Markets and Mules

Williams College has announced a new diversity requirement.

There’s nothing especially wrong with the long laundry list of intellectual skills or experiences that now potentially qualify a course to be designated as “exploring diversity”. Under the old system, it just had to be about a “minority group” or a “non-Western culture”. The problem with that, regardless of your political views on diversity, should be obvious: it implies that the students are all Western and not members of a minority group, e.g., that learning about diversity is a kind of liberal noblesse oblige.

Good for the Williams faculty for owning up to that problem. Why not just take the requirement off the books altogether, however? I’m sure that some critics will regard the unwillingness of the faculty to give up on the idea of a diversity requirement as political or ideological, and to some extent it is. However, if you look at the curriculum of almost any elite college or university, including this one, you’ll see a lot of ways that professors try to hedge against the curricular marketplace. Distribution requirements. Core curricula. Writing courses. Required introductory sequences. Fixed or required course sequences within majors. Culminating exercises. Junior colloquia.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to feel confident that your students reliably have a known set of competencies, skills or experiences when they graduate. One is requirements, either of specific courses with fixed content or of types or categories of courses with slightly less fixed content. The other is to disseminate a particular kind of content or experience so widely throughout the curriculum that a student would have to deliberately go out of their way to avoid contact with that skill or concept.

Requirements of various kinds are not just a way of guaranteeing particular competencies or experiences, however. They’re also a kind of traffic control, of leading mules on a tether. Faculty tend to favor them whenever they perceive that students will not naturally distribute themselves to the subject areas and disciplines that the institution has chosen to invest in, to even out teaching workloads by managing the flow of students into classes.

In the latter case, I simply think that faculty usually are wrong in assessing likely student demand, or misattribute existing or possible student distributions to a desire to avoid a particular subject matter. I have seen departments here and elsewhere that have assumed a need for compulsion in order to direct enrollments in their direction discover that once the compulsion goes away, they get the same number of students as they always did. Sometimes professors also misattribute enrollments to their subject matter when it also has something to do with their pedagogy.

The “traffic control” reasons are weak justifications for requirements. They protect departments, disciplines and individuals from having to justify and continually improve their programs, and they keep institutions from investing resources where the resources are most needed. When tenure means that investing in a given area is more or less a 30-year investment, you don’t want to give up what little flexibility you do have by creating captive constituencies that are never allowed to participate in an intellectual or professional market.

These kinds of rationales are also a problem because increasingly they lead to requirements as a kind of prestige object, very distant from achieving particular or focused learning objectives. Having a requirement in this case becomes a symbolic and gestural communication of the seriousness with which an institution regards an idea, concept or discipline. There are cheaper ways to do that: give people little gold stars or medals or hearty handshakes from the president, if that kind of symbolic affirmation is what they’re seeking.

Even when it’s about learning outcomes, the vaguer or more expansive a requirement gets, the less useful it becomes. This pretty much describes Williams’ new diversity formulation to a T. As an outsider looking in, it seems to me that Williams is putting into its curriculum a requirement that is largely designed to produce amity between competing disciplinary and intellectual agendas, essentially using the curriculum as a way to manage and communicate the political and symbolic unity of the faculty, not as an attempt to direct the specific learning of students.

If a student can get through Williams without taking a course that could plausibly get an “asterix” for meeting one of those criteria, then that student is working very hard to avoid those courses. It might have been fair to think that in the early 1960s, your average white male student at Williams (or Swarthmore or Amherst or Princeton or Duke, etcetera) would have been largely disinterested in any or all of the possible meanings of diversity that Williams has designated as learning objectives. Today, I really think that a student with active antipathy towards those objectives would be unusual. In this case, the marketplace of courses at your average liberal arts college is more than adequate to ensure that most students will encounter questions of diversity in some fashion. I feel the same way about the requirement for a non-Western course within the history major here at Swarthmore. Within the major, we have a large number of courses on Latin America, China, Africa and occasionally courses on other non-Western societies: I feel pretty sure that a sufficiently large number of majors will end their time here with exposure to this kind of subject matter.

