Thursday, August 21, 2008

Prerequisites and Hoop Jumping

I got an email the other day from a student asking to be added to my senior seminar as an overload. The email talked about the special situation that had made it impossible for the student to enroll in time, so of course I considered it. Part of considering it involved looking up the student's record here to make sure that s/he has the prerequisites and such. There are several prereqs for the class, specifically the lower division core classes for majors. I didn't see any of those classes on the student's record, but maybe the student transfered in and had completed similar classes elsewhere and they just didn't show on our campus record. I emailed the student, asking if s/he'd taken the classes, noting that I'd designed the class with the expectation that all students had taken them, and offering to consider hir request if s/he had taken them.

I got an email back saying that no, s/he hadn't taken them, but was hoping to take the second one without the first, if s/he could convince the professor s/he's smart enough.

Smart enough, of course, isn't the issue. Now, I could go off being all offended that the student doesn't respect professors or think that we actually teach anything in our classes. But I'm sure the student didn't go out of hir way thinking, hey, how can I offend Bardiac today?

I think the student just doesn't understand the point of prerequisites, especially in less linear seeming subjects such as English.

In math, students seem to understand prerequisites: Algebra leads to trig leads to calculus leads to advanced integration or something.

But even in the more sciency areas, things aren't clear. My biology type major required two terms of chemistry before one could enroll in the first biology class. But other schools start with biology. (Mine used chemistry to weed out pre-meds and pre-vets, I think. I wonder how the inter-departmental politics of that worked out?)

But English, well, they've been reading since they were little kids, and they like books, so of course they're prepared for an upper level seminar. Except they're not.

For better or worse, part of the problem is that our lower division core classes aren't generally standardized in the way, say, an Algebra class is. We don't share a "Text studies I" textbook, but choose a variety of texts. Partly it's just that we lack some real agreement (as a field) about what exactly people need to study English. Does an undergrad need theory, and if they do, is Aristotle or Derrida what they should read? Should we require Old English/Anglo-Saxon? How about a Chaucer course? Shakespeare? American Ethnic lit (and if so, which? an overview? or more focused?) How can an English major not know about iambic pentameter? And just who really cares about iambic pentameter? And so on.

But within a department and major, hopefully the faculty has put together a curriculum that gets an English major to what we all really want (I think), a student who's got a certain set of strategies for approaching and thinking/talking/writing about a variety of texts, and a certain level of sophistication about and appreciation for that variety, which probably includes some historical understanding of contexts, and linguistic understanding of the way language works. An individual student can probably get there from a variety of paths, some of which will be more effective for different students, and all of which will leave different students with different depths of understanding.

That's what our faculty have done. We went through a long argumentative process of talking about what we think English majors need to know, and how we can get them to know that, and then we designed some core courses to teach those skills and concepts. We still argue heatedly about those courses, especially the theory course. We've had our new major for about 8 years now, which means that we've had time to see a couple years of students graduate with the new curriculum, and we feel like it's doing a better job. (How to assess that is a more difficult matter.)

But my student emailer doesn't see those discussions, doesn't see what we're trying to do the way we do, and so things look rather arbitrary and a lot like just making people jump hoops.

In a way, I'm that student, too. I hate feeling like I have to jump meaningless hoops to do X or Y. It's hard for me to see sometimes that other people have put in the work to figure out that what I see as a hoop is really useful and necessary.

(Though some meetings feel so like a waste of time that I get really frustrated, especially at this time of year!)


  1. We just talked about this exact issue at our day-long retreat today. I think (maybe) what is going to come out of it is an "Intro to English Studies" course that is the prerequisite for declaring the major and that explains the rationale for the sequencing, etc., as well as introducing them to critical approaches and options for what they'll do with the major. We'll see :)

  2. In a way, it seems to me that prerequisites are even more essential for an English lit course or similar. If the student was taking mathematics and was "smart enough", she/he probably COULD teach him/herself the material from the prerequisite courses (e.g. statistics or trig or whatever) in his/her spare time the first couple of weeks of classes, and catch up. But humanities subjects don't teach you specific pieces of knowledge, or problem solving skills so much as they teach you a whole new way of thinking and writing. And that isn't something you can catch up with in a few days because learning it requires so much discussion, writing, reading and assimilation of strands of thought from lots of different contexts.