I am in the process of trying to pick the courses I am going to take next semester, and I have found some general education requirement (GER) courses that fit in my schedule. However, I am having trouble deciding which GERs will not take too much of my focus away from courses in my major, so when I read Catherine Davis’s opinions piece about why Furman should allow us to pass-fail general education requirements, I had some thoughts to add.
Davis mentioned many great points: GERs cause undue stress because of their effect on GPA, they reinforce harmful standards that we need to be perfect at every task and topic we are given, and they can leave students feeling demotivated and unworthy. I would add that these issues also have a damaging effect on the way students choose GERs.
One of the six purposes of GERs is to “invigorate and stimulate intellectual curiosity.” For many students, however, their curiosity in new topics is stifled by fear of not being able to grasp the subject well enough to achieve an A in the class.
For example, I still need a TA (Analytical Interpretation of Texts) GER. There are many niche and interesting TA courses available next year, including a course about prison literature that caught my attention. I am intrigued by the prospect of being able to learn more about American prisons and the criminal justice system in an academic environment, but I also know that I could handle the intro level Texts and Meaning course much better. To protect my GPA, I get the feeling that I am going to end up taking the intro course instead.
I am not alone in this sentiment either — many other students behave the same way. I spoke to several students who explained that when choosing GERs they consider factors that indicate the difficulty such as Rate My Professor reviews, word of mouth about the course and professor, their own existing knowledge in the subject, and whether friends will also be taking the course. Josh Kemp, a junior classics major, even said "I prioritize figuring out the course's easiness or difficulty over genuine interest in the subject matter out of my concern for my GPA."
An argument could be made that students should choose to take courses outside of their major and GER requirements, but many students at Furman choose to combine multiple majors and minors, leaving them with no space in their schedule to take extra courses. For these students, GERs are their only opportunity to explore a new subject.
If Furman is serious about encouraging intellectual curiosity, it needs to remove the penalties that can occur when a student picks a GER course outside their comfort zone and then does not do well. Furman should support students who want to challenge themselves with unfamiliar subjects by changing their policy to allow students to pass-fail some of their GERs.