The AAL Requirement: Really, Middlebury?!

Saturday Night Live has a recurring segment with Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler and sometimes a special guest in which they address, with appropriate incredulity, the seeming senselessness of something a politician, public figure, or institution has done lately.

This is a tone often taken with Middlebury’s academic distribution requirements – freshmen, don’t worry, there are myriad ways to get rid of your deductive requirement without ever using basic algebra – but especially the geographic distributions. For those blissfully unaware, the regions we must cover in order to graduate as politically correct, socially sensitive world citizens are EUR (Europe), NOR (North America), and AAL (Africa Asia Latin America). In other words, you have to take a class each in the culturally and politically polar opposites of Europe and North America, but the presumably homogenous societies of two-thirds of the world’s non-white populations? Hey, are there any classes on Australia? I think it technically falls under Asia. One J-term quickie on Japanese animation and voila, instant AAL credit! And a total lack of familiarity with the Middle East, the BRIC countries, central Africa, Southeast Asia, or any other one or few of the vastly divergent cultures in these regions.

Is the solution to this to increase the geographical requirements, or get rid of them completely? Any suggestions on change, or an argument for the status quo?

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15 thoughts on “The AAL Requirement: Really, Middlebury?!

  1. I completely agree… I think the AAL should be split up into multiple sections and then the geographic concentrations could be conquered in a manner similar to the distribution requirements for example you must take a course in 5 or the 7 and so on.. I believe there is a movement within the SGA starting up right now to write a bill concerning this exact issue…

  2. While we’re at it, another academic challenge to students: why are there no options to take classes pass/fail for credit when many (I’d stick my neck out and say most) peer schools allow this practice?

  3. I actually think the AAL requirement makes sense as is. Think of students here who want to go into the sciences or any technical field. Do we really want to take up all the courses of pre-med students with required courses? I think pre-med students should be able to get a philosophy major if they want. I’m not sure that could happen if we expanded the AAL credit too much.

    And I think the AAL credit has been great for me. In my last semester, I’m taking my first “AAL” course and I’m getting a lot out of it. Honestly I probably wouldn’t have signed up for it if it hadn’t been required.

    Sure, I don’t have the knowledge I could of the stupendous amount of cultures comprised within the “AAL” umbrella. But on some level that’s okay. I think I’ve gotten a good education. Generally, I think we need to be realistic about what we can ask students to learn in their four years here.


    I agree with Ryan’s suggestion. Some mechanism for pass/fail would be great. I knows some schools have a pass/D/fail option which enables professors to distinguish between really slacking off and passing.

  4. I agree with pretty much all of this post, and while I see George’s point about not wanting to bog down students with too many requirements, I think there’s some inherent problems with how Middlebury labels classes. One of the requirements not mentioned is the “CMP” requirement, presumably a course which compares two or more different cultures. As it stands now, AAL is inherently comparative (its scope covers more than half the planet), but most of the time is not recognized as such- a class that covers all three of these areas often is labeled CMP rather than AAL, reserving AAL credit for a class that covers a single region. This accounts for the fact that I (and I can’t imagine that I’m the only one) have taken several courses covering these regions and have still somehow managed to avoid taking anything with the AAL label. Consequently, I’m going to wind up taking a class I’m less interested in during my last semester to fulfill an AAL requirement that I think I’ve realistically already fulfilled. I’d say that bogs me down as much, if not more, than more individualized “geographic concentrations” would.

    Also, on a more superficial level, as Simran pointed out, it’s laughable that North America and Europe get their own distinct categories while “Asia-Africa-Latin America” is grouped into one… kind of like an “other” category, no? On that note, where does Mexico fall? I’d be willing to bet every class on it gets the “AAL” designation, reinforcing the fact that it’s basically just a “non-white” category.

  5. I think the cultures and civilizations requirement should change to better support Middlebury’s mission “to cultivate the intellectual, creative, physical, ethical, and social qualities essential for leadership in a rapidly changing global community.” As Simran and several others have noted, the current requirements are strongly in favor of North America and Europe, two regions of the world which most students arrive knowing a lot about.

    This is not to say that I do not respect the scholarship of those who study North America (like you, George) and Europe; if you were to examine my transcript, you would find several NOR and a boat load of EUR. One cannot deny that part of being a global citizen is being able to analyze and critique one’s own culture.

    However, the curriculum as it stands suggests that we do not value the knowledge of other cultures and civilizations as much as we value our own, especially when we take into account that many courses that do not have the NOR or EUR designation are still taught from a North American and/or European perspective.

