Reed Rosenbacher: Rethinking the engineering humanities requirement

Monday, February 4, 2019 - 6:28pm

Almost every student in a major of the humanities has experienced the same dreaded moment. It’s during the first few weeks of class when everybody is introducing themselves, when the classroom environment is still setting in, that the realization sets: The class is filled with engineering students desperate to fulfill their 300-level humanities requirement at the University of Michigan.

When I experienced my first real run-in with this phenomenon, my mind swelled with optimism, hoping the students from different academic backgrounds could offer distinct and valuable contributions to the conversation. As the course progressed, however, I was met with a harsh reality: My “fellow classmates” in the engineering school, most likely students who never had an affinity for seminar discussion, were filling discussion with hollow comments in hopes of earning participation credit.

Engineering students who have gone through years of curriculum structured by endless lecture halls, harsh curves and impersonal learning environments should not be expected to equally contribute to a 300-level humanities class. The upper-level humanities curriculum is designed with two things in mind: that the students have taken other courses in the humanities and that they have a genuine interest in the course material. As a result, students are expected to have developed their skills in reading, class participation and writing. Students whose skills and interests are still maturing should pursue lower-level courses.

Engineering students who have spent their years watching online lectures and completing auto-grader homework assignments tend not to have the experience it takes to contribute to humanities courses in a way that elevates the conversation. In some ways, the requirement as it stands feels like a form of disrespect to the humanities — no one expects that a philosophy student like myself could survive in a random 300-level engineering class (I really wouldn’t). Why should we expect the opposite?

I want to make clear that my point is not that engineering students are in some way less smart or incapable of valuably contributing to a 300-level humanities class. In fact, there have been some engineering students who did have a lot of excellent contributions to the class, but that tends to be the exception, not the rule. Rather, engineering students are not given the tools or experience to help elevate class discussion.

The idea behind the requirement is one I fully support. Taking engineering students out of their comfort zones and putting them in contact with more critical and personal disciplines is a wonderful idea. I even think that having the requirement be an upper-level class with in-depth seminar discussions is a good idea. I simply question whether the current approach is effective. From here, I will weigh a few potential proposals as a starting point for rethinking this issue.

Proposal 1: Offer humanities classes designed for engineering students. The School of Art & Design, for example, offers classes to non-majors. The idea behind this curriculum is that non-art students should have a way of pursuing the arts without having to do so in the confines of a classroom filled with aspiring artists. This proposal would solve the issue of filling LSA humanities classes with engineering students who take away from class discussion due to their lack of experience, disinterest or some combination thereof. The problem with this proposal, however, is that the “humanities classes for non-humanities majors” would become an echo chamber that wouldn’t provide engineering students with the “outside perspective” the requirement is built to give. I also fear these classes may run the risk of becoming “joke classes” or classes they don’t find challenging.  

Proposal 2: Create a cap on the number of engineering students who can enroll in a specific humanities class. In all honesty, much of my irritation stems from my experience in a 300-level philosophy class that was dominated by engineering students. The engineering students took the class because it hit three birds with one stone: It fulfilled the race and ethnicity requirement, the 300-level humanities requirement and was rumored to be “easy.” If there were only a few engineering students in any given class, then the class discussion would not be hampered and the engineering students could really engage in productive seminar discussion. On the other hand, this proposal would prevent some engineering students who do have real interests in the humanities from getting into the classes they want and would make them feel even more like they are being forced to do something. Additionally, this just seems like a cruel idea to implement from an institutional level.

Proposal 3: Require engineering students to take more humanities classes! Maybe, instead of creating odd concoctions that account for engineering students’ lack of experience in the humanities, engineering students could just receive a more holistic education. Some kinks regarding fitting it in the schedule would obviously have to be worked out, but the requirement could be expanded to something along the lines of 12 humanities credits with a minimum of two upper-level humanities classes.

All three of these proposals have benefits and flaws to them. None of them should be viewed as a perfect solution, but they all do serve as starting points for fixing this issue. The sad truth is that many students in the humanities have experienced signing up for a class to pursue a genuine interest, only to find a classroom filled with inexperienced engineering students looking to fill requirements. On the other hand engineering students do seek out “easy” humanities classes to fill their requirement instead of truly expanding their academic horizons. Something needs to be done to create a learning environment that is more satisfying to everyone’s academic needs.

Reed Rosenbacher can be reached at rrosenb@umich.edu.