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I am a physics student at a small North American university. As part of the requirements for my degree, the current policy dictates that all students must take 6 humanities courses before graduation.

I believe I understand the benefit of this requirement: it ensures that students are well-rounded. However, this requirement is making it difficult for me to take two extra math courses that are relevant to my future and my degree.

My goal is to continue my education further after graduating. I have asked two of my professors and they have told me that these two math courses would probably be relevant to my graduate studies. Moreover, I am very keen to take them because they are interesting and challenging. The reason these courses are not in the current curriculum is just due to the large number of physics courses required for the degree; they simply do not fit in the usual honours degree pattern.

As a student, is it reasonable for me to ask for this exemption? If so, what should I say to the department chair to increase the likelihood of getting the exemption?

For context: I am a physics major and the courses I want to take are Discrete Mathematics and Real Analysis.

  • Re. "off-topic unless they can also apply to graduate or post-graduate academicians". >> "My goal is to go to graduate school. I have asked two of my professors and they have told me that these two math courses would probably be relevant to my graduate studies." – Lamar Latrell Aug 15 '15 at 12:24
  • I just opted for an edit that should make this on-topic and will vote to reopen when approved. – Memj Aug 15 '15 at 13:08
  • Assuming masters level counts as 'graduate' then I am aware of masters by coursework programs that have required humanities components ('professional communications' and ethics subjects for instance). Also the questioner already brought up the fact that "these courses are not in the current curriculum is just due to the large number of physics courses required", this is something I've experienced myself, and counters the assumption of 'ample opportunity'. – Lamar Latrell Aug 15 '15 at 23:44
  • ...Furthermore, they've asked a question that they hoped would assist their path towards post-graduate study, they've ben told that's off limits for the academia stack site - which stack site should this question be referred to? (that wont close it and suggest that academia is the relevant forum...) – Lamar Latrell Aug 15 '15 at 23:44
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    Since you're an undergrad, might I offer the possibility that you take your science courses as extra coursework BEYOND your graduation requirements? – Scott Seidman Aug 24 '15 at 12:44
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As a former Humanities Professor and Dean, my answer is "nope." We heard so many times from the Engineering College that they wished their students would have more Humanities, that there's no way I can say okay, go ahead without it. So many students would rather give it a pass, but I can say (besides my being on the Humanities bandwagon just in general), that my father worked for a professional organization of engineers, and the thing they wanted most at their professional conferences was work on writing and communications. And that's what you learn in the Humanities.

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    That may be what Humanities departments intend to teach, but it's not what most engineering undergrads actually learn from them. Students derive much less value from courses taken only to check a box than from those taken out of interest or as prerequisites for the same. – Ghillie Dhu Aug 15 '15 at 3:53
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    A mature student will understand that every course in the university -- including all the General Education courses -- serves a purpose and adds to his/her status as an educated citizen. – ewormuth Aug 15 '15 at 3:57
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    designing curricula assuming maturity is, in my experience, a fallacy — As opposed to what? If you don't assume some level of student maturity, you're handing out degrees in exchange for tuition and busywork. – JeffE Aug 16 '15 at 16:06
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    Students derive much less value from courses taken only to check a box — Exactly the same can be said of most mathematics courses. Do you really want your engineering students to take less math? – JeffE Aug 16 '15 at 16:09
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    Gee thanks, Piotr, for picking on me -- you'll notice that I'm not the only one with this opinion. And things like GE courses aren't dreamed up by one person, but by faculty from all departments, and they make the rules for exemptions. I could say yes to you, but the next level or the next level up to the Dean of Undergraduate Studies could say no. And they're the ones who send memos around to faculty saying no exemptions. – ewormuth Aug 16 '15 at 18:15
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Exemption from a humanities requirement generally needs a much better argument than "I have two additional classes I want to squeeze in" -- more like "I've published a novel; can we count that against the writing requirement?"

Greater depth is one of the things the Masters' degree is for. Or you can put yourself on an additional-year degree plan, if you can afford it

Summarizing from the comments: Focus on finding a way to both meet the humanities requirement and acquire the extra knowledge you want. That may mean doing independent/summer study for one or both, or letting the math slide until your Masters degree or later. There is essentially no way to avoid distribution requirements.

Everyone deals with this, even those who plan their schedules three terms in advance and overload their class schedules. If there weren't more classes you wanted to take than you could squeeze into four years, it'd be a pretty lousy school. One of the things you're learning is the art of tradeoffs and compromises.

