Yesterday's meeting in the Department of Underwater was enlightening. You know how I was confused about the seeming intractability of some regarding the revision of the curriculum? And annoyed by it? Well, I remain annoyed, but I'm no longer confused, I don't think.
I think that the crux of the problem is how people answer the following question: What is a curriculum supposed to do?
That's right. I think that it's that simple.
Now, the easy answer is that a curriculum is supposed to tell students what courses that they can take in order to graduate. But see, how we, as faculty, choose those courses, and why, come from two different positions. (And I really think there are only two. Seriously.)
One idea of "why" certain courses should be required is that they must be required because students would never choose to take them on their own. In other words, it's basically a "why" for curriculum that is rooted in domination. Students don't know which end is up, and so we need to make mandates to make sure that they don't do something "crazy." I think that this was the reasoning behind my undergraduate curriculum in English when I was a student, looking back over it. Basically, it set it up so that "required courses" indicated what we'd all refuse to take if we had our druthers, and "elective courses" were all of those frivolous courses that we'd enjoy but that were, ultimately, not really for "serious" students (or faculty). I will call this the "Eat Your Spinach!" model of curricular design.
Another idea of why certain courses should be required is that requirements lay out a framework for students to understand the key values of the discipline. In other words, by looking at the curriculum, even before they take the courses, students should get a sense of what the major means and what the whole experience is supposed to be about (just like when you look at the menu of a fine restaurant). It's about presenting a well-rounded menu, in which students will get not only spinach (required courses that they of course would never choose to take) and candy and ice cream (electives) but rather in which students will get a meal that is both nutritious and delicious. This isn't about taking spinach off the menu. It's about having spinach on the menu, alongside a great risotto, some lovely chicken, perhaps a salad, and yes, even dessert and appetizers.
Now, if you go to a restaurant (a major curriculum) where the only entree is spinach, and each person is forced to get like five servings of it, I do think that you'll be inclined to fill up the rest of your order with loaded potato skins, some tiramisu, and perhaps some cheesecake. But if you go to a restaurant with a fully developed, thoughtfully conceived menu, I think that you'll be more likely a) to enjoy the spinach that you do order and b) to choose dishes that give you an experience that doesn't leave you sick and hungry at the end of it.
But, so what is so attractive, then, about the "Eat your spinach!" style of curricular design? Well, to me, not a whole lot. But I've been trying over the past night and morning to think through why others might like the idea, which is a challenge since these people aren't characterizing their beliefs about this as "Eat your spinach!" but rather as "These are the one true courses that make a person an Underwater major! Everything you all teach is junk food!" and so it's hard for me to put myself in their shoes, because they're basically saying that I'm not a real scholar or teacher in my discipline. That what I do isn't foundational to the study of my discipline. And yeah, that irritates me. But I've been trying to get it - trying really, really hard. And I think that what it comes down to is fear - fear that nobody would ever willingly choose to eat spinach unless we shove it down their gullets.
What's weird about this fear is that it seems to me that these people have made their life's work doing something that they think has no recognizable value to regular folks and that regular person would be interested in these type of courses of their own free will. (An interesting mix of self-loathing and delusions of specialness, that.) And part of the reason that I don't understand this is that I teach a lot of stuff that would qualify as spinach, at the end of the day, and yet I don't feel like what I do is totally unappealing on the plate, nor do I think that it tastes like old sweat socks. I think that some people will order the spinach among the other options, and those people will really want to be there. And I'd rather have people order something that they have a possibility of enjoying than order something that they hate because I force them to order it.
What's crazy about this conflict is that the spinach crew seem to think that spinach is being taken off the menu in one of the alternative approaches that's been provided. And that's just not true. They think that the alternative approach constitutes the Revolution of Onion Rings and Soda Pop. They think that this is some sort of direct attack against their beloved spinach, and they think that everybody who wants a fully developed menu is some sort of terrorist. And this is, in a word, insane, and in another word, false. And what's even weirder is that I'm being lumped in with the Onion Rings and Soda Pop brigade even though, if we're going to be technical about this, my general field of expertise is in the spinach family. (It's true: I teach creamed spinach and spinach lasagna - I don't just boil it up and slop it on a plate - but dude: it's spinach nonetheless.)
But so. Some people are afraid of the possibility that if their courses are on the menu next to other courses, and if students have a choice of side dishes, that no one will ever order spinach again. This is practically speaking impossible, but that's the fear. And I'm pretty skeptical that I can make them see that it's just not true, because this is not a rational response at all so no amount of logic is going to sway these folks. Moreover, since they think that they are on the side of the Right and the Just, because they conceive of their position as the moral and ethical position, well, I think that the likelihood of them changing positions is very small.
And can I just note here that I don't think that the "full menu" approach is a more right and just one. I just think it's one that would make it more fun to work in the kitchen for all of the chefs (for, see, I really don't want to spend my career being an underappreciated pastry chef or line cook), and make the dining experience for students more pleasurable and one that let's them get their RDA of vitamins and minerals.
So. That's where things are in the Department of Underwater. And what will happen from here is unclear. But some people are going to be really unhappy at the end of this, whatever happens. At least I feel like I understand the conflict now, though, which does make me feel a lot better, for whatever that's worth.
(In an unrelated note, Hosea is not my Top Chef, and he never will be.)
5 years ago