I think this is true for more than diversity. We have a writing requirement, for example, where certain courses get designated as “W” courses that focus particularly on writing. I think at this point that extensive attention to writing is central to many classes in the humanities and social sciences. I’m not sure we need the redundancy of “W” courses, and moreover, since most of them are also trying to accomplish coverage of some topic or subject, I strongly suspect that over time, the writing in a “W” class will end up subordinated to the subject matter, and the course will become a “normal” course in effect anyway. Then it will just be another instrument of traffic control.

I don’t entirely embrace the curricular marketplace. I think that some disciplines need to be taught more sequentially, though perhaps not quite so much as is conventionally thought. I think a limited and very precisely drawn core curriculum can be a very useful way to ensure that students share a common base of knowledge and experience. But mostly, I’m suspicious of discussions of requirements, because they’re often not what they seem. If you really want to ensure that students will have certain kinds of experiences, it’s better to look to managing the supply rather than mandating the demand.

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19 Responses to Markets and Mules

  1. Must be nice to be at Swarthmore.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, pretty much it is, I think. You’re thinking in terms of my comments on writing?

  3. Laura says:

    Funny, I just spent half a class period discussing diversity in a “writing” course. I think it’s true that at places like Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore, “requirements” like writing and diversity get spread throughout the curriculum. I know that mostly what I’m doing with my students is letting them explore topics, learn to incorporate texts, and learn some writing techniques. More focused writing instruction often happens in their majors and in upper level courses. But at larger institutions, at which I have quite a bit of experience, it’s entirely possible to get through 4 years without having to do much writing or thinking about diversity or doing math or whatever one is inclined to avoid. Humanities courses, for example, except at the major level, might be made up mostly of multiple-choice tests, perhaps with some short essays thrown in. So while it may be true that at elite colleges, one might be able to dispense with or disperse the core curriculum, the issue is a little stickier at large, less elite schools.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, I think that’s true. But that’s why I guess I find Williams’ efforts in this case a bit beside the point.

  5. Joey Headset says:

    Look, why don’t they just cut to the chase and force every student who applies to the college to sign some sort of “diversity pledge” where they promise never to disagree with anything a Dirverse Person says. Basically, this would mean that if a student ever publicly contradicts a gay, a black, a brown, a (name Diverse Group of your chosing) that they get thrown out of school. Simple as that. Wouldn’t that save everyone a lot of time?

    That’s what they wanted at Swarthmore, if I’m not mistaken? Speech codes, forced diversity indoctrination sessions, Freshman Orientation programs in which students are forced to sit in a circle and admit that they really ARE rapists, even though they haven’t actually raped anyone. That’s the Diversity Wet Dream: to ideologically beat the shit out of everyone until they just aren’t willing to ARGUE anymore. Then the Diverse Peoples can say whatever the hell they want without fear of oppression (ie, contradiction).

    A diversity requirement is fine, but it doesn’t actually FORCE students to believe the things that the Diversity Lobby thinks everyone should believe. Because when everything you believes is total BS, the only way you can “express yourself” in peace is if no one is permitted to talk back to you. If it were me in one of those required diversity sections, I would contradict damn near everything that was said, just out of spite. That’s the last thing the Diverse People want.

  6. You’re thinking in terms of my comments on writing?

    All of it, really. My experience with students is that some (what percentage varies with the school and issue) will, in fact, go out of their way to avoid certain experiences, including writing and science, and unfamiliar cultural and intellectual experiences. I know that’s not true for all students — good ones here are just like good ones at Swarthmore — but I strongly suspect that it’s much more true for our students than for yours.

    Ironically, though, your suggestion for a tighter core instead of a heavily structured curriculum is pretty close to my own ideas, though I admit that in my case it’s predicated on the hope that a good core education will inspire them to branch out in the same directions as our distribution requirements….

