Gamifying the Edupocalypse

January 22, 2012 2 comments

A couple of days ago, I attended an unconference-style “catalyst workshop” on Gamification for Education hosted by Georgia Tech’s Center for 21th Century Universities. I have some thoughts on specific topics that were brought up at the workshop, as well as some musings on games-(in,via,through,above,below,whatever)-education that occurred to me after the workshop, which I will address in future posts. But I first wanted to generally frame the discussion.

I automatically become skeptical and nervous when I hear the word “gamification,” since it often seems to imply applying tropes from games to Thing X, Y, and Z without a lot of focus on the particular nature of Thing X, Thing Y, or Thing Z. In particular, I duck for cover when words like “badges,” “points,” “achievements” (to use Microsoft’s term) and “trophies” (to use Sony’s term) start to get piled onto activities like brushing teeth and exercising. Ultimately everything becomes fungible — eat enough low-fat potato chips, get a free train ticket to Boise!

The clearest — and hence, most terrifying — articulation of the Omega Point of gamification I’ve seen is Jesse Schell’s DICE 2010 keynote, which was likely the tipping point after which the syllables “game-uh-fa-cay-shun” were on the lips of every Mad Man from New York to New Delhi, each one hoping to unleash their inner Skinner. Although Schell’s speech was widely heralded as a blueprint for a brave new cyberworld, and excitedly embraced by a slew of societal actors as a novel way to bring people around to their cause (whether that cause is buying soda or riding a bicycle), I found myself recoiling in horror. If you haven’t seen the talk, and don’t have the full 28 minutes, 19 seconds needed to see it in its entirety, just start at the 20 minute mark. By the 23 minute mark you’ll have an urge to voluntarily douse your keyboard in whiskey and set your computer on fire. By the 27 minute mark you’ll have an urge to involuntarily douse your computer in vomit and set your hair on fire. To be fair, it’s not entirely clear to me whether Schell was saying that his predictions were a cause for celebration, or whether he was merely pointing out that these things are coming, and encouraging his audience to be the Gamifiers instead of the Gamified.

But my visceral revulsion to a future in which every action is recorded, with some actions rewarded, along with questions about which specific powers would want to reward which specific behaviors, is secondary to the critique my colleague Ian Bogost made of Schell’s talk. All this chatter about leaderboards and progress bars neglects the true potential of “games,” which is to get people thinking about the underlying behavior of specific complex systems, whether those systems are dental, defensive, or democratic, and whether the subjects are cavities, castles, or countries. Bogost calls this procedural rhetoric:

Procedural rhetoric affords a new and promising way to make claims about how things work… video games can make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make argument with processes. Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes. Since assembling rules together to describe the function of systems produces procedural representation, assembling particular rules that suggest a particular function of a particular system characterizes procedural rhetoric.

Another way to understand procedural representation is in terms of models. When we build models, we normally attempt to describe the function of some material system accurately… Models of all kinds can be thought of as examples of procedural rhetoric; they are devices that attempt to persuade their creators or users that a machine works in a certain way. Video games too can adopt this type of goal; for example, a flight simulator program attempts to model how the mechanical and professional rules of aviation work. But since procedurality is a symbolic medium rather than a material one, procedural rhetorics can also make arguments about conceptual systems, like the model of consumer capitalism in Animal Crossing…

In response to Schell’s presentation at DICE 2010, Bogost wrote:

…games are not primarily comprised of incentives and rewards in the first place, not even the more unusual ones Schell presents in his talk. The heart of games is not points, but process. Games have the capacity to persuade us because they can depict perspectives on how things work, and they can give us insights into the complex and often ambiguous connections between them… the most ironic example Schell presented in his talk at DICE is that of the Ford Fusion dashboard. The growing plant in the dash holds promise not because it offers an incentive to drive in a fuel-efficient manner, but because it reveals the combinations of mechanical, electrical, and combustive processes that lead to fuel-efficient driving.

The Fusion driver does not jump with Pavlovian delight upon seeing a lively fern, but noodles with intrigue over the combinations of traffic patterns, driving, techniques, topology that lead to different results. She might ask questions like “Why does driving a certain way have an impact on fuel consumption,” and “How are neighborhoods and cities designed to encourage and discourage such driving?”

