looking at college from the other side


I’m sure many of many colleagues and gentle readers have been through this experience, but this fall my daughter is headed off to college. Briefly, her college application story goes like this: she’s a national merit scholar with a load of AP classes; she was accepted at three ivies and some other very good privates; they all ended up being too expensive in our eyes; she’s going to a public AAU university (not UB) with a full tuition scholarship where she’ll graduate debt free (and possibly in 3 years if that’s what she wants). Right now it looks like she’ll major in math and computer science.

But this isn’t really about her. It’s about me looking at a university through the eyes of a parent rather than a professor. So here are my observations/complaints.

  1. Let me echo Gardner Campbell’s criticism of the way we present classes to students in online registration formats. This could be so much better than it is. It’s like shopping in a supermarket where all the aisles are filled with stacks of identical white boxes with generic titles and fine print meaningless ingredients.
  2. In my daughter’s case, which is of her own making if she chooses to double major, all the courses she takes as an undergrad will be in fulfillment of either a general education or major requirement. There’s a lesson I’m sure one is supposed to learn about education there.
  3. Shopping for general education courses through laundry lists of distribution requirements. Would you like to take “Intro to #$%#@” or “Generic Title about my *&(% discipline”? My, my, it’s all so tempting and thought-provoking. Plus, with a 100+ classmates, they’ll be so many opportunities to make friends! Fortunately there are some more narrowly focused classes that are smaller in size that meet these requirements, but then they kind of put the lie to general education. I mean, if I can meet my general education requirement in the humanities by taking a class in the science fiction of the Czech republic.

I’ve spent the last 2-3 years working to reform our general education program at UB, so I really do sympathize. In fact, maybe it is knowing how the sausage gets made that makes me a little cynical (ok, more than a little). It’s also left me wishing that we could do better.

I know that from a faculty perspective it looks like there are thousands of sections of courses on offer each year at a university like UB or the one my daughter is attending. But that’s not how one experiences it as a student or as a parent helping a student. What I see is something more like Tetris. You start with a plan to meet the sequence of course requirements in your major, which means you have to take certain courses in a given semester. Once you put those in your schedule, then you’re looking at gen ed requirements, trying to figure out which titles might be interesting, and looking for ones that will fit into your schedule.

It’s really quite amazing how quickly the possibilities narrow down. In a way, it’s necessary, because how can one really make a decision among 1000 options. On the other hand, when you’re really deciding among 3 or 4 options… well let’s just say that as the professor of such a course you should hardly be surprised if the students who show up aren’t as intrinsically motivated as you’d hoped.

There’s little opportunity for native intrinsic motivation when the externalities of the curricular bureaucracy are driving the choices students make.

At UB we’ve tried to reform general education by making the courses students take more thematically relevant to one another and to the majors and other interests students have.  The other option, which was not available to us (not that we would have taken it), is to abolish general education altogether. I would be in favor of such a move, though it would be like congress trying to get rid of social security.

The thing is I don’t object to the content of these courses. In fact, I actually think it is worthwhile for students to take classes across the disciplines of the university. I just wish we could present them as something other than a legalistic set of requirements. How about using some persuasion instead? Of course that would mean trusting students to make decisions that benefit them intellectually rather than trying to stuff intellectual benefit down their throats.

If we did that though it would mean that we would miss out on the classic moment of academic irony where students are required to take a class where they are exhorted to think critically and take responsibility for their own learning.

It may be that course registration is an unavoidable bottleneck in the learning process: time, faculty, and classrooms are all limited resources. So I suppose I really have two brief suggestions.

  1. To reform the registration process so that students can connect with the courses they choose on a more affective and informed level. This means a fuller description of the course and why they might want to take it. Then we could use that information to link classes together and show other courses the student may want to take in combination with this course or in lieu of it.
  2. Once the students are on the other side of the bottleneck (i.e., they’re in your class), what can we do to reopen the space of intellectual possibilities they had to squeeze through in registration. Here I am thinking especially of general education courses. And by this, I don’t really mean having courses that have really broad topics. I think a course in the science fiction of the Czech republic could be pretty cool. I’m just thinking there’s a potential for a shared ethos here. After all, the professor also had to go through some bottleneck of choices to end up in this course at this time (indeed, possibly a lifetime of such choices). Now that we’re all here though and committed to reading these novels (or whatever), what do we do next?


  • Skydaemon

    Indeed, the course selection process is more an exercise in the illusion of choice. And as you mention, a key culprit is course scheduling. Yet, you don’t propose doing anything about it.

    Do courses really need to consist of 1h sections 3 times a week? Would scheduling be markedly more flexible if most of your required courses were 3h instead? Or even 2 sections of 1.5h? From what I remember, that was one of the things that changed as I went from 1st to 4th year. Fewer of my courses were mwf and more were single large blocks of time.

    It seems like unchaining students from such scheduling restrictions is one of the potential upsides of the digital age. Yet nobody seems to be able (or willing?) to take advantage of it.

    • The point about scheduling is well-taken, but part of the challenge is in the variability. In addition to the Mon-Wed-Fri 1-hour (or 50-minute) class and the Tues-Thur 90-minute class, there are recitations and labs, 3-hour once-per-week classes, and classes that are 1-credit. Of course we have online classes and hybrid/blended classes that are part online. One could imagine classes with a wider range of credits and classes that met on all kinds of variable schedules. The result though is an increasingly complex game of scheduling Tetris</em.

      Once we start messing with the hours of meeting though, we start opening a range of curricular and pedagogical questions. Why 120 credit hours for an undergraduate degree? Why don't students regularly take classes in the summer?

      At some point I imagine the logistics of piecing together an education require some degree of standardization, not only within a university but of course across academia, because in the end a degree is a standard unit of measure itself.