Rethinking the Arts and Science Curriculum

Every 15-20 years, the College of Arts and Sciences evaluates and revises its curriculum. Last week, I attended a focus group discussing potential changes in the upcoming revision.

Currently, classes are categorized into KCM (Knowledge, Cognition and Moral Reasoning), CA (Cultural analysis), HA (Historical analysis), SBA (Social and Behavioral Analysis) and LA (Literature and the Arts).  We’re required to take 5 classes, satisfying atleast 4 of these categories. In addition, we have to take atleast one class focusing on non-European/north American geographies and one before the 1800s.

The alternatives we were presented with were:

1) Columbia style core
All undergraduates would be required to take classes focusing on foundational literary and philosophical texts and study art and music. While I am very attracted to that curriculum(perhaps so I won’t look like an idiot when I don’t recognize some famous Rembrandt painting), it seems to overlook pretty much all that’s not in the western canon. The elitism of western knowledge and art is what attracts me to this kind of core curriculum but it’s also what I am trying to overcome.

2) Cross Disciplinary Problem Solving
Classes focus on breadth and teach the multiple disciplines required to understand the central topic. For instance, a class on climate change might include anything from geography, global  development and politics, ethics and environmental chemistry to statistical analysis. Ideally, they would teach more professionally useful skills, while being true to the liberal arts. These sound very similar to the cross-disciplinary University courses currently offered. While they’re all very interesting, these courses are often not rigorous and are treated more like grade-booster courses. Modern curricula are moving away from being subject-less, to being topic-focused, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to approach the liberal arts.

I’ve confessed my commitment to the liberal arts several times on this blog. At the focus group, there were other equally passionate Arts and Science students. We shared our experiences and discussed the options proposed. If there wasn’t a time limit and if I didn’t have a class afterwards,  our group could have discussed the matter for hours. At the end, I left content with the current curriculum and also the fact that the college involved interested students at various levels in the revision committee and process.

A PE Class a Semester

During my very first pre-enroll in classes, I spent a lot of time on the Physical Education listings. Over a hundred classes are offered in nearly every sport/physical wellness each semester. I had never learnt to swim, so my first semester, I took beginning swimming. The next semester, I tried to take a yoga and meditation class called “Meditation and Relaxation” and utterly failed at it. The classes were on Tuesdays from 4-5:30pm, which was right before most of my evening prelims or project deadlines that semester. I’m still made fun of for failing a class on relaxation.

Sophomore year, I took meditation, and passed. I had to make up for my previous failure. Then I tried to take 8o’clock rock which is a essentially a morning workout class. Forget working out in the morning, I couldn’t even consistently wake up at 8 with my sophomore year CS major workload and late nights.

We only need 2 PEs for graduation, and since I had those, I decided to forget about the PEs. As a senior, I now have the luxury of taking a relatively light courseload and so I also took a PE called “Bootcamp”, which is a military style physical training class that meets twice a week for 1.5hours in the morning. I was also afraid that if I don’t find discipline to be physically fit while in college, I never might!

In Bootcamp, as the class description already warned us, the instructor pushes us hard (within safe limits) in strength and cardio training. I was in poor shape going into the class but by week 6, I was able to run 3 miles (in a timeframe I am still embarrassed of though) and do a decent number of push-ups. However, the hardest part of this class is not the workout itself. It is going to bed on time so I can get up in time for class, eating well so my body can keep up with the heavy workout, making sure I’m hydrated and showing up even when the weather is dreary. It has been a rewarding experience so far.

My very last pre-enroll at Cornell just passed and I made a long list of PEs I want to take. Ofcourse, I can’t take them all, so I only signed up for two. And that adds one more item to the list of “things I regret not doing at Cornell”: I regret not taking a PE each semester. That might also be my most sincere advice to underclassmen, to take a PE each semester.


Product Management and The Liberal Arts Degree

I’m in the job-search phase once again. It’s full of excitement, anxiety, elation and disappointment and sometimes all at the same time. With interviews expected in the upcoming weeks for entry level product manager positions, I’ve been reflecting on the skills I learnt over my summer internship.

1. Influence without authority

PMs manage the product, not the people building it. As a PM intern, I had even less authority. I had to learn to convincingly make my case for every major design decision. People did not adopt them because they had to, but because I presented a strong argument.

2. Product design, wire-framing and design review

At the beginning of my internship, I had little to no design/UX experience. But I ended up doing a lot of front-end design work and wire-framing for the tool I worked on. I also conducted design reviews for my own tool and observed reviews for other work.

3. Developing v1: Prioritizing

In about 12 weeks of time, my fellow software intern and I had to create version1 of a tool from scratch. I worked on gathering requirements, creating design and writing specifications and then co-ordinating with the SWE team while they were building. With so much to do and so little time, we had cut and slash our long list of great ideas to decide on a minimal viable product. I really learnt to prioritize based on requirements,resources and time.

4. Making decisions in uncertainty

There was a lot of data and feedback I wish I had had, but it simply did not exist. So I had to make several design decisions when I had incomplete knowledge of the situation. I became more comfortable making these mini-bets in the face of uncertainty.

5. Communication

Talking about new ideas is difficult. When you’re devising a new framework, the vocabulary to discuss it does not exist. Even when you’re using the same words, you and your teammates may not be referring to the same thing. So it’s important to establish a common base and be aware of these difficulties throughout the discussions.

What’s interesting is that my Philosophy degree, which is exemplary of degrees which don’t get you jobs, actually teaches me three of those core skills involved in being a product manager.

  1. Communication: Philosophy is often abstract and is presented with the same obstacles that I observed in my PM internship. Every discussion in class, every paper I write in Philosophy requires this kind of communication.
  2. Deciding in uncertainty: Ask any question in Philosophy and every imaginable answer has been seriously proposed and explored by someone. These answers cannot be tested empirically, and the best one can get is a convincing argument.  I learn to consider several compelling answers and yet not be paralyzed in my decisions. It is always a choice between great and great, and I’m learning to make my calculated bets.
  3. Influence without authority: The most important part of this is to make compelling arguments which take all positions into account, and I don’t think I need to explain how Philosophy teaches this.

So here we go, I have found a job where my liberal arts degree is undeniably useful!

Last (?) Homecoming

This weekend was homecoming at Cornell. Everywhere on campus and in collegetown seemed full of alums. After freshman year, I didn’t go to the homecoming games or events. It’s easy to feel too busy for that. But this time, one of my friends who graduated this past summer came back to visit, so I went to the game with her and I’m glad I did!

Say hello to Touchdown, the bear

Say hello to Touchdown, the bear

There was a homecoming fair, with some food, drinks, face paint stations and even a ferris wheel. All current students got free homecoming tshirts and I thought the senior shirt was very clever.

At the stadium

For the first time, it did not rain during the game. Cornell played against Yale and we won. Much of American football still doesn’t make sense to me. But it was fun to cheer for Cornell in a sea of Red at Schoellkopf Stadium! As we were leaving the stadium, I had the bittersweet realization that this had been my homecoming as a student. Bitter because over the last three years, I have grown to love Cornell and truly feel at home here. And sweet because I can always “come home” as an alumna.

They set up nice photo locations! :D

They set up nice photo locations! 😀