The sentence about “Pavlovian delight,” or I should say the lack thereof, is classic Bogostese. (I’m going to see how many times I can employ variations of the phrase “noodles with intrigue” over the next week.) My wife and I recently bought a Nissan LEAF, so questions such as those mentioned in that paragraph are particularly on my mind. There’s a gauge on the LEAF that tells you how economically (and hence, I suppose, ecologically) you are driving. Unfortunately the car doesn’t provide much feedback into exactly what factors go into that gauge — as far as I can figure out, the LEAF thinks I am driving most economically when I am at a stop light, and least economically when I am pressing the break or accelerator pedals, which I refer to as “driving.”

Wow — there’s actually a company called Badgeville, which calls itself “The Behavior Platform.” Ah, look here! “Reward customer and employee behavior with smart gamification techniques.” Excuse me a moment, I need to go score some Pepto-Bismol…

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“I don’t know how to do a line integral either”

January 11, 2012 2 comments

If you hang around engineering professors — of any sort — for any length of time, at some point one of them will start complaining about how bad students’ math skills have become. The other professors will nod in agreement, and each professor will list some tidbit of math they need for the classes they teach, and bemoan how the students look at them as if they had never even heard of such things. Sometimes this leads to grousing at lowered standards in high schools. (At Georgia Tech, occasionally blame is placed on one of our previous Presidents — to be clear, of GaTech, not the US.) Everyone will agree that the students math skills’ have been declining over time, and that the pinnacle of mathematical educational excellence coincided with the time in which the oldest in this group of professors was an undergraduate. (I’ve confess that I’ve engaged in these conversations myself; at one faculty meeting I complained about how some of my ECE2025 students didn’t seem to know how to differentiate exponentials.) I conjecture that faculty in the “pure” sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) indulge in similar pedagogical pity parties. Perhaps mathematics professors even kvetch about their own math majors? (Maybe claims of this decline are well supported by solid evidence, maybe not; I suspect the discussion says more about the professors than it does the students.)

In electrical engineering, you’ll quite often hear such complaints from instructors teaching electromagnetics. This is not without reason — out of all the undergraduate EE topics, electromagnetics probably relies on the most sophisticated mathematics an undergraduate engineering student is likely to encounter, namely vector calculus. Electromagnetics also is probably the most inherently challenging subject all EE majors are typically required to study, independent of the complexity of the related math. (It’s the class that our students fear the most — the phrase is “Emag, Remag, Threemag, Management” is a well-worn student slogan.) At Georgia Tech, vector calculus is covered in “Calculus III.” When I was at Washington University, it was part of an omnibus “Engineering Mathematics” class taught by the Systems, Science, and Mathematics department. (Incidentally, SSM majors always complained that their main problem was having to explain to potential employers what an SSM major was.)

A while back, one of my colleagues, who had recently taught electromagnetics, complained that his students “couldn’t even do a line integral.”

I noted, “Well, I don’t know how to do a line integral either. I mean, I’m sure I learned them, and could do at one point, but I couldn’t do one for you now.”

“Horror,” you holler! Here’s Aaron, a professor at Georgia Tech — an professor of electrical and computer engineering — and he can’t even do a line integral?

Well, yeah. At least as of 15 minutes ago, when I got the idea to write this post. Line integrals just don’t show up often in the kinds of research and engineering my graduate students and I do. There’s certainly no shortage of funky math that shows up in my work, and for my work I generally have those funky facts “at my fingertips,” but that’s just because I use them a lot, not because I made any particular effort to memorize them.

One of my other colleagues said something along the lines of “well, Aaron, you may not have needed that lately, but these students have taken Calc III the previous semester.” Yes, but most of what the students crammed into their heads the day before the final exam probably leaked out of their heads the day after. Here’s a thought experiment: imagine the students who took a final exam having to take another final exam a month after the first one, with no warning and no chance of study. How do you think they’d do? (A more practical experiment for my colleagues: give a pop quiz half way through lecture and ask the most basic questions you can imagine on what you just talked about for the last 25 minutes. Try not to weep when you figure out how little attention anyone is actually paying to you.)

So, let me pull up wikipedia and type in “line integral.” (Aaron looks over webpage for a few minutes.) Oh, OK. Scalar line integral, vector line integral… derivative of the function goes here… OK, got it.

