests. Don’t get me started on the end-of-quarter project.

Now, I have heard an athlete refer to The List as “easy,” but said athlete is also one of the five smartest people I have encountered on this campus and so for him, everything is simple. He doesn’t count. Other than that, I’m at a loss—when I’ve asked other athletes about The List in the past, many will push back about just how “easy” it is. Perhaps they’ve been burned, because the student who sees these classes and assumes they’re all “easy” is in for a rude awakening.

It boils down to this: If I go onto CourseRank and look for classes with average work loads of 1-5 hours a week and most grades in the “A” range, I can get a better view of Stanford’s “easy” classes than this list can ever give me. Or, if I was still a youngin’, I could consult an upperclassman. Back when the school still used HPACs, I would go to mine to ask for the best—read: least difficult—way to fulfill general education requirements for subjects I had no interest in. This was common practice amongst practically everyone I knew at Stanford. For the record, peers at other top five academic institutions would employ similar tactics. Stop the press: sometimes, college students want a lighter load.

What, then, is the basis for this story?

The major question is: why is this list produced at all? It screams of special treatment under the guise of time-management. Athletes have full schedules, but Stanford prides itself on a student body that does 17 different extra-curricular activities in addition to a normal courseload. Students will regularly take on full-time jobs in addition to their classes; there is no list out there to help them navigate the waters.

But how far do we take this? If we want everyone on equal footing, we ought to eliminate the Athletic Academic Resource Center, because it’s an extra benefit for athletes. A proposition that is, of course, ridiculous and one that I doubt many people want, but it underlines the essential point: Stanford has and will treat athletes differently from other students. And it’s fine—we’ll explore that more later. So does Harvard: they have a center called Athletic, Academic, and Personal Excellence designed specifically and exclusively for athletes that helps with, among other things, “academic counseling.” This is standard operating procedure for all schools, and the “civilian” who complains about AARC’s existence is one surprisingly lacking in agency. But since we’re talking about The List, it follows logically that AARC, in its capacity as an academic resource center, would provide a list of classes to take that fit the specific needs of the people its serving. It makes…perfect sense. Any adviser on this campus could do the same; that they don’t is not AARC’s fault.

In discussing it in the Daily office, and speaking to some of the writers who contributed to the piece, two other major story lines arose to justify the piece’s newsworthiness. First: Stanford’s reaction to The List was so puzzling that it almost implied guilt, and made it newsworthy on its own. Second: that the aim is not to look at Stanford athletes through a national prism but rather, to see if the University’s proclamations about its student-athletes—namely, that they’re held to the same standards as and treated no differently than their classmates—rang true. All valid points.

To the first: in response to the reporters’ inquiries about The List, Stanford’s move was to…discontinue it. Puzzling. Unless you see something inherently wrong with The List, why do that? Here’s a common reaction from non-athletes I’ve encountered who have read the article: initial outrage that The List exists and then, upon reading the classes mentioned, an admission that “it’s really not that easy.” That comes from fuzzies and techies alike. What, then, is the University’s beef? The List may have outgrown its time—it was developed before tools such as CourseRank existed—and the reporters’ snooping brought its antiquated nature to the minds of University administrators. Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising, hinted at this idea in the original article. But in the absence of an explanation, there are other possibilities to consider: canceling The List as soon as someone starts poking their head around could either be a desperate attempt to make it seem like it doesn’t exist or an admission that, yes, something was up, and needed to be remedied. Both are curious, both require examination, both demand column inches.

To the second: Stanford likes to create an image that its athletes and “civilians” are perfectly integrated and that the school is status-blind. It’s a nice idea. It’s also not entirely true. One example: the admissions process. Since recruits will occasionally self-report GPAs and SAT/ACT scores, we know that a star football player with, say, a 1700 composite, or a low 3.0 GPA, could gain acceptance to Stanford, while a regular applicant with the same stats would be laughed out of the room. Instead of acknowledging that there is, sometimes, a difference, the University would prefer to put up blinders until it is forced to comment.

But there’s no reason to take that tact. Outside of the military academics, which have their own special criteria, Stanford still has the most rigorous athlete admission criteria of any major Division 1 school. Once on campus, these players must go to the same classes as any other student. And while some courses may be easier relative to others at the University, it is still Stanford: there is no (to quote a commentator on the Daily web site) “underwater basket weaving” here, there’s no “General Studies” major like there is at, say, Michigan (otherwise a top public institution) and—pardon the elitism—our introduction classes can likely match up with more advanced courses at other schools. (There is also not an inherent correlation between “introductory” and “easy,” particularly at Stanford.)

This extends into a normative argument, and here’s the (obvious) rub: Stanford wants to make sure that it is seen as equal to the upper crust of the Ivy League. And it is, with student-athletes that are largely as talented in the classroom as they are in their sport. Acknowledging that there are exceptions here and there for athletics doesn’t change any of that, and the University does not serve itself by plugging its ears and stomping its feet while trying to create this pristine image. I understand the reporters’ intuition upon hearing about The List—is there a hole in this ideal, and is the University creating a special class of students?—and believe that the university’s actions only served to enhance the story’s vitality. I posit that if Stanford didn’t push an unrealistic idea of flawlessness, it is likely that this story doesn’t come to pass.

I do not fault the reporting team for pursuing this angle or question why this report was written. The group includes some of the best journalists I have encountered in either an amateur or professional setting, and I trust their judgment. That said, it is perhaps too quick to label the courses as “easy,” and there is missing context, both in terms of the world inside the Stanford bubble—the singular focus of the piece—and the national scene. Simply put: even if The List was solely “easy” classes—which, again, it’s not—it would not reach even the bottom rung of academic help student-athletes get country-wide.

Ultimately, The List is largely irrelevant, though people will focus on it, and wrongly so—its existence is innocuous, and should not shatter anyone’s notions about the academic rigor or standards of the University. Cole Underwood, a freshman offensive lineman, responded to the piece and said it best:

“Stanford athletes work hard in the classroom, hard in athletics, and are good people. Don’t let anything bring you down.”



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