I don’t know about anyone else, but I have been dramatically sighing and staring out the window since middle school, and one of my best friends since high school falls asleep in class so much that it has become a defining part of his personality. Being unengaged in class is not about the time you are expected to focus, but rather how that time is being used.
In his op-ed, Cassius Rathbone argues that the Core is a burden to students, a burden borne primarily from the amount of class time allotted to foundational Core classes, specifically Literature Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, and Frontiers of Science. He claims that the two-hour time blocks are unrealistic for engaging students, as the average adult attention span is around 20 minutes. But Rathbone is looking at this from the wrong end of the telescope.
First, though, let’s get one thing off the table. The Core is, in fact, a challenging requirement. It is supposed to be. You either come to Columbia for the Core or in spite of it. When students accept a spot at Columbia, they do so with the understanding that they will essentially be completing two majors—one in the Core and one in their chosen field of study—while balancing extracurricular and student life activities.
Students falling asleep is not a question of class duration. If a student’s attention span lasts 20 minutes, that means that they will either be zoning in and out six times in a two-hour class or (with some generous rounding and accounting for sleep deprivation) four times in an hour-and-15-minute class. As a non-STEM major, I cannot account for the statistical significance between the two, but from my back-of-the-envelope calculations, I cannot see how two extra moments of losing focus make that much of a difference in a student’s class engagement time.
Dropping classes from two hours to an hour and 15 minutes would drop the amount of time per week that you spend on the material from four hours a week to two and a half. Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization in particular are classes based around discussion, rather than lecture. And if you’re only spending one week on Crime and Punishment, two-and-a-half hours a week is not going to be sufficient to understand the text at anything more than a cursory level. And before it’s even mentioned, the answer is not reading fewer books—the point of the Core is to get a broad understanding of major influential works and concepts to see how they are applied throughout other works.
If students are bored in class or feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they are being asked to absorb, that is a pedagogical problem. A great teacher can facilitate discussion, include many viewpoints, and keep the class engaged. If not all teachers are able to do that, then Columbia should be training them to do so. This is particularly important since most teachers are teaching the Core in addition to their other classes and independent research, and so may not be treating the material equally, which will inevitably be detrimental to students.
Many teachers in the Core also provide five- to 10-minute breaks to allow students to stretch, check their phones, ask a clarifying question, or, if you’re lucky enough to have class in Northwest Corner Building, sprint down to Joe Coffee. Instead of calling for shorter class times, why not call for mandated breaks in two-hour classes? This allows students to mentally detach from the material, which many studies show actually allows them to retain it better after a break.
Moreover, credit hours are based on the amount of time you spend in class a week. If you’re spending two-and-a-half hours a week in your Core class, well, that’s no longer a four-credit class. Fewer credit hours for mandatory core classes means that we will have to take more classes in a given semester to meet the minimum credit requirement, which would in fact be more detrimental to students attempting to schedule out their extracurriculars and off-campus jobs and internships.
I will concede that Rathbone’s comment on course flexibility is a legitimate one. I was forced to put off multiple classes until later in my college career because I prioritized staying in Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization sections that I really loved. But shortening class times will not allow for more flexibility—they are still mandatory classes which are restricted to a certain set of times. If flexibility is really such a concern, then the answer is to appeal to the registrar to make switching sections easier or to create more time slots for classes like Art and Music Humanities, which are traditionally harder to enroll in as an underclassman.
Like it or not, we all signed up for the Core when we came to Columbia, and at least for the foreseeable future, we are stuck with it. The goal of the Core is to allow us engage with the material, gain an understanding of where scholarship is at in our academic moment, and apply it to our own fields. Shortening the Core will only cheapen this experience.
It will take more than 20 minutes to fix the Core, and it certainly will take more than 20 minutes to engage with and absorb it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. In fact, that’s precisely why it is.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in English and officially no longer minoring in history. She thought she was done writing for Spec, but it turns out she had one (last?) piece in her. In case you couldn’t tell, she is a big fan of the Core and all it has offered her in her time at Columbia. She is a former deputy editorial page editor for columns, former columnist, and member of Alpha Chi Omega sorority.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.