Saturday, December 2, 2006

Friction Between Science and Humanities Students

At our institution the disparity in workload is obvious to everyone. The humanities core to all the degrees that we have means that the Science students are acutely aware of the lack of work and discipline that Humanities students can demonstrate and still pass their courses. The typical Science student, even one that just wants a 65% C grade, has a lab report and an assignment due each week in their Science courses. The incremental and cumulative nature of Science courses means that the student has to be constantly working at their courses even if they are doing poorly. The Humanities students on the other hand quite often do not attend their lectures and know that if they just pull a couple of "all nighters" they can get their C on the term paper and the final exam. This means that they can spend their time during the semester playing cards or groping their significant other in the Great Hall.

This stereotype truly bothers the Science students because they see it enough to believe the image. The truth is that these slacker Humanities students will often fail out of University, it is just that when they leave it is after a semester or two of relatively guiltless slacking off. The Science student that fails out however has been subjected to a corrosive sequence of failure that leaves them scarred and often ashamed of themselves.

It is one thing to not care, not work and be declared a failure. It is another thing entirely to actually try week after week and just not get it and then be told you are a failure.

That is the value of having Science buildings separate from the Humanities buildings. The students are not faced with the somewhat different ethos of other departments. The separation allows for a smaller, more homogeneous sub-community and more importantly a culture that values and encourages the week to week discipline. We do not have that luxury.

In addition to my Chemistry courses I teach a History of Science course and get Humanities students in that course mixed with my Science students. I have actually had students tell me that they were dropping my course even though they were completely happy with the course content but were unwilling to make a week-to-week commitment to the course. They expected to be able to serially focus on their courses.

It is true that for the top end of the class, no matter if it is a Science or Humanities course, the workload and ability of the student makes for a similar learning experience. The difference seems to be the learning experience of the average and below-average students. And that is where the bitter root truly begins to grow.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.