The costs and benefits of the distribution requirement system

  Colby is well-known for the unique opportunities it affords its students. For example, JanPlan was created in 1962 as a way for students to engage in studies that were nontraditional, such as classes outside their area of concentration or short internships. Since then, the 4-1-4 plan has inspired many other schools (including Bates, Williams, and the Rhode Island School of Design); but Jan lan is not the only opportunity Colby offers to diversify a student’s education. As a liberal arts school, Colby strives to provide its students with an education that not only prepares them for success in their chosen area of study but also provides familiarity with many other subjects. This manifests itself in the College’s distribution requirements.

Every student at Colby is required to take classes that fulfill the arts, writing, U.S. and international diversity, history, natural science, social science, quantitative reasoning, language, and literature requirements in addition to the classes they must take for their majors and minors. Some students believe that there are some requirements that are unnecessary. Others don’t mind taking these additional classes because through them they are introduced to interesting courses and topics.

Sophie Stokes-Cerkvenik ’19 has had the experience of taking a class solely to fulfill a distribution requirement. While classes taken in this manner could be seen as a distraction from major requirements, Stokes-Cerkvenik says that she’s glad she took it.  “I’m grateful, actually, that I took that class, because I feel like I learned a lot.” Though she says she’s not looking forward to taking a lab science, Stokes-Cerkvenik says she supports the distribution requirements. “The reason I’m at a liberal arts school is so I can get a liberal arts education. I think the distribution requirements help me achieve that.”

Biology professor Frank Fekete is also in favor of the distribution requirements. “Without these distribution requirements I think that the student might not be taking the breadth that she or he really needs to be considered a student of the liberal arts.”

Fekete has been at Colby for 33 years, and has been teaching his Microorganisms and Society class, which is a lab science course designed for non-Biology majors, for around 30. Fekete says that in this course, he connects microbiology with the students’ own majors to explain both domestic and global social issues. “The first lecture, when I go through the roster, I ask for their majors, and then I look for various current news items and articles that would best fit certain majors within the course… For example, this year we’re concentrating on Zika virus, not just in terms of the virology but also in terms of the social impacts, global impacts, impacts on religion, as well as the economic impacts.”

Fekete’s Microorganisms course is so popular with students that it is often overenrolled. This is one of the places where Fekete says there’s room for improvement. “I wish that there were a greater suite of courses, especially lab-based courses… What I’d like to see is that other majors within the natural science division can offer more of these, or that we can get from the college more faculty resources to help us teach these, and that’s not always an easy thing.”

Distribution requirements are also in place at other liberal arts schools, albeit under different names. Reilly Torres, a first-year at Occidental College, says their distribution requirements are in a Core Program, which includes Science/Mathematics, Language, and Culture and Fine Arts (which Torres says includes Global Connections, Regional Focus, U.S. Diversity, Pre-1800 History, and Fine Arts). Torres, like Stokes-Cerkvenik, says she doesn’t mind the requirements. “While I don’t love studying science or math, I understand the purpose of those requirements and it’s nice to have a science class in my schedule to balance out the more reading/writing intensive classes. The other culture requirements are broad enough that you can find a class from almost any department—history, film, American studies, critical theory, theater, sociology, psychology, etc.—that will fulfill a requirement. This gives students the freedom to study what they’re interested in while still ensuring they’ve learned about a broad scope of topics.” Torres also acknowledges a difference in the ease of fulfilling the requirements. Since she is more naturally interested in the humanities, she says most of the requirements fall within her interests. “People who study science might be more frustrated with the requirements because they have to sacrifice more space in their schedule to classes that won’t count towards their major and don’t appeal to their interests,” she said.

A course list that encompasses many topics is central to the liberal arts education, and though Colby’s distribution requirements may seem like a lot to fit in, they create opportunities for students to explore different subjects outside of their normal areas of study. Even the letters that may seem daunting can be fulfilled through engaging classes that incorporate many different areas of study, as evidenced by Fekete’s Microorganisms and Society course.

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