    Others have offered curricular solutions here and elsewhere, so I offer my own:

    1. Combine NOR and EUR into one requirement for the reasons stated above.

    2. Eliminate CMP. In my experience, all of the cultural courses I took were comparative by default.

    3. Separate AAL into 4 distinct requirements: Asia; Africa; Middle East; Latin America & the Caribbean.

    By my count, that’s only one extra course that students would have to take. Granted, the “burden” of an extra course will not be the only consideration to make, no matter what the curricular changes (if any) will be.

  6. Ditch the American, European and Comparative (what is that anyway?) requirements; Non-foreign language department’s curriculum will be heavily US/Euro-centric anyway.

    Other than that, Middlebury should consider why it has requirements in the first place. To me, it is a noble attempt to expose all students to a variety of subjects and cultures, thereby producing well-rounded graduates.

    Unfortunately, this policy does not work as intended. Without the option to take courses pass/fail, too few students pursue courses in subjects difficult or foreign to them. In the face of vehement faculty opposition to pass/fail classes, the best way to round out students’ knowledge of other disciplines and cultures is through extracurricular events.

    Yes, Midd has an international film series and many talks each week on cutting edge research across disciplines. Of the former, I have found many of these films frustratingly inaccessible to those unfamiliar with the specific culture. Similarly, the lectures tend to dive deep into a small section of a discipline or culture. Surely professors and majors follow along happily, but the student who wanders in to get a taste of this or that foreign subject is left floundering.

    I suggest a “what you need to know about [discipline/culture] in an hour” lecture series. To the professor who spends her entire life on the shades of meaning behind the capitalizations in Shakespeare, this is heresy. To the rest of us––woefully ignorant of what constitute the great works of, say, Chinese literature––this would be a welcome chance at edification. Given Midd’s staff and students’ penchant for captivating presentations, this series would be far more entertaining than Wikipedia.

  7. I think Maggie makes some great points. Can anyone mount a reasonable defense for keeping the CMP requirement instead of adding something like another component to the “AAL” credit? And yes, I agree the “AAL” credit has a ludicrous name.

    We can do better than the current name of “AAL,” but I think naming the system for cultural requirements will always be sticky.

    Also “Mainstream euro/american culture” was primarily dictated by privileged white men and we should acknowledge that. But I don’t think that means we should throw the baby out with the bath water. And in this case, the baby seems to be the foundational texts, ideas and art of mainstream euro/american culture. More on that in an upcoming post.

    I disagree with Michael saying that we should “ditch the American, European and Comparative (what is that anyway?) requirements.” And I think there are good reasons to spend extra time on North American and European culture beyond what I see to be Sarah’s primary argument that we should study them because they are “our own.” But for the purposes of this comment thread perhaps we can agree to disagree on that.

    I’d be really interested in hearing if anyone can mount a defense of the CMP requirement.

  8. Also one more response to Sarah’s suggestion. Maybe I’m way off base, but my guess is that most people get some combination of their CMP, European and North American credits fairly easily. In making this suggestion, Sarah says that this would mean one more requirement by her count. I think that’s right in theory, but in practice I think it would mean a bunch of required classes people wouldn’t normally take. Granted my academic interests mostly lie in North American and European cultures, but this would mean I would have had to take 4 classes I didn’t take. That’s a huge opportunity cost. And I don’t think I’m that atypical in my interests.

  9. Agreed Simran; it’s ridiculous. Either do away with the geographic requirements entirely or split AAL into separate requirements…then perhaps require only 4/6 geographic requirements be fulfilled or something like that.

    The college also needs to offer more classes in that fulfill the AAL requirement. The vast majority of classes for my majors fall into EUR or NOR; I had to take a class outside of my majors to fulfill the AAL requirement.

  10. I agree with the point that having NOR, EUR, AAL, (and CMP), requirements heavily emphasizes a Western-centric view while lumping everything else together. But I’m not sure that splitting up AAL into more requirements for different cultures really addresses the root of this cultural distribution problem.

    If you look at the Spring course schedule, there are 62 classes offered that fulfill an AAL requirement. This is in contrast with 80 for EUR, 67 for NOR. It’s just a fact that at our school (and I will go out on a limb and say most schools in the U.S.), there is a much larger concentration on the U.S. and Europe. If we were to split AAL into further cultural categories, there would be very few classes available for each one. And that would perhaps cause people to take classes only to get the distribution requirement, rather than having a class that would contribute both towards distribution requirement and a major/minor requirement or particular interest.

    So I don’t think that the solution here is to fiddle with the distribution requirements. If we really have a problem with a focus on North America and Europe, then I think it’s the class offerings that need to be looked at and considered.

