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Ethan Tobias '12: A truly open curriculum

At the start of the fall term, many Brown students will have to make difficult decisions about which classes they plan on attending. Shopping period is an essential part of Brown's open curriculum, as it allows students to experience a multitude of classes before deciding which ones would be best to pursue. Unfortunately, much too often, shopping period fails to fulfill this crucial role.

The problem is that too many classes are offered in only one time slot, one semester each year. For example, both this year and last, BIOL0200: "The Foundation of Living Systems," the introductory biology course, was offered only at eleven o'clock spring semester. In 2007, the class's highly esteemed professor, Ken Miller '70 P'02, was on sabbatical, and a substitute teacher taught the class. A freshman interested in taking the class with Professor Miller would not have had an opportunity during his or her first year at Brown.

So, you might ask, what is the problem with taking the class sophomore year?

Well, on the one hand, if this student were to take the class sophomore year and find that he had a profound passion for biology, it would probably be too late to begin a concentration in the field.  If, on the other hand, that student were a political science concentrator who wished to explore other fields, he might miss this opportunity to take biology because POLS 1130, The American Presidency, is offered at the same time.  If that same student were to study abroad spring of junior year, it could well be spring of senior year before he has the opportunity to take biology, though that may yet be thwarted by the necessity to take a concentration requirement.

Sadly, this situation is not uncommon. When I was registering for classes for this fall, I was deeply dissatisfied by a scheduling conflict. BIOL0470: "Genetics," and NEUR1030 "Neural Systems," are taught at the same time. While I knew that I definitely did not want to take both classes at the same time, I was unsure about which one I would rather take. As a potential biology or neuroscience concentrator, my decision would have a large impact on the path I would follow. 

Perhaps if one had been a humanities course, I could stop and pick up a syllabus on my way to the second class. But these were both mid-level science classes, sure to begin intense coursework from the first lecture. There was no way I could risk missing something important. There had to be a better way.

Most of the work that a professor does for an individual class is preparation: making the slides or going through the readings.  The actual act of lecturing is pretty simple once all the background effort has been made. Therefore, it seems foolish that so many courses are only offered during one time slot for an entire semester. It would only take up a mere three additional hours a week of a professor's time to repeat lectures.  This trivial amount of extra work would be an enormous boon to students interested in exploring many fields.

Now, I am not ignorant that professors will not like to work extra hours. They will say that over the course of four years, conflicts will work themselves out and you will inevitably get to take the classes you desire. This is, however, a fallacy. The aforementioned political science concentrator might never be able to take biology. One goal of the open curriculum is to encourage students to explore different ways of thinking across many disciplines. If students are prevented from taking the classes they desire because of conflicts, the open curriculum has failed. This is especially problematic freshman and sophomore years, when students should be taking classes in many fields before finally declaring a concentration.

In the best interests of Brown students and professors, I propose a much less drastic solution than making professors teach an entire additional section. During shopping period, professors should teach an additional section or two, so that students can attend conflicting classes and make an educated decision as to which one they will continue with for the duration of the semester. This way, professors will only have to teach an additional section for two weeks at most, students will be able to make an unfettered decision about classes and Brown will move one step closer to keeping its promise of an open curriculum.

Ethan Tobias '12 is a biology concentrator from New York. He can be reached at ethan_tobias (at)


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