Knowing What's Essential Is Essential

Spinning off a blog at Inside Higher Ed, the Dean Dad has a post on deciding what classes are essential:

My personal sense of it is that the distinction between core and periphery is largely a function of purpose. If your goal in life is to be an exhibited artist, then you might well decide that art is essential and history a frill. If your goal is to be an engineer, I could understand valuing a math class over a psych class. Since different students have different purposes, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that one student's frill is another student's priority.

But the questions go deeper than that. How do we decide what it's okay for people to suck at? And when do they get to start?

I agree with this to a point, but the big problem is something the Dean Dad brings up briefly a few paragraphs later: Students often have radically divergent ideas about what's essential for their prospective professions. This probably doesn't turn up that much at the administrative level, but it looms very large for those of us in departments that do a lot of "service" teaching. The bulk of the students we see in class are (or think they are) engineering majors, mostly in their first year of college, with the next largest group being students who are (or think they are) going to go to medical school. While both groups have their positive features, their misguided expectations about what is essential can be really hard to deal with.

This problem is particularly acute in the engineering classes, because they tend to be first-year students. The way the engineering curriculum is set up, they've usually taken one project-based class in Engineering before they get to physics, and that's it.

This leads to some violent collisions between the fantasy image they have of what engineering is, and what the physics and engineering faculty know as reality. I've gotten countless comments of the form "I don't know why he graded my grammar, I'm an engineer not an English major" over the years. I always wish I could send those students a note ten years later, and ask them "How'd that no-grammar thing work out for you?"

Lately, since we've switched to the Matter and Interactions curriculum, which includes some VPython assignments simulating the motion of simple systems, I've seen similar complaints about the computer programming. "The VPython stuff was completely useless and totally irrelevant. I'm going to be an engineer, not a computer programmer!" Both this and the writing comment tend to make the engineering faculty snort with derision.

The problem is, most of these students don't have the foggiest idea what engineering actually entails. They mostly seem to know what they get from career aptitude tests in their high school guidance offices: engineers need to be good at math, and they get paid a lot of money. The notion that, say, systematic thought and clarity of expression might play a role in writing project proposals and reports doesn't occur to them.

For the most part, they get this attitude beaten out of them by the engineering faculty in their sophomore and junior years, and that works out because the people doing the beating are professionals in the discipline they intend to major in. When an engineering professor tells them that written reports are important, they grumble, but they believe it. When somebody from a department without "engineering" in the title says it, though, they brush it aside, as if we don't know what they really need.

It's absolutely maddening, and there's no clear solution to it. Next time I do the VPython assignments, I'm going to try showing them some of the computer simulations that the engineering majors do in their senior projects, and see if that connection helps convince them that it matters, but I don't hold out a great deal of hope.

And I have no idea how to sell them on the importance of writing. Given that people who are professional writers can write blisteringly stupid essays about writing instruction, I don't know that there's anything that can be done on that score...

More like this

I ended up grading for a astronomy-for-non-majors course the last three years. The attitude that 'it's astronomy, not English, so the TA shouldn't take off for my grammar' is present there from all student walks on life. Even after the TA explains exactly how much of the grade is based on 'grammar looks like you completed high school'* and how most of it was marked so you can learn how to write better rather than because it affects your grade (and to spare my sanity).

It's like the students compartmentalize all knowledge. I've heard the same complaints about having to learn basic physics and do math in Astro 101, despite repeated instructions about how much astronomy depends on physics and math.

* 5%, unless you count points off for 'grammar is so bad that the grader/TA can't figure out what you are actually saying, or it changes the meaning of what you write'.

By Becca Stareyes (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

You mean pre-meds (you know which ones) can have misguided expectations when taking 2 terms of physics? Nooooooo.

By Schrodinger (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

Forget grammar (okay, don't forget grammar, but you know what I mean); I've tutored students who hated calculus, lacked the most basic mathematical skills, intended to be engineers, and couldn't understand why there might be a conflict with this.

Regarding computer programming, I think it should be a requirement for any student in ANY major to learn some basic programming skills. It's an excellent way to learn to take a large and complex problem and break it down into simpler subproblems, as well as the importance of clearly and precisely describing an algorithm to solve it.

It's like the students compartmentalize all knowledge.

