I’m a big fan of analogies. This isn’t usually a problem, but my mind sometimes works in ways that others can’t always understand, rendering my analogies nearly useless and incomprehensible. My sophomore year, I took an Education class, and on one of the last days, we drew a portrait of the person sitting to our left and then hand them the portrait. Sarah, to my right, drew “Analogy Girl,” complete with a Superman-style cape.
So it’s a pretty well-established thing that my analogies tend to be prolific and, frankly, not always understandable. So while I’d like to talk about distribution requirements today, I’m going to talk about the facts first, and then tell you a story involving, yes, an analogy, which you’re free to not understand.
If you come on a tour here at Haverford or sit in on an info session, or even just peruse the website, you’ll see that we have a distribution requirement. There’s a few standard responses to this discovery: “Huh?” and “Ugh!” I’d like to try to handle both of those, in order.
First, it’s not so confusing after all! Rather than require you to take specific core classes, we ask that you take a few of a certain kind of class. Three humanities (English, languages, Classics, comparative literature, etc), three social sciences (history, political science, anthropology, etc), and three natural sciences (physics, chemistry, math, etc). One of those sciences should be a quantitative class. Take one year of a foreign language (but you can pass out with a good test score), a freshman writing seminar, and write a senior thesis. And that’s it! You can graduate!
It seems like a lot, but it really isn’t. I finished at the end of my sophomore year and I wasn’t even really trying. I think there’s two intrinsically awesome things about the distribution requirement (here’s the rebuttal to the “ugh!” argument).
First, it’s a way to satisfy your natural curiosity. Ever dream of taking astrophysics and learning about the universe but find yourself completely unable to even balance your checkbook? You’re in luck. Without a distribution requirement, there would be no reason for an institution to offer science classes for non-science majors. WITH the requirement, we do offer these classes! My sophomore year I took such a class: Astronomical Ideas. It was taught by a regular professor, who gave zero indication that teaching this class, specifically for non-science majors with little to no math and heavy on the qualitative learning, was at all a burden. She was enthusiastic, and really wanted us to have a passion for the material. And she’s cool, to boot: she’s got a galaxy named after her–and not just any old galaxy, an invisible galaxy! No really. Look up Willman 1! (Wonder how you’re supposed to discover an (invisible) galaxy? After taking the class I can tell you all about it! I can also tell you about the cycles of the moon and three reasons why Pluto’s not a planet. Too cool, unless you’re my friends and you’re sick of hearing about the moon three years later).
Or, maybe you’re a science major and can’t fathom taking an upper-level history class though you’re really curious about the origins of the societal order we have today. Try “History of Science” which will chart the discovery of all the biggest breakthroughs in science for the last 500 years. That’s another class that wouldn’t be offered without a distribution requirement.
But there’s another reason to take a wide array of classes. As my freshman adviser told me on one of my first days on campus, it just makes schedule sense! For example: as a political science major, I could take four classes in my major, but I’d just read and write and read and write and eventually go mad. How about classes that are relevant to a political science major but which have problem sets and tests to balance your schedule? Freshman year I did just this: political science and classics, but also economics and French. Perfectly balanced. Last semester I took three seminars in my major, read 400 pages per week, wrote 90 pages of final papers, and went mad. I really wished I’d continued to listen to my adviser.
So, hopefully those two reasons are enough to convince you of the awesome of the distribution requirement. I have a newfound appreciation for it, after such a major-heavy semester. (Here’s where the analogy kicks in).
I spent winter break detoxing from all that political science, and decided I needed to spend this last semester taking a wide array of classes–taking a truly liberal arts schedule for the first time in a few semesters. In retrospect, I’d describe it a little like biology. You know when you just need something biologically and your body knows this and signals to you and you end up acting properly but doing so unconsciously? I’m thinking about how eating ice is a symptom of anemia–figure that out, and you’ve diagnosed a serious issue! Or how you can’t die from lack of sleep–you’ll just fall asleep! (Have I lost you already?) My point is that this sort of felt like my brain telling me what it needed: not enough liberal arts–register for a variety of classes next time.
So this semester I’m taking philosophy and calculus! If you don’t know me at all, I’ll tell you the last math I took was five years ago (discounting stats which, somehow, doesn’t seem to count), and that I’ve been dividing when I should be subtracting. It’s pretty much a sitcom waiting for a station to pick up the storyline.
I actually had a bit of a debacle last week when I discovered that I don’t currently have enough credits outside my major to graduate! EEK! I’m not particularly proud of this–I like to think of myself as a well-rounded person who’s interested in a lot…but who ends up taking a lot of political science despite herself. This is more of my biology theory! I somehow subliminally knew that I needed to be branching out, and did so just in time.
In case you’re worried, my adviser said he had never heard of this happening to anyone in his entire time at Haverford–which just makes me feel worse about it, but should be very mollifying to anyone who’s worried about the distribution requirement.
So where are we? We’ve learned about the distribution requirement and why it’s awesome. We’ve learned that my analogies are not, in fact, decipherable by mortals. And we’ve learned that it’s really hard to not fulfill your distribution, even if you’re not focused on it and if you’re not trying. And, if you run into a problem like I did (though, for the record, I got my distribution done with no problem; it was the “out of major” requirement I had a harder time with), the Deans will be more than happy to make time to meet with you and help you out–I can’t say enough about the support I’ve had in the last week.
I’ll keep you all apprised of how calculus goes this year, and look out for the storyline on your TV next fall. ‘Til then, to appropriate what my professor says, “study perspicaciously!”