Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Major Confusion

Last week I mentioned the novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which I mostly very much enjoyed, mostly because of the interesting writing (and not so much because of some of the strange characters, like a faux-Brazilian). Although the book is not an academic novel in the classic sense, there is much in it that is of interest to those who like to read fictional portrayals of academic culture.

The author, Lorrie Moore, is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the setting of much of the novel is a not-very-disguised Madison. The aspects of the novel that involve a parody of academia are therefore likely written quite deliberately.

In this novel, academia has a central role in that there is a stark juxtaposition of "real life" as separate from "academic life", the topic of the last couple of posts in this blog. The main character learns a lot about the world and people and life during the course of the novel, but none of this learning occurs in the classroom. If you read reviews of the novel, you commonly find statements like: "Life is more of an education than anything Tassie [the main character] is studying in college." No kidding.

At the same time, Tassie's brain is “..on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir". She's an intellectual, but of the free-range sort, as the courses she is taking are bizarre. This brings me to my next point:

The main character, who is 20 years old and has presumably declared a major of some sort, takes a truly weird set of classes. She seems to be reading Chaucer and Plath on her own because her courses are:

Brit Lit from 1830 to 1930, Intro to Sufism, Intro to Wine Tasting, Soundtracks to War Movies, Dating Rocks, and a cross-listed humanities/physical education course called The Perverse Body/The Neutral Pelvis.

Some of the strange classes seem to be intended to satisfy some of the graduate requirements of the university. And she ends up in the Sufism class because another course was full by the time she registered. Fair enough, but it's still a strange set of classes. I have lately been poring over many undergraduate transcripts, and not a one comes anywhere near this level of randomness, not even for a term.

When Tassie describes her courses to her father, leaving out only the pelvic class, which might shock him, he is most taken aback by the one science class, Dating Rocks ("The Sufism did not throw him"), perhaps because of its stupid name.

We learn the most about Intro to Sufism, which is taught by an Irish "Ottomanist" with an arm in a sling and no shortage of self confidence ("I know more about this topic than anyone in this department") but a shortage of something else ("I also know more about teaching while high than anyone else in this department"). It is the only class Tassie likes ("Except for the Sufism.. classes marched along forgettably").

At least she learns to make connections between her classes, sort of, and Science provides the key: "In Geology we were learning about the effects of warmth and cold, which at bottom I began to see was what all my courses were about."

Warmth and cold.. isn't that what nearly everything is about, ultimately? Life/death, love/hate, global warming/global cooling, wealth/poverty, cats..


qaz said...

Before I started doing admissions, I never would have believed the amount of eclectic garbage that undergraduates take these days. I've been shocked at both the randomness of the classes they take and the real lack of basics. We have applicants (to a bioscience program) who have never had physics, chemistry, or biology, but have an entire transcript of classes like "soundtracks of war movies". Needless to say, they don't get in. But it looks like a lot of these kids don't get any academic advice and are just taking "stuff that sounds fun".

Anonymous said...

I'll never forget the first time I met an undergraduate who was taking Yoga. At a top 10 University. That's a really expensive yoga class for that tuition.

Hope said...

FSP, I don’t know Moore or her work, but I’m inclined to think that this “random” list of courses is part of the academia parody. C’mon, The Perverse Body/The Neutral Pelvis – what else could that be? Specifically, I think she’s poking fun at the random nature of the course offerings that many humanities majors encounter – complete with clever titles. In literature, this would be an absence of a Great Books curriculum/requirement. See, in physics, for example, nobody questions that need to know mechanics, E&M, quantum, thermo – it’s expected that a future physicist, regardless of their specialization, will have a background in these subjects. But does an English major have to know Shakespeare in order to appreciate subsequent literature? How well should they know Marvell, Wordsworth, the Brontes, or Joyce? This is actually a recurring debate … and the answer is far from easy or obvious.

Female Science Professor said...

Yes of course it is part of the parody.

Cloud said...

Nothing so random in my undergrad transcript... the college I went to had hefty distribution requirements and the major I chose (biochemistry) required a lot of classes. I think I took three true electives over my four years. I did get to choose which humanities, social science, and history sequences I took, though. I vaguely remember that some of the offerings had clever names.

But I loved my college education and wouldn't change it for anything.

Anonymous @ 10:25- my undergrad college required two physical education classes. So I took very expensive tennis lessons. I also took a weight training class that truly changed my approach to fitness. In terms of quality of life, that weight training class may be one of the best things I took!

Anonymous said...

In my undergrad years in the UK apart from 2 modules in first year and a selection of intra-department modules we didn't really get to choose what we learnt. Being taught also in a foreign language on my course, god knows why I did that, meant that even though we were spared a few not so important intra-department modules we had to study more than anyone else. Not being taught did not mean not needed to know! So, I'd rather envied the US flexibility until I got to grad school, that is. I am so glad that the modules that we did were compulsory now!

Foreign and Female in Science said...

My undergraduate transcript has a lot of random seeming courses. Let me explain:

I went to a SLAC. And no I do not regret a single minute of that. Even if it meant more non math/science requirements.

My first year was not at a SLAC but at Large University. I took calculus for the 3rd or 4th time in my life. They wouldn't let me test out. The class was very very early; it was the only class I ever fell asleep in. The professor got really mad one time when I did and called me to do the problem. Which I did perfectly, albeit I was still sleepy and talked in my native language and had to repeat the explanation in English after I was met with many blank stares. To his credit the professor laughed very hard (he could get from the math that I was doing the problem correctly). By the midterm I was several standard deviation ahead of everyone else. I talked to the professor and the math chair and the dean about the problem. They agreed I was wasting my time in that class but there was nothing I could do. This was my first quarter. I had 2 more quarters of wasted time. Quarter after quarter I demonstrated proficiency but the wheels could not be turned. The same was true for my CS classes. No opportunity for undergraduate students for freshmen. On a dare I took one whole class without opening the textbook to study -- I got copies of the homework problems from the person who dared me. I still got an A. No intellectual stimulation. I was sooooooo bored.

