Semi-electives: a university paradox

For the BA degree in linguistics, me and my classmates are required to choose some courses from outside of the core linguistics curriculum. This is, in theory, a good thing – it gives undergraduate students a chance to see what’s going on in other departments, and particularly gets us acquainted with some fields related to our own. However, these semi-electives are simply the introductory modules that students in other programs take in their first semesters; this can cause a lot of frustration.

Over the past days, I spent several frustrating hours doing homework in such a course. I remember seeing what must have been the same frustration in students from outside of linguistics in the introductory courses I’ve taken and the one in which I tutored. I think this frustration is an indirect result of the Bologna Process, which creates a basis on which courses from different departments, universities, and countries, across Europe, are evaluated for accreditation. The problem, I think, is that it’s very hard to evaluate a course and the effort that goes into it outside of context.

Understandably, when designing courses, faculty is focussed mostly on training the next generation of scholars in their field. A certain number of students are accepted for each course from outside the field (let’s call them “outsiders”), but they are almost always evaluated in the same way as students from within the field (“insiders”) and, as a result, are supposed to do the same coursework. A part of preparing a future generation of scholars – at least as the Institute for Linguistics and some others seem to view things – is to present beginners with a large amount of hard work so that they can either quickly jump in, or figure out that they chose the wrong field and switch (or leave altogether). However, the motivations, abilities, and interests of outsiders are very different from those of insiders.

In my first semesters, I was in the process of falling in love with linguistics, and this meant I was eager to understand course material and to acquire any new skills helpful for coursework, even when this was difficult. As such, it didn’t terribly bother me that the linguistics modules were tough, or that they required a lot of homework and self-study. I was trying to enter this new world of thoughts, terminology, and ideas, so I wasn’t irked by the fact that I was required to do so. The module that’s frustrating me right now is supposedly a very small one, composed of just one course, in a field I’ve always had some familiarity with and which I find interesting, but which I’ve never been deeply into, nor have any intention of making my professional home. The homework is gruelling, even though I only have to do it every other week, and every single time I find myself kind of furious about it. Yes, I chose this module, but out of a rather narrow set of alternatives, and I have to complete it in order to earn my degree. It may be cast as a choice, but it’s really a requirement.

As I hinted above, I think the problem is a mismatch between the goals and motivations involved in creating the course and those of (some) individuals taking them. When I take an introductory module in linguistics, I am doing so as part of a bigger commitment I’ve made to the field as a whole. I know that if I find the field isn’t right for me after all, I can start an entirely different degree, but I’m willing to accept some parts along the way that I’m not crazy about, since I’m committed to the whole. It also helps that I’m surrounded by a group of people in the same situation. Now, when I’m taking an introductory module outside my field, I naturally approach it in a very different way. The little part is the whole. I’m probably interested in some aspects of the material, but I’m there basically because I need the ECTS points. I’m looking for the interesting things, but the nature of introductory courses dictates that much of what you learn is merely scaffolding for later courses, where the real fun comes. That scaffolding, which could be exciting if I planned to build on it, becomes a terrible chore when I have no reason to expect to ever use it again.1 As a result, the whole experience becomes one of jumping through hoops, often taking shortcuts, if for no other reason then because there are so many other things I am more interested in doing with my time. And to make things worse, I have no idea who of the many people taking the module is in the same situation, and who is there for the long haul.

All of this would be okay if, say, I merely had to attend the course, with the option of doing homework and taking the exam if I want to get feedback. But module credits are awarded for completing tests, usually written exams.2 And in this case, the lecturer only lets you take the exam if you got at least 50% of the points for homework assignments throughout the semester. But the course is not designed for us outsiders – it’s designed for the insiders, who have made a long-term commitment to the field, have a reason to try hard to get good at it, and have a peer group to help them out. The difficulty of assignments and exams is calibrated for them, not for us. As a result, the semi-elective often becomes the most taxing and frustrating module of the semester, even though you “merely” have to pass.

I’m not really sure what could be done about this. I don’t think it would make sense to ask lecturers to go well out of their way to accommodate the small group of outsiders. I do think it’s good that undergraduates get a peek into other disciplines, but I’m not sure that it should be a degree requirement. And as long as it’s a degree requirement, it is understandable that the university wants to make sure people actually take the courses, hence the exams etc. It’s not clear that there’s any real way out of this situation.3

If anyone has any perspective to add, please leave a comment.


  1. This expectation may be wrong – you never know where things could come in handy – but it seems, at the very least, highly unlikely that I’ll ever need it again; I can’t help but see it as a chore, rather than a means to an end. []
  2. I’ve written before about why exams are bad. []
  3. This kind of problem is, of course, only a problem in institutions which do not fundamentally trust students to take responsibility for their own education. I believe, as with school-level education, that this is not a good design feature for an educational institution. But it would be a mistake to think that universities are mainly educational institutions. Their primary social function is rather accreditation – giving people a stamp of approval so others will allow them into some prestigious jobs and social functions. They educate only as much as they can get away with, unfortunately. And so we are left with the clash of the wish to create some inter-disciplinary cross-pollination, the need to rigorously introduce newbies into your field, and the need of the system not to give away accreditation too easily. []

2 thoughts on “Semi-electives: a university paradox”

  1. Re your comment “I have no reason to expect to ever use it again,” see Steve Jobs’s famous story about calligraphy:
    “Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

    “NONE OF THIS HAD EVEN A HOPE OF ANY PRACTICAL APPLICATION IN MY LIFE (caps mine, SLS). But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.” I realize there’s a difference between dropping in on an interesting course you don’t think is practical, and being forced to take a course you are neither interested in nor think is practical.
    And on the purpose of a college education, I recommend the following recent New Yorker piece on the subject:

  2. I totally agree, as I noted in the footnote – it’s entirely possible that the very things I see as chores right now could end up being of central importance later on. The point is that when you’re forced to do such things and have neither interest in them nor expectation of using them later, it’s hard not to think of them as chores.

    I’ll read the New Yorker piece this evening, thanks.

Comments are closed.