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The Core, small class and mentorship

May 24, 2006

The Core, small class size and mentors     

Having opened up a mini-debate with my call to abolish-then-modified-to-change the core (actually the approach the core), I will synthesize a few of the running ideas from my blog and others.

I looked up the core requirements of some of the ranked colleges (US News for online ease) and picked each 5th one in descending order, skipping Harvard (#1).  They differed in only small ways (a PE requirement here, more computers/analytical requirements there) but differed in approach in larger way.

For example, Duke, at least as far as I could find, had no explicit foreign language requirement (which I found odd and think I must have just overlooked it).  Dean Dad had an exhaustive and lively post on FL recently which was then followed by one on math.  It was actually these two posts that caused me to rethink the core approach altogether.  

DD’s concerns are local—should a cc impose these requirements on its student body?  While I think they should be offered (basic language, basic math skills, etc.) for transfer, I don’t know how well the students are served by the, let’s call it, low-end approach to teaching these courses.  

Before you hit the comments area, what I mean by “low-end” is thus: teaching language as vocabulary and grammar; teaching math as rote.  They are low-end because that is easier to do.  It is like teaching writing by focusing only on grammar and rhetoric.  While a student may advance in the subject with these approaches, they are not the best.  FL: immersion, preferably in the country of origin; math: real-world applications over and over, developing the duel function of learning tool (problem approach, formula, etc) and then applying tool.  

This is why I framed the core debate in terms of class.  The higher end colleges, predominately private and expensive, tailor their approaches to the core to be more nuanced, more intimate.  That is, there are fewer cattle-call courses and a larger number of small, often topic-oriented sections:

Civilizations (the core category): The CZ designation includes many (but not all) courses in art history, history, philosophy and religion as well as various individual courses offered in other department.  (Duke)

Bitch PhD had a recent discussion on how to instruct TAs to teach writing.  The comments are indicative of as many approaches as there are instructors.  

The result: obviously the core is important as every graduate should be able to write cogently, understand the basics of the world around her and be able to figure out basic economic transactions (one would wish high school would equip for these).  What I initially outlined was abolishing these subjects from a codified Core and moving them to the majors—forcing a rethinking and retailoring of the approach and content.  Instead of just College Algebra, how about college algebra based on economics (figure the PE ration of a set of stocks to better yield investments…that sort of stuff for non-math majors) or a mixture of foreign language mixed with world history?  The approach has calcified into a greatest hits of data, with disregard for context or application.  

My discussion is larger than the core…it deals with the larger curriculum.  Anecdotes in the comments of some of the above stories laud those individual instructors who transcended the material and opened up methods of thinking—life approaches.  Yea, he was my math teacher, but his love of learning, his constant attention to figuring out the salient analysis of the problem…that is what stayed with me.  Or some such story.

The better programs, at least the better rated (which is its own issue), institute some form of top-down interaction.  The profs interact in a quasi-intimate manner (smaller class size, small groups led by TAs, etc.) with the students.  See Columbia’s statement:

The small size of most of the Core Curriculum classes provides students with the opportunity to develop intellectual relationships with faculty early on in their College career, and to participate with them in a shared process of intellectual inquiry.

It seems, then, that the larger issue is not necessary the pedagogical approach as the access to the individual.  That is, the best teachers are the ones that were accessible.  It would follow that smaller numbers facilitate better interaction.  Are there examples of successful mentoring programs?  Can the academy open bridge the prof-student chasm?  Would the profs want this?


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