“Who in here is a senior?”
The professor poses the question to the entire class. Ten hands shoot up.
Again, a similar response
“Freshmen or sophomores?”
This time, realizing that they were the minority, the respondents hesitantly raise their hands and take on rather timid expressions. “Ahh, you all shouldn’t really be here. This class is meant primarily for juniors and seniors,” the professor tells them.
Inevitably, this discourse plays out in smaller, discussion-based classes across campus at the start of each semester. Underclassmen enter courses for which they are unprepared. Occasionally, professors will ask them to leave, but it’s often easier, and common practice, to just let them stay.
At many higher education institutions, courses are clearly delineated by a number that suggests the intended year of students. Usually, it is broken down into 100s, 200s, 300s and 400s.
GW employs a much more ambiguous numbering system for its course listings. Courses range from 001 to 199, and students are often confused about which ones they are allowed to take or are targeted for them. Thus, the classic “101” designation for the most basic courses doesn’t really exist at GW. Instead, we have the “001” and 99 other courses meant for freshmen and sophomores, while the 100s are meant for a jumbled mix of seniors, juniors and, of course, sophomores with a fair amount of AP credits.
This year I have a course with the designation “160” – ostensibly geared toward seniors – with a multitude of sophomores and even a freshman. Special topics courses, in my experience, provide the most confusion. With the designation of “175,” these courses are technically intended for older students. But the topics often focus on current affairs or trendier subjects not included in the traditional general requirements, so underclassmen take these because they are interesting. Unfortunately, they frequently lack the skill or academic background to analyze these topics effectively.
In the Elliott School of International Affairs especially – my little area of GW semi-expertise – it is extremely important that students follow the curriculum in an organized fashion. The general requirements for Elliott School students provide international affairs scholars with a sound basis in basic history, economics, language, culture and the humanities. In a more advanced class populated with students lacking these basics, analysis tends to deteriorate into foreign policy platitudes or even partisan American political party rhetoric.
Even worse, the professor must sometimes digress to explain historical concepts or political theories to the class. Most of the time, these concepts were covered in a general requirement course, meaning that class lecture time is wasted because some of the students decided to overreach the previous semester when building their schedule.
There are probably a multitude of freshmen and sophomores who do have the analytical skill and the background to effectively contribute to upper-level courses and might be better students in some cases than the juniors and seniors in these courses. I certainly don’t mean to deride entire age groupings. I suspect, though, that the intention of general curriculum requirements is to equalize the knowledge base of students so that junior and senior year can be spent on in-depth study of narrower subjects.
If a freshman, through AP credits or other means, is able to quickly complete most of their general requirements, I welcome them into my classes this year. If not, they should consider completing some of those 001s through 099s first.
A complete overhaul of GW’s course listings would probably create more confusion, and I do believe that a little course ambiguity – the kind that allows juniors and seniors to study together – is good. A balanced solution might include better information about which courses are designed for which students and a system that blocks underclassmen from registering for upper-level courses without first completing certain general requirements or obtaining instructor approval.
Of course, it’s more fun for an Elliott school student to talk of the potential decline of the European Union due to recent infighting over state-control of industries, but a sensible debate can’t occur unless that student has already studied the early history of Europe. In departments where general curriculum requirements matter – and I suspect that applies for all of them – students should be forced into taking classes in a chronological order.
–The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet