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Core curriculum Socratically explained

May 22, 2006

Core curriculum: Socratically explained.
{edited in light of feedback}

[in media res] PPP: but the core is an elitist holdover.

App Crit: you don’t know what you are talking about.

PPP: Consider this, the current system is broken.

App Crit: How can you say that? The core ensures that all graduates have a least a modicum of basic skills (writing, math, etc.). I mean, if you approach a person who claims to have a degree, you should be able to have a baseline set of acquired skills or knowledge.

PPP: I am not arguing that. I am arguing the approach to outlining these skills.

App Crit: But that is not the core’s fault.

PPP: Point taken. I now believe that the core should be abolished because the core is broken.

App Crit: You can’t change your belief like that.

PPP: It is my blog, and I will alter if I want to.

App Crit: Whatever.

PPP: Anyway, the core seeks a minimum knowledge-cum-skill base…

App Crit: Nobody uses “cum” as a link when they talk.

PPP: Shut-up. The core seeks to instill a minimum. Because of that, everyone gets the same drival with little to no experimentation, alteration or…

App Crit: What?

PPP: Let’s jump back.

App Crit: OK

PPP: The core brings in a lot of money because everyone in the university must take these courses.

App Crit: Granted.

PPP: And, since they are basic skills or knowledge, the bulk are farmed out to adjuncts, TAs or lower level profs.

App Crit: That depends on the institution, but generally yes.

PPP: So, there is little incentive to enhance these money-makers with effective teaching.

App Crit: I don’t follow. You seem to be making some sort of logical fallacy.

PPP: I am sure someone will point those out. But listen, the core seeks to instill foundational knowledge, but how that is done is remarkably uniform across institutions. Writing courses follow Peter Elbow (writing as a process—portfolio submission, etc.) or the like. They are the mainstay of English departments as they draw in the other majors—students who by and large want to avoid English classes like a VD.

App Crit: Not a good metaphor, by the way.

PPP: Shut up. Now, these courses seek to instill critical thinking, basic grammar, structure and god-knows what else into a two-semester set of courses. Some even try to throw in some literary interpretation, thinking that since it is an English class that the subject must be literature or poetry to be worthy.

App Crit: You are getting off point.

PPP: Sorry. Now, if the goal is to level-set writing skills, why not let the majors handle this?

App Crit: Go on.

PPP: A math major, while needing good communication skills, needs to be able to write toward his discipline (business or academic).

App Crit: But the English department’s writing course does that just fine.

PPP: Does it? Upon leaving a Freshman level writing course, does the math major know how to write toward his future profession?

App Crit: Why is that the goal?

PPP: What?

App Crit: Why is the goal something more specific than generalized good communication skills? What isn’t cogent writing its own reward that can then be applied in the major fields in the higher level major classes?

PPP: Because English instructors may not be the best teachers of writing?

App Crit: [blank stare]

PPP: What?

App Crit: You are a sad, little man.

PPP: No, wait. Consider this, do math teachers always explain complex math processes to the point that you can understand and apply them.

App Crit: Some do, some don’t. It depends on the instructor.

PPP: Exactly.

App Crit: [blank stare]

PPP: What?

App Crit: This isn’t exactly paying off here.

PPP: By throwing the core out and pushing the core skills to the disciplines, innovation and different teaching methods will result. Why? Because different paradigms will approach the same learning content differently. And, this isn’t going to happen because of the entrenched economic interests the core departments. The end result is low level pedagogy for the very skills or knowledge everyone agrees is foundational and necessary.

App Crit: [blank stare]

PPP: What?

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10 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink
    May 22, 2006 6:21 pm

    the thing is, ppp, we don’t know what core you’re referring to, what your precise experience is. some states have mandated cores that are all over the place, some colleges and universities have other kinds of cores, and some don’t. it’s hard to know what you’re talking about if you just refer to ‘THE’
    core…

  2. Leslie Bary permalink
    May 22, 2006 6:39 pm

    ‘Core’ at my college is generally comprised of intermediate (sophomore and junior level) courses taught by professors; there are a lot of options of courses, so students get to deepen background for their majors while also further strengthening research and analytical skills.

    There are also huge numbers of instructors, adjuncts and T.A.’s teaching insane loads of basic English and math. The load issue is a real problem, and for the adjuncts, the job instability / lack of possibility of advancement is very serious.

    The problem, though, isn’t professors being mean (we teach first year courses too) or something like this–it’s funding at the state level, and priorities of the administration.

    Like anon. (above), I’d be curious to know what the ‘elitist’ core to which you refer, is, as most places I’m aware of do have breadth requirements pegged to specific majors (and groups of majors). Also: is it ‘elitist’ because it’s hard? If so, why is it all super-basic courses taught by overworked adjuncts…or am I misreading you?

  3. Professor Zero permalink
    May 22, 2006 7:00 pm

    Who is Phaedo, though (apparently not the commentators on your earlier post–this doesn’t respond to what they said or to the attitude they took), and where are the core courses _not_ taught in ‘the disciplines’? It sounds as though you’re referring mainly to the freshman writing sequence. Check out UC Berkeley and UC San Diego (2 different models), they teach the writing sequence there in a variety of departments … and these probably aren’t the only places that do so. It’s a good idea, worth propagating.

  4. App Crit permalink
    May 23, 2006 12:26 am

    Kudos to you, PPP, for taking on the parody. I’ve been a fan of parodies of classical lit ever since an undergrad Greek prof showed us Houseman’s “Fragment.” The good thing about parody is that is saves us all the grunt work of constructing intertextual readings, if that’s your thing, because it’s all right there.

    So, given that you are speaking to Phaedo, does that make you Socrates? Socrates dies at the end of this one, and he’s hardly a martyr. Socrates/Plato was also a class-obsessed elitist.

