On the Checking of Boxes

One of the many ancillary tasks associated with my job that I wish I was better at is the advising of students. More specifically, the advising of students who aren’t like I was at that age.

What I mean by that is that when I was a student, I didn’t need to be convinced of the utility of liberal arts education. I had specifically chosen to go to williams in part because of the small size (having grown up in a small town, I found it more congenial), but also because I was never only interested in science. I always enjoyed reading books and discussing history and politics, so I didn’t need a great deal of prodding to take classes outside of science. The students I’ve had the best rapport with at Union have mostly had a similar attitude, needing little encouragement to take unusual courses just because they sounded kind of cool.

I struggle, though, with the surprisingly large number of students I see who do everything they can to avoid taking classes where they need to read books and write papers. I have a really hard time relating to that, and articulating an argument about why they ought to take those classes. I end up falling back on the fact that they need to check boxes on a form: we require a certain number of literature classes and writing-intensive courses in order to graduate. Whether they understand why or not, they have to take those classes.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that extends well beyond my own advising issues. In a very broad and general way, I think academia has a difficult time with this question. Discussions of why students should study a broad range of stuff have a frustrating tendency to fall back on soaring vagueness about “big questions”. I suspect the root problem is largely the same as with my advising of students, namely that the people who end up as faculty, particularly faculty at small liberal arts colleges, never really needed to have a coherent theory of why liberal education matters, because they found the general idea inherently attractive.

Unfortunately, the solution tends to be the same, as well. We fall back on the checking of boxes, at a number of institutional levels. We require engineering students to take physics not so much because the engineering departments find the specific content of the course valuable, but because ABET specifies that engineering programs must require their majors to take physics. We teach a “Physics for Life Sciences” track not because the life-science departments have a well-defined set of skills that they expect their students to acquire from physics, but because medical schools require two courses in physics as a condition of admission. We make reluctant science majors take literature courses not because we have a clear goal in mind that will be achieved by this, but because Middle States expects us to do so.

This box-checking approach to liberal education has a number of negative consequences, many of them attitudinal. Because we don’t have a clear explanation of why these classes are important, other than that they check boxes on a form somewhere, they end up being regarded as an annoying obstacle rather than a useful experience– by faculty as well as students. This, in turn, leads to all sorts of unreasonable demands regarding “service” courses, both from students who are only taking them to check a box, and from the faculty who advise them in their major programs and departments.

This is compounded by the fact that the lack of a coherent theory of why these courses matter leads to a bad mis-match between the students and the content. Since we don’t always have a clear idea of what we want students to get out of a required course from another department or discipline, we leave the content of those courses up to those departments. Which, in turn, means that they offer courses that serve the needs of the population that they care most about, namely the students who will major in their department. We assume that taking those courses will accomplish whatever it is that we want to accomplish by checking those boxes.

I’m coming around to thinking that this is a terrible assumption all the way around. We’ve known this in the sciences for a long time– the whole reason we have “physics for poets” type courses, after all, is that we recognize that English majors are not well served by a class tailored to the needs of physics majors. Thus, we offer courses that are pitched in a different way, attempting to get some key ideas of science across in a manner that students who aren’t interested in science will find a little more congenial.

I’ve begun to think, after a lot of awkward advising meetings, that this is true much more broadly than we generally believe. That is, the students I push to take a literature course, any literature course, just because they have to check the literature-course box on their graduation requirements don’t come back from English 101 with a deeper appreciation of literature and a desire to take more English courses. They mostly come back with a sense of relief that they’ve gotten past an unpleasant requirement, and a lingering suspicion that the whole thing was a waste of their time. I’m pretty sure that a lot of English majors feel the same way about physics for poets and the like. And I’m absolutely positive that medical students feel that way about the physics for life sciences sequence, because most of the doctors I’ve ever been to feel free to tell me just how much they hated taking physics in college.

As a general matter, students regardless of major are not especially well served by courses designed primarily to meet the needs of some other major. We’re doing them a disservice by having them use majors courses to check boxes without a clear idea of what they should be getting out of this.