I have no hard data so I can only speculate, but ISTM that the structure of high school encourages this kind of thinking. Other than certain math courses, AP-level science courses, and foreign languages, high school courses tend not to build on material taught in other courses. The exceptions I list are exceptions precisely because there is no way to avoid using previously learned material in these courses. Standardized testing, including the SAT2 (they were called Achievement Tests in my day), reinforces this viewpoint.

Of course it's a crock, and if the university professors are doing their jobs they should attempt to disabuse students of the notion that knowledge fits into convenient compartments. But even there, majors in most liberal arts subjects (again, foreign languages are an obvious exception) are not always forced to confront the notion that knowledge obtained in one course might be useful in other courses. Core curricula try to do this but tend to be unsuccessful because students perceive the requirements as being imposed from on high.

Even in science and engineering, there are barriers which arise from specialization. At my undergraduate school, for instance, there were separate thermodynamics courses offered by physics (this one combined with stat mech), chemistry, chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering, each emphasizing different aspects.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

You have "Dead Dad" in your second para. While amusing, you might want to fix it.

I do that just about every time I refer to him by pseudonym. My inability to type is a great trial to me.

Sloppy communication can result in bad engineering decisions, which can cause anything from persistent minor flooding (in the case of the building I work in) to major disasters.

Edward Tufte's account of the space shuttle Challenger disaster in Visual Explanations pages 38-53 is a pretty good example about communicating clearly. Here's a little bit about it:

I wonder about the communication environment at BP?

I think there are two issues here. First, what courses do students need to help them with other course and with their jobs after college.

The other question: what courses should be part of their curriculum regardless of whether they will need it or not. Will pre-med students REALLY use physics? If you say "yes", maybe you mean they SHOULD use it. (I have 4 kids and therefore go to the doctor often - trust me, many M.D.'s do not use physics).

Ok - so they won't need it, but they should take it. Why? "Specialization is for insects" (Heinlein) - that sums it up.

Or - you could go back to "_fill in the blank__ is what humans do".

About a week ago, a friend of mine started talking about how he *hated* to read papers by engineers. He said that my writing was really exceptional for an engineer. My MS advisor used to tell me that he loved editing my paper submissions because there was actually little editing involved.

I'm guessing the fact that I spent about a year as a journalism major is not completely unrelated.

Of course, trying to tell this to students doesn't always work well. Perhaps you should start giving them a really cruddy syllabus at the beginning of the semester. When someone complains that they don't understand or that it doesn't make sense, you can hand out the real syllabus and mention that you'd really appreciate *never* hearing the comment that one wants to be an engineer, not a lit/English major from anyone in the class. :-)

My take on this is that there is a deep misunderstanding on the notion of "well-roundedness," about what it is and what it is for.

The popular notion of it, peddled to prospective college students, is this:

If you haven't mastered upper level calculus, all the hard sciences and the course of their intellectual development through western history; if you can't adequately express those notions through your own interpretive dance, set to music you wrote, played, recorded and mixed in the sound studio you built; if the proceeds don't go to the soup kitchen you and your younger sibling established when you were ten, well, kid, you're not going to college.

Plus also, be a star quarterback.

That is not being well-rounded. That is being spherical and fucking frictionless. It is complete fiction.

The notion of well-roundedness is the broad answer to a broad societal problem, the problem being: Sorry, kid, but neither you nor anyone else can really tell you even so much as what knowledge is going to be really useful for you.

Yes, we have a broad social agreement that knowing how to read, knowing some basic math, knowing some history and (recently) knowing how to manipulate computers at some level are pretty basic requirements that will serve everyone well; without those categories of knowledge, you are in some way crippled.

After that, it gets messy. Even well-defined fields like engineering, that fill up the elective and pre-requisite slots and burst the seams of a four-year program... aren't as precise as most people would like to think. I went in knowing correctly that I wanted to be an engineer. I am still not using the primary skills I thought I would. I've also been forced to pick up many primary skills I never thought I would need. Twenty years ago, I did not at all see an MSCS in my future.

Even those people like me are faced with getting a job, after grad school, at the rough age of 25, and face a stretch of 40 or more years of employment, and 20 to 30 years of retirement after that. Sorry, but no one can accurately list out all the things you're going to need to know in that period. Least of all the students themselves.