  7. Peter Austin says:

    “I strongly suspect that over time, the writing in a “W” class will end up subordinated to the subject matter, and the course will become a “normal” course in effect anyway. Then it will just be another instrument of traffic control.”

    So, kind of like the PDC classes it replaced?

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, pretty much. That’s not due to malice: it’s more like the curricular equivalent of genetic drift.

  9. What Williams really needs is diversity in professors: some 20% should be pro-Iraq war, 20% should be pro-tax cuts, 20% should be pro-life/ anti-abortion — to reflect the ideas in America better; some 15% should be registered Republicans.

    I liked Joey’s DG (Diveristy Group) identity based thought control to replace PC thought control.

    Of course, university faculties unwilling to honestly address the 800 math SAT differences in males & females, and other un-PC realities, are unlikely to be intectually honest about diversity, either.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    So you believe in affirmative action quotas, Tom?

  11. laurel says:

    I kind of think both the diversity and the writing requirements are a little silly, because those aren’t what people typically try to avoid, especially at a place like Swarthmore (or Williams). When I was at Swarthmore, the primary way I saw people avoid particular intellectual experiences was people who came in with a pretty clear idea of what they wanted to study (or at least what kind of thing they wanted to study) and took only as many classes outside of that field as they needed to meet their distribution requirements. For that reason, I think having distribution requirements – or even a core curriculum – makes a lot of sense. A college that aspires to produced seriously educated graduates needs to make sure that they’re all exposed to the forms of evidence and reasoning used in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

    On the other hand, I have no idea why any department would design its introductory courses without a significant writing component. Any introductory class should be designed to make sure that the people who come out of it know, at a minimum, what kind of work people do in that discipline. Since almost all disciplines communicate primarily through papers (except for mathematicians, who communicate through proofs), I don’t understand any department that doesn’t spend a significant chunk of its introductory courses covering how to write papers (or lab reports or proofs) in that discipline. If departments are already doing that, the writing requirement is unnecessary; if they’re not, the writing requirement alone is not that useful, because it separates ‘writing’ from ‘communicating ideas and information in a way comprehensible to your audience’ which is just plain silly.

    The diversity requirement is similarly silly, in that most social science courses should address at least one of those issues, and if they don’t, what exactly are they doing?

    And yes, it must be nice to teach at Swarthmore. It was pretty sweet to go there.

  12. Laura says:

    Laurel, I agree with you. There should be a writing requirement in courses at the introductory level. My experience is that that’s not the case and that it’s not the case because there’s too much “course content” to cover and no time to grade the papers. Most intro science courses, even at small liberal arts colleges, are quite large. And then there’s the issue of when those papers are graded, professors often focus on the surface-level grammatical errors rather than the broader issues of structure and style.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. But if you want to fix that, you have to intervene extensively into the pedagogy, and that takes more than just designating classes as requirements. For the vast majority of professors, if there’s a subject or area of expertise that is being taught AND a supposed focus on writing, the former is eventually going to push out the latter.

  14. jpool says:

    I agree in general with your suspicion of curriculum requirements and particularly with your preference for building diversity into the offerings rather than the requirements (though, like affirmative action, diversity requirements do make a certain kind of
    tactical sense in the context of departments or institutions that have not yet done this).

    What puzzles me is the argument from Williams (and apparently you) that course requirements that define diversity based on the inclusion of material on “minority groups” or “non-Western cultures” are (necessarily) based on the assumption that the person taking them is a Western/non-minority person and studying these different people to widen their otherwise narrow horizons. This seems technically wrong as the “diversity” applies to the subjects studied rather than the identity (or presumed experience) of those taking them. The Williams’s discussion of the problem (particularly the question from Chrisotpher Waters, “Why would our minority students need to take such a course?”) seems to involve the corollary presumption that such courses can only be of use to Western/white folks, with others being diverse enough already. I hope someone brings to his attention what a slap in the face this is to his colleagues who have been teaching such courses – as if their courses did not represent disciplinary knowledge, but simply diversity training. Were there really courses at Williams in the past about non-white/Western people that did not include critical relflection or theoretical analysisis?

