Every day, the School of Humanities and Social Science Building gets flooded with students of all ages and majors. Courses held here are electives, dealing with a variety of topics on the arts and humanities. In any other school, such a building would not stand out. Here at KAIST, however, the structure stands out like an imposter amidst others with more technical names. As a matter of fact, as the acronym implies, the university’s focus is on science and engineering. It is safe to assume that students here have come to delve into the wonders of science and its applications for the advancement and benefit of society. In such a school, what purpose do these seemingly impertinent courses serve and what do they mean to students?
One could describe these courses as a shift away from the inundating workload assigned by major courses and into a study on a completely different aspect of the world. Personally, back in high school, I really looked forward to my humanities and elective classes, even though my strengths lay in their mathematical and scientific counterparts. I enjoyed writing my own Romantic poem after studying Wordsworth, composing a piano piece for my music theory project, and staying up to finish a vase for my ceramics class. While it is true that high school was not that challenging in general, these courses did serve as breathers from more demanding classes and an opportunity to learn more about unfamiliar subjects.
In college, the sad truth is that the purpose of electives as regarded by most students is much different. As the pressure of grades has elevated, learning the arts and humanities has become secondary to getting high marks. The typical question to ask when asking for advice on choosing electives is “Is this an easy-A?” rather than “Is it interesting?” or “Do you learn much from it?” These courses are regarded as a mere part of graduation requirements that also serve as GPA boosters. Students even utilize these periods to finish other assignments.
It can be easy to disregard this phenomenon as an inevitable effect of the highly competitive nature of the university or the overall overwhelming amount of work. However, the adverse implications of such an attitude towards what may be deemed as “less important” courses can be more detrimental than one could imagine. Consider a classroom in which a majority of the students are not attentive — not a farfetched assumption, as it is close to reality in most classes here. Only the same few students ask and answer questions every period and the classroom environment is indifferent and lifeless. Eventually, even the most passionate of professors becomes disillusioned and the quality of instruction deteriorates. Now, even less students pay attention and the cycle continues.
Of course, this phenomenon can be a problem in any classroom. However, within KAIST, it is most relevant to elective courses. People colloquially refer to easy-A electives as “honey electives” and enroll in these to fill up their required credits. That is why courses like “Spanish Conversation” are ridiculously competitive and students line up every semester to get permission from a particular Professor Park to register for his classes. The unfortunate consequence is that most classrooms are filled with inattentive students and thus professors are unrewarded for their efforts. Then how can we fix the problem?
The obvious answer is to take courses out of genuine interest. The School of Humanities and Social Science offers a surprising variety of courses that accommodates students of varying interests. You can learn a language you always wanted to pick up or take an economics course that may be more related to your major. Personally, I continued my passion for history and music. The next step is to realize that good marks are acquirable in any course, not just the “honey” ones. Diligence will be rewarded and no professor will disregard a student with a learning attitude. It is not asking for much — these professors know how challenging major courses can be and are considerate, so let us return the courtesy and give them their deserved attention.
I am not trying to condemn certain people for the problems described above. I myself admit to having fallen short to the temptations of easy A’s and doing other homework during these periods. But with a change in attitude and a little more effort, we can learn more from our electives and create a better environment for both the students and the professors.