  11. Here’s a piece I wrote Freshman year on it. (it’s a bit polemical, but I stand by most of it). I think that the alternative HAS to be giving a choice to students to take 3 out of the 5 regions (I could also be compelled to say that NOR will be mandatory, and then students can chose two addntl classes (africa AND asia if they so please)).

    AAL…?

    Middlebury prides itself on being a school focused on international diversity. To this effect, there are a number of mandatory study requirements for all students, regardless of major or area of study. Not only are students required to take a course in North American studies, they also must take at least one course in both European Studies and AAL, Asian, African and Latin American Studies. Great! It is wonderful that Middlebury students are encouraged to learn about other regions and peoples.
    The first time I heard of these distribution requirements, however, something struck me as strange: Asian, African and Latin American Studies, as one category? I tried to think of how these three regions were related, and was unable to come up with any tie (Economic similarities? No. Geographic similarities? Certainly not. Cultural similarities? Not at all) save the fact that they are all regions inhabited by people of color. Allow me to reiterate: Students at Middlebury must take a class about North America (white people), a class about Europe (again, white people), and a single class about AsiaAfricaLatinAmerica (people of color). Frankly, I am appalled that a school like Middlebury, which draws students from around the world, and stresses cross-cultural education and understanding, could have a policy so backwards.
    Why are students required to take a course on Europe, but are able to choose their favorite of the three “colorful” regions, and ignore the other two, if they so desire? What if a student wants to study Asia, Africa and Latin America, separately, and has no interest in either Europe or North America? Shouldn’t that be something supported and encouraged at Middlebury? Shouldn’t a student be able to fulfill their cultural distribution requirements by studying areas of the world that are non-white, and therefore less in public consciousness?
    I propose that Middlebury revise this policy, making it so that students can choose to fulfill their cultural distribution requirements by taking courses in any three out of the aforementioned five regions, AsiaAfricaLatinAmerica counting, shockingly, as three separate areas of study. Thus, a student could, if they so desired, take courses focused on Africa, Asia and Latin America, and would not be required to take anything on European or North American Studies. Furthermore, this would make it so that Middlebury’s areas of study, for these requirements, were no longer European, North American and “Minority” studies, rather true cross cultural and international study requirements.
    This distribution requirement system has to change, for the sake of the students, and for the sake of Middlebury College as a whole. We absolutely cannot continue to claim that we are a fully open, accepting and internationally aware college community while continuing to support such a blatantly unacceptable policy.

  12. Perhaps we should be required to take four out of five (without perhaps being able to opt out of comparative):

    1) Africa
    2) Asia
    3) Latin America
    4) The “West,” or Euro-centric cultures (North America and Europe)
    5) Comparative

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  14. If I can offer one faculty’s opinion on these issues (noting that while I don’t speak for any other faculty, I know there are others who’ve agreed with each of these points in conversation):

    – The pass/fail vote was a fairly close one, with a sizable contingent of faculty in favor of the option. I hope students keep pushing for it and that we can revisit the discussion that was derailed by a few vehement objectors. I, for one, am strongly in favor of the option.

    – When I arrived at Midd in 2002, the C&C requirements were USA / EUR / OTHER. Renaming OTHER to AAL was an attempt to acknowledge that non-Anglo-/Euro- cultures have reference points beyond just being “something different.” So remember – it could be worse! But practically, there are far too few courses available to divide AAL and provide student options to complete a “3 of 5” type choice.

    – For me, the multiplication of checkboxes is not the answer. Already, I feel that students tend to approach the distribution categories as “Requirements Bingo,” checking off boxes rather than building a course of study. I don’t think anybody believes that our current system ensures that students really learn much about any one of these disciplinary areas or cultural regions – instead, it hopes for “exposure” to these traditions that might inspire more depth of study. And the way the tags are applied to the courses is imperfect and laborious. So it’s a poor system, but the status quo is hard to change.

    – Large-scale revisions could go in one of two directions: instituting specific courses required of all students that cover what the faculty deems essential for students to learn, or loosening up the specific requirements to create another system to ensure breadth (such as “Take courses in 10 different departments”). I strongly prefer the latter on both philosophical and practical grounds.

    – If students want to see such curricular shifts, it’s important to use the Student EAC and other recognized avenues to press for changes. Talking with sympathetic faculty is also helpful…

    Glad to see substantive discussions of academic matters happening here!

  15. On the topic of pass/fail, the college I attended had an A/B/C/NR system, where NR was “not reported”, meaning that you couldn’t actually fail a course, it was simply kept off your transcript if you didn’t get an adequate grade in the course, allowing you to retake the course. It’s an option I was fortunate to only need once, in the first semester I was there and getting adjusted to college life. I found it let the professors push much harder in the material while giving the students a bit of relief if they fell too far behind.

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