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The “Rule of 19” Must Go

Co-written by Dylan O’Connell.

This article is the third in a series on the distribution requirements. The first and second articles may be found here and here. Documentation of the changes may be found here and here.

One requirement that few students may be familiar with is the “Rule of 19,” which states that every student must take at least 19 course credits outside of their major. As a Haverford student typically takes 32 courses, this means that they get to take only 13 courses in their major. However, there are some exceptions, which are provided below as they appear in the Academic Regulations:

To avoid undue specialization in a major program, the College requires that at least 19 of the 32 course credits required for graduation must be taken outside of a student’s major field of study. For this purpose, courses that are cross-listed in several departments are considered to be outside the major field of study. There are four exceptions to this limitation:

  1. The limitation does not apply to certain majors at Bryn Mawr College;
  2. The limitation does not apply to majors in the Classics department; and
  3. The limitation does not apply to those students who study abroad in programs, such as those at Cambridge or Oxford, where reading in one subject for the entire year is the norm.
  4. This limitation does not apply to double majors, but such students must still earn a certain minimum number of course credits outside the two majors. The number of course credits outside the majors will depend on the number of credits required for the double major

The reader should already be concerned that it is not actually possible to judge whether one has fulfilled this requirement from its statement in the academic regulations. For instance, it is not clear which majors at Bryn Mawr this requirement applies to, nor is it clear how many courses a student double majoring must take outside of their two departments. But most importantly, it is not even clear who is in charge of determining the answers to these questions. Moreover, the reader should be concerned that this requirement is already prejudiced in favor of certain programs. Why is it that the classics major is not affected by this limit?

The Rule of 19 is intended to ensure a diverse curriculum for each student, but it is an exceptionally blunt tool that does more damage than good. We already have distribution requirements, which are are a far more effective means of ensuring a well-rounded education. In practice, students are forced to circumvent the Rule of 19 using arbitrary divisional distinctions, rather than actually pursuing coursework in a new subject. For instance, any cross-listed course can be exempted from counting towards the requirement. Thus while a mathematics major has access to two types of applied mathematics courses, both in economics and statistics, courses in economics are favored by those running afoul of the Rule of 19, as statistics courses are taught by the mathematics department. These distinctions are not based on the content of the course, but rather the structuring of Haverford’s academic departments.

This requirement is a problem for students who need to take a specialized schedule in order to be competitive candidates for graduate school. (We discuss here the situation with respect to mathematics as that is what we are most familiar with). Top graduate programs want candidates who are well prepared mathematically, and in some cases this means that they expect the preparation typical of a first-year graduate student. A strong undergraduate curriculum in pure mathematics consists of at least 11 courses. A strong candidate for graduate school should take graduate coursework as well, likely two additional courses in Topology, Analysis, and Algebra. This brings the number of courses in major to 17. However, it should be noted that these are the courses that would be taken by someone who already knew what the best courses to take were. Most students explore their major and might take other excellent courses. However, taking such a course then becomes an obstacle to taking a curriculum that is in line with the preparation that graduate programs want.

The issue is not solely limited to those who are interested in graduate study. Students who study abroad at the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics program typically take four math courses during the semester. As students enrolling in this program typically already have strong coursework in mathematics, they are often unable to take any math courses besides thesis during their senior year.

The truest recognition that the Rule of 19 is a problem is that many majors have already structured themselves to avoid this requirement. For instance, the Chemistry department is notorious among students for undercrediting their classes. We asked Geoffrey Martin-Noble ‘16, a senior Chemistry and Computer Science major, to describe some of the ways departments get around this requirement:

In chemistry, each semester of the core junior course (affectionately known as super lab) counts as only one credit, despite comprising 3 hours of lecture and (at least) 6 hours of lab per week (frequently lab work requires staying late or coming at odd hours). Contrast this with JSem, the core junior course in the English department, which carries an additional half credit. Again chemistry professors explicitly cite the rule of 19 when defending this decision.

