Monday, March 02, 2009



Dr. Crazy has a nice discussion over at her place about battles over curriculum.  As she details it, her department has basically broken into two camps: the "eat your spinach" camp and the "let them take what they want" camp.  I'm quite taken with the metaphor.

Basically, the "eat your spinach" camp assumes that students won't take anything non-sexy unless coerced, but that the non-sexy stuff they skip is inherently worthwhile.  So to get the students to take the worthwhile stuff requires coercion.  The "well-rounded meal" camp assumes that most people, when offered a comprehensive menu of choices, will naturally take stuff from across the board.  Dr. Crazy sides pretty cleanly with the second camp, though she makes a real effort -- to her credit -- to understand the first camp.

I'm not as sure which side I'm on.

I've been on both sides of this one at various times, and I say that without apology.  It depends on the case.  (This is true as a parent, as well.)  Certain disciplines are naturally sequential.  I don't want a pharmacist who doesn't understand how to calculate dosages, and I don't want an architect who doesn't understand geometry.  (Back at PU, I once had an engineering student ask me why he had to take math.  I told him it comes with the gig.)  From a cc perspective, there's also the reality of what our destination schools accept in transfer, so many requirements are effectively hand-me-downs.  

Outside of the fairly obvious cases, though, there's the question of whether we should assume that students already know everything they need to know when they get here.  If the answer is no -- and it is -- then it's not absurd to think that maybe they need to be exposed to some things.  Course requirements are a time-honored way (not the only way, but a pretty clean one) to ensure that some exposure happens.  Intro classes, survey classes, and prerequisite classes can introduce students to ways of thinking, or bodies of inquiry, that they simply don't know existed (or at least, not in the forms they do). Without a push, many students would unwittingly cut down the future to the size of the present.  In my Proprietary U days, I was constantly barraged with students asking why they had to take anything non-technical.  (They had less charitable terms for it.)  I took it as a personal triumph when I won them over by the end of the semester, but I wouldn't have had the chance had they not been required to be there.

Of course, taking that position requires being able and willing to explain, in some reasonably thoughtful way, why students need this class but not that one.  That's not easy.  

And it's certainly true, too, that conversations about required courses often quickly become conversations about turf, and about jobs.  If we decided to make freshman composition optional, what do you think would happen to its enrollments?  Consequently, what would happen to the resources available to the English department?  This shouldn't be a driver, but it is.

That granted, of course, it's possible to be right for the wrong reasons.  I'm quick to smell self-interest behind Principled Positions, but the principled positions can still be valid anyway.  

In defense of laissez-faire, any experienced instructor can tell you that interested students make better students.  A class full of students who have to be there is a tougher row to hoe than a class full of enthusiasts.  That's one reason why pass rates are usually higher in upper-level classes, even though they're 'harder.'  And it's certainly true that not every requirement makes sense for every student.  The usual pragmatic compromise is a Chinese menu, in which students take two from column A, one from column B, and so forth -- build choices into each category.  It works about as well as most pragmatic compromises do.  Invariably, over time, some departments find relatively fluffy ways for uninterested students to fill distribution requirements ("rocks for jocks"), though the social utility of that strategy is certainly questionable.

The food metaphor can work in either direction, too. American eating habits don't generally comport with the “leave them alone and they'll naturally pick well-balanced meals” ideal. This is, after all, the home of the whopper. A quick glance at, say, television viewing habits should put to rest any idea that people will naturally balance the edifying with the, uh, let's say 'less edifying.' A few will, but the vast majority won't, and rules are – and must be -- written for the vast majority.

This post is wishy-washier than I usually like to be, but I think it's an accurate reflection of the issue. Pushed hard enough, I'd probably land somewhere in the 'distribution requirement' – that is, Chinese menu – realm, mostly by default. Yes, all requirements are somewhat arbitrary, and some of them are pretty silly. But I'd hate to abandon students to what they know fresh out of high school. We owe them more than that, even if they don't always agree.

I'm actually a fan of the pragmatic compromise. Some things need to be required -- math courses in sequence, etc., -- and/or aren't skippable for whatever reason. (American Government was a waste of a very early hour of my day in college, but I understood why it was required, that's fine.)

