Thursday, April 01, 2010

Students and Required Courses

This is further thinking related to yesterday's post, and then to Historiann's response to it over at her place and the comment thread that follows it. And I suppose this post is also informed by the fact that I have been a central figure in revamping, oh, like the entire curriculum at my university over the past 18 months. (Well, maybe not the entire curriculum, but I did almost single-handedly push through a massive revamping of our major as well as develop and push through, with a handful of others, a brand new general education program. And you wonder why I've got sabbaticalitis? This is probably the number one reason.)

But so here's the thing. Requirements. They suck. Nobody likes requirements. I certainly don't like requirements. Requirements hurt my feelings. Requirements are hoops I have to jump through. They cause anxiety (Am I meeting the requirements? Did I forget a requirement?), irritation (This requirement is for the birds!), and exhaustion (Too. Many. Requirements. !!!! I shall die!). My antipathy to requirements in very many ways influenced where I chose to get my Ph.D. One of the best things about my program was that it had very few requirements. One required course, a foreign language requirement, x amount of credit hours in coursework, and an oral qualifying exam and a dissertation. Boom. And the reading list for the qualifying exam? Designed by me (in consultation with faculty, but still, no standard reading lists). So anyway, I understand in a very personal way why students resist those courses that they are required to take. It's because requirements are anxiety-producing, irritating, and exhausting. And they feel arbitrary.

But so why have requirements at all then? Well. It turns out that required things have the potential to blow our minds and to get us to see a bigger picture than we would see and to try things we'd never try if we just followed our bliss or something. I think the trick, however, is that requirements should ultimately have some flexibility, and they should be transparent. There should be some room for independent thinking and interest, and the reason for the requirement should be evident to the person of whom the thing is required. That doesn't mean that an individual will be super-jazzed about fulfilling the things that are required of them, but at least it does mediate the whole "arbitrary and restrictive" thing.

So when we think about requirements, as people who require things, we've got to think about how to articulate the why of them. We can't just think about the execution or end result or the underlying philosophy. So just as one example, I hated the "community outreach" requirement that I had to fulfill for tenure. But, I also got why it was important that I did it, because it's very clear that it's part of my university's mission, and it's very clear that this sort of outreach is essential especially when it comes to making arguments for necessary budgets. I didn't love it, but I understood the "why" of it.

I think that a lot of times students across all disciplines don't understand the "why" of particular things that are required of them, whether it's in terms of courses that they take or whether it's in terms of assignments that they must complete in a given course. It's on us, as the people who make the requirements and who teach students and who advise students, to make the "why" explicit and clear.

This is the reason that even in my lit courses I spend time on writing instruction. This is the reason that in courses that reach an audience of non-majors, I spend a lot of time talking about what all students can get out of the course and its material. Now, not all students pay attention to those messages, but I do think that it's really important for me to send them whatever the case.

Do you know what I think the value of a literature course is for a non-humanities student? I think that it can potentially give them the power to experience more pleasure in the time that they have where they're not working. Seriously. I think that's the biggest thing. I think that non-majors and non-humanities folks will learn skills in my courses that will allow them to enjoy books and movies and television more than they would do, and more deeply than they would do, if they haven't taken my class. That is my One Big Learning Outcome. I don't expect them to become English majors, or to love the books/poetry/films/nonfiction that I teach. I don't expect them to love writing papers or taking the tests that I give, nor do I expect them even to love me (though I like it when they do). I expect to give them skills that will transfer to their reading of novels by Nicholas Sparks and Dan Brown. I expect to give them skills that will allow them to get even more out of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga, both in book and film forms. I expect for them to have the power to enjoy Stephen King and Clive Cussler even more than they do before they take my class. I don't expect that they are going to run off and read every novel Nabokov wrote, or that all of a sudden they'll be reading poetry like it's going out of style. I don't expect that they will think that T.S. Eliot exists for any other reason aside from hurting their feelings. I don't expect that they will all of a sudden be reading Literature with a Capital L for fun. Now, those things might happen, but I don't expect those things. What I expect is that I will teach my students skills that will translate into their everyday lives and make those everyday lives richer.

On the one hand, that's a very small expectation. On the other, when I encounter students like the one from yesterday's post, I realize how huge such a goal really is. How much it really means.

Requirements allow me, as a teacher, the potential to do that for students. For students, requirements allow them the potential to realize that maybe there's more to life than what they've already experienced and what they already know. In that way, requirements are very good things.

Nevertheless, requirements suck, both for teachers and for students. For teachers they suck because it means that you'll have that student who refuses to commit and to engage, always. For students they suck because they feel like roadblocks to what you "really" want to do and think about. I'm not sure there's any way entirely to get around that suckitude. But I do think that it's worth spending some energy on trying to combat it.


canuck_grad said...

I totally see how the attitude you described yesterday would be more common in people from other fields who are required to take your courses.... but in line with the growth/fixed mindset stuff I posted yesterday, and historiann's comments about anti-intellectualism - do you see the same attitude in students in your major too? Maybe not expressed in quite the same way, since they are obviously interested in the topic... but do you get majors who clearly have a fixed mindset? Who are probably used to be "smart" and get threatened when challenged, blaming their failure on you, circumstances, etc. and disengaging?