I wonder. Did seeing that web page jog my memory? Come to think of it, I do remember looking at these things when studying Grenander’s pattern theory, sometime around 1993 to 1995. Or was the memory of line integrals really lost, and I just relearned it from scratch? Or something in between?

Can I tell you something else?

I don’t know Maxwell’s equations either.

“Double horror!” you exclaim. How can Aaron claim to be a EE professor when he doesn’t even know Maxwell’s equations? Didn’t I take a class in Emag when I was an undergrad? Well, sure I did, and it ended with Maxwell’s equations. I even got an A in it. Emag is taught as a math class, and I was good at the math (well, good for an engineer), and could pattern match sufficiently to translate the homework and exam problems into the math. But I never developed any intuition for the subject at all.

I have a shirt with Maxwell’s equations on it (with the words “And God said…” in front of them, and “…and there was light” after them), and you’ll see me wearing it on campus sometimes. But I couldn’t tell you what most of the symbols on that shirt mean. Well, I know what dot and cross products are (mostly because I’ve been teaching computer graphics lately). But I couldn’t tell you what a “div” or a “curl” was off the top of my head.

Here’s the thing. I don’t use Maxwell’s equations, or most basic Emag, in my work. This may seem odd since radar is one of my specialties. But I study the algorithmic side of radar, and much of the Emag-ness has been abstracted out of the kinds of mathematical conventions that are typically employed in radar signal processing.

But here’s Wikipedia. And I picked up this fantastic little book called A Student’s Guide to Maxwell’s Equations at our campus bookstore a while back. It’s waiting for me if and when I need it.

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It’s 15 minutes past the end of class, and nobody has noticed

January 8, 2012 1 comment

“Aaron, I hope you’re going to be home soon. Z [our three-year-old] has started LabVIEW on your computer and says he wants to program the robot.” – my wife, on the phone, a few months ago

This past semester, I taught a section of ECE1882: Introduction to ECE Design, which revolves around labs and projects using Lego Mindstorms robotics. My class was split into six teams, each with three people. The “design challenge” occupies the last 2/3 of the class periods. (One of my students took pictures of various robots that the teams had built — some showing the robots performing their “mine”-clearing task — and posted them to his blog.)

This was my first time teaching ECE1882. I experienced something I had never seen in my previous decade of teaching: we’d regularly go 15 to 20 minutes past the end of class, and no one would notice because everyone was so deeply engaged. I wouldn’t notice and the students wouldn’t notice. I had to start making a special effort to pay attention to the time and make announcements like “sorry, if you have a class right after this, you really need to go soon.”

Typically, students are obsessed with the clock for one of two reasons: they’re bored out of their skulls in a lecture and wish the minutes would tick by faster, or they’re frantically trying to finish a high-pressure lab that must be completed by a certain time so they’re praying the minutes won’t come as quickly. ECE1882 is constructed so the labs have a good mix of guided activity and open-ended exploration, and sufficient time is allocated so that the students don’t feel rushed. The students are learning while having fun. We cannot make every class like that –- but image what we could accomplish if we would at least try!

The class was quite unlike any class I had previously taught. I use the word “taught” somewhat loosely — for most of the labs and especially the final design challenge, I mostly just made supportive-sounding noises while the teams unleashed their creativity. Although I “lectured” about various topics here and there, the setup of the room — a set of tables with chairs around them for each team, instead of the usual rows of desks all crammed together — made it feel quite weird to do the usual professorial blab-things-while-writing-on-the-white-board schtick. Even when I’m lecturing in a usual rows-of-desks room — that is, every class I’ve taught except this one — I like to bounce around a lot. In this format, I had a difficult time staying by the board at all. I’d find myself at the other side of the room, wishing there was a board there too. Come to think of it, having every wall be a whiteboard would have been cool. Or maybe they should just yank out all the whiteboards altogether!