But a lot of distribution requirements are exposing you to methods and ideas and tools of the discipline, and those are excellent candidates for the "take something in Sociology that includes these curricular points/skills, you pick what." I was exposed to extremely interesting ideas in college this way, in subject matter I otherwise might have resisted, by being able to pick something that was in disliked realm X but at least sounded interesting TO ME. (And I took Space Rocks for Jocks -- Cosmology -- and it was seriously one of the most worthwhile courses of my college career, absolutely fascinating. Heavy on concepts, light on math, excellent for interested liberal arts majors.)

One thing I think made a big difference in these "Chinese menu" style requirements was, "Is the prof teaching to majors or does he realize he's teaching a distribution course?" Because the ones who resentfully taught as if teaching to majors typically sucked. The ones who knew students were there for a requirement and took pains to present their discipline in an interesting, broad-based way typically made it fascinating -- and grabbed a lot of undecideds into their majors.

Boring sequential courses I have no answer for. :)
"Madea" and "Paul Blart" ... never underestimate.

Since I come from the side where required courses are required for a very good reason (and students don't understand this because they have taken so many courses that were simply mandated by the State in HS), many of my pre-engineering students see their ENTIRE math and science and engineering curriculum as spinach that must be eaten to get a high paying job. They fail if they think they also don't have to digest it, so my job is to make that connection for them.

I prefer the chinese menu approach that we use, but I can see its limitations. My undergrad school had the old, prescriptive approach, but I used an honor's program to evade some parts of that (much in the spirit of a distributional system). But when I decided I wanted to finally learn some Greek history, I did know how to find a book and read it critically - thanks to the classes I took in general studies.

And when I teach one such class every year, I am under no illusions that those students want to be physicists. They want to know how things work. Getting a possible physics major out of one of those classes is just gravy on the pancakes of education.
Thanks for the shout-out DD. To clarify, what I describe in my post is a conflict that is happening around upper-level requirements in a major, after there was broad agreement about core courses that would give students foundational stuff. So basically, the "Eat your spinach!" folks aren't arguing that every major needs, say, basic composition, or even a writing-intensive requirement in the discipline. They're saying the equivalent of "every major needs to have read the Aeneid in the original Latin to understand the poetry of it, but also to understand any poetry that has ever been written." And so the Aeneid is a required course but, say, it's totally fine if a student graduates never having heard of Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams. Because that's just filler - the "meat" of the upper-level is understanding how to scan a line of Virgil, and that's what poetry "really" is - not this newfangled stuff from *a full hundred years ago*.

So with that being said, yes, I'd love a chinese menu style curriculum, at least for general education purposes and within the humanities. Students need guidance, surely, but surely they should have some limited choices once they pass through their first two years of college. If not, aren't we sort of lying about how the courses we teach are important because they teach students how to think for themselves?

And to add one last thing to what Eyebrows McGee said: I entirely agree about profs needing to teach to the students that they have, but not just for distribution courses. If you're teaching at, say, a regional no-name uni, and you decide that students *even within the major* lack intellectual curiosity, that they are stupid, etc., yeah, you will end up miserable, and so will students. That's not being rigorous or having standards: that's being a bad teacher.
Good to be talking about higher ed again.

As our high school system continues to crumble, the university system is finding itself in the position of having to add an increasing number of "required core" courses.

This long-term trend has resulted in some interesting side effects . . . not the least of which is the perception (some truth to it, actually) that a current Fine Arts BA is the equivalent of a good HS education circa 1955.

[personal disclaimer: I had one of those snooty east coast liberal high school experiences where we all had to be able to spout Homer and do extemporaneous Dadaist retrospectives in the cafeteria; while writing essays on "Mao vs. Freud: Phallic Empowerment and the Class System"]

This ties in to the interesting conversational discursion about "the way to go is for a prospective member of society to be a generalist with a fine arts BA, followe by a focused BS" in another thread.

Many students and faculty involved in "work ready" type programs (engineering, business) are finding they have a smaller and smaller window for teaching courses that "actually contribute" to the ostensible purpose of the degree.

