Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Weed Out Classes

The Incompetent Copier, over at Ethics and Ethos, has a post up questioning the value of "weed out" courses. Here is an excerpt:

We’ve all had those professors. The class huddles silently and fearfully together, trying their best to absorb the technical and often dull lecture, too intimidated to ask or answer questions. Exams are impossible, essays are graded as if they were professional papers, and more and more students disappear as the semester trudges onwards. Those with a legitimate interest in the subject, who put in the effort and complete all the work, are not rewarded for their efforts and are often discouraged from continuing in the course or the discipline. Worse yet, when they approach the professor for help (an extremely difficult task for anyone), they are often mocked and told to give up their academic or professional goals. This mockery can in no way be construed as friendly advice. The professor instead glories in his/her intellectual status, crushing the student out of sheer egotism.

Many professors cite the need to “weed out” those students who will not be able to advance in the field (this phenomenon seems to be concentrated in the sciences, although I’m sure it occurs in other areas as well). I’ve never understood this logic. There is no way you can look at a 19 year old, a teenager who hasn’t completed his or her mental development, and accurately predict the limits of his/her intellectual capability or interests. The goal of an undergraduate education is to explore different subjects, expand one’s mind, and find the courage to be creative and take intellectual risks. Instead of fostering intellectual confidence and creativity, however, “weed out” classes needlessly destroy the interests and ambitions of many bright people. Leave the intellectual hazing for graduate school, please.

Not only do these types of professors damage their students, they also hurt their fellow faculty members. Students end up putting disproportionate amounts of time into one or two courses, struggling to meet impossible expectations. They simply do not have the time or mental energy to focus on their other courses and as a result turn up to class exhausted, if they indeed show up at all instead of spending class in the library, frantically trying to complete the work for other courses. The professors who don’t have a death wish for all of their students, who try to encourage actual learning, often don’t get as much effort put into their courses simply because students don’t have time. This, I think, is quite a shame, for it is these professors that are the ones who inspire their students to wrestle with the material and mature intellectually. [Go read the rest of Death and Classes]
I can imagine some perfectly respectable arguments for "weeding out," i.e. not enough resources in the department to accomodate student interest. I also wonder where these students are sent? Which departments become homes to the students weeded out?

Since our little insiginificant corner of the blogworld has turned out some excellent discussions lately on pedagogy, I turn this over to you, dear readers. What, if any, is the value of the "weed out"?