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Ask a Chemist

Geoff Hutchison ’99 is answering chemistry questions for the local paper in Ithaca. He offers to answer ours as well. Do you have any questions for Geoff? Here are mine:

1) Is percholate really that dangerous?

2) Are you as embarassed as I am about the pathetic gut courses that the chemistry departments offers? I am especially dismissive of Chemistry for the Consumer in the Twenty-First Century.

By the way, my solution to the problem of gut science courses at Williams is actually simple. Departments should only be allowed to offer courses that earn credit for the major.

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#1 Comment By M. Esa Seegulam On August 23, 2005 @ 10:18 am

Well Mr. Kane, the chemistry major courses at Williams are notoriously difficult and invariably come with a lab component (apart from the occasionally offered Toxicology and Cancer). Unless someone were pre-med, -engineering, -grad school etc, I can’t see anyone outside of these narrow confines ever even thinking of taking a chemistry course such as those. So I would have to disagree with you on only allowing departments to offer courses that earn credit for the major. If that were the case, most non- Div 3 folks would probably never see the inside of the science center. Of course the flip side of that would be to make chemistry major courses less difficult, but it would be easier to have the college initiate room service in dorms than for that to happen.

#2 Comment By frank uible On August 23, 2005 @ 10:46 am

Isn’t a liberal arts curriculum supposed to be broadening? Isn’t making it extremely difficult for students to take courses for which they do not have much preparation or apparent bent restricting rather than broadening?

#3 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On August 23, 2005 @ 11:44 am

Add me to the list of fans of gut courses. I took Astro 101 and 102 and got A’s in them — in fact, a higher grade than my roommate, Dan Muzyka, who ultimately was an Astrophysics major.

Because I did well, Prof. Pasachoff hired me as a Teaching Assistant in Astronomy — even though I pointed out I was majoring in History — and I had a grand time giving planetarium shows and grading Astronomy test papers from time to time. Without an Astro gut, that enjoyable section of my life wouldn’t have occurred.

Meanwhile, Dan is now Dean of the Business School at the University of British Columbia. So his training in astronomy now has about as much relevance to his current life as mine. He took it as a required course for the major, I took it as a gut, and I think we both still enjoy astronomy as an added dimension to our life.

#4 Comment By Mike E On August 23, 2005 @ 12:28 pm

I partially agree with David, namely where he points out the value of core courses at Williams, and the idea that more people should be taking these classes, because they are excellent. (If I can claim that he points this out.)

However, there are things worth learning in non-major classes that don’t get taught in the core curriculum. Many professors love most to teach these courses — and think these courses should become additions to the core. (Probably every department would like the major to be about 14 classes, not 9 or 10.)

Of course, there may be genuine fluff courses out there. However, I can tell you for sure that Prof. Cox would have liked Oceanography to be part of the Geo core, the same as Prof. Wobus with Petrology — and that neither course was when I attended Williams, but not for love or rigor on the part of the Prof. So, call me another fan of non-major courses, because often they are as good as for-majors courses.

On a different note, if students were not so (justifiably) worried about bad grades screwing up their GPAs and chances of getting into law school, etc, then people might actually take a Chem course where they got a 70% grade and feel like they got something good out of it. Call that the environment, however, and not the quality of the courses.

#5 Comment By Mike E On August 23, 2005 @ 12:32 pm

PS — David, I can’t think of many classes cannot in some way be counted towards the major of the department in which they are offered, or in an allied department. Most count as electives. (Call me out here, current Ephs, if this is not true.)

#6 Comment By Loweeel On August 23, 2005 @ 1:46 pm

Well, as a TA for “Physics of Sound”, I was appalled by the lack of effort that most the students put in for some extremely simple material that required, at most, regular class attendance, basic algebra, and no more than a few snippets of trig.

The other solution, of course, would be to go to a credit system, or at least weight the # of courses by the amount of time they took up. It always irked me that intro physics (whether major sequence or pre-med), along with the lab component, counted as much as my freshman roommate’s “Thinking and writing about TV” freshman english course. I think that 5 of those is equivalent to 3 lab science classes, or 4 regular classes. And I’m not even considering the poor Orgo kids who have tons and tons of labwork in addition to lectures…

Also, having TA’d for the premed physics classes as well as the major sequence ones, I really don’t see any reason to combine those. One essentially teaches for the MCAT, the other as a foundation for the major… and the groups had pretty much diametrically opposed attitudes towards the material. The premeds (usually juniors) cared almost exclusively about the answer and their grades and had compulsively neat labwork and homeworks, whereas the major sequence kids (almost exclusively freshmen) cared much more about getting the gist of the idea. Mixing the two groups in one class would NOT be a good idea…

#7 Comment By Ronit On August 23, 2005 @ 3:43 pm

Lowell, I agree that a credit system would not be a bad idea – higher level courses in a major would count for more than a lower level or gut course. But I don’t think you can make any general comparison across disciplines. Some people find intro English hard, others find Physics quite easy. You’re less likely to fail in intro English, but you’re also far less likely to get an A+. This doesn’t tell us anything about the mean difficulty. You’d have to do a thorough longitudinal study of student expectations, grades, and work-level for each department.

#8 Comment By Diana On August 23, 2005 @ 5:34 pm

Rather than relying on specific examples — “Some people find intro English hard, others find Physics quite easy” — you can average over many students and find the general trend. The bubble sheets that we fill out for each class at the end of each semester provide a way to do this, which in fact the college used in their report on varsity athletics to find the easiest courses and the most difficult courses. To use this to grant credits, you could take amount of time spent working for the class, how difficult they thought it was, and what grade they thought they would get as indicators.

#9 Comment By Loweeel On August 23, 2005 @ 6:13 pm

Ronit, I’m not suggesting credits based on something as subjective as the inherent difficulty of the course.

My argument is that certain courses — particularly lab sciences — require much more class time (at minimum a 3 hr lab every other week) than intro English courses that the value of the course and the number of other courses that a student should have to take in a given semester should reflect that disparity.

Whereas an english class would be 150 mins/week of lecture, the science class has 150 of lecture and 90 of lab on average, making 240 mins just for class, not counting homework, writeups, or assessing the difficulty of the course.

Especially for those juniors/sophomores taking multiple lab science classes, how is it fair to count their 2 lab classes the same as 2 classes without a lab? They’re getting more for their money, obviously, but they’re still required to take a courseload which, while requiring the same number of classes, results in a substantially larger amount of time required in class by those science students.