Against "Gen Eds"

Matt Reed, who will forever be "Dean Dad" to me, has a post on "new" topics that might be considered for "gen ed" requirements, that is, the core courses that all students are required to take. This spins off a question Rebecca Townsend asked (no link in original), "Should public speaking be a general education requirement?" the idea being that public speaking is such an essential skill that everyone ought to learn it at some point. Reed adds "entrepreneurship," "[computer] coding" and "personal finance" as other things that might fall into the same essential category.

Now, it's important to state up front that Reed and I operate in very different corners of higher education-- he's running a community college, I'm teaching at an elite private college-- but my immediate reaction to the initial question was "Absolutely not." Not because I don't think public speaking is important, but because I do think it's an essential skill. Too essential, in fact, to be pushed off into a "general education" course.

The key problem is that students are amazingly good at compartmentalization. "General education" or "common curriculum" (the new local term) courses are like Las Vegas to them-- what happens there, stays there. And on top of that, a distressingly large fraction of the students we see have a very clear (albeit usually misguided) idea that there's a line between the "real" courses that are important for their major, and the lesser courses that are just checking boxes. The box-checking courses get taken less seriously (and people teaching them get more attitude), with the result that students don't learn as much as they should.

And even when they do learn things in those other courses, they often learn the wrong things. As maddening as it is to grade labs from first-year students who have never written a lab report at the college level before, I almost prefer it to reading labs from students who have learned to write by taking a whole slew of English courses. There's a stark difference in style between the normal mode of writing in the two disciplines that just doesn't cross that boundary-- there's some benefit to varying up the language used to refer to things in English papers, and trying to work in the occasional ornate turn of phrase, but in science papers, those both fail spectacularly. The goals in technical writing are clarity and precision, which means that you use the same words to refer to the same things throughout, as boring as that might seem. And you don't use flowery language in places where it might cause confusion about what you did and what you measured and how you analyzed your data.

So, more and more, I'm becoming convinced that skills that are truly essential can't be pushed off to "general education" courses. If we want students to graduate knowing something about public speaking, we need to have them do public speaking in core majors courses. That sends a clear message that this is Important, and furthermore, they'll graduate knowing the norms of public speaking in the discipline of their eventual degree. I don't want our physics majors going off to grad school thinking that the best way to present results in public is to stand up and read a pre-written text verbatim, with no visuals. That's not how things work in physics, and it's just going to cause pain for somebody else down the line. And I'm sure graduate English faculty would prefer not to get a lot of students doing quasi-improvised presentations with heavy use of PowerPoint.

This is not to say that there aren't general tricks and techniques that cross the lines, and are true for all sorts of public speaking. But I think those are still best taught within the appropriate context in core majors courses, rather than bracketed off as something students might (incorrectly) regard as a box-checking course deserving low effort.

So, while I'm all in favor of broadening the skill set we expect students to pick up before graduation, I'm against doing that in the context of special courses outside of major tracks. If public speaking is genuinely important, teach students to do public speaking in their majors courses. If you can't make room for it in the majors track, then maybe it's not actually that important after all.


(Again, in the corner of higher education where Matt Reed works, this might play out differently-- community colleges aren't quite doing majors in the same way that elite institutions are, so the relationship with "general education" courses may be different. But where I am, I think it's important that skills like public speaking, computer programming, and writing get taught in the proper disciplinary context. We've tried pushing that stuff off to different departments (and we've been the department that other departments push stuff off to), and if that method ever worked well, it certainly doesn't now.)

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And on top of that, a distressingly large fraction of the students we see have a very clear (albeit usually misguided) idea that there’s a line between the “real” courses that are important for their major, and the lesser courses that are just checking boxes.

True, and I'm afraid this attitude is only going to get worse as the pressure on colleges and universities to "prepare students for jobs after graduation" is pressed more and more by people who are dismissive of education for its own sake and think it should be career training and nothing more.

I have a slightly different take on the role of students learning "public speaking" outside a discipline. I have students in my statistics courses do a semester project, and require from them both a written paper and a brief summary presentation. I have time to teach them the appropriate statistical topics, and they have ample time to practice writing summaries through the semester, but I don't have time (or the skills) to teach general presentation techniques from scratch. The students who have taken such a class have a good feel for what it means to organize and present to a group (at least, the ones who paid attention do), and I can work with them through the semester to fine tune things to the appropriate

There was just an article in this past Tuesday's NYT, Science section, discussing with Alan Alda (the actor) about the need for a specialized "communication for science majors" type of course. I forget which, but apparently this is something that is being done by at least one school (supposedly inspired by, and now named after Alda?)

I thought it was an interesting, and honestly, necessary.