I was done with LU at that point. There was no flexibility. And to be honest in my country my high school classes were at the level or higher than the intro requirement classes at these universities. So I transferred.

I went to a SLAC. I know SLAC have reputations for whiny students and what not. But reality is that education in the US is what you make of it. If you are a whiny person you would not get much and you would be deficient. If you however know what you want, then you have amazing opportunities.

I spent a lot of my time in independent study courses. I also spent a lot of time writing petitions for getting out of stupid courses. I took fuzzy logic and neural networks as self study. A capstone course on Artifical Intelligence. A social studies course on Chinese Religion and Ecology. A course on technical communication. I took two film making courses to satisfy among others a writing requirement. And so on and so on. I wrote petition after petition going over each required class syllable and how I have had it before and how this more interesting higher level class would fit better the goals of the breath requirement and my interests.

I ended up writing a whole programme for my studies and argue it in front of a faculty panel and getting it approved. You would not find a lot of standard classes in my transcript. there was a method to this madness that is not entirely obvious if you look at the transcript. Although I can explain it.

My college experience was INTERESTING, EXCITING, and if I could go back and do it again, I'd take even more random classes.

I feel sorry for those who spend money and time on their education and took the standard classes. My one and only advice to people who ask about classes is to find the interesting and famous people in that school and then take as many of their classes on the subjects they are interesting and famous about as they can, while satisfying the requirement for their career goals and majors and graduation.

If I am ever lucky enough to choose graduate and undergraduate students to work with me, I'd choose the ones with the most interesting transcript, even if it seems random at first glance. Interesting people lead interesting lives and they come up with interesting ideas. Add to that good work habits and everything else could be taught.

Kevin said...

Foreign and Female in Science, not all large state universities are so inflexible. Many will let you test out of freshman campuses and create your own major. I agree with your advice to "find the interesting and famous people in that school and then take as many of their classes on the subjects they are interesting and famous about as they can," except that "famous" is not nearly as important as "interesting".

Anonymous said...

Even though the book is (clearly) a parody, your post made me all dewy eyed for Madison, my home town and also my alma mater. And fyi, Anonymous 10:25, those PE courses are all 1-2 credits and don't add anything to the cost of tuition if you are already full time.

I always regret not taking speed skating and orienteering while I was there.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

@F&F in Science: you say that SLACs have "reputations for whiny students and what not."

Really? I do have my share of whiny students, but I had an equal number (maybe more?) when I taught at non-SLAC institutions.

Am I missing some nationwide reputation of SLAC students?

Foreign and Female in Science said...

@Kevin. Maybe. Probably. Throughout my career I have been to (as undergrad) public large university focused on teaching, small private liberal arts college focused on teaching, (as grad) large private university focused on research, and large public university focused on research. 3 out of those 4 are either the top or near the top for the respective feature. I'd say those 3 were also very flexible. But the SLAC was infinitely more flexible than the others. At large private research university (one which is rather famous) I had to retake the same math classes. They were not all a waste really because they happened to have awesome teacher who makes you think. But that was a feature of the teacher and not of the class itself. There was little no flexibility even though unlike many many of the people who go into my branch of science, I have a BS in math degree. None. I am still glad I took one of them due to that awesome teacher. But one of them was a waste of time (though it did have an awesome TA)

Anyways to not digress too much. In my initial search of universities, I never even thought to ask about the flexibility. In my country, there isn't that much flexibility. If you entered the math department you took math. maybe bit of physics or computer science. But not say filmmaking. And yet it is that flexibility and the bizarre collection of classes (which I was asked to rationalize and defend every step of the way) that I value my US college education for. In terms of my math education which is what my degree was for, I still say that education is sub par to many European ones if we go by requirements.

As for "famous" vs "interesting". That one math class I mentioned was taught by someone in the field of fluid dynamics. He was just famous for being really awesome teacher of that other math class. Maybe not outside of the university but he was "famous" for it inside it. To this day, I'd sign up for any class he chooses to teach if I could.

@Unabalnced Reaction
I'd agree with you. The attitude I often see towards students at SLAC is what prompted me to say what I say. Granted this is anecdotal to a large extent. also I had this FSP post and the comments to it in mind: http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2008/09/against-drafts.html

@FSP thank you for letting me post this

Hah! Maybe I should have posted that response on my own blog and made you read it :P

Doctor Pion said...

Whiny snowflakes are everywhere now. Rudbeckia Hirta (at a Large U) had one ask whether the assignment due this past Friday would be rescheduled because of the holiday on Monday.

Made my weekend.

I see that transcript as the limiting case of stuff I see all the time when doing advising, particularly for students transferring into our CC. Why did you take Math Without Math and Kitchen Chemistry for Philosophy Majors when you want to be a doctor? Why have you taken five humanities classes from Group A, and none from any other group? Did you know that it is sometimes helpful to pass Calculus 1 before taking Calculus 3?

What I'm trying to imagine is the first day of "Dating Rocks". Can you imagine how many students would sign up thinking it was about hooking up?!

Experimental Knitter said...

My currect grad student, graduate with honors of a respectable school, and a named fellow here, took high school math (algebra, geometry) in college.

Ontologicalist said...

Maybe at some private schools it's different, but at State schools now these types of courses aren't as unusual as you might expect, particularly in the humanities and social sciences..