And that's to say nothing of students who incorrectly know what they want to do with their lives-- the wannabe engineers who aren't detail oriented enough, and are better off doing something for less money that they really enjoy. The wannabe musicians who have no idea how hard it is to do that for a living. The historians who don't understand that even the cream of the crop are fighting five hundred for every good gob opening.

And of course, the other end of the spectrum, the kids who actually don't know what they want.

Thus, the solution of well-roundedness, which doesn't mean being equally good at every field of endeavor, ever. It means being aware of many fields of endeavor. It means sampling, or being made to sample, broad parts of the intellectual landscape on the theory that some day it will be useful to you.

Not useful directly, not, "Hey, I remember Professor Tweed lecturing on this twenty three years ago in that survey religion course I hated. I know exactly what to do! Thank you, Professor Tweed! I don't hate you anymore!" But useful in the sense of just knowing that there is a field of study that bears on what you need to know.

And I think this applies at all scales, too.

I've lost track of the number of times, over the lat ten years, that I've thought, "You know, I have a vague memory of Professor Diode saying something vaguely similar to this," and being able to navigate my way to some useful information that I had just enough background material to start to understand. Even if that process takes weeks, it's better than having to reinvent everything myself, take three times as long to do it, and come up with a worse answer despite my best efforts.

(It is also incredibly useful as a bullshit detector, and for being able to talk to different engineering groups and disciplines.)

But it also works just for odd hobbies and pursuits. Remembering a little something about Professor Tweed's comparative religion class makes reading (good) science fiction and fantasy more enjoyable, and can point you to new and interesting things to read. It can also insulate you from bullshit whackjob politician claims on issues which are critical today, but were barely a blip on the radar back when I started college before the fucking fall of the Berlin Wall.

The virtue of well-roundedness is very long-term, very hopeful, and very hard to explain to a college-aged student, especially a focussed one. The virtue is not in the individual pieces of knowledge; the virtue is in being better able to chart one's own intellectual development later in life, because it's hard to decide, "I need to know more about X," when you're barely cognizant that X is its own field of study.

And I understand why this is hard for adolescents to swallow. For one thing, most of us that are are so ignorant we're even ignorant of being ignorant. For another, they're looking at the investment of time all wrong. Yes, being forced to take (say) five three-hour courses on stuff someone vaguely hopes might be useful someday is a large investment... in terms of the very short life they've already lived. But it's tiny in terms of the very long life they'll still experience. (Needless to say, it's a little different for those of us who have lived a much longer part of our lives and have much less left to invest. This is exactly why most people don't invest money for retirement until it's statistically too late.)

But really, that just increases my desire to pound it through their skulls now, when ti can help them.

Here endeth the rant.

By John Novak (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

Isn't typing at least as essential as programming?

I call BS. Nobody knows what is essential.

By becca McSnarky (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

Might I put in a word for those students who dislike the grammar nazis?

Its one thing to be able to communicate effectively, write what you mean, and present well. It's an entirely different matter to be taken down for not composing language like Shakespeare, making an occasional spelling error, or using too many commas. For most of us, language is a tool. If you can get across your concepts, then the objective of language has been accomplished. This might not work for poetry majors, but most of us don't want to do that.

Furthermore, teachers in the subjective majors often have axes to grind and the means to arbitrarily punish students through mendacious quibbling and ill defined grading criteria. A lot of us escape high school seeking release from that nonsense. We [i]like[/i] advanced calculus class because it doesn't matter if your professor or all your classmates hate you. The laws of nature and logic don't care who you are or whether your teacher likes your background, politics, or the fact you ask too many questions.

That's not to say that good communications skills aren't useful. But, as you alluded to in your article, we'd rather get them from other engineering professors, not people who want one last chance to take us down a peg.

My suggestion: Invite a few juniors or seniors from engineering to talk to your class and show what they do with MathCAD or whatever for a "simple" system. Students will listen to other students.

All time favorite course evaluation comment from a student taking physics back when I was a TA: "I hate physics. I just want to be an engineer." Bwahaha. (But, as I have blogged in the past, this comment led to a key element in my approach to teaching an audience like yours. What Eric says @5 about high school is also important, as is my increasing awareness of the cumulative effect of 12 years of high-stakes testing in high school.)

The book "To Engineer is Human" should be required reading, as it addresses all the different things that can come together and result in an 'accident'.

BTW, the engineering faculty also know that the engineering profession requires a certain number of humanities courses in their curriculum, and might do a better job of explaining why in that "first course".