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    Or take the humanities courses over the summer. Or by correspondence. Or at the local junior college. – Bill Barth Aug 15 '15 at 0:39
  • In your opinion, what is a circumstance that would allow for an exemption from this type of requirement? – Mike Aug 15 '15 at 0:42
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    Or take the additional math classes over the summer, with or without transfer credits if you take them at another school. – keshlam Aug 15 '15 at 1:01
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    @Mike The answer to your question is that such a circumstance does not exist. As Bill Barth suggests, you can ask to substitute another humanities courses (e.g. those taken in a summer, or in a different institution), but there is no way to escape them if you want your degree. – Boris Bukh Aug 15 '15 at 1:03
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    Does not exist, or requires a truly exceptional case impossible to provoke or simulate; I'm not going to try to speculate on which kinds of disaster might persuade someone to make an exception. The requirement exists, you've known about it since freshman year if not since you started applying to schools, everyone deals with this. – keshlam Aug 15 '15 at 1:14
11

I would say asking to get out of humanities is a battle not worth starting. Chances are you will lose.

The best course of action for you, in my opinion, if you are really determined to take those 2 math courses is: take them.

If your university offers summer courses try to take one, or both, of them then. If the courses aren't offered in the summer get into contact with the instructor(s) and talk to them about a DS (Directed Study). I took a DS while obtaining my undergrad so that I wouldn't take a semester with just 1 course that I needed to graduate.

If your university doesn't offer summer courses then try to take on an extra course a semester. While you may be faced with a lot of courses at once - if you're really determined to take those 2 courses then taking 1 extra course a semester may be a lot better than trying to wave humanity courses.

All of this aside, the person who will be able to give you the best advice based on the university, grades, etc. Is your advisor

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  • This, but why not just attend the course in its usual installment? – Raphael Aug 15 '15 at 6:59
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    @Raphael I mention taking the course within it's normal parameters in the 2nd to last paragraph. If summer courses aren't offered there's no much you can do besides just take on an extra course. – Memj Aug 15 '15 at 13:03
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To answer a different aspect of your question, I would say that yes, it is generally reasonable to request an exemption.

In your specific circumstance, the answer would almost certainly be no, for the reasons described in the other answers. But faculty typically appreciate it when students take the initiative for their own education, and in general I think you won't burn your bridges by making such requests. Just be prepared to take no for an answer.

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    "faculty typically appreciate it when students take the initiative for their own education" - that is an interesting point of view with respect to requesting exemptions from requirements. – O. R. Mapper Aug 16 '15 at 14:15
  • @O.R.Mapper - I'm not sure what you mean by interesting. That word can have a couple of completely different meanings. – aparente001 Aug 17 '15 at 3:48
  • @aparente001: True, I meant something like "unexpected, not necessarily matching my personal interpretation". My impression is that the (fictitious numbers for the sake of argument) 95% students in a major who stick to the available options (which, mind you, are usually already defined with considerable leeway for variation) are fine, and the 1% that truly have any specific restrictions that require a deviation from those available options are ok, too, and so few as to be negligible, anyway. It is just the remaining 4% who think they need to actively start searching for reasons to get ... – O. R. Mapper Aug 17 '15 at 6:40
  • ... around the fixed requirements or get a permission for a custom modification thereof who quickly build a (very negative!) reputation among faculty for creating a lot of hassle, being hard to work with (as their first reaction to a given problem will not be analyzing and solving the problem, but trying to renegotiate the organisational framework the problem is embedded within), and (often unreasonably) thinking they deserve a special treatment compared to most of the other students. Thus, "taking the initiative for ..." is a rather favourable interpretation of this behaviour. – O. R. Mapper Aug 17 '15 at 6:42
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    I will just chime in to say that if a student said "I'd really like to take Y, but X is required for my degree, I can't take both, and I'd prefer to take Y. Is there any way this is possible?" I'd respond favorably, even if the answer was no. If a student said "I have to take X and it looks boring, can I get out of it", then I'd only be sympathetic if the student was already an expert in X. – Anonymous Aug 18 '15 at 14:28
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I've been in this position in 2 undergraduate degrees. You can only ask, but be prepared to have a convincing argument.

Ask yourself, is it actually reasonable?

Unless you can answer that and convince yourself you're likely to fail.

Consider the fact that you're asking that question here, so you may have some thinking to do.

Also, keep in mind that some of the humanities courses you'd be missing would have trained you in developing convincing arguments :)

I'm not sure what the deal is with your university, but for most undergrad courses the class numbers are large, you can always sit in on lectures... (not ideal, but it is something)

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There's no reason you can't ask, but you should plan for a "No". I don't think you should ask, but rather figure out how to take all of the courses. As the OP says, the requirement makes it "difficult", but it's not impossible.

Personally, as a working engineer, I find as much application in my work for what I learned in the humanities courses I took as an undergrad as I do for my math and engineering classes. No matter how good you are technically, if you can't communicate your work effectively with non-technical people, you're going to be of limited use to an employer. The people with the money don't want to fund work they don't understand, the sales and marketing people won't know how to sell it and customers won't buy it and so on. The days of the mad scientist toiling away in his own world of inscrutable genius are over.

Like you, I wanted to take grad level math classes that I felt would be beneficial, but fell outside the requirements and options for my program. I wound up taking them during the compressed 8wk summer term immediately following my graduation while I was looking for work.

