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Allow PDF and audit for introductory languages

The liberal arts system rests on the principle of academic freedom. For four years, we are encouraged to take classes in fields we have never considered in order to become more well-rounded scholars and human beings. The University has put in place many mechanisms in order to help us facilitate this, not the least of which are the audit and PDF options. Indeed, these are the features that allow us to be exposed without risk to introductory courses in the fields of computer science, economics, physics, comparative literature and more.

But, curiously, this option doesn’t exist in the languages. You cannot audit or PDF CHI 101: Elementary Chinese I, SPA 101: Beginner’s Spanish I, KOR 101: Elementary Korean I or JPN 101: Elementary Japanese I. This seems odd, considering the fact that the University places enough emphasis on learning a new language to make it a part of the A.B. general education requirements. Departmental Representative of East Asian studies Everett Zhang says that this is due to the fact that a typical grading system provides better motivation for students to work hard in the class, and consequently better prepares them for the higher-level courses they would need to take in order to either concentrate in, or get a certificate relating to, the language. In essence, a PDF option allows students to invest less effort in the course than they otherwise would — the consequences of which mean that they might be unprepared for further study in the field, and that the seriousness of the language requirement itself is undermined.

While this is certainly valid, it does reduce the attractiveness of learning a new language; without the safety net provided by the audit and PDF options, a GPA-conscious student might recoil from the idea of risking a low grade in what are generally tough and time-consuming courses. Certainly, that’s the case for me —  if CHI 101 was offered with a PDF option, then I would be taking it next fall. As it is, I am not because of the class’s infamously bad curve. It is understandable that the University wants to enforce a serious attitude with regard to the language requirement — for many students, it is the only form of exposure to foreign culture and practice.

However, the impact of this reaches beyond the set of A.B. students who have not yet finished their language requirement. It also impacts undergraduates who are not restricted by this prerequisite: those in the B.S.E. program and the A.B. students who are already finished with the language portion of their general education. By attempting to inspire intellectual growth in one group, this policy has stinted it across all others.

There is a fairly simple solution to this. Instead of completely removing the PDF and audit options from introductory language courses, restrict those abilities to students for whom the language requirement is either completed or inapplicable. This allows students who want to learn a certain language to pursue their interests with lower risk, thereby encouraging the sort of cultural well-roundedness and linguistic exploration that the University aims to achieve with the language requirement in the first place.

With regard to the possible drawback that once the PDF and audit options open up, students will put less effort into these classes and therefore get less out of them, it must be said that there is an element of truth to this. However, this viewpoint neglects the fact that these non-letter-grade avenues will be restricted to those who aren’t required to enroll in a language class. That is to say, the only people allowed to audit or PDF the class are those who took it solely out of genuine interest; these students are clearly self-motivated enough to take the class, so it is not an unreasonable assumption to say that they are also willing to put in effort to further their own learning. If they are PDFing a course, it is not out of laziness, but due to any combination of external factors such as free time, grades or course space.

By disabling the PDF and audit options in introductory language courses, the administration has impeded the process of exploration that it attempts to foment in the student body; the removal of these safety nets has caused many students to be repelled from courses they would otherwise take. However, allowing undergraduates who have already demonstrated proficiency in a foreign language access to these options would free many students to chase after their linguistic interests while still maintaining the seriousness of the language requirement — opening up a whole new realm of cultural exploration for those for whom the risk is sufficient cause to stay away.

Yotam Sagiv is a freshman from Tel Aviv, Israel. He can be reached at ysagiv@princeton.edu.

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