The problem is, doing a better job is a lot of work. It is possible, at least– my thinking on this has been greatly influenced by a Physics Today article on “reinventing” physics for life sciences at Maryland. While I remain skeptical about the specific approach they describe applied to the specific population we see, I think the approach they used to develop it has promise. But it takes a lot of work– as they describe it in the article, the key step was having a physicist and a biologist work together on developing the material and how to communicate it. They needed to figure out what aspects of the physics approach were going to be beneficial to biologists, and how best to communicate those ideas to students coming at the material with a very different worldview than that of physicists. And even more importantly, they got explicit buy-in from the biology program, who made the course a pre-requisite for an upper-level majors course. This sends students the message that the course is not some annoying and arbitrary box to be checked, but something that matters for the major program.

That’s something you could imagine doing for other courses and combinations of programs. While the specific population we see in our life-science track might not respond the same way as the Maryland group, I could imagine some similar process of discussion, collaborative development, and departmental buy-in making a course that works better for what they do want. And in a similar way, I think it might be possible to do something across bigger disciplinary gaps– to make literature courses that do a better job of connecting with reluctant science majors than the traditional introductory survey courses aimed at future literature majors.

This would, of course, require a clearer idea of just what it is that we expect students to be getting out of these classes than I think anybody has at the moment. And it would require significant effort on the part of faculty from a variety of departments. Unfortunately, all of the incentives of modern academia tend to cut against this– that kind of effort requires a lot of time, and time is money, and money is scarce. Most professors would rather teach majors than non-majors, in every discipline– “service” and “Gen Ed” science courses are not very much in demand when it comes time to make teaching assignments, and I don’t imagine the list of English faculty clamoring to teach “Poetry for Physicists” will be any longer than the list of physicists wanting to teach poets.

But given the regular waves of angst that sweep through academia about problems with liberal education and “the liberal arts,” it’s probably worth thinking about. I’m gradually becoming convinced that to the extent that there are fixable problems in higher education, a key part of the fix will be to move beyond the checking of boxes.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    January 8, 2014

    As with many of the other problems in higher education, I suspect this one has its origins in K-12 education, not to mention our cultural tendency toward anti-intellectualism. There is a definite expectation in this country that most K-12 students will at least moderately dislike, if not seriously hate, school. (You and I were among the minority who didn’t.) American society generally doesn’t do a good job of explaining why any specific component of K-12 education is important, only a sense that one needs to do well enough to get into a decent college, so getting through high school is already a box checking exercise, and many students assume that college will be like that as well.

    It also doesn’t help that courses like the intro physics sequence and English 101 necessarily serve several different audiences: several different majors make use of the material, but for widely different reasons. Chemists, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and physicists all need parts of the intro E&M course, but not necessarily the same parts. Likewise, everybody needs to be able to write, but writing styles differ according to field–you wouldn’t write a lab report the way you would write an essay on Macbeth, or vice versa. Most of the time, when you try to serve so many different audiences, you will serve none (or at most one) of them well.

  2. #2 Cordelia
    January 8, 2014

    I have lots of incoherent thoughts about this, but the one clear thing is: Do you remember the alumni* magazine article about the Gaudino option now available at Williams? Although that option doesn’t directly address your point, I think the article with Ed Burger does address the larger point that there’s more to a liberal education than getting through it. The follow-up letters also might be of use in your thinking about it. (And I’m sorry I can’t be more thoughtful.)

    *Not only are we fellow alumni, we graduated the same year. I don’t think we ever met though.

  3. #3 Jacob Stewart
    January 8, 2014

    I really liked this post as someone who wants to end up at a place like Union. It’s definitely something to think about, especially when the current emphasis in higher ed seems to be along the lines of “how will this help me get a job.” Which is important, but it’s not the only important thing.

