When the New York Times story detailing suspect academic practices involving Auburn football players appeared a few days ago, the college football blogosphere lit up like the 4th of July. Regardless of team allegiance, it appeared to be an item of great interest and has received coverage from The Blue-Gray Sky (Notre Dame), Bruins Nation (UCLA), College Football Resource, Dawg Sports (Georgia), Georgia Sports Blog, EDSBS (Florida), Maize n Brew (Michigan), M Go Blog (Michigan), The M Zone (Michigan) and countless others. The reaction has ranged from "much ado about nothing" to "if guilty, Auburn deserves the death penalty." I would laugh my ass off if the Barners got the death penalty, but we all know that isn't going to happen.
The NYT article states that Auburn professor Thomas Petee offered 15 different courses as directed readings (D.R.) during both semesters of 2004. I took two D.R. courses as an undergrad, but I was approached by the two professors offering them and they certainly weren't on offer to dozens of people. In each instance, I was the only student taking a D.R. course with each professor during that particular quarter (for those of you that never experienced the quarter system, it was awesome.) I hasten to add that my D.R. courses were for subject areas not on offer in the general course catalog.
My first D.R. experience involved doing research and fact checking for a history professor that was working on a book. He would give me rough draft chapters of his book and it was my job to try to verify information provided by people interviewed in the book. While it wasn't particularly difficult (at least in terms of taking tests or writing papers), it did require a large investment of time and it provided valuable experience in the craft of being an historian.
My second D.R. experience was an independent study of Katsushika Hokusai's Fugaku Sanju Rokkei, a series of woodblock prints depicting various views of Mount Fuji produced in the first half of the 19th century. I had to write a paper for that one that wound up being about 30 pages in length and provide analyzed slides of the works.
Will the great wave of Indianapolis wash over The Plains?
While I was not required to attend formal classes for these two D.R. courses, I did have to meet frequently with my instructors. On the research project, I met with my professor at least weekly. On the independent study, I typically met with the professor every other week. I received a verbal lashing or two from one of the instructors when he thought I was goofing off. I was reminded that the opportunity to do an independent study was a privilege extended to students that showed a desire to learn about a particular subject in greater depth than what was typically taught in the traditional classroom courses for that subject and that I was not guaranteed a good grade (or even a passing grade.)
I don't pretend to know how directed readings and independent studies operate at other schools or even how other professors at my school conduct them, but the ones described in the NYT article are a far cry from what was required of me. One former player said he only had to read one book and write a 10 page paper on it.
I'm not trying to call Auburn out on this because they're the main rival of my team, but the more I've thought about it, the more serious it seems to me. I'm sure Alabama has some "easy A's" that football players take advantage of, but I sincerely hope it isn't anything on this level.