RUSSO: A time for change

The College should re-evaluate its philosophy on area requirements to take into account students’ academic interests

There is an ongoing initiative within the faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences to reevaluate and possibly restructure the undergraduate curriculum. According to College Dean Ian Baucom, these conversations mark the first potentially significant changes to the College curriculum in 40 years. The changes will focus on general competency and area requirements, rather than department-specific requirements.

There is much debate as to whether college should be a time for developing professional skills or a time of personal and intellectual growth. In my opinion, requirements should be structured in a way that allows for personal choice (which leads to intellectual growth) while also preparing students to enter the professional world.

The College’s current area requirements do not foster intellectual growth, but rather limit it by potentially preventing students from sampling all courses that interest them. Students can become well-rounded individuals by selecting courses on their own. Requirements would be more useful to students if they centered around developing vital skills for the modern job-market and prepared them for life after college.

A common justification of area requirements is that they allow students to test the waters before choosing a major. However, the current requirements are not effective in broadening students’ options. I would venture that most College students who have changed majors have done so not because of a revelation they had in a required science or math course, but because they did not find fulfillment in the courses they were taking for their major and therefore sought other options.

When asked what I wanted to major in first year, I never had just one answer. My response was always: Foreign Affairs, or French, or Global Development Studies, or Linguistics, or Anthropology. Many programs at the University appealed to me, and so I took a series of classes in each discipline. Most of us at the University are interested in more than one thing, and don’t need general area requirements to force them to take classes across disciplines. Having fewer area requirements would allow students to take more classes in disciplines in which they have interest.

While the College curriculum has not experienced major changes since the 1970s, the optimal skillset for University graduates undoubtedly has. Faculty of the College should focus their conversations on two criteria: First, what introductory-level courses will ensure that students are equipped to perform to the best of their ability in a range of upper-level college courses? Second, what courses or area requirements will ensure graduates of the University are prepared to move into the professional and post-graduate spheres?

In my view, the current foreign language and writing competency requirements are extremely useful to students. Writing and argumentation are essential skills for academic and professional success. Every area of work, from scientific fields to consulting, requires coherence in written expression. Competency in a foreign language is an essential skill for our modern globalized society, and gives University students a leg-up over the majority of Americans (who are only competent in English). That is not to say that these two requirements should be the only competency areas addressed, but rather that they should remain unchanged in the upcoming discussions.

Since starting college, I have felt several deep pangs of panic as I have felt the math skills I painstakingly accumulated in high school slipping away with time. If I graduate with a degree in the social sciences, I still want to be aware of how to manage my personal finances, and perform basic statistical analysis. The introduction of a personal finance or basic accounting course requirement for College students would lessen the worries of many an English or politics major, who may feel unprepared to make informed financial decisions after graduating from the University. This course should not be the Financial Accounting course taken by pre-Commerce students, but rather a digestible and less-competitive introduction to the subject. Other possibilities for useful courses would be simplified computer programing, or (as was suggested by a student last Spring) a public speaking course. An economics course structured around understanding the American financial system (rather than economic analysis and problem-solving) would also be useful in ensuring students graduate well-informed about the economy.

Along a similar vein, College students would benefit from a new set of courses that bridge across disciplines. For students majoring in the sciences, a course in scientific writing would be both an appealing and practical way to fulfill the writing requirement. For humanities or social science majors, a survey of great scientific writers would be a way to fulfill a science requirement that is well-suited to their skills and interests.

The frustrating aspect of some area requirements is that they seem arbitrary to many students. Personally, I want to see what I am learning connect to my future career and current interests. No one wants to take a class simply to check off a box in SIS. Rather, students want to take classes that will bring them closer to what we wish to accomplish academically and otherwise.

As is noted in the original Cavalier Daily article regarding possible changes, it will undoubtedly be difficult for the College faculty to agree upon any major alterations. However, I believe a focus on practicality and adjusting to the demands of our society will guide the faculty towards positive changes in the College curriculum. Decreasing the number of broad area requirements will, in turn, grant students more room for self-guided intellectual growth in their selection of courses.

Mary Russo is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at m.russo@cavalierdaily.com.

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