This was my first time teaching freshman, and it was a blast. But, I had the advantage of teaching freshman who had signed up for a class that they thought would be interesting. ECE1882 is not required of ECE majors, and is largely geared towards “undecided” students; it hopes to show students that ECE is fun. (In the case of my class, though, it seems that most of the students had pretty much already decided on ECE.) It counts as a fairly generic elective credit; several students told me they were using it as an alternative to GT1000, which as far as I can tell is “introduction to college” and probably easier than ECE1882. I’m sure if I was teaching freshman calculus or English composition, my experience would have been quite different. (Also, independent of the inherent interest of the material or its location on the required-to-elective spectrum, I had the advantage of a class with 18 students instead of 180.)

I’m still mentally processing some of the experience; I will probably have more to say about it in the future. In particular, it’s made me more skeptical about “graphical” programming languages (and I was already pretty skeptical), but that’s a topic for another post.

Honesty time: For everything that went well for my section, I must give credit my colleague Jeff Davis, who ran the section before mine, and who made up this semester’s material. Any blame for things that went not-so-well in my section falls on my shoulders. Jeff had taught the class before, but this was my first time, and I am thankful that he didn’t mind me leaning on him so much. I don’t just owe him one; I owe him many.

(It was something of a fluke that I wound up teaching it last semester; Doug Williams, who had originally created the course several years ago, was scheduled to teach it along with Jeff. But when our School chair, Gary May, got promoted to the position of Dean of Engineering, Doug was appointed interim chair, so Joe Hughes, who schedules our classes, needed to find someone else to do it. While I was finishing up ECE2025 grades for the summer, Joe wandered by and said something along the lines of “Aaron, I know you need another teaching assignment in the Fall or the Spring, and I know you like these hands-on kinds of classes…”)

If any Georgia Tech freshmen happen to be reading this during the week the first week of the Spring 2012 semester, David Anderson is teaching ECE1882 this semester. He is a great guy and a fantastic teacher, so go sign up!

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Chemistry, Psychology, and my apology to a Georgia Tech grad

December 17, 2011 3 comments

Sometime around the start of the Spring 2011 semester, while dining at the Five Guys Burger and Fries near Georgia Tech, I ran into a Computer Science student who had taken my Multicore and GPU Programming for Video Games class a few years earlier. He was a skilled and insightful programmer, quite bright, and intellectually mature. Conversations with him felt like conversations with a faculty colleague; he was simultaneously easy-going and professional. I still remember my jaw dropping at the quality of his Shaded First Person shooter assignment; he had gone far beyond the requirements of the assignment.

I asked him what he was up to. He told me that he was working with a startup company. It had recently received a good chunk of venture capital, and he was an early hire. The idea behind the company was clever, and not one I had heard before. The company was based in another state some distance from Georgia, so I asked him what he was still doing here. He said he was taking two classes. I was confused; I thought he surely must have graduated by now. He said he had thought that too.

He had planned to graduate in Fall 2010. But due to some combination of his own confusion and the confusion of one or more academic advisors, he belatedly found out he hadn’t fulfilled his graduation requirements.

So what courses was he taking in Spring 2011, his last semester? What classes were preventing him from moving to a new state to work at the company that wanted him? What classes were holding him back? They were General Chemistry and Psychology.

To add insult to the injury, he had taken an additional physics courses beyond that required of CS majors. He had erroneously thought that course would have fulfilled the requirement he wound up having to fulfill with General Chemistry.

I looked at him and said, “I am so, so sorry.”

Couldn’t we (and by “we,” I mean Georgia Tech) have just let him go? What possible purpose would have been served by keeping him around? Our introductory science courses are huge. No one would have missed him. I’ve sometimes seen general education requirements justified in terms of making it easier for people to switch majors. Perhaps that’s true of courses taken early on, but it’s clear at this point that he wasn’t going to be switching his major to Psychology or Chemistry. Would a lack of either or both of those courses seriously hindered his ability to contribute to the company that had just hired him?

I’ve heard general education requirements justified under a fuzzily defined goal of “teaching students to think.” I’d have a hard time looking at this student and saying, “ah, he’s almost there, but he can’t quite think yet. He needs general chemistry! Then he can think!”

Admittedly, if he had taken General Chemistry instead of his additional physics class, and had slipped Psychology into an earlier semester, this wouldn’t have risen to the level of his or my notice. But when those classes are broken out like that, representing an entire additional semester, their uselessness relative to this particular student’s needs sticks out.

