Against Standardized Curricula, or Romanticists Un-Bound

One thing I’ve noticed in Romantic studies is that most romanticists seem to have some interesting interdisciplinary bent to their work. From Romanticism and dance, to Romanticism and science, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and women and gender studies (to name just a few iterations of the interesting work some of the colleagues I’m closest to here at the UofO and elsewhere engage), there seems to be something wonderfully multivalent about the work romanticists tend towards. However, I’ve found that relative to my own work, existing on the (however well-tread) margins of Art History and English, I nevertheless find myself constantly pressing against limitations imposed by graduate curriculum requirements. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about independence as of late, but I’ve found that breadth requirements, particularly in graduate school, tend to follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent. What curricula say to me is that I’m incapable of creating an effective, efficient, and—perhaps above all—enlightening trajectory of course work, for myself.

Like most graduate programs in established academic departments in American universities, my Art History program up in Eugene is designed around an extensive list of requirements. Specifically, we take: (1) A first-year seminar in the theories and methods of the discipline, (2) two first-year seminars on special topics germane to the research of the professors leading the seminars (offerings for my cohort included “text and image” [a definite ‘win’ for me!]  and artistic  “intention and interpretation”), (3) three first-year practicums (first, library research methods in Art History, then a faculty works-in-progress lecture series, and third a workshop geared towards expediting thesis proposals), and (4) four breadth requirements, satisfied by taking a course in the areas of ancient, medieval, Renaissance/Baroque, and modern art.  As one might imagine, when one’s entire program (as is the case at the University of Oregon, where graduate studies in Art History are almost entirely geared towards the M.A. level) essentially consists of twelve-courses, with seven of which needing to be geared towards program requirements, and practicum work absorbing a number of hours per week plus teaching responsibilities on top of all that, one might end up feeling like “Time’s winged chariot” is constantly encroaching on one’s studies.

I definitely do, particularly when the most applicable coursework for myself might be offered outside my department when dealing with the long nineteenth century, new media studies, critical theory, etc. Yet, I’m inclined to believe this problem may pervade Romantic graduate studies, in general, when we might otherwise be able to create a most effective and more richly transdisciplinary trajectory for our studies, were we less concerned with fulfilling requirements than exposing ourselves to the most diverse and provocative ideas and methods possible.

This isn’t to say there’s no elasticity available here for the “picture-people” at Oregon (for instance, in my program our advisors can approve a specific term paper project for a general class as a means to satisfy an area requirement). But, it is to say that perhaps as graduate students, we ought to be afforded extensive—if not total—liberty in planning our individual curriculums, particularly if it takes place in close consultation with an advisor within our respective fields.

Loosening up curriculum requirements, moreover, has the effect of helping to ameliorate the never-ending feeling of being time-crunched that characterizes the work we’re up to as graduate students. When curriculum requirements are reduced to the greatest extent possible, students become able to gear their course work to their own interests, professors teach to their strengths, and I’d argue the likelihood of productive academic dialogue occurring becomes much increased. A criticism of this thinking, however, would of course have something to do with how required course work brings students into an engagement with a standard canon of knowledge that—however slippery the definition necessarily becomes—is always at play (e.g. if the student of Art History hasn’t learned to fully appreciate Michelangelo’s work, or if the student of English hasn’t taken a course in Shakespeare—with what has their education endowed them?).

Yet, I’d respond that the assumption underpinning such a response would be that course work is where—at least before a certain level I’ve yet to hear adequately defined—development takes place and that this development can then be neatly documented/packaged on a transcript. I maintain that by disbelieving students will find their individual paths to the images and/or texts that define an academic discipline and field of specialty, is to show a lack of faith in students’ own abilities that, if they’re well-taught, they’ll have already cultivated.

In conclusion, I think the general idea here, that curricula should be individualized and self-directed, gestures towards the fact that across the arc of my academic development, I’ve become increasingly of the opinion that people thrive on freedom—particularly when it comes to academia (wouldn’t this be a truism in any other context?). Allowing people who do good work already to be cut loose so as to exert their brilliance in whatever ways best reflect themselves potentializes cascading flows of change and transformation, stemming both from ourselves in our own work and from the way we interact with others in similarly liberated intellectual positions, across paths of students’ own choosing. The student becomes best able to take ownership of her or his own learning as she or he assumes responsibility for the course of study. From my point of view, the existence of curricula, particularly in graduate education, moves to predictably map out and contain, thereby curtailing, forms of intellectual growth that are necessarily indeterminate and always self-directed. All of this being said, I’m definitely excited by the way so many of my friends in interdisciplinary studies are stepping out of, and pushing against, institutional boundaries in their research and am eager to see how the field’s terrain shifts in coming years.

2 thoughts on “Against Standardized Curricula, or Romanticists Un-Bound”

  1. You have made a few good points. I am a university student that lives everyday with the pressures of standardized courses. I have been trying to make a break and realize that all my life it’s been difficult with everything being standardized I have never really done something that I will actually excel at, just everything that meets degree requirements. Hopefully a time will come when we’re all able to take the step and against all objections, do what we feel will actually enrich our limited lives.

    It is motivating to see someone speak out about this.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment (and always heartening when it comes some months after originally writing!).

    I was actually just chatting with one of the other grads in my cohort about this, and while requirements are good for building well-rounded students, I do still find they often detract from a fulfilling education. It’s always a negotiation, right?

    I’m curious though: so where are you studying right now, and what your specific interests are?


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