Home > Uncategorized > The spherical student: sacrifices on the altar of “well roundedness”

The spherical student: sacrifices on the altar of “well roundedness”

When I describe my idea of a “B.S.-bs” degree to my colleagues, they tend to get defensive, assuming they get past the point of staring at me like I’ve grown a third arm and a second head. Without fail, they talk about the importance of college students being “well rounded.” I gently suggest that no amount of sitting in a classroom will make someone well rounded.

My wife loves costuming. When we go to Dragoncon or other sci-fi cons, she often packs two or three costumes per day. She spent four months working on an Elizabethan gown that weights 12 pounds. Recently, she’s become interested in putting electronics into her costumes. I taught her to solder, and she put together an R2-D2 hat which, in addition to making appropriate R2-D2 bleeps and bloops, has a blue light which actives whenever she speaks or whenever there’s a bleep or bloop. We both used to sing in the DeKalb Choral Guild. She has performed in two shows at the Center for Puppetry Arts. She used to participate heavily in the Society for Creative Anachronism, in which she fenced, played recorder in a renaissance ensemble, and taught classes on renaissance dance based on original source research. She’s currently into swing dancing and is a graduate student in Applied Linguistics at Georgia State. (Incidentally, she’s enjoying school much more now, largely because she can focus on the topic she is interested in.)

It would be hard to argue that my wife isn’t “well rounded.” But, more to the point, she didn’t become well rounded because of the class on dinosaurs she was required to take in college as part of getting a degree in French.

So, what if my wife, at some point in her life, needed to use knowledge gained from her class about dinosaurs? Well, as she points out, she can read. She can read books about dinosaurs. She can go to natural history museums. She can watch videos about dinosaurs, many of them easily accessed with just a few keystrokes into the youtube search field. She could organize a meetup with other dinosaur enthusiasts in the Atlanta area. She could seek out web forums, ask questions, and read replies. And if all that failed to meet her unanticipated thirst for paleontological knowledge, perhaps she could enroll in a university class about dinosaurs, but not for any particular degree. I could make the same observations about the class I took in ancient and modern Japanese culture, which I took to fulfill one of those well-roundedness requirements. Why should we be force-fitting someone’s complete education into the four (or, at schools like Georgia Tech, often five or six) years that they’re at college? When my colleagues-to-be in the Georgia Tech faculty were evaluating my application for a tenure-track position, I doubt any of them said, “Look! He took a class on Japanese culture! We have to hire this guy.”

Could any class on Japanese culture possibly measure up to the experience of spending a good chunk of time in Japan?

There is the possibility that being forced to take a class on dinosaurs might have awoken her latent love for paleontology or geology, inspiring her to drop her French major. But you could make the same statement about any class, or for that matter, many human activities that have nothing to do with paying tuition to anyone. “The might find out they like it; I was forced to take a class in XYZ, and found out I liked it” is not a valid argument for requiring a class. So you found out you loved topic XYZ, and it changed your life? Good for you! What about the student who winds up discovering that they despise topic XYZ and want nothing to do with it ever again? Is it wise to trap them in their personal hell for an entire semester, just because you unexpectedly found it to be your personal heaven? “Wait,” you say. “I didn’t like the class in XYZ at the time, but I came to appreciate it later.” That’s not a valid argument either. My wife’s appreciation for her class on dinosaurs did not increase at any point in the years after she graduated, and she notes that being forced to pay for a class that was irrelevant to her major made her resentful and more resistant to the topic. Maybe she would have discovered a love of dinosaurs on her own if she hadn’t been forced to take that class; maybe the class is what prevented her from eventually switching to paleontology. These “what-if” games can go on endlessly, and they lead nowhere. It is not helpful to try to build a college curriculum based on them. If you truly want to insist that students should be forced to take various classes to see if “they might like them,” semester-long classes are an awfully blunt instrument for that. Quarter classes are more tolerable, but something like month-long teaser class would be better.

