Two Cultures in Beginnings and Endings

Not long after I posted my comments about textbook prices, I went to a panel discussion on teaching, where a social scientist made an interesting observation about the ways different disciplines interact with books.

In the humanities, the whole point of the class is to discuss the books. Nothing useful can be done until and unless the students have had the chance to do the reading. This is why humanities classes tend to let out early on the first day of the term, and have a full class on the last day of the term: the important reading has to be done before class.

In the sciences, on the other hand, the whole point of class is to give the students enough information to be able to read the textbook and do the problems. The essential step in the learning process is when the students try to apply what they’ve learned to solving problems. This is why science classes tend to have a full class on the first day of the term, and let out early on the last day of the term: the important reading is done after class.

I had never really thought about it that way, but once it was pointed out, I said “Oh, yeah…” I can think of a few exceptions to the pattern– mostly involving humanities faculty who had the class read short stories or articles in class on the first day– but I think there’s definitely something to it.

(This is also part of why I find the textbook pricing question so vexing. With the exception of a few very specialized curricula– Matter & Interactions, Six Ideas that Shaped Physics— the main thing that would change with a change of book is the numbers of the homework problems… That’s not the case in the humanities– changing the reading list for English 101 almost certainly gets you a very different class.)