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Re: major-nonmajor

At 19:00 -0800 2/12/04, Wes Davis wrote:

When I was in college (back in the sixties), competing in general education
classes with majors in that field was the rule, rather than the exception.
I took a year of economics with economics majors, biology with biology
majors, English with English majors. I did not find it hard to compete.

I think it's a selective thing. It's pretty much only in physics and
maybe chemistry that special courses for non-majors are offered.
Although too many of these courses are just dumbed-down traditional
courses, I think a carefully constructed course that emphasizes the
cultural aspect of science in general and physics in particular is
more appropriate for non majors than a straight engineering physics
course, so courses like that are justified. In most other majors, the
ability to read English and to think clearly are just about the only
pre-requisite in an introductory course, so maybe it's less important
there. However, I wouldn't want to take an advanced-level course in
many topics without some preparation in that subject.

When I was in college (even earlier than that) we had a very popular
course that many people took to fulfill the "broadening"
requirements. It was called "music appreciation," and it had no
prerequisites listed in the course catalog. However, once you got
into the course you discovered that you were expected to be able to
read music. For those who could, this was no problem, but for those
of us whose music education had been slighted, we were in big
trouble. It was almost the equivalent of putting a student into
engineering physics with only an algebra background. There was also a
course in Shakespeare that expected you to know what all the arcane
words that Shakespeare uses in his plays meant. Not too many physics
majors signed up for that one, although the teacher was legendary,
and her courses were always full.

On the other hand, many course in the education school were so
trivial that the opposite problem occurred--instead of being so hard
that it was difficult to get a good grade without some prior
knowledge, they were so trivially easy (and grading was on a strict
curve, where the B/C division was at the class median score), that
class medians were so high that you could easily end up with a C even
though your average grade was in the high 90%s--even 96% or 97%.

Nevertheless, I do think that it isn't fair to non-majors to put them
in classes with majors in that subject, even at the introductory
level. It would be unusual for the major to not be clustered near the
top, meaning that most of the non-majors will have to be satisfied
with the rest of the grades. It's OK to teach essentially the same
course (although it shouldn't be *called* the same thing) as long as
the standards are not quite so high. That way, the non-majors will
get their course, the department will get to teach what they want to
teach, and no-one will mistake an A in the non-majors' course as
necessarily meaning the same thing as an A in the majors' course.

That seems like a fair solution to me.

Hugh Haskell

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