More on Coverage

There are some excellent comments in the thread for my post on lecturing and retention. The question seems to be: is coverage more important in fields with strong canons, and what’s the alternative?

My sense is this:

Physics has as strong a “canon” as any humanities field, so the issues of core curriculum seem as relevant there as anywhere for an intro-level course. I think it’s a balancing act. Students ought to be exposed to key authors and ideas in whatever field, and it’s not a matter of simply reducing us all to “critical thinking”; but I do believe each field, in addition to its particular texts and theories, offers students training in a way of thinking about the questions it poses. To me, that’s the jackpot. It’s a standard conceit of liberal arts education that our goal is to create free thinkers; that may be our goal, but it can only be accomplished through training people to think in a disciplined fashion. To use an analogy of musical improvisation: the best improvisers know their instruments inside and out and have mastered basic techniques, harmony, etc.

That said, most intro survey courses in the humanities are like smorgasbords, and I tend to think that the sampling is the thing here. They don’t have to remember or know everything (and you can’t control what they’ll remember), but my hope is that each student will leave with exposure to lots of ideas and having engaged seriously with a select few. So I simply try and include ideas worth remembering or thinking about.

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