What is frustrating is being given a charter to develop a "New Degree Program To Serve The Needs of Society" and finding you have a grand total of 8 COURSES to play with . . .
There are two types of requirements: general ed and major-related. Major-related requirements are necessary, as in your example of an architect needing math.
For general ed requirements, there can be a pragmatic solution without requirements. I went to a college which had an understanding that a liberal arts education is well rounded, but had no general-ed requirement. I am convinced that these are not necessary as long as all the faculty, especially first year advisors, are questioning student's course decisions. This means that advisors encourage the students to sample diverse courses. Of course, it's more work for the advisors. BTW, the only requirement was that all students write correctly; any faculty could require a student to take a composition class before graduating.
I think part of the trouble, is that even a single-semester 3 credit hour college course is really rather a lot of material. The most brilliant approach I know of to the "eat your spinach" intention is the "brownie bite" attitude (stolen shamelessly from the Girl Scouts). There's a value in getting people to try things- to take a bite of spinach, if you will. But a whole meal (curricula) of forced spinach can be very unpleasant (particularly to those of us who actually eat kale by choice and are annoyed by being treated like the whopper-indulging masses!).
I'm liking the Chinese menu analogy, because that is where we are struggling right now. We require 9 distribution courses, 3 each in Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences. We also require that each of those courses be in a different discipline (i.e. you can't take 3 Psych classes). The proposal on the table is to drop that requirement to any 2 disciplines in each distribution area. This would allow a student to take 2 Psych classes instead of being limited to only 1. We categorize it as the, "Breadth vs. Depth" debate. That's why I like the Chinese Menu - is it going to be 2 from Column A, or 3 from Column A?

I must admit that I lean more toward the, "Eat your Spinach" camp. As long as we claim to be offering a Liberal Arts education, and as long as there is a wide range of course choices in each discipline, why wouldn't we compel students to be at least somewhat conversant across our entire curriculum?
Just wanted to say that I agree with yacp on this one -- the slow movement toward a required BA for students to get decent jobs has created a HS "market for lemons."
My question in this debate would be how will you assess your students without knowing what they've studied and what they were supposed to learn? Can your faculty talk about assessment as a legit thing to consider or they all too busy riding off into various sunsets, gulleys, canyons etc. to ensure that students get a core set of skills despite taking different classes?

If you are going to have anything even remotely resembling meaningful assessment, some requirements would be - well - required. Unless your faculty is sufficiently organized to sit down with your learning objectives and design each of their courses to meet them (my department is not!), the chinese menu will always fall short and assessment will continue to be a somewhat haphazard thing.
All I know, is that as an unemployed Ph.D (anthropology) I have recently learned that thanks to my "no distribution requirements" SLAC, I am not qualified to teach 4-8th grade. I cannot earn alternative certification because I do not have 6 hours of college math, 12 hours of college science, or 22 hours in a subject that is taught in elementary or secondary education.

Right now, I wish I had a BA from an "eat your veggies" school.
I'm in history and, compared to many other disciplines, we're wildly freeform. Besides requiring a first-year survey and two "how-to-do-history" courses, our requirements within our major are based on breadth concerns -- making sure that students don't come out with only a knowledge of 20th century Canada or 19th century Europe, say.

We're the target of a lot of distribution enrollments, sometimes unwisely, as in the non-majors who insist on enrolling in my "Approaches to European History" course. I enjoy bringing in students from all over the university, but it also would be nice to pull from a pool of common knowledge. I've learned to do without that last bit, however, as the alternative would be a curriculum stifling for students as well as professors.
Watching this comment thread has been very interesting, and I agree with the comments that talk about the need for assessment to be part of curricular decisions, and also that veggies (however we define those) are necessary. (What's been weird about my situation at my institution has a lot to do with the fact that I've never suggested that we just let students take whatever they want - though apparently any emphasis on students being free to choose in some areas is perceived as that by some.)

I suppose I wonder, though, about the binary between choice and preparation that is set up in discussions like this. Isn't it possible to forge some sort of curriculum that allows for *some* choice while at the same time it insists upon preparation? Maybe I'm naive for thinking that some form of this is possible, and maybe it's not possible in all disciplines, which I'm fully willing to grant. But if we think about squishy humanities disciplines, isn't there a way out of thinking that choice (carefully framed) means lack of rigor or that giving students (carefully framed) choices means that we're not serving them?
At Stockholm University, a Bachelor is defined as 3 years worth of courses, with minimal requirements (enough in one major; existence of minor courses; existence of a thesis), and a Master is defined as 4 years.

