Limited Number of Humanities Classes Pigeonholes Students

Jackie Brant, Opinions Editor

Registration season is a stressful time for many students. We worry about when our registration slot will be, if we will get into the classes we need and, if we don’t, if we will be able to successfully navigate add/drop period.

As a first-year this spring, I had the second-to-last registration window. By the time I got to pick my classes, there was only one class with spots available in each of my majors, Philosophy and Politics, one of which required a prerequisite that I did not have. Though everyone reassures students that we can fix our schedules during add/drop, that consolation does not save us the stress of waiting months for add/drop over the summer. It also never guarantees that we will get our top-choice classes in the end.

It seems that, in general, humanities classes at Oberlin tend to fill up more quickly than the STEM courses. This is unsurprising, as only 21 percent of Oberlin’s graduates in the past three years majored in STEM fields. At my registration time, most of the STEM courses were still open, whereas there were a maximum of two open courses per department left in Philosophy, Politics, Sociology, Anthropology, History, Comparative Literature and English and no 100-level courses left in any department besides Sociology and History.

Humanities classes fill up quickly partly because of the basic requirements that all students must fulfill by graduation. These include the two writing requirements and the two “courses outside of maximal division”. For most humanities majors, the writing requirements are easily completed, as most upper-level humanities courses are considered writing-intensive courses. STEM majors, on the other hand, have a more difficult time fulfilling these requirements. According to the Oberlin course catalog, the only STEM courses that fulfill this writing requirement are one Physics lab course, a Geology course and a handful of Biology and Chemistry courses, most of which are 300- or 400-level.

This is a problem for STEM majors who are seeking to knock out their writing requirements. Often, STEM majors try to efficiently fulfill both their writing requirements and their courses outside of maximal division requirement simultaneously, leading them to take 100- and 200-level courses in humanities departments. Additionally, students who are on the pre-med track must take two English courses, as most medical schools require this. This ultimately results in non-majors overcrowding these lower-level humanities courses, particularly in departments like Art History and Cinema Studies, in which a single class is the primary introductory course for both intended majors and students who only want to sample the subject.

One might argue that this overcrowding cuts both ways because humanities majors must complete two QFR requirements and two courses outside their maximal division. Unlike the humanities courses, however, almost all STEM courses count as a QFR requirement, allowing humanities majors to easily fulfill these two requirements simultaneously. Furthermore, the STEM departments offer a few half courses that help satisfy requirements for non-STEM majors. These half courses, such as Physics 051, Physics 052 and Economics 099, have the benefits of being short, typically having pass/no pass grading and being predominantly filled with non-STEM students. As a result, they are easy for humanities majors to get into and offer alternatives to difficult introductory STEM courses.

The humanities departments offer some courses like these as well — a few Dance and language courses, a Creative Writing course and a Politics course — but none of these fulfill the writing intensive requirement that many STEM majors are looking to knock out. This makes those half courses a less compelling option than the 100- and 200-level courses that do satisfy requirements for STEM majors.

The disparity between the number of courses offered in STEM departments and the number of courses offered within most humanities departments is a glaring issue. In the Fall 2017 catalog, there are over 13 Biology courses, 10 Chemistry courses, 11 Neuroscience courses and 10 Computer Science courses offered, including different sections of the same course. Meanwhile, there are only eight Philosophy courses, seven Sociology courses and nine Anthropology courses. Some notable exceptions are the English, History and Politics departments, which offer a number of courses that are more proportional to the STEM options. However, at a college where 79 percent of graduates in the past three years were non-STEM majors, this balance in course offerings is insufficient.

One solution is to expand some humanities departments to include more lower-level courses. Many humanities departments, such as English, only offer one or two 100-level courses. If these departments with limited 100-level classes were expanded to include a few more introductory or half courses, STEM majors seeking to fulfill their requirements or other students hoping to explore a new field would have more options. This would leave more spots open in higher level courses for humanities majors to fill.

Currently, humanities departments are working on expanding their courses for the Fall 2017 semester, according to the Office of the Registrar. Philosophy in particular is looking to add a couple more classes, according to Professor Tim Hall, and other departments are also looking to expand their course selection. Hopefully, this will help the situation in the short run, but only the permanent addition of more introductory and humanities half courses will address the problem in the long term.