Rethinking Semester at Sea

THE SEMESTER at Sea program might sound like every student's dream: Starting this summer, students can literally go on a cruise and receive academic credit for it, a concept that would no doubt make Thomas Jefferson proud.

According to a former participant's letter to The Cavalier Daily, the program has been nicknamed "The Booze Cruise" and "Kindergarten at Sea" in honor of low academic standards and heavy drinking. This reputation should concern the University community, since we take pride in our tradition of high academic standards and heavy drinking.

There is nothing inherently wrong with exploring foreign cultures on a cruise that docks for a few days in each country before returning to sea. The problem is that the University has taken on the Semester at Sea as an addition to existing academic programs, prompting concerns from the Arts & Sciences faculty that they are losing control over their curricula. In order to retain our reputation for strong academics, the University must fulfill its promise to drastically raise the standards of the program.

According to University spokesperson Carol Wood, the administration took on the Semester at Sea with the intention of improving the program.She said in an interview, "From the very beginning, the Institute for Shipboard Education was attracted to the University of Virginia because of our academic standards."

This might come as a surprise given the chronic under-funding of academic departments here in Charlottesville: As Cabell Hall deteriorates around us, the administration has turned its efforts to designing an academic program to suit a cruise ship, when might be working to better support the serious academic programs that we already have.

One might cynically conclude that the University has succumbed to market pressures and sacrificed academic integrity in favor of a program that will serve more as entertainment than as education. It's also possible that the administration genuinely believes that the Semester at Sea can offer students a valuable cultural experience that lives up to academic standards at the University. But we have to wonder why a cruise ship was chosen over numerous study abroad programs that haven't been nicknamed "The Booze Cruise."

A common criticism of study abroad programs is that American students tend to spend the entire semester with other American students. Students can ensure greater immersion in foreign cultures by applying directly to foreign universities so that they can live and learn with students who are native to that country. The Semester at Sea appears to be the extreme version of isolation, with students spending several days on the cruise ship with other Americans between visits to ports in multiple countries.

Perhaps the Semester at Sea students can have meaningful cultural experiences during their brief stops in multiple countries. These visits will certainly provide more exposure to foreign cultures than students would have if they had stayed in the United States, but they cannot compare to the experience of getting to know a country by spending a semester there.

Even in programs that keep American students together, there are many opportunities to experience a foreign country in programs that have a strong reputation for both academics and real world experience. One example is the University's "Culture of London" program, in which students study literature, architecture and history to supplement their immersion in the culture of London.

As long as we have a contract with the Semester at Sea program, the University has an opportunity to prove critics wrong by dramatically raising the academic standards of the program. Coordinators of the program should present detailed evidence of the curriculum's high standards, including syllabi and examples of graded work.

If the appropriate changes are made, the Semester at Sea could be positive introduction to foreign cultures for students who aren't willing to stay in a foreign country for a whole semester.If the idea of a cruise attracts students who wouldn't otherwise see the world, the program could provide exposure that might prompt students to return to those countries in the future.

One possible solution to the faculty's concerns might be to reduce or alter the academic credit that students can receive for participating in the Semester at Sea. If the faculty of the relevant departments is unsatisfied with the level of academic work, students could participate for elective credit that reflects the experience. There is really no reason why University students shouldn't see the world from a cruise ship if they're willing to pay for it, as long as they don't expect credit that they haven't earned.

Cari Lynn Hennessy's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at chennessy@cavalierdaily.com.

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