Against “Gen Eds” [Uncertain Principles]

Matt Reed, who will forever be “Dean Dad” to me, has a post on “new” topics that might be considered for “gen ed” requirements, that is, the core courses that all students are required to take. This spins off a question Rebecca Townsend asked (no link in original), “Should public speaking be a general education requirement?” the idea being that public speaking is such an essential skill that everyone ought to learn it at some point. Reed adds “entrepreneurship,” “[computer] coding” and “personal finance” as other things that might fall into the same essential category.

Now, it’s important to state up front that Reed and I operate in very different corners of higher education– he’s running a community college, I’m teaching at an elite private college– but my immediate reaction to the initial question was “Absolutely not.” Not because I don’t think public speaking is important, but because I do think it’s an essential skill. Too essential, in fact, to be pushed off into a “general education” course.

The key problem is that students are amazingly good at compartmentalization. “General education” or “common curriculum” (the new local term) courses are like Las Vegas to them– what happens there, stays there. And on top of that, a distressingly large fraction of the students we see have a very clear (albeit usually misguided) idea that there’s a line between the “real” courses that are important for their major, and the lesser courses that are just checking boxes. The box-checking courses get taken less seriously (and people teaching them get more attitude), with the result that students don’t learn as much as they should.

And even when they do learn things in those other courses, they often learn the wrong things. As maddening as it is to grade labs from first-year students who have never written a lab report at the college level before, I almost prefer it to reading labs from students who have learned to write by taking a whole slew of English courses. 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.

So, more and more, I’m becoming convinced that skills that are truly essential can’t be pushed off to “general education” courses. If we want students to graduate knowing something about public speaking, we need to have them do public speaking in core majors courses. That sends a clear message that this is Important, and furthermore, they’ll graduate knowing the norms of public speaking in the discipline of their eventual degree. I don’t want our physics majors going off to grad school thinking that the best way to present results in public is to stand up and read a pre-written text verbatim, with no visuals. That’s not how things work in physics, and it’s just going to cause pain for somebody else down the line. And I’m sure graduate English faculty would prefer not to get a lot of students doing quasi-improvised presentations with heavy use of PowerPoint.

This is not to say that there aren’t general tricks and techniques that cross the lines, and are true for all sorts of public speaking. But I think those are still best taught within the appropriate context in core majors courses, rather than bracketed off as something students might (incorrectly) regard as a box-checking course deserving low effort.

So, while I’m all in favor of broadening the skill set we expect students to pick up before graduation, I’m against doing that in the context of special courses outside of major tracks. If public speaking is genuinely important, teach students to do public speaking in their majors courses. If you can’t make room for it in the majors track, then maybe it’s not actually that important after all.

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(Again, in the corner of higher education where Matt Reed works, this might play out differently– community colleges aren’t quite doing majors in the same way that elite institutions are, so the relationship with “general education” courses may be different. But where I am, I think it’s important that skills like public speaking, computer programming, and writing get taught in the proper disciplinary context. We’ve tried pushing that stuff off to different departments (and we’ve been the department that other departments push stuff off to), and if that method ever worked well, it certainly doesn’t now.)

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