Students, faculty debate value of gen-eds

By Emma Solak / Staff Writer

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Freshman Chad Boronky enrolled in Pitt’s College of Business Administration this fall to learn about information systems and supply chains. But now, in his second semester, he finds himself in a class about volcanoes and tectonic plates.

CBA has general education requirements for students, as do the rest of Pitt’s undergraduate schools and most universities across the country. According to the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ website, the goal is to provide liberal arts and pre-professional education for undergraduate students. However, some students at Pitt and other universities are dissatisfied with the gen-eds that the schools require them to take.

University committees, made up of Pitt faculty, decide gen-ed requirements and consider what students need to be successful members of society, according to Mary Beth Favorite, director of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences advising center. “It sounds cliché,” Favorite said. “But they consider giving the students a well-rounded education.”

The committees also consider what’s best for the students in their schools. For example, business students will have more specific math gen-eds than an Arts and Sciences student. 

“We don’t even consider [the math classes] gen-eds [for the business students],” Favorite said. “It’s just a core part of what they need for their major. Their gen-eds are more like literature and history.”

For the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, Favorite said, a committee of faculty, an undergraduate council of administrators, faculty and students, and a dean’s council all review the curriculum. According to the committee bylaws, the committees will hold at least two annual meetings in early October and late February. 

Faculty members also submit proposals for new gen-eds by the Nov. 1 deadline, Favorite said, and the undergraduate council reviews the proposals before the following summer and fall terms. 

In a 2007 study at James Madison University, researchers interviewed a group of two female and four male sophomore students from a variety of majors about their feelings on gen-ed requirements. The students responded that gen-ed classes were a repeat of high school classes, delayed the start of taking major-related classes and produced a low level of commitment in both students and faculty.

Students in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, Pitt’s largest school, with almost 11,000 full-time and part-time undergraduate students, must fulfill a wide variety of requirements. 

A writing requirement calls for an introductory class and two writing-intensive classes. Other requirements call for courses in literature, the arts, creative expression, philosophy, social science, historical change, three natural sciences, a sequence of two foreign language classes, three foreign culture/international courses, a non-Western culture and a formative or quantitative reasoning class. 

The quantity of subject requirements varies slightly by school, but according to Favorite, they try to keep the requirements similar so students can more easily transfer between schools. 

Still in his first year, Boronky found gen-ed requirements in the business school to be “frustrating,” he said, and hard to fit in his schedule. But the material could possibly, he thought, apply to his career path. 

“I could use it in my future, if I end up working for a company that deals with this subject,” Boronky said on Geology 0800. 

Boronky chose geology as his natural science requirement because it didn’t require lab work, and the course had a reputation among students of being an easily won ‘A.’ 

One reviewer on wrote it was a “Great way to get rid of a [Natural Science] gen-ed.” Another said, “easiest class ever.”

Wasi Mohamed ran for Student Government Board president last semester and campaigned to change the way students take gen-eds at Pitt by giving students more choice in what classes they are required to take.

After talking with students before running for Board president, Mohamed, a senior studying neuroscience, history and philosophy of science and religious studies, found many peers opted for easy classes to fulfill their gen-ed requirements. 

Consequently, Mohamed said the atmosphere of the gen-ed classes is “the polar opposite” of the classes in his major. Low attendance rates and minimal class participation from himself and his peers were some notable differences.

“If students hold this attitude when beginning a course, it is doubtful that the coursework will enhance the breadth of education offered at the University of Pittsburgh as intended,” Mohamed said in an email. 

Some students, like Clara Almy, enjoy the gen-ed requirements. 

Almy, who graduated in December with a degree in French language and literature, said she chose gen-eds that she found interesting, such as anthropology and political science. Those gen-ed classes led her to earn certificates in West European studies, gender studies and women’s studies and a minor in political science.

It’s not uncommon for gen-ed classes to introduce students to new interests, Favorite said, and prompt them to add on a certificate or minor that they weren’t initially pursuing.

“For example, if you’re interested in Spanish language and you have to take a historical change gen-ed, you could take history of Latin America and do a Latin American studies certificate,” Favorite said. 

Other schools, like Brown University, don’t require students to take any gen-ed classes. Instead, students are encouraged to pick whatever classes interest them while completing a minimum of 30 Brown courses.

If Mohamed had won the presidency, he said he would have implemented a plan similar to Brown’s.

Contrasting Mohamed’s experience with gen-eds, Almy said that she enjoyed receiving a well-rounded education from Pitt.

“I have all these little bits of knowledge, which is fun” Almy said. “I feel like I learned more in college because I had to take these random classes.”

However, Almy admits that not everyone shared her experience with gen-eds. 

“People are way less invested in [gen-eds],” Almy said. “I noticed, in big classes, people are just taking it just to get a C to get their gen-ed, and you can definitely tell who is actually the major, because they’ll participate and sit in the front.”

That doesn’t mean the students who aren’t taking the class for their major can’t benefit from it.

“Not all knowledge has to be something you are going to use specifically,” Favorite said.

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