As Gen Ed Transitions, Unexpected Courses Fulfill Requirements

This fall, some students found a welcome surprise when they opened their advising reports: “Sciences of the Physical Universe,” the General Education requirement traditionally satisfied by courses like SPU 12: “Natural Disasters” and Astronomy 2: “Celestial Navigation,” was suddenly fulfilled by introductory statistics and computer science courses.

This change in the categorization of some classes—which allowed students who had previously enrolled in massive lecture courses like Computer Science 50 “Introduction to Computer Science I” or Statistics 104: “Introduction to Quantitative Methods” to satisfy their SPU requirement—is the byproduct of a transition to a new General Education system set to take full effect in the fall of 2018.

“I think most [students] are extremely pleased and finding out ‘Oh, look, I fulfilled a few more than I realized I did,’” said Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Stephanie H. Kenen.

First Day of CS50
Hundreds of students crowd Sanders Theatre for the first meeting of CS 50: Introduction

Approved in March 2016, the new Gen Ed program mandates that students take four courses in newly defined Gen Ed categories, as well as three distribution requirements across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a “quantitative facility” course. The Faculty voted to overhaul the program after a 2015 FAS report deemed that the current Gen Ed system was “failing on a variety of fronts.

According to Kenan, the General Education program has adopted a hybrid approach in which General Education courses can be fulfilled through both old and new requirements. Students have benefitted from this ambiguity, finding that some courses that did not previously fulfill General Education requirements suddenly did.


“The flexibility is the trade off for the uncertainty,” she said. “[Computer Science 50] doesn't actually fulfill SPU. It will fulfill the Science distribution requirement and there's no place to track that now. So basically, the spirit of the new requirement is being fitted into the old requirements.”

Harvard has also extended the more generous fulfillment standards to the College's Class of 2018, who will not be affected by the future policy. The Registrar’s Office is currently on track to fully transfer to the new General Education system for the 2018-2019 school year.

Students aren’t the only ones caught in Gen Ed limbo—professors, too, must prepare for the switch. Science of Living Systems 20: “Psychological Science,” for instance, which currently is a Gen Ed course, may have to move into the psychology department as “introductory psychology,” according to Kenen.

Fiery A. Cushman, who teaches PSY 15: “Social Psychology,” which currently counts towards Science of Living Systems as well, said that roughly one third of polled students in his class indicated they wouldn’t have taken the course if it didn’t count toward Gen Ed. Still, Cushman said he doesn’t plan on modifying his course to fit the new Gen Ed categories.

“If it turns out the content fulfills a Gen Ed requirement, I’m going to be delighted,” he said. “If it turns out that it doesn’t, I’ll keep teaching Intro to Social Psych.”

Dean of the Arts and Humanities Robin Kelsey said that he hopes the new Gen Ed program will make it clearer to students why certain classes are classified as Gen Ed.

“I think the program is moving in an exciting direction,” Kelsey said. “The emphasis on unsettling the assumptions that students come to Harvard with is a good way to distinguish that program.”

Despite the approaching transition, questions remain about one aspect of the new General Education system. After substantial opposition from professors last spring, the Faculty have yet to approve a “quantitative facility” requirement, which would replace the current Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning requirement.

“We will be implementing and interpreting a broad set of requirements for fulfilling that requirement until there is a replacement,” Kenen said. “As it is now we are accepting all Mathematics courses, all Statistics courses and all Computer Science courses.”

—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.

–Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.


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