Image: Plan du Labyrinthe de Versailles, 1677
Up until recently, if you had asked me — as a faculty member in charge of designing curriculum and degree requirements at a community college — how well my efforts were meeting student needs, I might have answered, naïvely, “Great!” I’m not nearly as confident anymore, after spending thepast summer working in student advisingand seeing firsthand how new students viewed our courses and degree programs.
In the hustle and bustle of a busy advising office, I found that many classes I might once have championed or curricular rules I might once have accepted actually cause students unanticipated friction and frustration. What I found myself wishing for — and what students begged for time and again — was greater simplicity: a clearer pathway to their two-year degree, without quite so many course options.
It is easy for academics to unconsciously privilege complexity, since critical thinking so often requires that we consider exceptions, caveats, dialectics, divergences. We find that enriching. But when you’re a freshman trying to pick courses and majors, all of that complexity may, instead, be a turnoff.
They want options but not so many. It is a lot of fun for faculty to offer intricate special-topics courses. One of the first things I did after my college hired me was create a new course on non-Western literature. But now I wonder: Would such a specialized course have been better saved for the curriculum at a four-year institution? Does an overwhelming number of narrowly focused courses paradoxically turn new students away from literary study?
What I saw in advising is simply this: Students are hopelessly bewildered and overwhelmed by the overabundance of narrowly specialized course options. They would ask: “Can I just take the one with a little bit of everything in it?” And I would say: “Well, sure, but you can meet our graduation requirement with any one of these 20 options.”
Rather than relishing that vista of freedom, the students I advised seemed to prefercourse requirements in which they actually had fewer choices. For example, students seemed almost relieved that there was only one speech course to fulfill a speech requirement. There we see the Paradox of Choice: Too many options can feel unsafe or anxiety-producing.
Many students enter college undecided on a major, but their potential tracks diverge too soon. That was my No. 2 take-away from the summer.
Many of my institution’s courses exist in different versions for different majors. In our math sequence, for example, there are three separate tracks to graduation-qualifying math courses: one for technical and career-oriented programs, one for students with a liberal-arts focus, and one for students with a STEM focus. Switching paths midstream can force them to backtrack (“You completed the pre-calc class that did not include trig, but now that you are doing engineering, you need the pre-calc class that does include trig.”). Many of our students do, in fact, switch majors, some several times.
So do we tell students to put off certain subjects until they are absolutely sure of a focus — no matter how long that might take? Or do we just place the puzzle in the student’s lap: “You can take the least science-y chemistry, or the more science-y chemistry, or the most science-y chemistry. If you have no definite major, I’m not sure which to advise.”
If curriculum could be flattened — with at least the first developmental and first-year courses offered to majors and nonmajors, the decided and the undecided, alike — the positive result might be fewer students putting off certain requirements. I can’t tell you how often I saw students this past summer turn entirely away from a degree program, purely on the basis of having to backtrack or, in their minds, “repeat” even one course.
There is one area where more course options would actually be welcome: developmental education. Research seems to suggest that the quicker the route from remedial classes into college-level courses, the more positive the outcomes for students. But there is a paucity of content-course options for developmental students at community colleges, beyond the required reading, writing, and math. Developmental students who wish to be full-time at my college are drastically limited in the coursework they are allowed to attempt.
In this case, the culprit is usually not math but the student’s reading placement — the vast majority of our college-level courses require a certain level of reading proficiency. That makes sense: A professor wants to ensure that students have the reading ability necessary to be successful in the course. But the issue is murky. A seemingly random smattering of courses do not require the dread “Reading Category 1” placement. It is hard to pose a convincing argument for why our “Intro to Anthropology” class is open to developmental reading students, but “Intro to Sociology” or “Intro to Psychology” are not.
At a social-justice level, do we really feel comfortable barring developmental students from courses that might allow them to explore future career tracks, when we know that having a sense of purpose is so crucial to retention and completion? Do we really want to tell incoming students that they aren’t allowed access to whole fields of knowledge, because they “aren’t good enough yet” to cross that gateway?
I would bless up and down faculty in any area outside of reading, writing, and math who created new course offerings specifically for developmental learners, or that were willing to take the leap, and offer the support that such learners would need in a college-level intro course. A little added complexity and enrichment at this juncture would help more than hurt these students.