The arbitrariness of many curricular requirements should give us pause. Two classes from category X, three classes from category Y. Why not three classes from category X, and two classes from category Y? Is it because that’s what ABET dictates? Is it because that’s what Stanford was doing in the 1950s? Is it because the departments that fulfill category X were able to wield more power than those that fulfill category Y the last time the curriculum was revised? Why don’t we put more freedom for these decisions into the hands of students? The species known as “tenured university professor” is the most over-specialized life form on the planet; society would be wise to be skeptical anytime a flock* of university professors claims it has drawn up a “well rounded” curriculum.

Does your department have classes that aren’t taken by your own majors or by students in majors of related fields, and which exist solely for students in unrelated majors to fulfill some sort of generic “well-roundedness” requirement? If so, think carefully about whether those classes should be in the catalog. Are they the best use of faculty time? Are they the best use of student time? Are they the best use of money, whether it comes from students, their parents, or the taxpayers?

*The term “flock” implies a level of organization that is typically absent. I’m open for suggestions for a better word for a group of professors.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June Boodle
    December 2, 2011 at 10:39 am

    as you know, i have much to say about this subject…but im going to leave it at this:

    i do not appreciate the fact that at gsu (and probably other schools) there are seventeen hundred sections of irrelevant core classes offered every semester, yet a lot of the specialized creative writing courses that are required for the major i actually CHOSE TO STUDY – you know, the whole reason i am here in the first place? – are offered 1 section per year. PER. YEAR. when i am fighting over 1 section per year with hundreds or thousands of other creative writing majors, no to mention the fact that some of them are open to non majors, its gonna take me YEARS to get into the classes i need to graduate and im gonna end up taking a bunch of stupid bullshit in the meantime. ive already been in school for YEARS, and to me, this is just unacceptable.

    the syllabus for the intro creative writing class i took specifically suggested that students trying to achieve a creative writing concentration should consider a less specialized concentration in the face of these conditions. they are suggesting concentrations like literary studies and advanced comp instead of creative writing, because the requirements can be filled with any 3000 level English classes. by the end of the semester i learned that i have the talent for creative writing and would go far if i could have some way of getting priority enrollment in these courses. but since they dont offer anything like that at gsu, i have concluded that i dont have time for this mickey mouse bullshit and i recently changed my concentration just for the sake of getting the fuck out of here all the faster.

    it is a shame though, that the the demand for more creative writing course sections at gsu is being ignored, and students are being directed away from creative majors. if you think about the most basic economical concepts, this demand should logically be met with more supply. the fact that this demand is being snuffed in such a way speaks volumes for the degree of resentment the gsu english department must have for levels of creative talent they were never able to achieve. it has been my experience that the department is filled with bitter literary critics who never created anything awesome enough to put them in a position of authority. this is not really any kind of place for creativity to flourish. any creativity that makes it out of gsu alive, including the art department, is out of sheer determination. which is good to a certain extent, but not what teaching and fostering creativity is necessarily about. every college SHOULD be a place where creativity can flourish in confidence. this is sadly not the case.

    it is also a shame that i might just graduate without making a single friend who shares my major. i have been looking for ways to bond with other students at gsu who are serious about creative writing, cause if i can make myself keep jumping through hoops for another four years, i at least want to come out of this with some contacts. yet the one creative writing workshop i have managed to squeeze into was filled with non majors, half of which dont even know how to put together a sentence. this is even more of an outrage now that im seeing it all written out.

  2. Siobhan
    December 2, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    If you haven’t already got it, a harumph of professors seems appropriate… Or better yet, a murder of professors as that seems what they’re trying to do to us via sleep deprivation.

  3. Gregory
    December 3, 2011 at 2:08 am

    I think you buried your lede back in the middle of the previous post. To wit:

    “I’m suggesting that for a “B.S.-bs,” the classes taken outside of the major should have some clear, direct relevance to the degree.”

    That’s so much clearer than the diversions into appendectomies, dinosaurs, and extracurricular puppetry would suggest. Perhaps I was not sufficiently familiar with the particulars of whatever ABET is to grasp this earlier. Re-reading, I think your salient points boil down to:

    1) Some of the particular classes selected as requirements at your university strike you as arbitrary at best, and venal turf-warding at worst;
    2) Credits are valuable and should not be wasted on non-essential topics;
    3) Therefore, a better approach would be a more subject-limited set of classes as requirements.