    Also puzzling is the belief from the Williams faculty that they are narrowing the requirements for such courses rather than broadening them. I did my undergrad at Macalester College, which, like Swarthmore, used a loose system of distributions rather than extensive GERs. It seems to me that, taken as whole Williams new requirements either rephrase the existing ones as Courses with Critical Thinking on or Immersion in Difference of Some Kind, or amount to Please Take a Humanities or Social Science Course, Any Humanities or Social Science Course.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    I think there’s a way to say, “Take courses on non-Western societies”, but I don’t really think that such a requirement is a *diversity* requirement, necessarily. E.g., the value of such a course is independent of whether it educates someone about a society “unlike their own” (with the presumption embedded about the person taking the course).

  16. Ivory says:

    My college has a diversity requirement even though we live in a majority minority city, 60% of our students speak a language other than English, and we haven’t had an ethnic majority on campus since the mid 90’s. I can’t help but wonder (at times) if the mostly white, mostly educated in the 70’s faculty aren’t a little out of touch with the student’s experience of growing up in a diverse community – at times I feel they are projecting their own needs, values, and ideas on a captive audience.

  17. Dee says:

    Side note: History profs are overrepresented in that article, though I’m not sure what that means (Wagner is also a historian).

    Anyhow, Tim says:
    “disseminate a particular kind of content or experience so widely throughout the curriculum that a student would have to deliberately go out of their way to avoid contact”

    This seems to be suggesting that instead of mandating students to take one from a category of classes, that Williams mandate its professors to all teach some certain thing? That’s quite an infringement on professorial autonomy.

    Philosophically, however, it seems to me that category requirements are the correct third way between a tight core curriculum and free-styling your way through college–in my view, such “class from group 1, class from group 2” formulations still allow the marketplace to work while ensuring the student acquires a certain set of experiences/skills. From my experience as an undergrad at Williams in the 1990s, the market worked far more freely for the “Peoples & Cultures” requirement than for the science requirement, where all the people who wouldn’t ordinarily take science were smushed into 1 of 2 classes. At a wild guess, some 15-20 classes per semester were open to people who needed to fill the PC req.

  18. Timothy Burke says:

    Not so much mandate it, but work persuasively with faculty. E.g., say, “Look, if a lot of you think that a certain goal is important, why not include it in the courses you teach, rather than compel the administration to make sure that you think it is important?” In fact, a new requirement that isn’t already a major part of a curriculum would to me be a signal that the people pushing the requirement may either lack general support throughout the faculty or that they themselves lack a certain amount of faith in the idea behind the requirement.

  19. laurel says:

    Tim said: I think there’s a way to say, “Take courses on non-Western societies”, but I don’t really think that such a requirement is a *diversity* requirement, necessarily. E.g., the value of such a course is independent of whether it educates someone about a society “unlike their own” (with the presumption embedded about the person taking the course).

    This is a way of describing ‘diversity requirements’ that I’ve seen many times, and which, to me, misses the point. People from all cultures should learn about other cultures, so they have an understanding that their own history or way of life is not the only history or way of life; they should also learn about their own culture, in order to fully understand the history and way of life that has shaped them. Practically speaking, though, basically everyone learns about the dominant culture: that’s why it’s called dominant. I see a diversity requirement as an attempt to get most people to learn about non-dominant cultures, because that history/politics/sociology/philosophy/whatever is an important part of the world and gets less attention than straight powerful European men in most curricula; the identity of the student affects what need that fills, but having a diversity requirement doesn’t have to be about getting people to take classes about ‘someone else.’

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