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Why the Language, Lab, and Visual Arts Requirements Do Not Square with Their Motivations

Co-written by Jonathan DeWitt

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

The stated goal of the proposed educational requirement changes is to minimize the use of arbitrary departmental barriers in the educational requirements. This article surveys several of the specific requirements proposed by the new system in relation to their stated purpose. Specifically, we discuss how the foreign language requirement in its current form remains at odds with the spirit of Haverford’s liberal arts principles. We then discuss the new “Laboratory Science Requirement” and “Visual Arts Requirement.”

The language requirement took its present form with the entering class of 2016 and requires two semesters of language study, which, according to the academic requirements, must happen in one of three possible ways:

  1. One full year of language study in one language at the level in which the student is placed by the appropriate Haverford College language department; or
  2. Language study in a course conducted under Haverford College’s approved International Study Abroad Programs, and as certified in advance by the Chair of the relevant language department at either Haverford College or Bryn Mawr College or by the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) when the language has no counter department at either Haverford or Bryn Mawr; or
  3. Language study in a summer program administered by Bryn Mawr College in the country of the language if that program is an intensive, total-immersion program, fully equivalent to a full year of language study and certified as such by the Chair of a Haverford or Bryn Mawr language department.

On the other hand, the revised language requirement proposed by the EPC reads:

  • Language requirement (two course credits): Study of a language other than English deepens the student’s appreciation of his or her own language, increases sensitivity to and understanding of the nature of language itself, and enables the student to gain a broader and more intimate understanding of different cultures.

This proposal does not provide enough detail to judge whether the requirements are actually different. Moreover, at the EPC forum, it was not suggested that this requirement will be different from the current requirement, so we assume that no changes are proposed.

This lack of change also does not address the primary issue with the foreign language requirement: its misguided application to international students. “Foreign” is not defined with respect to students themselves, but rather with respect to the language of instruction at Haverford: English. Hence, students who already speak English as a second language must endure a year of instruction in another foreign language in English. The obvious reason for this is to ensure that international students have the same number of required courses as domestic students. Both must take a year of language classes.

Zuzana Manhartova ‘16, an international student from the Czech Republic, points out the irony of the application of the language requirement to international students:

I spent part of every year of high school in France; I don’t think that being in class with 12 non-native speakers of French deepened my appreciation of French culture.

It’s not easy to learn multiple foreign languages at the same time. Many international students struggle with English when they arrive at Haverford. We are already living in a foreign countrya country that many of us have never even visited before. And despite this, we still don’t get credit for a requirement that is defined as understanding foreign language and culture.

The solution to this problem is to change the definition of “foreign” to be relative to the student. The next change is to make being a language class an attribute of the class. For instance, Math 317 is not a class that will substantially deepen anyone’s understanding of English. However, a history class which features extensive readings in English, is.

In the place of the old distribution requirements, the proposed system requires courses that cover a variety of topics and skills. Several of these requirements seem fundamentally misguided and are equally arbitrary as any under the old system. Under the new version of the Natural Science Requirement, One course credit must include a laboratory or field-based experience.” The laboratory science requirement as presently posed seems to include as a laboratory basically every class in the sciences that has a time called a “lab.” Almost all courses in the sciences, except math courses, have such a lab.

Naturally, one expects that the laboratory science requirement is intended to expose students to the nuances and difficulties of actual laboratory science. Doing accurate experiments requires patience and technical skill. However, not all labs are created equal. Many courses that have ostensible labs do not do any laboratory work during such a time. For instance, almost all computer science courses have a mandatory hour-long lab once a week. This time generally serves as an opportunity for students to work on the homework while the professor is available to answer any questions that may arise.

Unless this requirement is made more rigorous in terms of asserting that classes with a lab must teach actual laboratory skills, then this requirement is unfaithful to the notion of a lab. However, with the presently broad understanding of what a lab is, the laboratory science requirement is a near duplicate of the proposed symbolic reasoning requirement. A simpler way of achieving the same goal would be to simply make the quantitative requirement two courses instead of introducing a delicate distinction between science courses with labs and those without. If the new system is intended to designate classes based on the inherent skills that they teach, there is no reasonable connection among the experiences offered by these different labs beyond their shared name.

As a final note, the proposed system also requires one course credit in both,

Textual or literary expression or analysis

Visual or musical expression or analysis

It was stated during the forum that the distinction between these subjects was introduced in order to ensure that students learn different modes of inquiry, both in terms of self-expression and analysis. However, it was then observed by audience members that both of the two requirements satisfied this equally, and which the forum administrators said would be taken into consideration. There is little meaningful difference between the inherent skills of artistic expression and analysis when applied to these different mediums. This is a perfect example of the sort of meaningless division between classes that the new system hoped to remove. The arbitrary distinction between these fields does not deepen students’ appreciation for art, but serves to make scheduling the classes they had true interest in more difficult.

In the above requirements, there is a disconnect between rationale and implementation. We hope that this will be fixed going forward, and more importantly, that the student body will be active in ensuring that existing disconnects, such as in the foreign language requirement, are fixed.

One Comment

  1. HY February 9, 2016

    I definitely do not agree with placing a mandatory lab in the natural sciences department. As someone who is a social science major also filling out pre-med requirements, it’s very hard to fill in 1-2 labs each semester that take up 3 hours regularly in the afternoon. I can only speak for the social sciences, but an overwhelming majority of them take place in the 1-2:30pm slot or the 2:30-4pm slot, which both overlap with the lab times from 1-4pm. If there are social science classes that are in the morning, they overlap with other courses and makes it hard to find classes to fit. Lab for natural sciences is an ADDITIONAL 3-4 hours per week to the already existing 3 hours of lecture AND 1 hour of recitation that is usually required. This double time commitment should not be expected of non-science majors that have outside interests. I understand the desire of wanting students to see the practical applications of the sciences, but in broadening our academic knowledge in a liberal arts manner, I believe lecture-only classes would suffice in fulfilling a natural science requirement. (A crude analogy: If I am an English major or plan to pursue a profession in academics, it wouldn’t make sense that I would spend double a class time learning the “real applications” of, say, political science by analyzing political statistics.) Adding a mandatory lab period for a natural science is just ineffective and impractical. Doing so would only impede students’ abilities to take different courses and push an otherwise unneeded time commitment.

    ALSO, might I add that 1st and 2nd year chemistry labs always have issues being overfilled and rescheduling students. It’s just not physically possible as well. And if Haverford wants to pay money for more staff, lab rooms, and materials, I just think that would be an unintelligent use of school funds.

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