Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Super Survey - An idea for a new kind of College Class

Super Survey is an idea generated by my somewhat eclectic college education but one that I think might have broad appeal.

I spent my freshman year at Kenyon College where I expected to be a biology major. I had placed out of Intro Biology by getting a good score on my Advanced Placement Biology test but somehow got shut out of the next biology class and so ended up taking Intro to Philosophy...and discovered that I loved it.

I transfered to Wesleyan University after freshman year and continued to take philosophy classes as well as computer classes. I spent a junior year semester at Goldsmith's College of the University of London. All in all I took classes in 14 different departments:

athletics (fencing)
political science

I got to thinking that most people didn't get the opportunity to take such a broad range of classes, or if they did it happened during senior year. I can't imagine only discovering my passion at the end of my college career.

Super Survey is the simple idea of having each class be the Introductory lecture of a different department. In a 3 day a week class with a 13 week semester you can exposed to 39 or so departments. The class would be pass/fail based on attendance so the effort for the students would be low. Each department only has to give one lecture so the effort for them would be low as well; though they have incentive to make it a good lecture.

The smaller departments have a special incentive to give a good lecture as they can almost always use more students. If a school has more than 39 departments they could ration participation in the class to give preference to the departments with lower enrollment

When I look at a course catalog I'm struck by the departments I never touched (at least undergraduate), at least that list is shorter than the list of departments where I did study:

art history
history (don't get me started on how badly we teach history, see * below)
linguistics (took post-grad)
physics (took post-grad)

* In Junior and Senior High School we studied the revolutionary war every year. We never studied any non-US history, and we never studied even US history after the revolution. I can tell you when the War of 1812 happened, and who the Spanish-American war was between, but that's about the limit of my knowledge. For a high end school system (Winchester, MA) that's pathetic.

When I tried to take history in college I found the classes to have a micro-focus such as "The Japanese Imperial Court from 1901-1902" (I'm not making up that title). I was looking for (and am still looking for) what I'd call Meta-History...what Jared Diamond writes about...the large scale sweeping trends of history.