    And why the Phaedo? Are you suggesting that the core is the immutable totality of the university’s immortal soul? Or that the notion of a core is a Platonic form, the Form of Core, doomed to be betrayed in temporal execution? Thus, in its imperfection we realize that it exists in our understanding of it and its fundamental goodness?

    Plato aside, it seems that you really aren’t arguing against the notion of core, other than to say that it’s elitist (I’d still like to know why you think so), but that you are really arguing against the implementation of it in certain types of institutions, or at least from the point of view of the freshmen writing class.

    You also argue for the disciplines to, more or less, assume the responsibility for providing breadth/core to their own majors. Everyone professor I know would say that no single department is capable of providing an entire undergraduate education.

    Plato, I’m quite sure, would have been an ardent supporter of the core.

    Cheers

  5. Piss Poor Prof permalink
    May 23, 2006 12:44 am

    Thanks App Crit (AP). Actually I was borrowing more the rhetorical construct than a philosophical allusion. If anything, I am against the Idea of the Core (in its present manifestation).

    I have been compiling a comparison of core requirements from various schools (picked at random), and I will have those results in a bit.

    Why is the core elitist? More for the implementation that farms out the “most critical” skills (by inference) to the lowest paid workers. The stratification of the work bugs me…and yes, I am finding that some institutions present the core in such a way (Duke pops to mind and was in my survey) as to allow width and breadth of subject and instructor. I see no problem there.

    I am not against individual “scholars” here, but rather the institutionalization of approach…it is not elitist because it is hard (difficulty does not imply snobbery), but because its voiced value is undermined by its implementation. What results are academics bemoaning a state they have removed themselves from addressing. That is, at least in my expanded notion of the term, elitist.

    More of “The Man”; less of Marx.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    May 23, 2006 3:57 am

    so the issue, really, is the overuse, misuse, and abuse of adjuncts … it’s not the core curriculum that’s elitist, it’s the organization of work …

    but have academics actually removed themselves from addressing this??? i don’t think so. not to judge from the hours regular faculty spend making the arguments, writing the memos, having the meetings, creating the budgets, etc., to present to administrators a more rational way of organizing things, the MLA meetings and policy documents on this issue, and the union activity on the part of adjuncts.

    all of that that _work_ is how and why, in my dept. the only adjunct is a person who wants to be one, has another full-time job, teaches one specialized course (upper division or graduate, depending) each semester.

    once again, it’s not the ‘academics’ who support the situation you describe–it’s bad for all faculty, not just for the adjuncts themselves. it’s the budget office that has to be convinced and re-convinced.

    what I don’t understand about faculty in this country is why they’re so reticent about striking.

  7. The Combat Philosopher permalink
    May 23, 2006 5:28 am

    Err, PPP, you should try actually reading Plato’s *Phaedo* rather than increasing your ‘protentiousness quotient’ by just alluding. After all, Socrates got into trouble, in part, for claiming to know nothing. You do not seem to be playing that role. Also, what about the Socratic allusion to the ‘lover’s cloak’ — are you too advocating sex with teen age boys? So, bad choice on this. Read the book first.

    As for the problem of the ‘core’, I think that you also fail to get the point there too. It is useful if graduates from a University can read, write and are vaguely numerate. THAT is the point of core requirements. Whilst the idea may be badly implemented, it is a mistake to think that the idea in-itself (noumenally) is bad.

    So, PPP, why do you not quoff the hemlock at the end of your dialogue? Socrates did! I think you should follow his example on this topic.

  8. Anonymous permalink
    May 23, 2006 11:53 am

    Correct spelling is ‘socratically’. I would be curious to know why you didn’t finish your degree. I realize that adjuncts are treated unfairly, and that this is bad for students and other faculty, as well as for the adjuncts. But were the universities you worked for actually misleading you into thinking you had a career–or did you just refuse to take the hint?

  9. Piss Poor Prof permalink
    May 23, 2006 12:50 pm

    Combat, you are moving from a gadfly to advocating that I kill myself. It would be so much easier if you just did not read my blog–for the both of us. You seem truly annoyed with life, so why expose yourself to something which will further aggrevate you.

    I have already said that I was using the rhetorical structure in the allusion. Why would you impose more? Further, if you take care in reading you will note that it is not the idea of the core but its implementation. Sheesh.

    Anon…(whichever one you are)…”did you just refuse to take the hint.” Not sure what you are saying here. Quit a few assumptions (that there were “hints”; that I was in full control of events; etc.).

    You were right about the spelling.

  10. App Crit permalink
    May 23, 2006 5:32 pm

    PPP, I do enjoy a good parody but if you do not intend the allusion, then perhaps another form would suit your purpose. I, and apparently others, cannot read your dialogue without considering the Phaedo. It is too obvious and too significant an allusion to ignore.

    Medieval dialogues often use D (for discipulus “student”) and M (for magister “teacher”). IN these, D asks the questions and M provides answers. This form has its own imperfect history (they misunderstood that in Roman sources D was for διδάσκαλος “teacher” and M was for μαθητής “student”–they completely missed the point of philosophical dialogues), but it may suit your purposes better. In those medieval dialogues, it is the student asking the question rather that the teacher. This single slip of the Greek may be responsible for many pedagogical ills still persistent. But I digress…

    Another point of style: Socrates usually plays dumb. He/Plato uses his interlocutor to develop the the argument through leading inquiry, i.e. the “Socratic Method.” Socrates rarely pronounces anything. (Try the medieval dialogue, in which the teacher is the expert.)

    As for the core, it is too valuable an experience to dismiss, even freshman English, in which they should learn that the form of an argument requires as much attention as the argument itself.

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