That said, these skills can still be taught without having an official class for that purpose. Is there any particular reason that any given science class could not have time spent on speaking and / or writing, within that context? Time is precious, sure, but it seems like one of those "if everyone pitched in" kind of solutions.

By William Hendrixson (not verified) on 26 Feb 2014 #permalink

One must be careful about taking this attitude too far. At the institution where I teach, the college of engineering has recently started teaching some first-year physics in their own courses, rather than sending their students to physics courses. Perhaps they are following your line of argument.

By Michael Richmond (not verified) on 26 Feb 2014 #permalink

I'm not sure why people think coding should be a required general education curriculum at all. It's a useful skill across a wide variety of STEM disciplines, but I don't think the inability to write code really hurts people in my own discipline (mechanical engineering) in the same way that an inability to put together and give a coherent presentation or write a useful analysis would. There are lots of other paths to take. And that's in a very technically oriented field. I think a pretty small minority going into, e.g., music or journalism or advertising would benefit. Programming isn't like traditional gen ed courses, like literature or history, that give people a background in which our society exists. It would fit as a gen ed elective, but I don't see what good it does as a requirement.

I'm not sure there's a concrete benefit to any particular sort of coding, but I suspect there's some value to having the experience of bending a computer to your will, as it were. There's a general benefit to knowing a little bit about how computers work, and how you get them to do things at a level beyond slavishly following tutorial videos on YouTube. There are some general patterns to the sort of things you do when trying to compute stuff. Even if the specific syntax for, say, writing formulas in Excel is very different from doing calculations in Matlab, which is different from writing Fortran routines to analyze particle physics data, the general thought processes are broadly similar.

I think that's what's meant by "coding" when people call for more widespread knowledge of this, not "Everybody should be able to program in Python!" Even people who won't use computers for anything more complicated than personal finance would benefit from knowing how to do more than use a spreadsheet like a pad of paper.

(Seriously, I have watched countless students type two columns each with a dozen or more points of lab data into an Excel sheet, then pull out their calculators and punch in the numbers to multiply the columns, cell by cell, typing the products into a third column. It blows my mind, it does.)

(Disclaimer: One of the things I teach is coding for engineers and science students)

I tend to agree than for engineers and science types, some form of programming (in the general sense, not the 'Java or bust' or 'it's got to be FORTRAN' sense) is critical.

My practice is primarily mechE/pressure vessel, my undergrad was EE, and if I hadn't learned programming back in the day, I would be totally lost with modern tools. So much is done using Matlab, FEA systems, and other simulation tools today, that without a good understanding of numerical computing, I would be unable to use the tools in any effective way, and unable to tell when the tools are wrong or misleading.

e, my experience is that, if you're doing FEA, for example, it's important to understand the math, and it's important to understand what assumptions are built into an analysis, but for 90% or so of analyses, you don't need to get much deeper than manipulating a GUI to do a very complete job. The analyses that do need more in depth knowledge of a program tend to fall to a specific subset of people. Yeah, those people are critical, and if that's what you want from your career, then it's important to be familiar with programming. But there are lots of engineers that I work with who get along fine, and are productive, without it.

I don't know that basic Excel really has much to do with programming. If they can type something into their calculator to fill in a cell, they can use Excel as a simple calculator, just by teaching them how to use the equals sign. That's just program knowledge, not any different than knowing where the print command is. The first big leap from a big calculator is using a reference to a value in another cell, so that things update dynamically, and then learning how to copy that formula someplace else and have the reference update. Which is programmy, but just barely. The next thing they might do is learn how to use a built in function (maybe a financial function, or a trig function), which is a little closer, but isn't anything they didn't see in algebra class. And that's where most non-technical people would stop.

I just don't see the benefit. And I don't see it changing much, even as our society becomes ever more dominated by computers. We read things in order to share a cultural heritage, but we didn't learn how books were printed as a gen ed requirement. We just read them. The medium isn't what's important. I expect that interfaces will keep pace with advances in capability, so that the average non-technical Joe will always be able to get done what he needs to get done without going under the hood. (Which is a quite apt metaphor, I think.)

Tom writes:

"Programming isn’t like traditional gen ed courses, like literature or history, that give people a background in which our society exists."

I take the exact opposite view: programming is very much like literature or history in this exact sense: computers are so much part of everything around us and everything we do that society and culture as we know it today -- not to mention our scientific understanding of how the world works -- quite literally would not exist without them. We should require of any reasonably educated person (that would certainly include college graduates) a basic understanding of what a computer is, what a computer does, and how a computer does what it does.

The computing skills needed for most STEM subjects is a different matter. There it forms a tool that one has to not only understand the basics of, but be at least somewhat comfortable using as a matter of course. That makes some level of computing a core subject (as Chad outlines) rather than general eduction.