Furthermore, many majors have shadow requirements for their courses outside of the major. Biology majors do not take their first course in the department until their sophomore year. During their freshman year, they take the prerequisite year of chemistry required to take Bio 200, which is effectively a major requirement, although it is not treated as such by the Rule of 19.

The revisions suggested by the EPC do not even begin to address this problem. Indeed, at the EPC forum, the members of the committee were unaware of the various peculiarities of the Rule of 19 as it is presently stated in the Student Handbook. The authors inquired as to why this is not a priority for revision given its ill effect on students. The answers we received were that the Rule of 19 promotes a diverse liberal arts curriculum, and that undergraduate courses, as opposed to graduate courses, do not require such deep specialization. We have argued for why we believe the Rule of 19 is an exceptionally poor method of ensuring a well rounded education, and it is our hope that the faculty at Haverford do not actually have such a low opinion of the courses they teach.

However, there are solutions to this problem. One solution, which we favor, is to simply eliminate the the Rule of 19 for being an obstacle to students pursuing what they love, as curricular diversity is more effectively encouraged through specific distribution requirements. Another option would be to allows students to petition to have the Rule of 19 waived on a case by case basis. Another solution would be to simply reduce the number of courses required to something more reasonable, like 16.

The few people who are affected by this requirement are quite severely impacted.  Unfortunately, this impact is often only felt during one’s senior year: a time when thesis work and job applications are a priority over fixing an institution that one is about to leave. We stress that underclassmen should be aware of this problem and that it must be fixed so that no more students are forced out of taking the courses that they most want to take.

One Comment

  1. Dave Wonnacott July 7, 2021

    I’ve personally been unhappy about the “Rule of 19” for many years. As you stated, it’s a blunt instrument with which to construct something a subtle as an academically rich/diverse education. And, as you stated, it mistakes departmental boundaries for intellectual differentiation. So, a CS major who focuses on theoretical foundations of our field (not far removed from applied math), and then takes a bunch of math courses is seen as “broad” according to the Rule of 19. But, a CS major who spans our field and extends this inquiry in many different directions, with a little Math to supplement their CS Theory, and a Visual Arts course and a Psych course about perception to supplement their CS course on Human-Computer Interaction, and a Political Science course or Philosophy course about ethics to connect to their work in App Development for Social Change, and a Physics course about semiconductors to support their understanding of Computer Organization/Hardware … well, that student doesn’t exist, because we have to tell them to take fewer CS courses in order to graduate.

    As much as I enjoy a good shared rant, I’m also drawn to thinking about fixing the problem. Before I’d bring this forward to one of our already-overloaded faculty committees for consideration, I’d ask myself “what would I want in its place?”. I’d hope for something that both removes the problems (as do your three solutions), while still doing at least as good a job of achieving the stated goal of the old rule, without greatly increasing the overhead of installing/using the new rule. I’d gotten as far as “Let departments request an exception to this rule by instating an approved department-specific rule to encourage/ensure breadth of their majors.” This would provide the most relief to those departments where the problem is most keenly felt, and it would have a per-department, rather than per-student, “administrative burden” cost.

    Note that my suggestion is predicated on my belief that it is good to have a rule to push students toward breadth. You may or may not agree, but the courses that I think back on as relevant/valuable/interesting came both from my major and from my distribution requirements. The set of meaningless/useless-to-me courses also included some distribution requirements, but it also included courses in my major and one that I had just thought would be interesting (and, which would have been, if I’d had the time to really engage them). So, I’d like to see a better rule, combined with advising that emphasizes a search for courses that will be meaningful to each student, rather than just “checking a box” … my impression, as an advisor, is that most of you already have a better sense of that than I did. (If you’re not sure, ask your advisor, or, if a CS major, consider my list of CS-relevant distribution requirements hidden in the first paragraph of this response.)

    The above are just my personal thoughts, not a CS Department position.

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