I know I've seen it in my limited teaching experience so far, and it's really frustrating. More frustrating than those students who are just not interested at all... these are the ones who, like your student, come to you for "help" but really want to complain that you gave them a low mark, or be told exactly steps A, B, C to take to get a high mark next time... and you know these are the smart, capable ones, and you just can't make them see that they need to stretch and learn new things, and not just apply the things they already know.

I just read a really good Dissertation book that pointed this out... that even people who generally have growth mindsets tend to have a fixed mindset about their dissertation - because you've been in school so long and already done lots of research, you feel like you should already have the skills necessary to do the dissertation and it's just a matter of demonstrating that - so you get frustrated/stuck when you come up against things you can't do, forgetting that you should still have things to learn.

Doctor Pion said...

Do you know what I think the value of a literature course is for a non-humanities student? I think that it can potentially give them the power to experience more pleasure in the time that they have where they're not working.

As a scientist, I agree 100%.

However, I did use my "honors" status to avoid ancient history in college and I'm glad I did. Twenty years later I bought a book (likely a textbook) on the history of the ancient world and learned it on my own at a time when it had started to interest me. When I was in college, I was more interested in 19th century literature and existentialism as a result of exposure to same in high school.

My students are often amazed at all of the odd things I know and can connect to what I teach, but all I do is pay attention. I never wasted a dime of tuition money, or my subscription to The New Yorker and National Geographic, among others.

human said...

I *heart* this post a lot. Thank you.

I would add, I guess, that not every requirement is going to achieve its purpose for every single student. Even if they don't, that doesn't mean there is no purpose to requirements in education or that they should go away. Students should have some control over their education - a lot of control even - but not total control because they necessarily don't know as much as educators about the process of getting educated.

There are requirements I would sooner not have taken. They were major inconveniences for me and I didn't get much out of them. There were other requirements that were life-changing and some of them wound up being cornerstones for my intellectual development. I could never have known that would happen before taking the courses.

Anyway, preaching to the choir, sorry. Awesome post.

Ann said...

This is terrific. I agree, Dr. Crazy, that requirements are necessary although irritating to many (if not all.) Because of requirements in college, I learned that 1) calculus was not painful, but fun! (Although very challenging for me, of course), and 2) studying more than one foreign language was possible, and really enhanced my understanding of language in general. I studied French and Hebrew, and a friend of mine (quite the linguist) who knew French, Hebrew, and Russian once told me that she got so much more out of Lolita after studying Russian. She told me that the book is even more clever if you know all three of these other languages, plus English of course. (The book is already so full of English puns and plays on words, I almost wonder if they'd become a distraction if you knew enough languages to "get" all of them!)

You've given me food for thought with respect to my own survey course. Maybe I'll stop writing my "kill the survey" posts?

PhysioProf said...

I think that non-majors and non-humanities folks will learn skills in my courses that will allow them to enjoy books and movies and television more than they would do, and more deeply than they would do, if they haven't taken my class.

This makes a lot of sense. However, I didn't notice in your post about the student who was resisting that you actually *said* this explicitly to the student. One of the things that I have learned over the years teaching physiology to medical students is that roughly 20% of classroom time should be spent explaining *why* we are learning what we are learning, and *how* it is going to be applicable in some context other than our classroom.

Dr. Crazy said...

Physioprof, I didn't write this in this post, but this is something I say OVER and OVER in my gen ed classes - very explicitly. I say it to the classes as a whole, and to individual students. What I've found is that maybe 70 percent of students actually hear it, though, whether I say it to them in class or individually. So, I'll keep saying it, but there will always be some students who don't hear it.

Anonymous said...

I want to send out an advising memo and cannot find a way to make it polite. Reality: I am sick of students who take certain classes only because they think they will be the easiest way to fulfill a requirement. Draft so far:

Native speakers of Spanish in STEM disciplines are often advised into Spanish X to fulfill the distribution requirement in literature, and we welcome their participation. They and their advisors should know, however, that Spanish X is a difficult course. It is not less demanding than courses in literature in English, French or other languages. Some of the apparently more "advanced" literature courses in Spanish, less technically oriented and more specialized than Spanish X, could also be appropriate choices for STEM students.

Literate native speakers of Spanish cannot be given credit for Spanish courses numbered Y or below. The minor for these students therefore consists of 6 3-hour upper level courses of their choice. Students who have done this work at universities in their countries of origin will have had credit transferred. Credit examinations for these courses are therefore the exception, not the rule.

Anonymous said...

One doesn't like requirements, but requiring things has led to some of my greater successes, as in: requirements expose students to things they wouldn't have explored on their own, but turn out to adore -- as you say.

At my institution, requirements are very many, very specific and very low level. That is what makes them hard to deal with.

Where I went as an undergraduate, there were many ways to fulfill each requirement. That made them practically like electives. And I was intellectually mature and open to taking courses, and EVEN SO it turned out that one of the two best courses I took in college, was a course I took almost at random to fulfill a requirement, because the course I really wanted to take was full. And the professor was really famous and conscientious and everything.

So: I think courses that fulfill requirements should be done really well, and taught by people who can really communicate. If you're already committed to a field and you have a course that's a little off, you can still say "well, the books were good," or "well, so-and-so wasn't a good lecturer, but he gave out great notes / created a great course reader / would explain in office hours all the fascinating things he was too flustered to explain in class / or whatever. And it's OK. But if the course is out of field for you, the course needs to be more eye popping.