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As a student, is it reasonable for me to ask for this exemption?

The worst that could happen would be to get a 'no' for an answer.

If so, what should I say to the department chair to increase the likelihood of getting the exemption?

  • Show that you appreciate the reason for the requirement.

  • Show that you are by nature a well-rounded person (you can cite classes and experiences in high school, college, school breaks -- and don't forget to mention volunteer work and community service; you need to show that you have spent significant time thinking about the world you live in and how to be a good citizen, that sort of thing).

  • Present some programs of study at similar schools, for similar majors, where the number of required humanities courses is smaller. (Six courses strikes me as exceptionally high.)

  • Present a letter of support from at least one authoritative person who knows you well -- preferably two or three; someone from a humanities course you took would be great; how about a supervisor at a volunteer position?

A few other thoughts:

  • If your college has a Winter Session, that would be a good time to squeeze one or two humanities courses in. If not, how about next summer? Perhaps online courses would work out better for you.

  • The two math classes you're interested in sound great. But before you go to bat for them, find out more about the instructors, the syllabi -- make sure they're as good as they sound.

  • Check if there's a slightly different degree you could get that doesn't require SIX humanities courses.

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Yes, it is reasonable to ask for an exception.

If your motivation is to learn more and without this exception it wouldn't be possible - just ask. But be sure to argument it in a positive way, writing why do you want to take these two specific courses.

Of course, the decision is up to them. (I don't have experience with US system, but I know that in Europe attitudes vary with each department, or dean, or a dice roll.)

However, if your main motivation is to sneak out of the humanity classes - don't do that. Such requirements are exactly because an university wants to have well-rounded students and not everyone would take 6 humanities courses willingly.

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It's a very reasonable request. You should get the education that'll better prepare you for the future, and it sounds like these Math courses would do just that.

Arguments in favor:

  1. Additional technical competencies are usually worth more than additional writing or presenting skills. Sure it's great if you're a better writer/presenter, but it's usually not worth the loss of talent you'd have by diverting focus away from your core skill set.

  2. Writing and presenting skills taught in the Humanities are not the same as those required in STEM environments. I'd go so far as to say that, in a significant number of cases, it'd have been better for undergrads to have not had Humanities classes that taught them bad habits.

  3. Technical courses often do require writing. These writing assignments are better for technical students since they're the right kind of assignments. Why prepare to write Physics journal articles in a Creative Writing class when you could instead take a Physics class that includes writing assignments?

  4. You're more likely to learn if you're enjoying the course work.

Personally I got exemptions from my Foreign Language requirements in undergrad to pursue my four Science and Engineering majors. This worked out very well for me. It's painfully absurd to think that some folks would've argued that I needed a few semesters of Spanish more than the extra Math major.

I would recommend being polite yet persistent in pursuing the course exemption. It took me a lot of office visits to get my forms signed, but in the end it was very much worth it.

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    I am a professor in a STEM subject, and I find the first three arguments to be terrible, liable to create a much worse impression than "I really want to take these other classes, and I don't see how to do it otherwise." The second argument in particular is quite repugnant to me. You seem to be saying that you find no value in a liberal arts education. There are schools for people like that, but the school that the OP has chosen is not one of them. There is no chance that this blatant disregard for the college's own requirements will go over well. – Pete L. Clark Aug 18 '15 at 8:25
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    @PeteL.Clark: The listed arguments were for the poster's own consideration, not to be presented to the Humanities professors. Also the decision to attend a Liberal Arts college was made while the poster was still a high school student and potentially colored by considerations other than the curriculum; obviously their current interest is in a more technical education. – Nat Aug 18 '15 at 8:40
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    Upvoted, as particularly items 2 and 3 absolutely match my experience, even though I do not agree with the conclusion that it is a reasonable (individual) request if the requirements are in place as they are. I very much agree with item 2, though it should be pointed out that the writing skills I came in touch with in humanities were indeed focused on very non-technical things such as poems, prose-style stories, newspaper-like writing, etc., which are very different from writing in technical contexts such as design documents. As I implied in another comment here, I found it quite ... – O. R. Mapper Aug 18 '15 at 8:41
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    ....Rather what you learn in humanities courses in the US is how to read texts closely, understand and critique arguments made there, and how to make clear, convincing, insightful arguments of one's own. I have never heard anyone in the liberal arts system claim any direct usefulness in writing technical manuals: rather we would say that it teaches students to think and write clearly and that will be useful in whatever they do. The skill of technical writing in a given STEM field is rarely taught at the undergraduate level in a liberal arts program. – Pete L. Clark Aug 18 '15 at 8:58
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    You are entitled to your opinion. I've said it doesn't seem helpful to the OP; having any whiff of "I see no value in the humanities" in his request is his worst strategy for being able to take the two math courses. (Rather, the OP should satisfy the requirements and take the extra courses.) – Pete L. Clark Aug 18 '15 at 9:40

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