The Difficulty of Defining Difficulty

The Q Guide and Us

Difficulty Defining
Anna Papp

Searching for Excellence

UPDATED: September 26, 2014, at 11:32 a.m.

This past summer, Harvard announced that it would remove difficulty scores from the Q-Guide. Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay Harris said that “these changes reflect the decisions of the Faculty Council that were intended to make the Q a more accurate, sophisticated, and helpful mechanism for learning about and choosing courses.” Much of students' outrage centers upon the idea that we have the right to know this information and to choose classes as we please. I have a question for Jay Harris and the students of Harvard though that might alter the discussion on removing difficulty from the Q: How do we, as Harvard students and faculty members, define difficulty?

This question may seem overly simplistic, but in my mind, it is actually quite nuanced. When the Q asks us whether or not a class is difficult, is it asking us how hard it is to get an A? Or how easy it is to get a B? Is it how difficult the day-to-day work is, or how hard the final assignments are? I am sure that when many students answer on the Q, they have one or all of these definitions in mind. Difficulty could mean something more thought provoking though. It could be how much a class forces us to think about our own values and preconceived ideas and either change them or inspire us to believe them more deeply. Similarly, it could be how challenging the test material is, instead of how harshly the professor grades those tests. Or, maybe, something being difficult means that it forces us think about the big questions of life that frequently make us uncomfortable.

To be honest, I have no answers to this conundrum. I do know though that I am disappointed in our faculty for not challenging us to consider these questions about difficulty. Instead of using the Q-guide and our courses as a chance to ask ourselves what each of us considers as difficult and to show others these definitions, they have affirmed our belief that difficulty is synonymous with grades. They perpetuate a culture where we avoid uncomfortable questions and an intellectual challenge just as much as students who choose every class based on the difficulty scores do. Similarly, the faculty frequently laments how inflated grades have become. Again though, they are just as guilty of partaking in this inflation as the students are. Instead of making the content of their class difficult to think about, they focus on how hard it is to succeed in their class. I challenge the faculty to turn their focus away from grades and Q-scores. Specifically, I ask professors to consider these two questions: Who cares if it is easy to get an A if a student has been challenged to contemplate their ideas of the world and the content and has become a better learner in the process? And what is the point of giving a B for the sake of making a class “hard”?

Just as much as I ask the faculty to consider my thoughts, I ask my fellow students to do the same. We have a constant focus on how hard or easy it is to get a good grade in a class. I understand it. We have all been taught to strive for excellence in our efforts to get into Harvard, and an A is the ultimate sign of academic excellence. In our quest for this narrow definition of excellence though, we have forgotten that overcoming a challenge is imperative to excelling at something. As Henry Ward Beecher, an American abolitionist, once said, “We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.” I encourage every member of the Harvard community, from tenured faculty to new freshmen, to consider this idea.

Similarly, in our quest to be the best, I find that we frequently lose sight of the amazing, meaningful talents we already do possess. In my work at the Admissions Office, the admissions officers frequently talk about how they seek out the “most intelligent, the most talented, and the most humane” students possible. We are those students, and in that spirit, I think it is important to remember and remind each other that we are excellent because of the ways that we better the lives of those around us. We do so via our prodigious athletic skills, our commitment to service, our ability to be engaging conversationalists, and our courage to disagree with our professors and peers. Most importantly, we are excellent people when we make our friends laugh and smile on their worst days. Our excellence is not defined by the letters, or the school, on our transcripts but by all of the other unbelievable things that we do for those around us.


James Piltch ’17 lives in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.


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