As course registration for the spring semester rapidly approaches, we have an opportunity to reflect on how our previous studies at the Claremont Colleges have shaped how we think, what we care about, and our future academic pursuits.
Unlike the hard sciences, which tend to have linear course progressions—a Chemistry major will take General Chemistry before Organic Chemistry before Biochemistry—humanities disciplines have few introductory courses or prerequisites for students who wish to take advanced courses. For a first-year student, this opportunity can be extremely liberating, as there is very little restriction on the classes that you can sign up for.
While less experienced students can learn from their more experienced classmates, this variance in preparedness can affect the quality of classes for students who have a more developed knowledge of their subject. And less knowledgeable students would probably gain even more from an advanced class once they become more prepared. The more classes that you take in a given department, the more complex and complete your understanding of the next semester’s class will be. Enforcing certain prerequisite courses can be useful for ensuring a deep and nuanced understanding of the many topics we grapple with in our classes.
Some prerequisites are and would be superfluous, however. Many 5C students worked hard to take Advanced Placement courses that could help get them into college and count for credit, but in order to advance in a given field many students would have to retake those classes. When we look at available courses during registration, it is unbelievably frustrating to see that the classes we took in high school—that we had been told were college-level material—will not count as a prerequisite for the more in-depth courses in which we want to enroll. Instead of allowing students to use their eight semesters to the fullest, this limitation on AP courses as prerequisites forces students to relearn material in an incredible waste of time and money.
The question is which introductory courses students should be able to place out of and which ones they should have to take. In many STEM fields, for instance, the purpose of prerequisites is to ensure students have a sufficient knowledge base to understand the material. In many humanities classes, prerequisites serve as an introduction to methods of interpretation and analysis. A person’s knowledge base is much easier to objectively assess, so preparedness for classes in many STEM fields should be relatively easy to determine. The tools and mindset required to critically analyze a philosophical text or to understand the intersection between gender and race studies can be far less concretely tested, and it is far less likely students have been exposed to that sort of coursework in high school. In one case there would be an increase in class intensity; in the other, a new method of learning needs to be fostered.
We should not expect that students come from a school that taught them these skills, and introductory writing classes can only go so far in preparing a student for the various fields in the humanities. Clearly there are aspects of succeeding in STEM classes at the 5Cs that students might not have brought with them to college. The distinction between STEM and other fields is not meant to be categorical, merely suggestive of the basic trend. But the ease in which students can jump into high-level humanities courses versus the red tape that is more prevalent in STEM fields belies a faulty assumption that students are more prepared for thoughtful critical analysis of a novel or social institution than they are to solve math problems.
We need to place a greater emphasis on preparedness in the humanities, while allowing students who have a sufficient understanding of statistics to skip an introductory stats course, for example. The 5Cs need to reevaluate the freedom we give students to take classes, whether allowing a student to take a difficult philosophy class they may not be ready for or forcing a chemistry major to rehash old material.