One of my earlier posts focused on the financial aspects of required courses. Although the cost of college is frequently in the news – for good reason – it probably wasn’t the best angle for me to start with. The real issue here is time. Beyond having to pay for two additional classes he wasn’t expecting, how can we argue that those classes were a good use of his time? Moving beyond the particular company that hired him, wouldn’t society be better off if he could go ahead and start innovating? If at some point in his career he needed to balance chemical equations, there’s plenty of avenues for gaining that knowledge.

He finished those two classes and moved to be near the company. He and the company are doing well; the company recently received second, larger round of VC funding. They’re expanding. He asked me to send talented students his way.

Certainly, there are large swaths of computer science for which knowledge of psychology is useful. Indeed, at least one of our College of Computing’s Threads requires General Psychology. Cognative Science and Computational Neuroscience are hot areas. So I’m not arguing that a class in psychology is “bs” relative to all of Computer Science.

I remember taking a class in psychology one summer at a local community college to fulfill one of my well-roundedness requirements. The thing I remember the most about it was that the instructor eerily resembled my first long-term girlfriend in high school (where long-term is defined relative to what the term might mean to someone in high school.) The grade was determined solely by multiple choice tests. Two decades later, I couldn’t tell you anything about what might have been on them, although I probably couldn’t have told you any of that two months later either. As long as I made a “C” or above, the credit would transfer to Washington University, but the grade wouldn’t. So the class wasn’t too much of a time sink – I put no effort into studying for it, and took the tests solely based on what I could remember from the classes. I got a “B,” and the credit transferred, so I was happy. I had more fun with it than most courses since I didn’t stress about it at all. It still was probably not the best use of my time or my parent’s money.

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Welcoming a new horseman of the Edupocalypse

December 9, 2011 5 comments

Rich DeMillo suspected — correctly, I must admit — that the main driver that led me to start this blog was reading Roger Schank’s blog. (I’m tickled that Rich used his Loose Cannons tag on his post introducing Edupocalypse Now.)

Forging another link in the network, I’m quite honored to have inspired one of the first posts on Steve Hilber’s new blog, Never Settle For Less: Nonrandom thoughts from a young entrepreneur about living an exceptional life.

A common complaint you’ll hear among academics is that students view themselves as customers who think “the customer is always right.” Although there is some legitimate basis to that complaint, Steve digs deeper, noting that, yes, whoever’s paying is the customer — but colleges need to be much clearer and open about exactly what they are selling. In his post titled Can I Get A Refund For That Fine Arts Course?, Steve writes:

The fundamental idea driving education is that the customer is wrong; there are concepts and facts and algorithms the university knows that you, the individual student, do not know, and it’s the role of the university to teach these assorted data to you. You – the student – are asked to convince your parents and your banks and your scholarships to pay the university to give you merely the opportunity to spend the immense time and energy it takes to learn these ideas that you do not already know. It’s all up to you to make the most of your time in college; you’re just paying the college more and more money for the privilege of using their time and resources.

…there’s no liability or guarantee that you actually go anywhere with your Prestigious University Degree. Again, it’s entirely your responsibility. Which is incredibly strange when the tried-and-true argument for the liberal arts education America is so well known for is that “we teach you how to think, and that’s an education that will last you a lifetime…”

I am not, contrary to what it may seem, arguing that the college experience is inherently valueless. I am arguing that as far as I can tell, there is almost no accountability built into the system or the business model.

Please drop by Steve’s blog and make comments.

P.S. I’d also like to thank Mark Guzdial, who linked to my inaugural “B.S.-bs” post on his Computer Education blog. As usual, a spirited discussion erupted there. Alan Kay comments on Mark’s posts frequently, which is kind of like having God comment on your blog about theology. I was beyond thrilled to see that Alan left the first comment. It all connects in a roundabout way; Alan participated via video link in the C21U kickoff which featured Roger Schank as a panelist.

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Taking the bulls*** out of a Bachelor’s degree would not automatically reduce it to “vocational training”

December 6, 2011 10 comments

My first couple of posts generated a flurry of discussion. Curiously, more of it seems to be happening on Facebook than here, both on my own Facebook page and on the Facebook pages of people who have reposted links. That’s the way things go nowadays. I’ve seen one particular criticism crop up many times, so instead of copying and pasting my response both in replies to posts here and on various Facebooks pages, I thought it best to summarize some of the discussion in a new post. I am thrilled that so much discussion is happening, whether it is here or elsewhere.

