January 8, 2010

Theory and practice

A new month-long term could offer practical, skills-based education

During classes this week, I learned such abstractions as the etymology of composition, the difference between a history and a civilization course, and even the philosophy of Pilates. I’m definitely back at the U of C, where theory reigns above just about anything else.

In general, I agree with the University’s focus on theory. Without a good dose of theory to wrap our minds around, many courses could not occupy three months without forcing us into bored distraction. Also, if courses didn’t have such challenging content, our incredible faculty would be virtually useless. Yet an exclusive focus on theory sometimes leaves us deficient in the realm of practice. I, at least, did not come out of high school equipped with every single concrete skill necessary to succeed in the future; however, I think I could acquire many of these skills in a month—if I didn’t have four other courses to contend with.

At MIT, Bates, and other peer institutions, students have the option to enroll in a month-long independent activities period, usually held in January, for exactly this reason. Called IAP (Independent Activities Period) or J-Term, these programs offer classes at a rate of around 60 dollars apiece. However, since RSOs and departments organize the majority of activities, prices may vary according to the initial cost of materials or instructors. Both credit and non-credit course offerings are available at MIT, and have included topics ranging from the undoubtedly hedonistic to the unquestionably pragmatic. This year, for example, MIT students may enjoy activities as diverse as public speaking, web design and development, heavy metal (the music genre), Stata, street photography, patenting, and single malt scotch whiskey. For those inclined to supplement their knowledge in more traditionally academic areas, special relativity, molecular neuroscience, and introductory foreign language courses are counted among dozens of intriguing seminars.

Why couldn’t we have a similar program spanning the middle of August to middle of September? You know, that strangely interminable period when your non–U of C friends have already left, your internship has ended, and you find yourself preemptively labeling notebooks weeks in advance?

We could. In the MIT model, departments, labs, RSOs, and individuals (students, faculty, staff, or alums) organize and sponsor some 650 offerings. At the U of C, we have no dearth of dynamic departments, innovative labs, or active RSOs. Over the past year and a quarter at the U of C, I’ve seen my Resident Heads cook wonders, my housemates exhibit incredible skills during Scav, and my professors lament (and then perhaps briefly override) the exclusion of their specializations in curricula.

A month-long independent activities period would provide all members of the University community with the opportunity to get beyond the Core and their majors and minors. It would give participants a chance to add skills to their résumés, indulge in otherwise neglected passions, or both.

A theory isn’t a good theory if it crumbles in practice (see: Kant or talking to your ex). As a time for experimentation and exploration, an independent activities period in the autumn would enable us to really evaluate our theories and to acquire the skills necessary to analyze them, defend them, and put them into practice. For funding, the Uncommon Fund, with coordination from ORCSA, seems like the ideal resource to finance a pilot version of this venture. What’s more uncommon at the U of C than practice?

— Liat Spiro is a second-year in the College.