Do “Gen Eds” make sense?

In a blog post today, Chad Orzel (chair of the physics department (last time I checked) at Union College) speaks out against a proliferation of “Gen Eds”. These are courses that teach basic skills that you’ll need either in life or in college, courses that are either divorced from content, or that are taught in a department other than the department of a student’s major and as such are “outsourced” skill-building necessary for their major.

Chad makes the argument that the proliferation of these things are bad, for a few reasons. By and large, I agree with him. Even beyond what he says, too often courses that are completely divorced from content can be vapid; the best ones, the ones that actually work, will apply some real content to make them work. (You can’t learn how to write without something to write about.) Students end up viewing these courses as hoops you jump through, boxes you check, rather than courses you’re actually supposed to take something away from and use in other courses. They then become less fun courses to teach, because the students aren’t intellectually engaged; instead, they think of you as primarily an obstacle.

Chad’s final statement is that departments who value these other skills (be it writing, public speaking, computer programming, or whatever) should find room for those skills within their major; if they can’t find room, then perhaps those skills aren’t important. I had a debate with a colleague this morning, who thought that Chad’s last statement was patently false. I believe he was misreading it, however; he seemed to be reading Chad as saying that “if you can’t find room, that other stuff isn’t important”. I hang on the “maybe” in Chad’s statement though; my colleague argued that conversationally, the maybe was a throwaway word and that Chad really was saying the other stuff was a waste of time. However, given the rest of what Chad wrote in the article, I think the point he’s trying to make is that by not finding room in your major, you’re indicating to the students that you think these things aren’t important; therefore, if you think they’re important, you damn well better find room in the major for them.

On a couple of points, I disagree, however. As Chad says, physics both outsources some of its basic skills to other departments (writing usually goes to English or similar departments, but most notably all sorts of the basic skills and knowledge you need for physics is taught by math professors), and provide outsourced “service” instruction for other departments (most notably, introductory physics for life science types (often (too often) pre-meds) and engineers). Now, I must admit that I have had moments in my life where I think that students would be better getting their math from physicists than from mathematicians. Mathematicians get worked up about proofs and (for instance) weird edge cases of limits, whereas physicists tend to like to be able to use the mathematical tools as they are useful in addressing physical theories and situations. (Mathematicians also have this terrible tendency to ignore units and dimensionality, and students come into physics classes thinking that that stuff doesn’t matter, creating headaches for all of us.)

There are a couple of reasons, however, why I still think that students (particularly at liberal arts colleges) should learn math from mathematicians rather than physicists. First, at a liberal arts college, the point of taking math classes is not just as a tool for physics. It’s also to learn math, as its own example of a human intellectual pursuit. On a more practical level, having everybody who needs calculus take that class in their own department splits the audience, and might lead (depending on the size of the school) to a whole bunch of classes with 5-10 people each learning calculus, instead of a smaller number of 20-person (ideally, more at some schools) classes learning calculus. Likewise, as a physicist, I can’t help but think that physicists are probably better people to teach physics to life science students than life science types. You can argue that, yes, if physics really is important for life scientists, then the life scientists should know it well enough to teach it at that level. But, again, I think there’s more to it than just getting what you need to do life science.

Indeed, in physics classes, we teach some math. There are some mathematical tools that might not come up in math classes. What’s more, we may “reteach” some of the math, to give physics students the “physics perspective” on math that they’ve already learned. (“Cheating with differentials” is an important skill that first-year physics students should learn, for example.)

The other area where I disagree with Chad is when he says this:

There’s a stark difference in style between the normal mode of writing in the two disciplines that just doesn’t cross that boundary– there’s some benefit to varying up the language used to refer to things in English papers, and trying to work in the occasional ornate turn of phrase, but in science papers, those both fail spectacularly. The goals in technical writing are clarity and precision, which means that you use the same words to refer to the same things throughout, as boring as that might seem. And you don’t use flowery language in places where it might cause confusion about what you did and what you measured and how you analyzed your data.

