Order in the Majors!

One of my favorite things about Stanford- perhaps, in all honesty, my single favorite thing about Stanford- is my peers’ readiness to engage in intellectual debates at the slightest provocation. I’m a huge argument junkie, and I absolutely adore the fact that my friends are ready to jump right into discussion instead of calling me a nerd (although, to be fair, they still do that on a regular basis). The Narnia kitchen tables have played host to debates on everything from the merits of simplicity in pop music to the underpinnings of economic decline in the United States. There are, of course, some recurring topics; one of the most popular is the techie-fuzzy divide. Surprisingly enough, techies and fuzzies alike can agree on at least one thing: structure and order in course requirements are good.

Now, this may come as a shock- the popular media are obsessed with the “consumer culture” of higher education, in which students demand to be treated like customers, whose personal preferences are paramount. And heaven knows I’ve spoken to enough Stanford students who value their freedom to select their courses above all else. But conversations with my fuzzy friends, and my own experiences in the Biology major, have convinced me that we really ought to be more receptive to order imposed from above.

The problem with free-for-all course choice is that it leads to indiscriminate mingling of students with very different levels of skill and experience. My junior & senior friends in American Studies, History, and Psychology constantly bemoan the fact that their “upper-division” courses are often full of younger students who have no previous or basic experience with the material at hand, which forces professors to spend precious lecture time running through review material and simple concepts. Advanced students are bored, novices are frantic and overwhelmed, and the level of discourse suffers.

Techies have it a little bit easier. As Professor Jason Fertig writes on the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Quantitative disciplines have a natural rigor in the early stages that weeds out students of lower ability because many of the basic skills taught in the introductory course are the basis for more advanced work.  Faculty there seem to understand that without a certain level of difficulty in lower-division classes, the upper-division classes suffer.

Nevertheless, I have my share of complaints about lack of structure in the upper-division Bio courses. It’s true that anyone who’s made it past the Core and the organic chem requirements has some basic level of scientific understanding. But once we enter the choose-your-adventure world of the 100-level courses, things fall apart. Because there are no “advanced” prerequisites or required tracks, every single professor and section leader feels obliged to spend the first third of their course teaching us how to read and criticize scientific papers. I picked up this skill in the wondrous trial-by-fire that is Bio 151… during the first quarter of my junior year. And still, still, I look at the syllabus for my final biology course at Stanford (Developmental Neurobiology), and find that the first sections are devoted to… learning how to read and criticize scientific papers. And while my senior friends and I are snoozing in the back row, a gaggle of terrified juniors who haven’t taken any other advanced courses will be killing themselves trying to keep up. There’s something wrong with this picture.

So what’s the solution? Each department needs to figure out exactly what skills & knowledge students need to perform on an “advanced” level, and then implement required courses that teach those skills. Thereafter, all professors should feel safe in assuming that their students have already learned the “basics,” and teach accordingly. Perhaps the Bio department could create a course that focuses exclusively on reading papers, analyzing data, interpreting figures, and critiquing scientific arguments (these skills can easily be transferred between subfields), and require all first-quarter juniors to take it. Perhaps the History department could require that students take a survey course on the U.S. before they’re allowed to enroll in advanced seminars focusing on particular aspects of American history. Whatever the professors choose to do, it should be focused on making sure that students are enrolled in courses that fit their level of preparation, that advanced courses can actually focus on advanced topics, and that the proper type of discourse can be maintained at every level.

I realize that there will always be exceptions to this rule- many interdisciplinary classes, like Dr. Sapolsky’s Human Behavioral Biology, are specifically designed to be accessible to students from various majors, and this is a good thing. And there are probably broad or bulky majors in which this requirement would be unfeasible. But I’d just like to make the point that sometimes, we ought to be prepared to put up with a few more restrictions on our choices for our own academic good, and the academic good of others. And while my libertarian side revolts at that statement, my pragmatic side is willing to admit that sometimes, the establishment may actually know best.

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