Diamonds In The Rough: Distribution Requirements

by Andrew Sosanya | 5/16/18 2:25am

Degree requirements at Dartmouth can sometimes be a pain. Students must fulfill 10 distributives, fulfill a language requirement, pass an English class, First-Year Seminar and three courses that satisfy World Culture Requirements, complete physical education courses, and pass a swim test. These requirements form a basis for the liberal arts education that Dartmouth prides itself on. While these requirements can be tough, they can also be a blessing in disguise.

Distributives allow for a taste of what the world can offer its brightest minds. A liberal arts education strives to avoid the academic bubble in which students get entrapped when they specialize in a discipline. Distributives can help students discover a field they wouldn’t have stumbled upon normally, which could contribute to a new interest in a minor or even a major. Setting out into the world, students are equipped to tackle various problems, such as analyzing a scientific paper, writing a book or compiling research.

History and Native American studies major Rachel Kesler ’19 said that distributives have helped her become a critical thinker and have expanded her skill set.

“They really contribute to the Dartmouth education and the liberal arts model,” Kesler said.

Distributives allow students to look at information with different lenses. Kesler took Earth Sciences 6, “Environmental Change,” for her science distributive, and while it wasn’t a familiar history or Native American studies class, it has pushed her to become more well-versed in climate change and more involved with sustainability. According to Kesler, the class was incredibly accessible and not overtly suffocating, which allowed her to take in as much she could squeeze from it.

“I’m able to interact with climate change data much more thoroughly than before,” Kesler said.

Every year, Dartmouth hosts an incredible number of classes that are extremely popular with the student body. Classes like Computer Science 1, “Introduction to Programming and Computation,” and Government 5, “International Politics,” have been labeled by students as “must-take” classes that can shape one’s mind. Non-Recording Options also allow students to take the risk of enrolling in a course they have absolutely no knowledge of.

Students often find themselves in a situation in which they have major classes lined up and empty slots in their schedule. When computer science and math major Annie Ke ’19 took Computer Science 31, “Algorithms,” a notoriously mentally-taxing class, her sophomore year, she lightened the burden with a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies class and a comparative literature class. The mix of topics allowed her to switch gears frequently and switch modes of thought ­— which led to a more enjoyable, smoother term.­

“They provided me the relief I needed,” Ke said. “Comp Lit got me to look at characters as real humans and think about life reflecting back that way.”

For some students, distributives can also be a way to find refuge in a relatively easier course load. Relatively easy courses, colloquially known as “layups,” are often sought after to fill distributives. Students often consult the popular website Layup List, which allows them to gauge the difficulty of offered courses by looking at professor-tailored reviews and median trends. Ke said that she uses Layup List to vet all the distributives she wants to elect.

“What makes or breaks your experience is the professor,” Ke said.

After all, a wonderful professor teaching an unfamiliar subject can make the experience much more enjoyable.

Allison Chuang ’19, a computer science major, has taken almost all of the general education requirements she needs for graduation. If it wasn’t for the literature requirement, she wouldn’t have taken Classics 1, “Antiquity Today: An Introduction to Classical Studies,” a class that unexpectedly became her favorite non-major class. Among the distributive classes she has taken, the literature and social analysis classes have stretched her interests the furthest, extending them into literary criticism and psychology. She said her Dartmouth education would have been less impactful if she had only taken computer science classes.

“I’ve gotten to try random, different things here that have made my academic experience more enjoyable,” Chuang said.

During the spring of 2016, the faculty of arts & sciences voted to revise the current system of distributive requirements, maintaining the 10-course minimum but lowering the number of categories from eight to four broader ones. Although it approved these changes, the faculty overwhelmingly turned down a proposal to institute a new language requirement in which students, even those already fluent, must take a level three or higher language course. Chuang said that language requirements can make it harder to explore different disciplines.

“Three terms are a lot of your Dartmouth experience,” Chuang said. “Because there are only three classes a term, it limits what you can do.”

Distributives aren’t always a blessing in disguise. Some students like to take a pragmatic approach to their education, focusing solely on their interests and career preparations. Depending on a student’s goals, distributive requirements can delay major plans or make it harder for students to complete ambitious major plans. They may not even fit within the students’ interests. Physics major Alex Bailey ’18 said he could have learned some of the distributive topics by himself.

“Not all courses teach a lot of new and useful information,” Bailey said. “It feels like I can read a book and get the same amount of the course.”

What would a world without distributives look like? In that world, Bailey, who is going to work as a software engineer after graduation, hypothesizes that he would have become a computer science and physics double major or picked up a math minor if he didn’t have to complete his distributives.

Bailey enrolled in Dartmouth seeking to a demystify the disciplines that would be the most useful to him after Dartmouth. Although he had a blast on his language study abroad to Barcelona, he said that distributives have impeded him from taking more classes he was interested in. Bailey said that an optimal solution would be to keep requirements for each major but allow students the agency to explore outside their major for the rest of their credits.

“Students should have the ability to choose, and a liberal arts education would be better with options,” Bailey said.

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