In addition to the argument that labs are pedagogically bad, which I don’t buy, Steve Gimbel offers some more reasons to get rid of lab classes on sort of procedural grounds. There are a bunch of interrealted things here, but the argument boils down to two main points:
- Labs are very time-consuming, and students would be more likely to take science classes if they didn’t have to knock out a whole afternoon to take the lab.
- Labs are very resource intensive, and faculty would offer more non-major classes if they didn’t have to teach labs.
I don’t really find these any more compelling than the argument that labs are necessarily miserable. Frankly, they both strike me as hopelessly naive.
Take the student argument first. The key paragraph here is:
[S]tudents have a three to four hour chunk of their weekly schedule carved out in order to take any science class. This will take a day from Monday to Thursday and eliminate the entire afternoon and since half the other classes at the institution are offered in the afternoon (about a quarter MWF and a quarter TTh), by taking a science class, you’ve just weedwhacked twenty-five percent of the student’s possible courses for the next semester for each science class taken.
I have a number of problems with this, starting with the fact that any class will necessarily knock out a large range of other possible classes. It might not be 25% of all possible courses (though given that a four-course load is fairly standard, you could argue that any class accounts for a quarter of a student’s possible courses), but it will be a substantial number, particularly if the class is offered beween 10 and 2, which are the most convenient hours for both students and faculty.
This also ignores the fact that time spent in lab is just another example of the different distribution of work between science and humanities classes. Yes, science classes will force you to spend an afternoon a week in lab, but on the other hand, science classes won’t expect you to read 200 pages of Nietzsche between one lecture and the next. There’s more in-class time, but less out-of-class time, and those more or less balance out.
Mostly, though, this bugs me because it buys into the pernicious idea that what we really need to do is to re-shape science to make it more palatable to non-scientists. We’re already expected to offer special classes with little or no math, lest we scare the humanities types away, and this just piles on an additional requirement that we make those classes convenient for non-science majors.
I have approximately zeo sympathy for this mode of thinking. When the English department starts offering “Poetry for Physicists,” in which science majors get to read literature without dealing with difficult critical approaches, then we can talk.
When you come down to it, students don’t take more than the minimum required number of science classes because they don’t want to take science classes. The minor inconvenience posed by scheduling lab classes is just a convenient excuse– if you got rid of labs, there would be another reason why they just couldn’t manage to fit in another science class.
The real problem is that it’s become acceptable for people who are ostensibly highly educated to be largely ignorant of science and math. I’ve heard people with Ph.D.’s say “I just can’t handle math” with a laugh, and that passes totally without comment, but if a science student were to say “Oh, I just can’t deal with literature,” that would be a major crisis. If students aren’t interested in science, we go out of our way to accomodate that, which just reinforces the message that science is only for nerds and geeks, and that normal people can approach it only in a dumbed-down form.
That’s not to say that we couldn’t do things better in science education. I wouldn’t encourage most humanities students to take the typical introductory physics course, but that has almost nothing to do with the fact that they’re not science majors. I wouldn’t really encourage science majors to take a typical introductory physics course, either, because typical introductory physics courses are really badly done, for the most part. We need to do a better job teaching everyone, regardless of their major. At the same time, though, we need to make it clear that ignorance of basic science is not something you can shrug off with a laugh. Which means being a little less quick to compromise the science content of the classes we teach to non-scientists.
Turning to the faculty side of the argument, Gimbel claims that labs are eating up faculty time that would otherwise be spent on teaching non-majors, writing:
I love to team-teach classes with scientists. I’ve taught several that look at the foundations of science or at the history of science and they’ve always gone wonderfully. But whenever I get an idea and find a science colleague interested, it’s always a matter of “I need to figure out a way to get one of my labs covered” or “I can’t do it because I need to teach the lab.”
Maybe I’m just exceptionally cynical today, but my first reaction to that is that this is the same thing that’s going on with the students. Labs are a convenient excuse for science faculty to not do something that they’re actually not that interested in doing in the first place. There are very few really inescapable obligations in academia, and there are almost always ways to re-arrange teaching schedules to free up half a course. If they were really interested in team-teaching a course for non-majors, they’d find a way to do it, but it’s most likely not worth the trouble– in the current academic system, it’s better for them in terms of institutional rewards to teach the same intro class they’ve taught a thousand times before and spend the rest of their time on research than to develop a new team-taught course outside the major.
“I can’t do it because I need to teach the lab” is just a way of saying “Thanks, but no” politely.
It is true that if you eliminated labs, you’d see a bunch of new classes taught in the sciences, just to pick up the slack in the teaching load. If you think that the first reaction of most science faculty would be “Now I can finally teach that non-major class I’ve always wanted to do!” rather than “Now I can offer that special seminar on my own research area!”, though, I think you’re kidding yourself.