Underfunded departments unable to handle GERs 6 and 7

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April 1, 2008

1:10 AM

I love the General Education Requirements. They have brought me to fields and ideas that, though I would have otherwise never considered them, have enriched and changed me in ways I hadn’t thought possible. I dreaded GER 2, which I grudgingly signed up to fulfill with a biology class that turned out to be so fascinating that I stayed in the department for three semesters. I would still be there today if GER 5 had not introduced me to anthropology, which I found even more interesting.

This week, students around campus are registering for GER-fulfilling classes, some of which may have the same enlightening effects as my own. But many students will also struggle to fulfill GERs 6 and 7, known as the performance and philosophy GERs. Though every one of the College’s thousands of students must fulfill both, they can be selected almost exclusively from a handful of very small classes in underfunded, understaffed departments. Most students will not succeed in enrolling in these classes this semester, as the classes are simply unable to handle the traffic.

For those who do get in, they will find the classes dominated by non-majors like themselves. There may also be a minority contingent of students, driven not by requirement but interest, who have taken other classes in the field and may be majoring in that department. These students will mostly sit twiddling their thumbs while the professor tries to catch the non-majors up to speed.
We can’t blame the less-interested GER-seekers — they have to be there to graduate. We can only blame the well-intentioned but imperfectly executed requirement that forces them there. The College, by affixing these rare GERs exclusively to small-sized classes, has damaged both the classes and the academic pursuits of those students genuinely interested in taking them.

The academic programs that bear the greatest brunt of GERs 6 and 7 are philosophy and creative writing. This spring, of the 28 classes offering GER 7, all small in size, 17 are in the philosophy department. If all students must earn GER 7 to graduate, and two-thirds of classes offering that GER are in philosophy, we can estimate that two-thirds of students will need to take a philosophy class. At eight semesters per student, that’s an average of about 500 students a semester.

But how can the philosophy department — only a dozen faculty members, including five full professors — handle all this traffic and still meet the needs of majors? The answer is that, despite the undeniable brilliance and talent of its faculty, it can’t.
There have been some questionable attempts to broaden what can carry GER 7 — “Philosophy in Kinesiology” comes to mind. But as long as the College insists on assigning GER 7 to a majority of the philosophy classes without giving that department adequate funding to handle GER-seekers as well as department majors in appropriately sized discussion classes, students with both passing and long-term interest in philosophy will suffer.

The story is much the same with GER 6. Creative writing classes, which must be capped at 15 students for the workshop format to function, are some of the toughest in the College to get into. One professor received over 200 inquiries for a 15-person class.
Those students interested in creative writing beyond just the GER may go years before finally getting in, if ever. While I doubt the College has stifled any future Hemingways, it’s ironic that an institution with such a prized English department would show such disregard for creative writing.

Serious pursuit of philosophy or creative writing is difficult enough — both fields are low-paying and extremely competitive. Would-be writers and philosophers don’t need more hurdles. Currently, they must wait out GER-seekers to get into a class. Once enrolled, they must compete for the attention of professors whose e-mail inboxes and office hours are filled by non-majors requiring extra help. The professors do their best to serve both groups, but their time becomes split nonetheless.

The College should be proud of its GER system, which broadens and enriches students of all fields. But administrators would be wise to consider the very real damage GERs 6 and 7 are causing. Either departments like philosophy and creative writing must be drastically expanded to accommodate long-term students of the fields as well as GER seekers, or the anchor-like weight of GER credit must be removed from those classes. Either way, a serious reevaluation of the effects of requiring thousands of students to take small classes in small departments must take place.

Max Fisher is a senior at the College.

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