Monday, January 05, 2015

Class(es) Prerogative

Nerdiest lede ever: Is interdisciplinarity becoming a class prerogative?

January term had a distinct feel at my small liberal arts college.  In that residential setting, intersession was a time for unusual, interdisciplinary, or otherwise unusual classes.  My favorite was a class on Gay and Lesbian Politics, which I took in the late 80’s.  The classes were graded pass-fail, and they were intended both to allow for exploration of unusual pathways and to allow for whole lot of skiing.  The idea was that students would form bonds that they might not otherwise form, the better to craft the kind of tightly-knit graduating classes that lead to alumni donations.

Here, intersession is much more about 100-level gen ed classes.  (As a former dean memorably put it, “plain vanilla is our bread and butter.”)  Most of the classes are online, which serves a couple of purposes.  It makes it easier to enroll students who are full-time elsewhere and are just looking to pick up a few transferable credits on the cheap during winter break.  And it helps us dodge snow days, which matter more in a short session.  Snow is a real risk in Massachusetts in January.  The system is built on the assumption that students are moving at different paces, for different reasons, and that some of them are just passing through.

I’m happy to run the gen ed classes in intersession.  They fill easily, the faculty and students like them, and the outcomes are good.  A fair number of intersession students are really enrolled elsewhere and just visiting us, so I’m glad that we’re able to reach a different population.  For many of the students who are matriculated here, intersession offers a chance to maintain continuity and stay on pace without taking superhumanly overloaded Fall or Spring semesters.  

Several years ago, when we first brought intersession back, we tried running some of the sorts of nontraditional classes that had worked well elsewhere.  Students didn’t sign up.  We even offered a one-credit class focusing on a single great novel, which I thought would have been a treat; nobody signed up.  But Intro to Psych fills every time.

Part of the difference, I’m sure, has to do with the difference between a college that sends transfer students and a college that receives them.  ‘Sending’ colleges have to be relatively careful not to put labels on courses that will prevent the credits from transferring.  Gay and Lesbian Politics wouldn’t transfer to most places cleanly, since most wouldn’t have a similar class at the 100 or 200 level.  At best, it might get “free elective” credit.  But most four-year degree programs have so few “free electives,” if any, that the designation is misleading.  It’s where stray credits go to die.

It’s harder to be interdisciplinary at this level.  A residential four-year college can break format and offer strange and wonderful things, secure in the knowledge that its own credits will count towards graduation.  A two-year transfer college really can’t.  And that’s a loss.

I’d argue that students at this level deserve just as much innovation and academic ambition as students at tonier places.  Yes, innovation can -- and does -- occur in classes with more traditional names and numbers.  But it’s harder to get really ambitious and experimental when you have to tie yourself to a checklist at another college’s admissions office.

If every student had equal access to every level of institution, specialization wouldn’t be an issue.  Students could choose the place that worked best for them, and that would be that.  But for many students, the pricier places are simply not realistic choices.  If we’re confined to offering plain vanilla, that’s all these students will get.  There’s something wrong with that.

In a perfect world, we’d have the sort of changes in the political economy that would render many of these issues moot.  Short of that, though, at least we could make a decision, as an industry, to be more open-minded about transfer credits.  Without transferability, our riskier courses don’t get the critical mass of enrollment needed to run.  A commitment to accepting them in transfer would help ensure that ambitious classes don’t become class prerogatives.

I enjoyed those ambitious and unusual classes.  I’d like students here to have that same opportunity.