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.