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.
4 years ago