    I think part of the answer to “why should I care about all of this other stuff” is it helps to give a broad base-level knowledge of many subjects so that you can effectively communicate with a wide range of people. If you’re a physicist, you don’t spend every second of every day talking with only other physicists, you’ll also meet and talk with doctors, lawyers, authors, mechanics, etc. There’s also a fairly good chance you won’t stay in the same field you get a college degree in, and having a broad education will make it easier for you to adapt to a new career. The difficulty is helping college-age students appreciate this. I already get these sorts of questions from the pre-med students in the physical chemistry classes I’m helping to teach, so I’m working on having a good answer to give.

  4. #4 John Novak
    United States
    January 8, 2014

    RE: Physics and Engineering and ABET

    My suspicion is that many engineering faculties would be only too pleased to teach their students all the physics they think they need to know.

    I think that’s a pretty bad idea, but the notion of a physics curriculum collaboratively designed and taught for engineers would be interesting.

    I tend to fall on more the purist side of the spectrum. If you’re going to learn physics, then *learn physics*, not just the bits and pieces that let you do circuits– you never know when you’re going to need to understand the fundamental principles instead of just a formula.

    But on the other hand, it might avoid weird situations like we had at Bradley, where the first “serious” circuits class with AC analysis was taught at the same time as the physics class that introduced electromagnetism. Which doesn’t sound like a problem, but the classes were not well-synchronized, so by the time physics guy got to the point where he could solve an LRC circuit from first principles with differential equations, the EE students were looking at him like he was the biggest dork in the world because they already knew how to solve those problems much more directly.

    RE: Reading books and writing papers:

    I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for that tendency, including at least all of the following:

    1) Genuine boredom (hard to cure)

    2) Time/money pressure (EE at Bradley was intense enough that very few of us got through in four years flat; piling on with more GenEd reqiurements was tantamount to asking us to stay another semester, which was expensive even then.)

    3) Those two, even under mild conditions, can combine to form a short term cost/benefit analysis that says, pretty unambiguously, “Take the bread-winning courses *now*, you can always read Shakespeare in your thirties.”

    4) Lack of confidence (which is the best reason *to* take such a course, but not many teens and early twenties kids will have the perspective to realize that.)

    5) Frustration at the squishier, more subjective grades given in those sorts of classes

    Some of those are going to be really hard for an advisor to crack, because really, for students, the benefit of those classes really does fall on the wrong side of the line.

  5. #5 Uncle Al
    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm
    January 8, 2014

    Long term stability resides in two future venues: Carry a gun or be in charge of those who do. The most valuable supplimentary educative content is manual arts – wood, ceramic, metal, masonry, plumbing and electrical, machining and 3D printing. Know the world. Know what parts of it are made poorly – and why. Generate your own quality.

    Countersinking a nail is a more valuable skill than memorizing and reciting TS Elliot. Elliot cannot be vastly improved by a jot of carpenters glue at the join.

  6. #6 Courtney Ostaff
    United States
    January 8, 2014

    I struggle with this question, too. I think the best answer I’ve ever found was in this little book, written in 1916, when Dewey first got started on gutting critical thinking. Essentially, a student at the end of his educational career should be able to tell when a thing is proven, and not proven, whether that be in engineering, an argument about literature, and so on. I’m all about classical education these days. https://archive.org/details/defenceofclassic00liviuoft

  7. #7 spanner
    January 8, 2014

    Why do I have to take these non-major courses?

    Because you are a human being, not an automaton. We aren’t programming you to perform certain tasks, we are guiding you towards a way of participating in and interacting with the civilized world.

    Because higher education generally means more power in the world and you need to have a broad understanding of all the realms of human endeavor in order to wield that power responsibly.

    Because this is a university, not a trade school*. There is more to being a professional than having a specific skill set.

    After you leave here you will live about 60 more years. In that time, you may become a parent, a Library Board member, a voter, a youth soccer coach, and any number of other things that require you to know more than what you can learn in your major courses. Our goal is to provide for you a background knowledge that you can build on throughout your life. This is not the only way to acquire that background, but it is probably the fastest and easiest.

