Are Brooks women the smartest students at Principia College?

Principia enrolled just under 500 students in the 2013-14 school year. About 100 of those students earned spots on the dean’s list or honor roll during that time period And of those 100, one in every five was a resident of the all-female Brooks House, beating out the other eight houses by comfortable margins. These and other findings are detailed on page 23 of this article.

Although this article only addresses one academic year – fall 2013 to spring 2014 – it still raises the important question of if there is a relationship between where a student lives and whether he or she makes the dean’s list or honor roll.

The Pilot spoke with house presidents, resident counselors and the Dean of Academics in order to ascertain this. Overall, those interviewed partially attributed academic success to house residency, but also discussed other ideas that provided additional views on the subject.

Principia housing: some context

No Principia student truly determines for themselves which houses they live in during their time at Principia. Incoming first-year students are placed in one of two co-ed freshman houses, Anderson or Rackham, by the Student Life department. Then, toward the end of freshman spring, first-year students fill out a preference form of their rankings of the four upperclassman houses available to their gender. For men, those houses are Buck, Ferguson and Lowrey; and for women, they are Brooks, Howard and Joe. Sylvester is the only co-ed upperclassman house. Most students usually receive either their first or second choice, while those who turn in their forms late are automatically assigned their last choice.

Davis-Schulz, which houses non-traditional students, was not included in this study because it has significantly fewer students than the nine traditional houses do. Also, last school year’s housing assignments were used to reflect the 2013-14 student body.

Because students don’t have full say in their housing, a unique “culture” has emerged from each house that cultivates common interests and provides house unity. Thus, this article strives to look at what role, if any, a house’s culture plays into a student making the dean’s list (4.0 GPA) or honor roll (3.8 GPA or above).

Brooks: bred brilliance?

The high number of Brooks women on the dean’s list and honor roll suggests their house might have a culture that nurtures academic success. Those interviewed from Brooks all said they weren’t surprised by this article’s findings, but had different thoughts as to what their culture actually is.

“I don’t think there’s a cause as much as there is a correlation,” said junior Anna Tarnow, a co-president of Brooks this past spring. “Most people in that house are really hard workers, and came in like that. They have their priorities in order, and they stick to them.” Louise Kingsbery, the Brooks resident counselor from 2008 to 2014, agreed with Tarnow, saying that “I believe success is individual and not specific to a house.”

Speaking of Kingsbery, those interviewed also attributed the atmosphere of Brooks to their resident counselor. “I think there are several factors that play into that success. However, the most influential one, I would say, is and was Louise,” said Katie Stewart, a co-president of Brooks last fall. “It’s hard to put simply into words the impact that Louise had on Brooks’ culture.”

“She has the special ability to fiercely love you while simultaneously holding you to your highest potential,” continued Stewart, who graduated in May. “She was a source of comfort and support for the whole house, and that love helped so many women, including myself, get through the toughest of times.”

Abby Harraden, a co-president of Brooks with Stewart, also spoke of the connection between Kingsbery and Brooks women. “I truly believe that the women in the house and the RC, Louise Kingsbery, worked together to create a harmonious and supportive house culture,” Harraden said, who graduated in May. “While everyone has their own activities and their own support system within them, I think that the Brooks House does come together to support one another and challenge each other to grow and be on our best game.”

How, then, has Brooks provided said mutual support? Those interviewed said there were several physical factors that enabled this. “[Kingsbery’s] apartment was a safe haven where girls could decompress for a while and then get back to work,” Stewart said. Although every resident counselor at Principia has an apartment open for students to come into, she described additional contributors different from some houses. “We kept the TV out of the living room in order to keep it as a study space. We kept quiet in the evening so as to avoid distracting others. And we respected that people have serious work to do,” Stewart said.

“Some of my favorite memories in Brooks consist of being in the living room working on homework all night long with other Brooks ladies, during the wintertime with a fire going, and Louise bringing us food,” Harraden said. “Each of us had lots to do, and we may have procrastinated some, but we supported each other in creating an environment where we could come together and get things done.”

So is there, then, a definitive culture in Brooks? Tarnow doesn’t seem to think so. “There’s not really an overt social culture like there is in a lot of other houses. In fact, the lack of a declared culture might be Brooks’ identity,” she said. “So maybe because we worry less about defining ourselves and more about working hard at our goals, it helps us succeed.”

Lowrey: immature or inspired?