I strongly suspect that the writers that Chad is complaining about would, by and large, not be the writers that would be considered the best writers by English professors.  While, yes, there are stylistic differences when you’re writing for different audiences and with different goals in mind, I do strongly believe that there is a thing one could call “good writing” that is absolute.  In English papers, clarity is important.  Students too often seem to think that it’s all about bullshit and about using lots of self-important and gratuitously flowery language to make yourself appear all impressive.  I strongly suspect, however, that those papers do not tend to be the papers that receive the highest grades.  Yes, being interesting to read, and not sounding dull and repetitive is important, perhaps more important than strict precision in many cases, while in a science paper the priorities might be reversed.  But, the actual writing by some scholars (as exposed by things like the Sokal affair) aside, good writing in the humanities is also supposed to be clear. You’re supposed to be making your argument and supporting your argument clearly, not obfuscating it, or using a lot of flowery and creative prose to hide the fact that you don’t have an argument. Yes, sometimes, the style is the point, and you deliberately try to be obtuse. By and large, though, that’s not the type of writing that students are primarily supposed to be learning in their English classes, and the students who are best at that are indeed the ones who write clearly and realize that it’s not all BSing.

All of that being said– I don’t think there’s a lot of point in having a class called “writing”, or “public speaking”, or (God forbid) “critical thinking”. As I said, you learn how to write by writing about something. You can have a class where you look at a diversity of things and write about that, sure, but just calling it writing itself, reducing writing to a skill along the lines of typing, misses the thought and creativity that goes into writing well. (For the same reason, when I’ve taught a computer programming class here at Quest, I focus most of the class on the students writing a major project. You might think they should learn programming first and then attempt the major project. However, by having something they care about be what they’re spending their time on, ideally they are more motivated actually to learn the programming. Ideally, they learn by doing the major project. To be fair, while I think it’s worked pretty well, I can’t claim that this approach has worked universally for me.)

I still do think there is a place for “gen eds” at a liberal arts college, however. Not, definitely not, as explicitly “skills” classes. For all the reasons Chad said, students groan and mentally disengage if they have to take a wealth of courses with titles like “Rhetoric”, “Quantitative Reasoning”, “Critical Thinking”, and so forth. However, if you’re getting a liberal arts education, you should learn more than just your major. The whole point of going to a liberal arts college is to become broadly educated, to be generally familiar with the human intellectual endeavour. So, while, yes, focusing on something, learning something in depth (i.e. your major) is an important part of that, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Students should not only take classes, but ideally (if they “get” the liberal-arts ideal) should embrace taking classes that are outside of their major. I’m not just talking the classes that teach you skills you will “need”, but classes that expose you to other parts of human scholarship. And, who knows, you may well find out that some of what you learn in these other places broadens your perspective and gives you an ability to communicate with people who aren’t in your subfield, and gives you a flexibility of thought that you might not have hyperfocusing on just completing the prerequisites for whatever graduate program you seek to apply to.

One thought on “Do “Gen Eds” make sense?”

  1. I don’t disagree with the points about needing to learn something of the culture of other disciplines. I was just trying to be brief, having spent a good deal of time on this a month and a half ago: one, two, three posts worth of stuff.

    I agree that many of the people misusing flowery terms would be considered terrible writers in English classes, as well, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about students who are clearly good writers in a particular mode, but that mode doesn’t translate to scientific writing. I’ve seen this from both sides– I had a lot of bad habits that served me well in literature classes in college beaten out of me when I got to grad school and had to write for PRL. Clarity is important in both science and literary academia, but science demands a level of precision that goes well beyond that required elsewhere in academia, and that demands a particular style. I had to read a bunch of philosophy-of-science stuff for the book-in-progress, which is about as close as you’ll get to scientific writing in a non-science department, and even that involves a style that doesn’t really work for reporting technical results.

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