    *Note: I don’t mean to imply that trade schools are less valuable than universities, only that they are different. In fact, I wish we had more and better trade school options for kids, and that the trades were more highly valued and respected in society. That’s a separate issue though.

  8. #8 RM
    January 8, 2014

    I certainly was one of those students who avoided classes where I needed to write papers and make presentations. And it’s certainly something that I’ve found myself disappointed in later in my scientific career.

    The issue I had with the papers/presentations classes was that there was never any sense of useful accomplishment. I took a thermodynamics course, and I learned about the Boltzmann equation. But what did I learn from those other courses? The parallels between Holden Caulfield and Jesus?

    What my future self wanted my college age self to get out of them is experience formulating arguments and putting them succinctly into paper or presentation form. — And to the extent I bothered to ask, that’s what the teachers and advisers were saying I was supposed to be getting out of it. — The problem is that my college self (and to some extent my present day self) recognizes that if that’s what they were trying to do, they were doing a piss-poor job of it. Such classes never much dealt with the actual take-away point of how to make arguments and do presentations, focusing more on a throw-enough-planes-at-the-ground-and-eventually-one-will-miss tactic.

    So I guess I’d agree with your point that if you have two different audiences, with two different expectations of what they’re going to be getting from a class, you need to have two different classes. But more importantly, you can’t just have a “(subject)-lite” class – you have to expend the effort to make sure you’re emphasizing the different take-away skill the other group needs. “Physics for life science” can’t just be “normal physics, but we skip the bits with the hard math”, you have to reinvent the topics covered and the teaching style to emphasize and actually teach the point that you hope the non-majors will take from it, as opposed to hoping they’ll pick it up by osmosis as you drill them on applying Gauss’s law to infinite conductors.

  9. #9 Rick Meidell
    January 8, 2014

    I once payed golf with a grand old physics professor who was teaching at the Nave Post Graduate School in Monterey. When I asked him what he did he sighed and replied in a thick Scandinavian accent, ” I try to get young men to think”. Therin lies the rub.

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    January 8, 2014

    Cordelia: Do you remember the alumni* magazine article about the Gaudino option now available at Williams?

    I don’t, but I’ll look for it.

    John: My suspicion is that many engineering faculties would be only too pleased to teach their students all the physics they think they need to know.

    I don’t quite agree with this, for reasons that are cynical and probably shouldn’t be posted in a public forum.

    I tend to fall on more the purist side of the spectrum. If you’re going to learn physics, then *learn physics*, not just the bits and pieces that let you do circuits– you never know when you’re going to need to understand the fundamental principles instead of just a formula.

    Yeah, and that’s a thing I try to make clear when I teach the intro courses for engineers– the point of getting physics from physicists is not just to learn a bunch of formulae, but to see the process. As much as people mock the “spherical cow” tendency of physicists to abstract things to a really extreme degree, it’s an approach that works for a lot of things, and worth understanding.

    In the same way, there are valuable things to take from literary disciplines, mostly having to do with the subjectivity of various things. “Social construction” of whatever is frequently overdone, but in moderation is a useful point to remember, even for scientists.

    (I’m actually kind of down on the way they teach students to write, though– it seems like half the work I do in some writing-heavy courses is beating them out of bad habits introduced by English faculty…)

    RM: What my future self wanted my college age self to get out of them is experience formulating arguments and putting them succinctly into paper or presentation form. — And to the extent I bothered to ask, that’s what the teachers and advisers were saying I was supposed to be getting out of it. — The problem is that my college self (and to some extent my present day self) recognizes that if that’s what they were trying to do, they were doing a piss-poor job of it. Such classes never much dealt with the actual take-away point of how to make arguments and do presentations, focusing more on a throw-enough-planes-at-the-ground-and-eventually-one-will-miss tactic.

    Exactly.
    One of the more valuable courses I had as an undergrad wound up being a philosophy course on “Ethics in Literature” or some such. Not so much because of the content (though we read some good books, and had some good discussions), but because the professor required a two-page paper for every class. Which was brutal, but helped me learn to make coherent arguments more concisely. And part of the value was that he was very explicit about that being one of the goals.

