Tuesday, June 08, 2010


"Get Your Gen Eds Out of the Way"

Although I know I'm tempting the speech-code-police to come after me, I'll admit that if I were king of higher ed for a day, I'd ban the phrase "get your gen eds out of the way."

It's one of those phrases that well-meaning advisors use to try to help students plan their schedules. But I'm convinced it does untold damage.

"Gen Eds" are the courses outside your major that you're required to take to get your degree. English composition, math, and suchlike are typically required of students in almost every degree program. The idea behind the requirement is to ensure that every college graduate has at least some fluency in the basics of what most of us expect an educated person to be able to do or to know. (On a less exalted level, gen ed distribution requirements often also constitute a de facto jobs program for faculty in certain disciplines. Anyone who doubts this is invited to sit in on a faculty senate discussion of changes to gen ed requirements.) Even if your major is Early Childhood Ed or Marketing, you should still be able to write clearly and handle grownup math. I'd argue that something like "Intro to American Government" should be a requirement, as should something like "Life Economics," but that's me.

Of course, many students perceive the requirements as entirely pointless, or as a form of hazing. They want to get right to the good stuff, or at least to what they perceive as the useful stuff, and they resent having to take anything else. Anyone who has taught those classes knows the frustration of hitting a wall of "why do we have to take this class?" on the first day.

In dealing with both faculty and staff, though, I see plenty of well-meaning people throughout the college who actually feed that cynicism. In helping students navigate degree requirements and cobble together schedules that work, it's easy to go native and adopt the perspective of the student a little too uncritically. In dealing with a skeptical student, the "get your gen eds out of the way" line can function as a sort of hook; it acknowledges some of the student's perspective, in the service of pulling the student along. Sometimes, that can work.

But students are quick to pick up mixed messages. And once the well is poisoned, getting it clean again isn't easy.

Wise and worldly readers, I seek your counsel. Have you seen an effective and non-patronizing way to reduce self-defeating messages like "get your gen eds out of the way" on your campus?

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