Friday, November 08, 2013

Get it Out of the Way

You've probably heard this from students, where "it" is some requirement, a course, test, whatever.

I'm sure I said it myself at some point, and about some things (a certain requirement from my phud program comes to mind).

As an adviser, though, I find these statements frustrating.

I usually try to get the student to recognize that someone thought this requirement was useful and important, and maybe the student should think about why that might be and what they might gain from doing whatever it is the requirement requires.

Sometimes, I recognize, it's a hoop to jump through because someone had a political or turf stake in creating or maintaining that hoop.

But mostly, I think general education requirements have a real, useful purpose, even if they aren't worked out especially well or explained to students even minimally.

How about you folks?

General Education requirements?  Useful or total BS?

And how do you communicate to students about them?


  1. General Education requirements as a class are good things. Individual classes might be less so. Certainly there were gen ed classes at my undergrad institution that were not useful and really felt like a waste of time--though that was usually not a function of the gen-ed nature and more of the specific teacher. And the worst was when (as a transfer student) you had taken a similar course that fulfilled the stated goals of a particular GenEd requirement... but the new university wouldn't transfer the credits, so you hadto take functionally the same course all over again.

  2. I don't know. I think they're borderline BS in the way that they're usually done (which is the way that they work at my university) -- a smattering of unconnected courses, all at a very basic level, one or two from each discipline. I can see some utility, in that we're often filling in gaps in very inadequate high school preparation and it's important for college graduates to know SOMETHING about literature and history and math, but it's very superficial, and the list of courses students can choose is so restricted that most of them don't really get to pick things that interest them. So I think our system fosters the checklist, get-it-out-of-the-way mentality instead of deep engagement.

    I liked the way my undergrad alma mater used to do it: everyone took a freshman seminar, most of which were writing-intensive, focused around a specific, often quirky topic; everyone took a lab science and, I think, a foreign language, but other than that the requirements were very flexible. You just had to take three humanities, three social sciences, and three natural science / math courses, two of which had to be in the same discipline, and in addition to that you had to take advanced coursework in one discipline that was NOT in the same general area as your major field.

    Sadly, they went to a more conventional checklist-across-the-curriculum format a couple of years after I came in. I think there was pressure to bring the requirements into line with the other state universities, but I've always thought they lost something valuable.

  3. Anonymous11:24 PM

    Gen ed was very, very flexible where I went and that was good. Here where I am, it requires too many basic courses in too many disciplines -- perpetuates the freshman experience. I, on the other hand, got to take interesting courses (to me) in disciplines other than that of my major, and I always took either advanced courses or beginning courses for majors in that discipline. I did not have to take the watered-down intro courses, of which we require all too many in all too many subjects.

  4. About 80% of my teaching load is made up on one of those classes (in various disciplinary flavors and formats): a junior-level required writing in the disciplines course. At least it's one of the easier ones to defend, since employers really do want writing skills, and we also do a good job of introducing students who at least theoretically are at the beginning of the discipline-focused part of their college careers how disciplines in general work (and give them a chance to figure out how theirs is both similar to and different from their classmates').

    Still, I find myself explaining/justifying the class a lot. Students (especially transfers who thought they'd "taken care of" all of their gen ed classes) come in resenting having to take "another English class," then go on, in many cases, to complain when it turns out that we're actually doing things they haven't done in earlier English classes (or any other class, for that matter). I spend a lot of time saying "yes, that's what you did in high school/English 101, but now we're expecting you to take your skills to another level." Some appreciate it; some resent it. And a small but significant number of students have to retake the class because they don't earn the C minimum required for graduation, usually because they simply didn't do the work (either at all, or after futile attempts to make topics, and probably papers, recycled from earlier classes work). A subset of those have put off the class, which should be taken at the end of the sophomore or beginning of the junior year, so long that they end up retaking it the summer after they were supposed to graduate (one of the things that makes summer teaching especially fun).

    Our core curriculum as a whole is currently undergoing revision (at least for the moment, what sounds like a non-dramatic one, in part, I suspect, because a new president has other priorities, and doesn't want to expend too much political capital on revamping the core curriculum). I'm not terribly familiar with the overall picture (neither committee service nor advising are part of my duties), but I gather that our core curriculum has, indeed, evolved to be the sort of loose baggy monster that you and others describe above. It probably needs a more complete revision than it's getting, mostly to articulate clearer goals and align course offerings with those goals; I don't think the courses we've got are bad, but the whole thing seems to be more than a bit incoherent.

    1. I think this argument is usually a professional fields vs. liberal arts kind of argument. I teach in a professional field, but still, I am going with useful. People think that they are going to college to prepare for a career, but really, they go to prepare for life, right? And if we want good citizens who able to participate in life at a variety of levels, they need to have habits of critical thinking, effective expression and the ability to see an idea from a variety of perspectives. This is what your gen ed requirements do for you.

      It is still a hard sell to students, however.