College courses in US getting a bit stranger as students treated more like consumers

Amherst College main quad

It used to be that college students all had to take the same core curriculum to fulfill their requirements and move on to their majors. Cram 500 students into a room and make them learn western civilization or English 101 and you’re good to go.

But lately, colleges have been giving students more flexibility, offering open curriculum courses that are more off the beaten path, often with extremely specific subject matters, like “Wordplay: A Wry Plod from Babel to Scrabble” (Princeton) and “#SelfieClass,” (USC).

In a report on NPR Tuesday, at Amherst College in Massachusetts, they compared a 1966 course catalog to one today. The 1966 version had 223 pages while the 2015-2016 catalog had 591 pages, meaning students have many more choices than ever, like “Videogames and the Boundaries of Narrative” and “Ghosts in Shells? Virtuality and Embodiment from Passing to the Posthuman.”

Liberal arts colleges like Amherst and the notoriously free-thinking Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, have long featured interesting sounding courses to attract students, and it makes for a freer approach to obtaining a degree rather than the old, stodgy courses. But is it better for the student to take courses like “Birth of the Avant Garde” (Amherst) and “Vampire Literature” (University of Nevada)?

“It’s all good stuff, as long as it’s taught in a rigorous way where students are challenged, where students can express their thoughts,” said Dean of the Faculty at Amherst, Catherine Epstein in a story by WGBH’s Kirk Carapezza.

Pop culture seems to be a mainstay in these offbeat courses, using it to track sociology and human behavior, like “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” (Skidmore College), and other courses on Beyonce and Jay Z.

Some think that these courses are intellectually vapid and that students don’t take away anything, rather than time spent and credits earned. Traditionalists would rather the core still be taught, rather than looking at students as consumers, who they need to please and sell to through fluffy-sounding offerings.

Those who push for a newer way of learning, however, defend what students actually learn.

“How to analyze a text, how to understand an argument…,” said Epstein, noting that the students have to take those specific courses out of a fundamental interest rather than being forced to take certain courses.

Several colleges, including Amherst, are toying with featuring history courses based on the musical “Hamilton.” While that’s no “Wasting Time on the Internet” (Penn), “The Physics of Star Trek” (Santa Clara University) or “Street-Fighting Mathematics” (M.I.T.), so long as students are taking away something of value to their educational maturation, an open curriculum can work.

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