    But I think you might be a bit cavalier in a few implied assumptions in those statements. Such as:

    – That an education is best limited to a single subject.
    – That selecting to devote oneself to that subject is done with all necessary familiarity with it in all its dimensions.
    – That a subject can best be studied if done so without learning about related topics.
    – That knowledge of a subject is hindered by exposure to unrelated topics.
    – That the purpose of a degree is to represent the holder as the master of a single domain of knowledge.
    – That dinosaurs are not categorically awesome.

    So, is ‘well-rounded’ a weak defense of a particular class selection for a given degree track? Quite possibly. That’s a great debate to have in a curriculum committee. Is having a wider goal than “has learned the current set of electrical circuit design principles” or “has learned French to conversational level” appropriate for conferring a college degree? I think there’s a case to be made than it’s not just a grab for cash, and that there are real merits to maintaining a Liberal Arts tradition in higher education. After all, if all that mattered were the utility of a degree, then not only would we know less about dinosaurs, but I highly doubt French – or indeed any language department – would endure. Could any class on French possibly equal the experience of immersion in a French-speaking country? And if all we judged were its specificity of topic, we would not offer degrees in Philosophy, History, Literature, or even Physics, for who now can be said to have ever learned those enough?

    What would serve your purposes of both limiting the cost and scope of a line of study already exists – it’s called an Associate degree. Cut out all that “learn about the world and its peoples” malarkey and just blow through a single-subject in two years. But I think then we’d have to have a discussion about what the purpose of a degree is, ultimately.

    PS. The currently favored term for a group of professors is a ‘pomposity’, although it’s closely followed by an ‘arrogance’:

    • Joyce
      December 15, 2011 at 1:56 am

      Dinosaurs are, in fact, categorically awesome. However, an entire semester of classifying them by evolutionary family, class, species, phylum, sub-genre, chewiness, strangeness, and charm was not necessary to convince me of this, and in fact made me feel quite the opposite.

      But I don’t think that Aaron is advocating the kind of narrow specificity that you’re inferring. Surely students should be *able* to take classes in anything they want to, up to and including chewy dinosaurs. The question is whether they should be *required* to take classes that don’t relate to their reason for being in college in the first place.

      I admit, I do have a utilitarian view of a college degree, and I always have. That’s largely bc I was on my own to pay for it, and I regarded it as an investment in my future. I wasn’t going to go deeply into debt without giving some thought to the return on my investment–would I be able to use this degree to get a job that would pay off the debt incurred to get it? (The answer turned out to be something like, “uh….” but it’s a long story. Suffice to say, I did get a job in my field, and I did pay off my loans, but the two facts are not necessarily correlated.) Since the chewy dinosaur class wasn’t getting me any return on that investment, I resented it. Still do.

  4. December 9, 2011 at 11:37 am

    I don’t believe in “well-roundedness”. I heard that term in high school, in college, and hated it. You don’t get someone to improve their knowledge of the world by throwing arbitrary requirements that they will resent, ignore, and subvert. I would think that most of us who have run the gauntlet of school have encountered numerous students (including ourselves) who have wasted time going through the motions in various courses where we didn’t really learn or appreciate anything, much less use it in the future, and even worse, got distorted ideas that prevented us from really understanding what goes on in various fields.

    The idealistic idea that forcing everyone to jump through various hoops will make them enjoy and understand them is, I think, empirically false.

    On the other hand, I am a fervent supporter of helping people actually discover and become passionate about and learn and use all kinds of ideas and skills. I just happen to think a “well-roundedness” ideology undermines such curiosity and motivation and exploration. Not a single person I know who is excited about and knows about many things learned any of that whatsoever through their schooling. It came from family, friends, community.

  5. December 16, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    I think that UCSC has done a fairly good job of designing and explaining their general-ed requirements. See my post at http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/general-education-at-universities-particularly-ucsc/

  1. December 6, 2011 at 1:21 am

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