Thursday, February 26, 2009

Eureka? Maybe - Another Metaphorical Sort of a Post

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.)


Shane in SLC said...

These posts have me thinking about my previous university, which I think resembles yours in a lot of ways. I was on the Lit Studies curriculum committee, and there was one senior professor in particular who was firmly in the "eat your spinach" camp. And he was adamant that every student needed significant exposure to Donne, Milton, Coleridge, etc. In his case, it wasn't that he was contemptuous of more recent literature; it was more that he regarded the medieval and early modern periods as foundational to understanding anything else in the discipline. It was almost like a math model: you had to master algebra before you could move on to calculus. So he wanted a curricular model in which students were required to read those foundational texts, and if they happened to encounter Morrison or Rushdie or take a film class as an elective, good for them. It drove me nuts as an organizing principle, as I had a less hierarchical view of the curriculum and the classroom in general.

Anonymous said...

i totally can't believe you told me who won before I got to see the episode. gah!

dance said...

In my dept, we are deeply reluctant to actually answer the question of what our curriculum is supposed to do. It's not that we each have different answers or that we are fighting over what the answer should be, it's that we refuse to accept that it is important to have an answer at all.

And it's driving me crazy.

flacius1551 said...

My experience has been that people who insist on heavy doses of the basics are really basically afraid/convinced that people will do no more educating of themselves after they leave. I.e., we have to determine what is most important, make a list of it, and force everyone to read it because this is the last point at which they will obtain any education for themselves. In other words, it's a statement of failure--they don't really believe any longer that they are teaching "learning how to learn" in their classes.

I used to think that attitude was silly. However, after a decade in the profession I find it more convincing these days. Really, there are many students who will do nothing but consume onion rings while they are in the restaurant. And there are many who are done reading and thinking the second they get their bachelor's degree. The question is just whether a heavy sequence of required central texts is going to do anything to change that--about which I am also doubtful.

k8 said...

I do like the food analogies.

One of the things I find interesting, is that when people take the "eat your spinach" approach and label required courses that way, they run the risk of making spinach sound unpleasant. I like spinach. I also like potato skins and tiramisu. I like them for different reasons. And, as I later discovered as I advanced through my schooling, there are some items I thought of as tiramisu but school classified them as spinach. It gets very confusing.

Maybe it's because I've always been ambivalent about formal education, but it seems like setting up specific foods as spinach affects how people perceive them. They don't see the accompaniments. I like my spinach salad with some bacon(!), a little cheese, some dried cranberries - all sorts of yummy stuff (not all of which are super healthy). However, if you were to ask me if I'd just like some spinach, I'd probably say no. And why do potato skins have to be strictly junk food? It all depends what you put on them, right? And why not study those onion rings? Isn't it good to know what the rest of the world eats? Doesn't that help us understand how all of these foods function in human lives?

And I do think that we all need some desserts. We just need to remember that what might be spinach for some, is tiramisu for others, and what is ice cream for some, is a fresh green salads for others.

fwiw, I'm not sure where my part of the discipline falls into this food analogy. I can see it spanning the full range of the food pyramid.

Shaun Huston said...

Yes. Could not believe how Top Chef ended. Worst winner ever, especially relative to the quality of the season.

Anonymous said...

I wish carla hadn't let that other woman talk her into things. I would have been happier with stefan, even, because despite the fact that he's an arrogant punk, I kind of have a thing for him.

I will stop leaving comments about top chef on your thoughtful and intelligent post about curricular structure now. :)

life_of_a_fool said...

we do have people that don't care or think much about the curriculum is supposed to do, and seem to be *really* defending their turf. This is more so in our grad program, where there are real, practical, consequences -- required courses, or those that meet a requirement will fill, others may or may not, but it's more up in the air. The more honest ones among them admit that openly.

And I've gotten shot down for suggesting that we even talk about course or programmatic goals, in a perversion (I think) of "academic freedom!" (with a side note of "any reasonable person is surely doing what I do." I'm not sure what academic freedom has to do with making sure students get the right amount of "nutrition" in their courses, or at least understanding what we think that might look like. . .This sounds like dance's problem as well.

LassLisa said...

