During the course add/drop period, I have a designated, almost sacred, browser window which is always open. The window has two tabs and two tabs only: the Academic System website and KAIST’s “Online Timeplanner with Lectures”, which is more commonly known as OTL. The window is the digital knife I use to uncap the humanities courses that yield the most ggul (Korean for honey, slang for effortless goodness).
The OTL website has student-written reviews of the different courses and their respective professors in KAIST. It also allows the reviewers to rate the course based on three criteria: grading, workload and the quality of lectures. For many, when looking for humanities courses, it’s only the first two that matter.
The reason most STEM-oriented universities impose mandatory humanities courses on their students is due to the notion that these courses can provide something science and math cannot. While the sciences tell the story of facts and certainty, the humanities show a world of uncertainty where not everything has a clear cut answer. Universities want their students to be skeptical towards everything, whether it be institutions or even the scientific method itself. It’s through these academic disciplines that one is expected to broaden one’s horizons and to break away from the exactitude of the sciences and understand the world in a new light. However, although I agree that humanities courses have their benefits, to expect that a 90-minute-long, twice-a-week lecture is going to radically alter the way someone looks at life is, to put it lightly, naïve.
It’s not only about the time students put in; it’s also about how that time is spent. As I explained previously, most students only consider the grading and the workload when choosing humanities courses for the new semester. Forced to take these courses, they set their goals to getting an A as effortlessly as possible. For some, they settle for something easy because no course really draws their attention. For others, it’s because they cannot dedicate a substantial amount of time into a humanities course considering the workload elsewhere.
Even most humanities course professors understand this and purposefully attempt to lower or limit the workload of their courses, sometimes even letting the students decide the deadlines for assignments. However, the problem is clear. Students are unwilling or unable to devote enough time and effort to the humanities courses, which means they gain nothing from them. Change cannot be forced. It needs to be brought about.
There is no doubt as to the advantages of a STEM education closely accompanied by the humanities. Considering the state of affairs at KAIST, mandatory humanities courses are a grave mistake. Although there are a great number of engaging humanities courses one could gain a lot from, most courses leave a lot to ask for. Activities, which feel more like a burden than a pleasant escape from the sciences and cover topics students have no real interest in, force many to grind through months of unappealing lectures.
KAIST needs to diversify their humanities courses. Either by adding new courses the general student population would be interested in or by changing the current predictable and monotonous course structures. It’s that or making humanities courses optional, because in their current state, mandatory humanities courses fall miles away from their original purpose and it’s the students who pay the consequences.