Sunday, 27 May 2007

The core, requirements, and enrollments

Timothy Burke, in a post I’ve been meaning to link and comment on for over a week, makes an interesting point about curricula: just because something isn’t in the requirements for a degree or major doesn’t mean it won’t be de facto required because of other structural features of the curriculum. I think this is valid in relatively small departments/colleges, or where the offerings are otherwise constrained for odd reasons—both SLU and Duke offer a relative paucity of American politics courses, for vastly different reasons; the offerings in my field at SLU are probably in practice slimmer than they were at Millsaps!

That said, there are some issues to be confronted. I think much of the disappearance of required courses can be laid at the feet of faculty members; many of us—myself included—would rather not teach a gen ed or disciplinary survey like Introduction to American Politics, favoring either a “fun” course or something that coincides more closely with our research interests (or both). And I think it’s fair to say that our evaluations are better in non-mandatory classes, “fun” or not—the mean evals in my Congress course in the spring were probably a full point better than in my other two classes, despite Congress being a significantly harder course—which I think reflects student preferences for more focused and narrow classes on “sexy” topics and creates further incentives for faculty to dismiss the core. Unfortunately, the end result is that you can easily end up with seniors who are trying to wrestle with the big questions but don’t have the basics down—one infamous example was a political science major who, on a senior capstone exam, apparently had no conception of what the United Nations was.

And while I broadly agree that in a liberal arts curriculum (which is what undergraduate political science programs aspire to be part of, whether we’re at a community college, a state university, Berkeley, or Williams College) the mastery of skills is probably more important over the long run the mastery of knowledge, I think we’re shortchanging our students if they escape our curricula without understanding the basics concepts and debates in their major and minor fields.

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A friend who is a professor of history at a research university places part of the blame on students’ AP courses in high school—“testing out” of US history, for example.

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