    So I guess I’d agree with your point that if you have two different audiences, with two different expectations of what they’re going to be getting from a class, you need to have two different classes. But more importantly, you can’t just have a “(subject)-lite” class – you have to expend the effort to make sure you’re emphasizing the different take-away skill the other group needs.

    It’s not just emphasizing the skills, though, it’s presenting them in a way that connects. That was probably the biggest take-away from the Physics Today thing about life-science physics, for me: not only did they ask what the biologists wanted their students to learn, but they looked into how those students were used to learning stuff, and worked on presenting the necessary skills in a manner and context that fit well with their expectations.

    spanner: Because you are a human being, not an automaton. We aren’t programming you to perform certain tasks, we are guiding you towards a way of participating in and interacting with the civilized world.

    See, this is exactly the kind of answer that the students in question find unhelpful, bordering on insulting. And, for that matter, I find it frustrating as hell.

    This is what I mean about people on both sides of the Two Cultures split needing to understand how to get through to people on the other side: Because answers that sound soaring and inspirational on one side are received on the other as meaningless piffle with a side of insulting condescension.

  11. #11 Rosie Redfield
    January 8, 2014

    I think we need to take an even broader view, and re-evaluate all our science courses from the ‘is this really useful to the student?’ perspective. If it’s not actually useful to the student, at least in other courses and ideally in the rest of their lives, we should replace it with more valuable material.

    I’ve written about this problem in genetics courses (Why do we have to learn this stuff: http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001356) and implemented this approach in my Useful Genetics course on Coursera.

  12. #12 Eric Lund
    January 8, 2014

    I’m actually kind of down on the way they teach students to write, though– it seems like half the work I do in some writing-heavy courses is beating them out of bad habits introduced by English faculty…

    This, of course, is the same kind of complaint that many non-physics professors and students have about intro physics courses. Most professors naturally teach these courses in a way that makes sense for the students most like them (English or physics majors); it takes some effort to do otherwise. The way that English professors teach writing presumably makes sense for writing essays on literature in the English language, which is what those professors do outside of teaching. For a student who didn’t learn how to write in high school, as too many Americans didn’t, it’s probably better than nothing at all; coherent free-form writing is actually quite difficult to pull off. But as I said above, you shouldn’t write a lab report that way. Either those professors are unaware of the difference, or they are aware but have no clue how to teach it, or they are aware but don’t teach like that because STEM majors are a small enough minority that they can get away with not teaching like that, or they are aware but their job security depends on not teaching like that (English departments tend to make heavier use of adjunct faculty than physics, so this one may be more prevalent than we’d like to think).

  13. #13 Clay B
    United States
    January 8, 2014

    One of the best courses I took at Auburn was a series that was co-taught by science and liberal art professors. It was an overview of various ideas, discoveries, etc. and their impact on society (technology, art, philosophy, pretty much anything). We used Bronowski’s Ascent of Man book and the James Burke Connections TV series, among others. I guess any well-taught history class would be useful in this regard but it gave me a good sense that history is more than just A happened, then B happened, then X and Y fought in the year ZZZZ but rather here is an idea and here is how it changed things, whether it is a scientific theory or just a better method of construction or agriculture.

  14. #14 Charlotte S.
    January 8, 2014

    One analogy that some of my students (I’m just a lowly TA, mind) find helpful is the gym analogy. If you are going to a gym, even if your goal is to bench 100 lbs or what have you, you aren’t just going to work on bench pressing. You’ll do a little cardio, leg press, etc so your whole body is fit, even if not to the same degree as your bench pressing arms. School is a gym for the mind–you should give the whole thing a workout while you are there (and paying dearly for the privilege).

  15. #15 R E G
    January 8, 2014

    I am not sure I actually use any of the content of my university courses 35 years later.

    What remains to this day is the ability to learn complex stuff very quickly. Every day I open my email, find a pile of problems, then figure out solutions. I believe I can do this because because I successfully mastered a lot of difficult subjects way back in the last century.

    Yes, those electives will probably take you out of your comfort zone. So will the rest of your life! Take Anthropology and learn to be fearless….You won’t need to know anything about Amazon tribes in the future. You will need to know how to learn anything required of you without a professor, teaching assistant or marking scheme.

  16. #16 Kevin
    January 8, 2014

    Let me offer a contrary perspective: after graduation, for many, it’s a lot easier to advance your understanding of subjects outside your major field of study than of subjects in it, because the more advanced material is more difficult.

    I am still, 20+ years later, angry at my Dean (whose name I have long since forgotten) who made me take a humanities course instead of the subatomic physics course I wanted to take. (I should perhaps point out that, due to the weighting of some of my non-science courses, I was a mere quarter of a course short of satisfying all my humanities requirements – checking all the boxes – so it’s not like I was blowing those off.)

    Since I graduated, I have become more interested in some of the non-science subjects, for which as a student I had little tolerance. I have read many a book on these subjects. Some of these books are at the “Intro To” level, and I can read those easily. I could use some guidance getting through books on subatomic physics, and that guidance isn’t readily available outside of the academic environment.

    re. John Novak (#4)’s third point, I think reading Shakespeare in your thirties (forties, fifties, sixties…) is perfectly consistent with a long-term cost/benefit analysis: do the hard career-intensive work as a student, get a good job, and enjoy Shakespeare (or whatever else interests you – and that’s pretty important) at your leisure in the future.

    I have no problem with “physics for poets”. (It should perhaps be a two-semester “science and logic for poets” instead.) I would have liked to have had “reading and writing for scientists”. As it was, my technical writing was far too much “tell a story, keep the reader in suspense” – I shudder to think what it would have been like if I had studied Shakespeare extensively.

  17. #17 agm
    January 9, 2014

    The broad liberal arts education is an outgrowth of the old education, the trivium and the quadrivium, sets of fields that gentlemen were required to be proficient with to be considered educated. One did not learn geometry and logic and philosophy in order to build things but in order to learn how to think, how to be part of the ruling classes or clergy in those societies.

    Engineering is no part of those topics. Indeed, engineering schools *ARE* trade schools, just as law schools and med schools are, but we prefer not think of them as “trade schools” because there is a stigma attached to that term and the concommittant image of a specialist education with limited breadth. In fact, at some liberal arts places like Carleton, there aren’t even engineering programs.

    Science programs aren’t exactly trade schools at the undergrad level, but they are also not the liberal arts either. At many institutions, liberal arts requirements were bolted on later, retrofitted because someone decided that a full education should include classes on A, B, C (perhaps by the state legislature funding the school, as happened with my undergrad alma mater when an engineering school was merged with the local teachers college to form a full university).

    Being able to give any sort of real reason beyond checking boxes requires one to be aware of the history of the liberal arts as a gentleman’s education, as well as the ability to persuasively present a rationale that the student should care when a typical ABET-accredited engineering program now requires multiple year-long sequences of hard classes.

    It seems to me that the reason you have trouble forming this rationale is that currently it does not exist. If you want to persuade me that it exists, you need evidence, proof that jobs and promotions hinge on the skills developed in these classes – a faculty member telling me “We are teaching you to think, not programming automatons” presumes evidence not yet presented, because down the road, that faculty member is not signing my paychecks in most circumstances.

    And the paycheck is what you use to pay rent, buy food, go on dates, support your symphony, etc, so that is the final metric for most people

  18. #18 Chad Orzel
    January 9, 2014

    There’s some stuff in these comments, and others elsewhere in the social media universe, that I do want to respond to. I’ve already exceeded my allotted blogging time this morning on a follow-up post, so that will need to wait until Friday. Right now I need to go educate some future engineers.

  19. #19 John Novak
    January 9, 2014

    > Right now I need to go educate some future engineers.

    Heh.
    Good luck with that….

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