Do you think this is a valid analogy in other departments as well, particularly the more sequentially-based ones? It seems like some of the issue isn't just "spinach enrollments will topple" but also "do we want to give a degree in food to anyone without an understanding of vegetables?" It's easy to say that anyone truly interested in biology will see the need to take a chemistry class, but what about people who aren't truly interested and are choosing their subject/s based on external pressure?

Unknown said...

Then there's the financial aid office, who will only help out for the absolute bare minimum to 'get that degree' and not one penny more. (In fact, they were reluctant to help out for the full amount!), so that extra class I wanted to take because it seemed to fit my idea of a well-rounded education wasn't 'necessary' and I couldn't take it. (I'm majoring in music education, post-bac, and wanted to take a course on the religions of the world, since music and religion are linked...)

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the responses, everybody - about the actual post and about Top Chef! I still can't get over that Hosea won. Jeez.

To Lisa (I think you're new to commenting here? if so, welcome!) I actually think it's really important that we do have some "vegetables" courses (spinach, cabbage, whatever) no matter what the discipline. As introductory courses, certainly, but also I'm even in favor of requirements at the upper level that reflect the discipline as it currently stands and that make sense not only to faculty (who perhaps see the subtext of such requirements better having gotten PhDs in the field) but also to anybody who might look at the major - students, accrediting bodies, administrators, folks out in the world who hire graduates. Just as one example from my field, let's say that we believe that students should take x number of classes that focus on stuff before 1850. Now, implicit in that is that people who write after 1850 will have that pre-1850 body of knowledge influencing them, so it's helpful for students to have the same foundation. But if all the requirement says is pre-1850, are we communicating that? Does any course pre-1850 count? What if what the course focuses on is pornographic literature of the period or sensation novels or penny dreadfuls? And if it focuses on those things, but is pre-1850, is it inherently more valuable than, say, a class on the Harlem Renaissance, just because it's "old" as opposed to "new"? See, I'd say that a course on the Harlem Renaissance would be more "foundational" but if our requirements are set up only to value one index of value, say texts before 1850, then we're not really communicating what we're getting at when we make the requirement.

I will say this, though: I'm really focusing on the humanities here, in which there is more flexibility about how to shape what requirements look like. It is entirely possible for a student to take a course on 20th century poetry and to get something out of it without having taken a course on 18th century poetry first. It's entirely possible for a student to take a course on novels and to learn in that course without being familiar with the canon of prose romances. It is not, in contrast, possible to take calculus and make heads or tales of it if one doesn't know how to do basic algebra. So I don't think that what I'm discussing here applies neatly to all disciplines: but I do think that all disciplines can benefit from thinking about how their majors work as rhetorical documents and whether they communicate what they think they are communicating.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for your comment too (also a new person! Welcome!) Your comment gets at the other piece of this issue for me, and the piece that really matters: designing a more flexible major curriculum should (I think) be about giving students the freedom to be curious and (ideally) to fulfill major requirements in such a way that they can, here or there, have a course or two left over so that they can pursue a course of their interest that doesn't lead toward the major or minor or general education requirements. If a major is excessively proscriptive (lots of prerequisites, lots of specified required courses) it can extend time to degree and it can stop students from rounding out their areas of specialization with other things. Sure, professors' courses are more protected if we set things up that way, but students' educations as *whole people* don't really benefit from that set-up, as far as I can tell.

Professor Zero said...

Where I went to school they had my favorite model: hardly any requirements, just that you had to have x many hours in Underwater to graduate in it!!!

Then, for those who wanted or needed guidance, they had lists of recommendations. Sure you never want to go to grad school in this area - you just like some courses in this department? Do as you please. Want to be prepared for a traditional graduate program? Try this. Want to prepare for a graduate program in allied field x? Try this. Want to learn key values and methodologies of this discipline, whether or not you go on to study it at more advanced levels? Try this.

You read the handbook and took your choice ... and your advisor would give you tips, too, that you could take or not.

It didn't work poorly at all, and it saved a lot of sturm und drang for faculty.

Where I am now we have very picky, detailed requirements and it is h*** to help each individual plan for graudation (you need course x, and it is only given every two years, so we must waive the prereq if you are to take it while you still have loan money available, and on and on). I miss that old flexibility.