If you go and talk to a counselor, they'll start off by telling you how a course of study would be composed. The courses all have requirements, and it seems pretty rigid as long as you don't look hard. This way, anyone who hasn't thought it through for themselves will get, by default, a well rounded education.

And those who really do want something out of the ordinary (such as my insanely pure math major with minors in linguistics and latin), are perfectly free to do so and get a degree out of it.

As a contrast, the German university where I did my PhD work has a LOT more requirements and various classes without which a degree could not possibly be granted.

Personally, I'm strongly in favour of the model at Stockholm University: ladle up lots of spinach on the plate, but don't FORCE students who are independent enough to actually game the system.
"If you're teaching at, say, a regional no-name uni, and you decide that students *even within the major* lack intellectual curiosity, that they are stupid, etc., yeah, you will end up miserable, and so will students. That's not being rigorous or having standards: that's being a bad teacher."

Not if every administrator--as well as most of the faculty and damn near all of the students, I might add--value student retention over rigor, standards, or...hell, the idea that students should learn things.
"And so the Aeneid is a required course but, say, it's totally fine if a student graduates never having heard of Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams. Because that's just filler - the "meat" of the upper-level is understanding how to scan a line of Virgil, and that's what poetry "really" is - not this newfangled stuff from *a full hundred years ago*."

Ah, Dr. Crazy, I see you've met my husband! Who made it through a prestigious magnet high school for brainiacs, an Ivy-equiv private Uni with honors, and a top-10 law school without ever HEARING of W.C.W. or e.e. cummings. And completely refused to believe that ol' e.e. was poetry when I shared one of my favorites with him. I've spent the last nine years trying to bring him around to appreciating some post-1800 poetry. :)

He is extremely intelligent, but in some ways quite narrow -- partly because he was allowed to choose his own direction in high school and college. I was too, but choosing MY own direction led me to end up with broad exposure to a huge variety of topics. (Although, yeah, I wouldn't have done so much science without being made to. But I was pretty happy to gorge broadly on the liberal arts and social sciences side.)

Honestly I think it's a little upsetting for a student to graduate an American high school (let alone college!) without having read e.e. or W.C.W., particularly given that both are very accessible to high school students. But then, I can be in the Spoon River Valley in 10 minutes from my front door, and NOBODY, but nobody, who grew up around here has read any of the Spoon River Anthology in school. It's appalling.
the real question is this: how can mr. eyebrows attend a "prestigious magnet high school for brainiacs" and not have to take ee cummings (or study ordinary differential equations, or economics, etc for that matter)?

what was he studying those four years in high school?

my wife (the elementary school teacher) and her colleagues are decrying the curricular changes demanded by "no child left behind" and state mandated testing.

apparently, they now have to "make room" in the curriculum to teach math, and reading, and science . . .


It'd be kinda nice to leave some room for PE, history, and social sciences of some sort.
"what was he studying those four years in high school?"

As far as I can tell, their lit program covered things up to about 1700ish. (Their history program was heavy on the pre-modern history too.) They spent tons of time on the Iliad, quite a bit of time on Chaucer, a little time on Shakespeare (appallingly little), and NO time on American lit.

As a result, he's totally useless at Trivial Pursuit.
Not sure about how much history or social studies the first graders need, but I get the point.

There are an infinite number of things we would like to have in the curriculum . . . to the point where "need to haves" get squeezed out.

Of course, one persons "need to have" is another persons "nice to have" and vice versa.

That's why we have to have national standards (oh bollocks and it begins again!).

My "liberal" public school model vs. Mr. Eyebrows "conservative" private school model:

Under the model I was exposed to, we would chart the arc between the greek tragedies, shakespeare, and western movies of the 1970s.

Perhaps his time was spent on reading the greek tragedies from reproductions of the original manuscripts.

Which is better?

Well, I *do* get to kick butt at Trivial Pursuit, that's for sure!

Is this truly a "depth vs. breadth" discussion?
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