One common worry seems to be that my “B.S.-bs” (Bachelor of Science minus the bullshit; you can similarly contemplate “B.A.-bs” degrees, etc.) proposal would turn the underlying “source” degree into “vocational training.” I see nothing wrong with vocational training and hate the way it is often denigrated. But, let’s assume for the moment that vocational training is the cursed hellspawn of a weekend tryst between Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich, and something we want to avoid in formulating a Bachelor’s degree. (Georgia Tech, for the most part, avoids “vocational training,” despite its origins as a trade school. Most of the faculty now at Tech were hired in the 1970s, when Tech began its transition into a research university, or later, and that is evident in our academic programs.)

Suppose you took a B.S. engineering degree (my canonical example, since it’s the kind of degree I am most familiar with) and trimmed out a few of the “well-roundedness requirements.” That doesn’t necessarily imply any changes to the set of courses that represent the underlying major. I’m including necessary prerequisite material for engineering, like math, physics, and oral and written communication, in that set. To first order, all my “bachelors minus bullshit” proposal does is slighty reduce the time and expense involved in getting the degree and give more flexibility to the student. Trimming a humanities requirement for computer scientists doesn’t automatically mean that all CS courses will be taught using C++, or Java, or whatever the current hot programming language is.

Georgia Tech has strong Computational Media and Digital Media programs (they’re basically the same area, with the former being an undergrad degree and the latter being a grad degree), and those programs, by definition, are humanities/technical hybrids. So if you sign up for those programs, you will get a big dose of Ian Bogost talking about Duchamp, but that’s part of what you’re signing up for. But the computer science student focusing on algorithmic complexity might benefit from spending a few more hours with Donald Knuth than Immanuel Kant. If that student has an interest in philosophy, they can explore it however they want; that might include taking a class on philosophy in college. Maybe they’ll get into the Philosophy of Computation, and maybe that might develop into a field in its own right, and someday you could sign up for a degree in the Philosophy of Computation, just as now you can now sign up for a degree in Computational Media.

To use one of my canonical examples, what impact would the removal of one or two science requirements from my wife’s French degree have had on the classes in her degree program? None. If you speak with most professors, most will have no idea what the various well-roundedness requirements of their degree programs are, unless they’ve recently served on an institute-level curriculum committee. I doubt many of my wife’s French professors could tell you that two science classes were required, let alone list the classes that would fulfill those requirements.

I can’t resist the cliche of picking on philosophy degrees a bit. Would reducing math or science requirements make a philosophy degree more practical? (Or, if I wanted to nitpick a little more, any less impractical?) For that matter, is there anything that you could do to a philosophy degree that could turn it into “vocational training?” (Yes, I know philosophy majors often have to take classes in set theory and first-order logic, and I know that the Philosophy of Math and the Philosophy of Science are deep areas.)

Within a particular field, professors and practitioners (sometimes the former are also the latter, but not often enough in my view) will argue endlessly about what specific degree programs should look like. If you have a department with 15 professors you will have at least 20 opinions over how that program should be designed. We’ll argue endlessly about what should be in the “core” of our discipline. But that’s all fodder for another post. Here, I am just tweaking the margins, and remember those margins are discipline-specific; one discipline’s margin may be another discipline’s essence.

Georgia Tech’s EE and CompE degrees are dense; many institute-level requirements that are written of the form of “student must take two from a set of classes including A, B, C, and D,” and ECE often specifies that students have to take “A” and “C.” So a “B.S.-bs” in EE or CompE from Georgia Tech wouldn’t involve removing very many requirements. But given how few of our students manage to finish in four years, and how many of those students wind up with only one or two classes needed in their last semester, chipping away at the margins is a reasonable place to start. (I had originally put the words “A Modest Proposal” in front of my inaugural “B.S.-bs” post, since I think what I am suggesting is fairly modest, but I didn’t want people mislead into thinking I meant it in a Swiftian satirical sense.)


*Yes, I know I said I’d try to keep politics out of this blog. I’m human.

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

December 2, 2011 8 comments

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.

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