Cluster &@(#ed(The cluster needs to go)
Perhaps the most revealing sign of the University’s attitude towards the system is how horribly outdated it is. The system was originally introduced with the promise that every class would be part of some cluster or another. While that may well have been the case in 2001, it has yet to be fully updated since then, and several interesting classes get passed up because they contribute nothing to one’s distributions. Contemporary Chinese Culture and Society; Cold War Culture: Aesthetics and Politics 1945-2005; Infectious Diseases: Past, Present and Future…If any of these classes gets you excited, sit back and relax, because none of them is offered in a cluster. Granted, this would be a minor concern if students could create their own clusters, but seniors simply can’t, and underclassmen must individually petition for up to one created cluster. In practice, this leads to several frustrated students who must relegate their last year to filling out clusters that have little relevance to them. If someone happens to be interested in all of the classes in a given cluster, fulfilling these distribution requirements is a breeze. But most students simply don’t find the arbitrary listing of clustered classes to be classes they are truly interested and engaged in, and, for many, they end up a pointless chore.
But perhaps I’m being unfair—surely Wash. U. gives enough time for students to take elective credits in addition to their distribution requirements. This is admittedly true for some students, but it depends heavily on one’s major. While a literature major requires only 30 credits for completion, a biology major requires virtually as many credits in the first year alone. This is the biggest failure of the cluster system: It disproportionately hurts some students more than others. Most students with lenient majors will have plenty of time and space to easily fill out their cluster requirements and still have room for elective classes. Yet an equally large number of students with more intensive majors are left struggling to meet the minimums by their last semester, and the cluster system makes no distinction between the latter and the former.
Of course, plenty of loopholes exist to make this process slightly more tolerable. For example, under the Shared Attribute Principle, whichever distribution area applies to the cluster can also apply to one class within the cluster. This means that a cluster with two NS courses and one TH course can have the TH count as an NS. Problems in Philosophy suddenly counts as a natural science class as much as Physical Chemistry I and II do, which begs the question: If clusters can be so easily defeated by loopholes, why have them at all?
Wash. U. is slated to remove the cluster system starting next year, so most of my worries are moot. Beginning in the fall of 2012, incoming students will be spared having to deal with the obtuse, convoluted cluster system. Hopefully the University will have the foresight to pick a simpler, less-confusing system or ideally do away with distributions altogether. Because, at the end of the day, we just don’t need a regimented system to help us balance our coursework. We don’t need a Shared Attribute Principle, or eight required “Language & the Arts” credits. We are all capable as students to determine what intellectual territories we want to explore outside of the boundaries our major. We’re smart kids; we can figure it out ourselves.