My 200-level students  last semester proposed or redesigned a university-level course for their final assignment.* They were allowed to make it in any subject, at any level. It wasn't my most tightly conceived assignment, so I wasn't sure what to expect from them. The results were understandably uneven, but revealed a great deal about what undergraduates think an undergraduate degree should be.
First, the good news. There were general education courses proposed in strategic thinking, debating, the history of rock and roll, and biology (which included the important component of making it relevant). There were highly specialized courses in local micro-sociology, service learning for veterinary tech, sports sociology, diversity issues in education, and even a design class for business students. These students showed real creativity and practicality when proposing the courses, looking at what students could and should learn to most benefit their educations. These courses were about getting students to think and do differently. These were, unsurprisingly, in the minority.
Then came the courses that focused on informing the students. There were courses that were basically University 101, teaching freshmen about the university and study skills to help them succeed. One student proposed Sex, Drugs, and University 101, a course to inform students about the dangers and temptations that college provides (many students proposed this course; only one came up with a creative title). There was a course on basic nutrition and basic finance. These courses focused almost exclusively on information. Where is the critical thinking? Where is the depth of knowledge? What are these courses other than 15 weeks of lectures on how a student should behave?
Could this be a reflection of how students already see Freshman-level courses? In their minds, instead of being lectured about history, English, or physics, the students seem to be saying that a series of courses on how to be students would be more beneficial. Many cited studies that showed how courses such as they were proposing decreases binge drinking, increased retention, etc. But, again, I ask, is this worth a) their money and b) three credits? Are these classes really the responsibility of the university to teach to students? And, as proposed, where is the critical engagement? The courses could address issues and controversies about the subject, asking the uncomfortable questions (why do we have a culture of drinking at colleges? Why are we "so fat" in the West? What does debt tell us about ourselves? What does it mean to learn?). But instead, the classes are 15-week sermons on better living.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were the classes that were entirely skills based. A course in SCUBA diving. One on how to find a job. Another on cooking. One student proposed that we try to teach students all there is to know about filmmaking in 15 weeks. Firearm safety and shooting. Other than the proposed course on how to find a job, most of these classes would be rewarding credit for the students' hobbies. Not that hobbies can't be stimulating and engaging, but do we give three credits for knitting or model trains? And as for the course in mastering the job search, should you get credit for something you should and will be doing anyway?
Given the limited resources a university has, these courses seem superfluous, if not frivolous. Again, where is the opportunity for critical thinking, for something beyond honing a skill? But perhaps this is a reflection of the interests of many of the students who are attending my university. They are there for practical skills and a more technical degree: nursing, vet tech, engineering tech, agriculture tech, even teaching. The courses they see the most value in and that they most look forward to are those that place them in an environment where they are learning and practicing concrete, job-related skills. Why model the optional courses in the same way?
So then what is the point of a course in higher education? More generally, what is the purpose of higher education? Are we to educate or are we to socialize and sermonize? Do we build knowledge or provide practical, hard skills for students to use in work and play? I thought I knew. Now, I'm not so sure. At least, I am beginning to understand the disconnect I feel sometimes between myself and my students. We are here, in the university, for very, very different purposes.
*Before you criticize me for doing an assignment like this without giving any instruction on course design and learning theories, ask yourself, how many professors or graduate students, who are the ones typically charged with developing courses and course content, well-versed or even aware of the research and theories that are out there? I'm not saying I would do it again, but glass houses, stones, you know.
Lee Elaine Skallerup has a PhD from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a regular contributor at University of Venus .