Several weeks ago in my Philosophy of Race and Gender class, a discussion erupted on the curriculum taught at the UofA. Several of my classmates expressed their frustration at the limited selection of the philosophy courses offered by the department. I myself experienced the same issue when searching for classes relating to queer and feminist philosophy, ony to be met with the same classes teaching the same few philosophers. While this is in part due to gaping holes in the academic canon, the UofA could use this shortcoming to take the opportunity to listen to students and offer courses that interest them.
One easy solution is to simply survey UA students. Much like the course evaluations done at the end of the semester, students could fill out surveys indicating which topics they would like to see covered in their department’s courses. This is a simple solution that could be very effective at providing students with courses that more closely match their interests.
Furthermore, it would be hugely beneficial to form committees of students who would act as intermediaries between the student body and the professors. The goal would be to combine the expertise of the professors with the interests of the students to formulate a curriculum that better caters to the interests of the students.
At first blush, this collaboration appears to be an enormous amount of work for very little pay off, but that is not the case at all. Many departments offer special topics classes, which allow professors to teach topics they find especially interesting. While this is a good first step, there are far too few of these classes.
Because they are typically fairly small, there are not enough seats to go around. On top of this, with the way the current enrollment system is set up, honors students with priority registration have a huge advantage over everyone else. This gives the average student a fairly slim shot at getting into a special topics class.
If more special topics classes were included in the UA curriculum, not only would enrollment opportunity even out, it would become easier to take students’ interests into account because there would be more courses specifically allocated toward doing so. Ultimately, involving input from students would also allow these classes to appeal to larger numbers.
By giving students the opportunity to express their inclinations in what they are taught, they will be more likely to invest in their education. By virtue of simply going to college, students have already demonstrated a commitment to their education, but if the UofA gives them an opportunity to study topics that cater specifically to them, the drive to excel will intensify.
An interesting example of this is the Honors College. Presumably knowing that students will engage in topics they find interesting, the college is offering classes on “Harry Potter,” female criminals and the history of opioid use. While this is all well and good for honors students, interesting classes should not only be the privilege of a chosen few.
Allowing students to get involved with formulating the curriculum will not only allow them to have further agency in their education, it will also push for greater diversity in the academic canon. After all, our student body looks very different from the way it did when the UofA was founded. Unfortunately, the courses it teaches, particularly in the humanities, have not kept pace with these changes. With the few exceptions of special topics classes, the academic canon of the humanities is overwhelmingly white and male. If students are given a chance to give input in the curriculum, there could be a push for courses to reflect students’ academic interests, which would likely lead to a diversification of the topics taught at the UofA.
Finally, by revamping the way the curriculum is formulated, the UA core requirements could be turned into classes that students find more useful within their chosen majors. Biological Anthropology is an excellent example of this. It provides a wide but shallow overview of the biological components of human evolution, but frankly I did not learn anything in that class that was pertinent to my majors, English and philosophy, and the class also constituted my lowest grade of the semester.
I understand the desire to produce well-rounded graduates, and I do think that is a good thing. That said, making a one-size-fits-all curriculum is the least effective way to so. I took so little away from Biological Anthropology because it was not at all interdisciplinary. I would be much more interested in a class that discusses human evolution and communication, or perhaps the differences in art and expression from an anthropological perspective. This would be a much more useful, not to mention interesting, class for students going into the humanities.
Offering classes that students have communicated interest in is an easy way for the university to invest in its student body. While some of these changes are easily made, others may take a bit more leg work, but if a little work is all that is necessary for students to get an education they are passionate about, the payoff will be well worth it for everyone involved.