Varna Kodoth: A major design flaw
There’s no denying that the University of Michigan is a top-ranked public institution — not to mention the No.1 public research university. With the ever-changing political climate, social justice issues and global events, the curriculum requirements set forth are no longer fit to produce a well-rounded, globally aware student. From a student’s perspective, there exists a gap between the real-world skills required in professional work environments in 2019 and the distribution requirements set forth by the 13 undergraduate schools and colleges within this institution. The majority of U-M freshmen matriculate into the College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts. Currently, the LSA college-wide requirements include, but are not limited to, the following: seven credits in the humanities, a first-year writing requirement, an upper-level writing requirement, seven credits in the natural sciences, seven in the social sciences, seven in the humanities, a quantitative reasoning requirement, and a single race and ethnicity requirement — not to mention other obligations. At first glance, this is a great spread of courses and disciplines with the intent to produce well-rounded future professionals. However, that’s only on paper. From the administrative perspective, it’s important to re-evaluate how these distribution requirements inform the thought process by which students select their courses.
Four years ago, I committed to attending the University of Michigan in part due to the flexible degree requirements that made it possible for me to pursue studies in both the STEM and humanities fields. However, I realized soon after matriculating, that unless you are taking the initiative to explore a variety of course subjects and majors that are not specific to the defined major courses or the pre-professional track you belong to, you are not receiving as well-rounded of an education as you could be.
The distribution requirements typically elicit groans and complaints from students, who seek an “easy A” course in order to graduate on time. It’s especially apparent among STEM majors in the first-year writing requirement and the upper-level writing requirement. As per the writing requirement, non-engineering STEM majors must take one writing course freshman year and one writing course typically during senior year. If you hate writing, there are plenty of options that technically fulfill this requirement but do not actually fulfill the whole objective behind a distribution requirement. Additionally, writing an Honors Thesis can be considered upper-level writing. Additionally, taking a lab course that requires extensive laboratory experimental write-ups also potentially counts toward the upper-level writing requirement. Here’s the reality: Writing a scientific write-up versus a personal statement for graduate school applications versus an upper-level writing requirement essay are different from one another. It requires a distinct set of skills to accomplish each task successfully. Therefore, knowing how to write a lab report does not mean you know how to properly reflect and write your own story in a personal statement.
This is what I urge the University to do: Implement specific, tangible skill-based competencies that are related to each major and remove the widespread open-ended distribution requirements that are often too overwhelming to be useful. Through these established competencies, students will be exposed to diverse concepts, pushed to think critically and shown the cross-over that exists between writing, communication, understanding of the justice system and additional topics outside of the discipline that they’re pursuing. By doing so, the University requirements will encourage students to be open-minded and to constantly learn. Skills like writing or a foundation in statistics will prove to be helpful in their future careers and will serve as more than just a distribution requirement to check off on the audit checklist.
Another aptitude to consider enforcing involves requiring different types of writing every single year. Let’s say freshman year is an introduction to literary analysis and college-level interpretations of a wide variety of texts. It is then pointless to a non-English major to take yet another literary-analysis-heavy course. Instead, the purpose of the sophomore year writing course would be to explore another area of the English language such as creative writing or writing about social change. In junior and senior year, it’s most useful if the English courses are centered upon professional writing — personal statement writing, essays for summer internships, CV/resume writing for recruitment season, etc.
For example, undergraduates on the pre-health track should be required to develop an understanding of global health care delivery systems and introductory public health concepts regardless of whether or not they are a student in the School of Public Health. Our future doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants, dentists and veterinarians need to be equipped to speak on topics related to health care policies and interventions that impact health in the greater population. Public health and medicinal work go hand-in-hand. Therefore, it is essential to provide future health care professionals with experience in that collaborative approach rather than fulfill. On the other hand, undergraduates on the pre-law in LSA track should be required to not only understand public policy but also indulge in courses related to gender and health, race and ethnicity and cultural studies to develop a big-picture understanding of the populations to be dealt with as a professional.
Changing the course requirements in this way will prepare University graduates to take on challenges in the workplace and send them out into the world to pursue innovative solutions to global issues. As college students, we are privileged to have unlimited access to a diverse range of courses, departments and world-renowned professors. It is incumbent upon us to take advantage of all the University has to offer. To only take courses that strictly fit your future vocation is a disservice to yourself. So it’s worth asking the question: At what other point in your career will you have the opportunity to explore multiple paths?
Varna Kodoth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.