Lowrey House, on the other hand, had the lowest total number of representatives on the dean’s list and honor roll this past school year. Is there a reason explaining why Lowrey, widely known on campus as “the prank house,” had so few of its members earn at least a 3.8 GPA?

Shelby Miller, the house president of Lowrey for the 2012-13 school year and the fall 2013 semester, said he was not surprised by the Pilot’s findings. However, he provided an alternative explanation. “It’s not so much that Lowrey completely disregards academics; it’s that we attract a different crowd,” said Miller, who graduated last December. “I chose to be in Lowrey because there’s a lot of personal growth that occurs in the house; there are lots of friendships and bonding. Quite frankly, a lot more people spend time hanging out with each other than spending time on their academic work. If you’re looking at it from a purely academic standpoint, then that’s not good.”

Casey Towle, the house president of Lowrey this past spring, agreed with Miller in regards to house bonding, but he also offered a caveat to this view. “The strength of Lowrey is our brotherhood. Lowrey, unfortunately, has become a house filled with too many people who don’t care about school,” said Towle, who graduated in May. However, he continued, “Lowrey needs to focus more on expressing its brotherly love to the campus to attract people who want to be a part of a team, a family; people who want to belong to something special.”

Is this “something special” referring to Lowrey’s underwear runs, wrestling matches and other house activities? Forrest Wilder, the resident counselor of Lowrey from 2010 to 2014, didn’t seem to think so. “I’m not sure I can totally agree with the premise that Lowrey’s culture alone led to these results,” he said. “I don’t think the culture of any house on campus has the power to completely influence this kind of thing. I think that most significantly, it is the level of responsibility taken by individuals in their respective houses for their studies and academic success that contributes to these kind of results.”

Wilder instead postulated that recreational activities like Netflix and videogames can play into not-ideal academic performance. “We might be better served in this conversation to talk about the greater culture that leads to individuals who allow studies and other academically-essential tasks to slip through the cracks in favor of the myriad of entertainment options that are available these days,” he said.

Wilder elaborated, “It was my observation that in Lowrey, as may also be the case for individuals in other houses as well, the academic issues we saw were less to do with house-sponsored activities and more to do with independent usage of technology as a distractor. … I’d literally have guys telling me they couldn’t participate in some house activity or another because they ‘had to catch up on their shows.’”

Miller also spoke of Lowrey’s historic mascot, a Native American known as Um Yah, that is still a prominent part of Lowrey lore today. “He is rejected from his tribe for being a different individual. He then went through trials and tribulations in the forest, looking for ways to better himself. Once he kills the Piasa Bird, he is accepted back into the tribe,” Miller said. “It’s a story of finding one’s self, working through times of trouble and being accepted. Some people go into Lowrey and really turn themselves around.”

The administration’s views

The Pilot interviewed Dean of Academics Joe Ritter to discuss this article’s findings. Because Principia enrolled 492 students in fall 2013 and 487 students in spring 2014 – numbers relatively consistent over the years – Ritter said that “One of the challenges is that our sample size is too small. To make a definite statement on these data points is difficult. That’s one of the challenges we have at Principia, is trying to say, ‘What’s the trend?’ It’s hard to say.”

A category even broader than one’s house is one’s class. The number of juniors and seniors on the dean’s list and honor roll outnumbered that number of freshmen and sophomores. Ritter offered an explanation for this, addressing the compositions of courses.

“As a freshman or sophomore, you’re taking your general education courses; you aren’t committed to that major. You’re taking courses that are either exploratory or that help you fulfill the liberal arts requirement,” Ritter said. “So the fact that more upperclassmen are on the honor roll and dean’s list may just be a factor of the system, of once you declare your major. It could be by the time you’re taking a 300-level course, you’re already committed to the major, so you’re going to earn a higher grade.”

Ritter did speak about house representation on these lists, though. “This doesn’t tell you the grade point average for the house,” he said. “It could be very bimodal, or the house with the most honor roll and dean’s list students doesn’t necessarily have the highest grade point average. It could be that Lowrey, for example, has a dozen students who just missed it; we don’t know.”

With all the thoughts on if house culture has an effect on a student making dean’s list or honor roll, Ritter said that “You can have a broad experience and do well academically. Some of our brightest students have quite full experiences. Part of it is how you’re going to focus.”

Overall, Ritter expressed some caution with regards to analytics like this. “In the end, part of it is trying to figure out what’re the right questions to ask. You’ve got to be careful when you use statistics because they can be quite misleading.”