If you are a student paying more than $50,000 a year to attend a university, you are going to expect to receive a certain amount of cosseting. You are going to expect access to luxurious dormitories and multi-million-dollar wellness centers. You are going to expect to be entertained and mollified by your university for every second spent outside of class – and eventually, within classes themselves.
The spring 2006 course schedule contains much for those who expect classes to be amusing before they are edifying. It is chock full of special topics, rotating and narrowly focused classes that exist to make subjects appear more “interesting” to students. Increasingly, these “student-friendly,” lighter offerings are displacing the more rigorous classes that previously composed the curriculum.
The idea that inaugurated universities – that there is a certain body of knowledge one should acquire to be considered an educated person – no longer has much bearing on the courses being offered. Instead, we now have a curriculum of extreme specialization, courses which are neither here nor there. Strangely enough, this arrangement suits the whims of faculty and students.
Instructors like these courses because they are given the freedom to teach directly to their areas of expertise; students enjoy them because they are almost always designed with students’ entertainment in mind. Special topics are widely known to be less challenging, less substantive offerings. Requirements are generally more lax; films are often substituted for lectures – that is, if films aren’t already the course focus.
The University Writing Program has been a pioneer in showcasing the special topics class; many of the freshman dean’s seminars also take a similar approach.
The writing program’s philosophy is that if you’re going to require students to take a writing course, you might as well entertain them while you’re doing it. The course list for UW20 is rife with topics that have little to do with the construction of good writing. Some – classes about food, comic books and musicals – are laughably irrelevant. One section literally seeks to examine “bullshit” – no joke. Other sections propagate clich? left-wing dogma – as if the course were more about validating students’ political beliefs than improving their writing.
In its quest to make its courses appealing, the writing program has forgotten the most crucial element in writing instruction: close, careful examination of superior prose. The most effective way to improve as a writer is to scrutinize the writing of talented stylists, looking for strategies to apply to one’s own work. Instead of placing the best writers in the language before our students, however, we are offering them a semester of fun and games that will improve their writing little, if at all.
A similar mentality has begun to infiltrate even our “heavyweight” academic departments. The history department – traditionally known as one of the most serious – has joined in on the act. One would expect classes of questionable value from exercise science or women’s studies, but when the history department capitulates, it’s worth taking notice.
There is little in the department’s spring schedule that isn’t being offered either as a special topic or as one of the Elliott School’s myriad requirements. The department made room for seven specialized courses but was able to come up with little in the way of traditional pre-20th-century offerings.
The Renaissance, the Reformation, German, Spanish, French, Russian and British History were only a few of the courses benched. Thankfully, though, The Movies and American History has cemented a slot in the schedule. Also, Cold War historians can rest easy – the conflict is dealt with in more than half of the department’s spring courses.
Professors will argue that special topics bring flavor to the material, that they enliven predictable, stale subjects with interesting new approaches. This is a compelling argument; however, it is more important for students to first receive the comprehensive, unifying picture provided by the traditional, canonical offerings. Then, if space remains, special topics can be used as supplements.
With their immense popularity, though, it seems unlikely that administrators will step back to evaluate the net effect offering specialized classes will have on the education students are receiving. Perhaps a metaphor apt for those writing professors who teach culinary analysis can summarize: it ultimately offers students a diet light on vegetables, heavy on dessert.
-The writer, a sophomore majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.