Sunday, March 02, 2008

segway (from 29-30)...updated

I have had a great time reading and thinking about the variety of responses that my post a few days ago received. My post, admittedly, was haphazard—I wasn’t expecting to strike a chord. But, I must say, I am delighted that I did.

Let me recap and respond to a few of the points that were brought up by my respondents:

• There are several students out there like Nick: Students revved up about their particular choice, bummed out about the requireds that seem to waste time and money, and in a situation (like Audrey mentions) where the final few years—years that are meant to be spent focusing on a specialization—are tripped up by tying up loose ends. Sometimes, due to the separate stories that students often get from the variety of well-intentioned advisors, students end up spending the last semester of their senior year (or a semester post-senior year, as I did) tying up those loose ends. I kind of digressed there. Back to students revved up about their major and using Nick as a case in point, I happen to know that he didn’t know what he wanted to do right off the bat. Correct me if I am wrong, yo, but weren’t you first going to do construction management, electrical engineering, and then you decided on media arts? There seems to be something useful about having some room to try something out, try again, and try yet again. General ed courses give students room and time to breathe a bit here—without penalizing them too much for initial wrong choices. Often (but not always), those classes may just fit in and count for some of the general ed classes required.
• Anonymous makes some great points about the citizenship building that general ed courses potentially offer students. The part of her response that I keep coming back to is where she mentions that future moment where the benefits of that general education kick in—the good communication skills, the math chops, the “broad understanding of how society works.” I like the idea of this future moment—it is nebulous though. Am I more effective public speaker because of the (very practical) Speech Comm Associates degree that I got from Pima? Probably—but I can’t remember a lick of the algebra or science classes that I took.
• Both Audrey and Tina found their interests through the general ed classes that they had to take—but both argue (or would argue since Tina didn’t mention it but I know it to be the case) that it is good/effective teaching that plays a big part in that selection. I know this is true. In a future post in this series, I will talk a little bit more about what good teachers and mentors can do for undergrads (but also talk about why I think it--especially the mentoring--doesn’t happen that often).
  • I failed to mention Mat's post, which I think is an important one. Mat is a smart and successful guy who chose not to go to college--and there are a lot of guys like him out there. What Mat didn't mention was his numerous technological certifications: expensive, time-consuming stamps of approval from Mircosoft and other companies basically saying to the world "This dude knows his stuff." What is interesting to me about his post is that he still feels a bit stymied in regards to his job options--that a degree prevents him from a certain type of job currently filled by former frat boys (hopefully, no longer drunk). Mat's a smart guy. He's every bit as qualified for those jobs. Every bit, that is, except for that bit of cultural capital we call a diploma. So that's tough. As he also mentions, going to college is largely about "learning to learn," but that doesn't mean that those who don't go aren't learners. They just don't have the piece of paper designating them as such. There is more here... I'll try to come back to this "outsider" perspective in a subsequent post.
I want to spend a little time talking about my experience at the community college. I wonder how many of us “academics” start out there. For reasons both understood and elusive, the association with community education gets downplayed a bit on resumes and CVs. To use a Ben Folds allusion (ooh—elusive allusions), they sometimes seem to be the academic equivalent of a “red-neck past.” As I alluded to (third time’s a charm), I “graduated”—or took an Associates degree from one. I received two diplomas from Pima, actually: one with a concentration in Speech Communication and the other in Liberal Arts (ha! Talk about nebulous!). I have mixed feelings about the experience, as there are definite negatives and positives to staring in that route.

But, alas, I’ll go there in my next post. It’s late.

Thanks again for the responses, folks. Please, please keep it up!


  1. I didn't get to comment on your original post. I have often thought about the educational process, as I have considered entering academia in the sciences. If anyone could complain about GE requirements, it's me. I am an electrical engineer. What should I care about the painting style of Piet Mondrian or writing a persuasive essay?

    Actually, I'm almost surprised to say this, but plenty. I have piles of these general education (GE) credits that are seemingly unrelated to being en engineer. But as I discovered in my job search process, employers don't care too much how well you can integrate by parts, or even apply Kirchhoff's circuit laws. What they do care about, is that you work well with others.

    I think the whole point of GE is that you are exposed to "other stuff", to paraphrase High School Musical's Chad, stuff that isn't your stuff. This is useful in that when a problem arises with someone with in supply chain or mechanical engineering, you can realize they might actually be right, or you could both be right, or both be wrong. Also, some of my most interesting classes and professors were GE, such as Public Speaking and History of the Beatles.

    I think the most important part of getting a bachelor's degree is to prove that you can get a bachelor's degree. It says to others, "Look, I can set a difficult long-term goal that is made up of dozens of separate moderately difficult but interrelated short-term sub goals and accomplish it on my own initiative". It also says "I can take one for the team. I can do boring or difficult tasks if I believe in the cause. I am humble enough to follow the pattern someone else has set, even if I don't necessarily agree with it completely."

    That is why we have we have general education.

  2. I didn't comment on your first post either, but after reading this post and all of your comments on the last post I have a couple things to say:

    1. I didn't have the experience that several are mentioning. I went straight to a University (BYU) out of high school, already with a specific major in mind. The music major is so demanding in its first two years, that I didn't do much in the way of GE courses until I was an upperclassman.

    I did think I was going to minor in English Lit, and since I had AP tested out of the required GE English courses, I took a literature course my Freshman year. I dropped the minor right afterwards, mostly because the department was falling apart and some crazy stuff was happening that year, and I realized I just didn't have time to devote to it.

    2. Music majors are lucky because their major is so huge that the math GE is waived. I haven't taken a math class since I was a Junior in High School and I finished up my math requirement. I do not feel one bit bad about that.

    3. That leaves the GE science and history courses, and electives. I generally did fine in my electives because I chose classes I was genuinely interested in. I never got higher than a C in science and history courses. Mainly because I did not care enough to try very hard.

    4. I suppose one could argue that those courses make me a more well rounded person, or that they make me a better citizen. I say they don't do either. They were busy work that I ignored. Perhaps, if I were taking those courses today, as a more mature person I would have tried harder. But I don't see it happening. :) I don't have the mind (left brain or whatever we want to say it is) for science courses. Period.

    I remember staying up all night with my poor roommate trying to explain to me the theory of relativity. I still don't get it to this day. My brain cannot wrap itself around stuff like that, and believe me, I've tried.

    So, to me, in my experience, and also knowing Joel's experience which was incredibly similar, I feel like the GE's are a waste of time. I see the value in these courses if you have not decided on a field of study when you arrive at college. I no longer see the value in them when you already have a plan. I do not remember anything from those darn science courses. And anything in the history courses I can just look up in a book if I really need to know something. :) And, once my kids get into pre Algebra, I'm afraid we're going to have to invest in a tutor because Joel and I just don't get math. And that wouldn't be likely to change if we had had to suffer through college math courses.

    For what it's worth, I did end up with a lingusitics minor. Something I may not have chosen earlier, but after being required in the vocal major to take 3 different foreign language courses (the opera languages) and then serving a mission to a foreign country, I realized I was in love with language. So with that experience, I do see how taking a GE course can open up new horizons. It just never quite happened like that for me.

  3. Realized I forgot to mention one thing regarding community colleges:

    Many of those I know who started out at a CC or a JC instead of going straight to university, did much better grade wise once they got to the University. Perhaps because University classes are so difficult (as Audrey pointed out) that it is really hard to do well when you just jump into it. Maybe the CC or JC experience gives people a little more time to learn valuable life skills and study skills to help them to be more successful when it gets really tough.