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.