With the first round of midterms just finishing, it may seem hard to believe that it is already time to think about registration for the spring semester.
Inevitably, for me and perhaps many other students, this period of registration brings up a good measure of frustration. It comes not only in regards to the fact that we are to select our courses this early in the semester, but more from the courses, or lack thereof, at this school. For all the great professors, resources and administration we have at Williams, there are serious deficiencies in regards to the school’s curriculum.
Understandably, Williams cannot offer its students the wide variety of courses, sections and majors one might see at a bigger school. Nevertheless, it is troubling that every semester students like myself find themselves dissatisfied with the courses they end up having to take the following semester.
One of the biggest problems has to do with the lack of true “survey courses” in some Division I and II departments. Most would see the necessity of having some sort of “survey course” at the 100 level that could provide students with a broad overview or grounding in a particular subject. This would be especially helpful for those who didn’t receive a firm understanding of that subject in high school and would undoubtedly serve as a foundation upon which one can further specialize. Unfortunately, the trend in many departments has been to specialize, oftentimes at the expense of providing such a necessary “survey course.”
The English department, with its newfangled 100-level classes designed to replace English 101, has been the most targeted of all departments when it comes to the lack of a survey course. But it is not the only one. In the history department, for example, one can find a number of 100 level classes dealing with various topics such as power and popular culture in Mexico to the Great Depression to the French Revolution. No doubt, all of these courses are worthwhile, but one wonders what kind of course a person should take if all one wanted was a basic overview of history and did not receive that in high school. After all, how can one put the Great Depression in context without knowing the fundamentals of U.S. history?
Even in departments with a designated 101 for a “survey course,” a similar problem with specialization persists. Oftentimes, coursework in these classes becomes quickly specialized and delves into peripheral areas of a subject even if students don’t have a basic understanding of the “mainstream” areas of that subjects. One such class I took was Theatre 101, where on our first reading assignment we were asked to read about the plays of Brecht and view a play staged in the Brecht style. For a person like me who had little knowledge about theater other than learning some of the classic dramatic works for the AP English exam, learning about Brecht was extremely difficult and became basically pointless because I had nothing to base Brecht’s theater on.
Essentially, learning without context becomes the basic problem with Williams’ specialized curriculum. All specialized areas need some sort of context to be placed in or else they cannot be properly understood. Ideally, everyone on this campus would have an advanced enough background in a subject to be able to take specialized courses as soon as they arrived here. Unfortunately, the reality is such that many do not and need some sort of “survey course” before they can even attempt to specialize in a subject.
Of course, the biggest problem with the school’s curriculum is not the lack of survey courses, but the lack of courses in general. Undoubtedly, each of us at one time or another read the bulletin, become really interested in a course, and were ready to pencil it into our class schedule only to look at the first line and see the unfortunate heading “Class not offered 1999-2000.”
Adding to the class problem is the fact that a lot of courses, even popular ones, are not taught both semesters of the year. Combine these two characteristics with the fact that there are very few courses to begin with due to the school’s small size and one can see how many students are pigeonholed into taking certain classes, even those they don’t want to take. Students undoubtedly know that the thick bulletin, which lists all possible courses that can be taken, becomes remarkably thin once they figure out which courses they can actually take. Rare is the case when a student has more than a handful of options when it comes to which four classes he will take during a given semester. In fact, even if Williams did offer more “survey courses,” I probably couldn’t fit them into my schedule.
Essentially, the lack of classes offered each semester becomes constraining. If a student changes majors or suddenly becomes interested in a new subject and wants to learn more about it, they may have an extremely difficult time at this school taking all the courses they want to.
Ironically, this is precisely the opposite of what the College intended by requiring very little in terms of distribution and major requirements. Those loose requirements are supposed to allow for students to explore different areas and change the course of their study if they see fit. But, with so few classes offered each semester, options close up in a hurry and the period of exploration becomes very limited.
As mentioned before, there are limits to what Williams can do in terms of the classes it can offer, both in terms of the number of courses and “survey courses.” But certainly students at this school deserve at least a few more options when it comes to possible courses they can take. After all, for a liberal arts college such as ours, our strength comes from leaving options as open as possible for students. Clearly, this is not the case right now.