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The art of the elective

Are they easy A's, or a vital complement to more traditional studies?

Published March 2, 2004

The popular perception is that elective courses are to college academics what fuzzy dice are to the auto industry. A cute decoration, but unnecessary.

But is it true? Do Florida colleges and universities really offer fluff courses?

There may never have been actual beer drinking class, but in that amber light, the University of Central Florida does offer a class titled Anheuser Busch Seminar in Quality Brewing and Fine Beer.

The school also offers such courses as Outdoor Noise Control, Country-western Dance, the Problem of Evil and Principles of Resort Timesharing.

UCF isn't alone. At the University of South Florida, students can take Philosophies of Love and Sex, Sex and Today's World and Emotion in Work.

USF offers Science that Matters, which would imply that some science doesn't matter. Which would make it antimatter. Which is a graduate course.

University officials have heard all the jokes. They have made a few themselves. But they say elective courses stimulate critical thinking while providing practical knowledge in a specific field.

"I'm sure some (fluff courses) are still around. But the majority of courses that might be an elective for one student would be part of a requirement for someone else," says Larry Abele, the provost and chief academic officer at Florida State University, where students can take Philosophical, Social and Behavioral Foundations of Leisure. Or at the other end of the spectrum, Stage Fight I and II, which teach actors how to, well, stage fights.

In other states, there have been sharp arguments over electives. Most have focused on pop culture studies, an emerging field that has gained a foothold in the past decade, particularly on liberal arts campuses.

Middlebury College in Vermont, for example, offers Reading Fairy Tales Today. The University of California-Santa Cruz teaches a course titled Music of the Grateful Dead. The University of Wisconsin offers Daytime Serials: Family and Social Roles.

Florida has fewer of these courses, which may be a testament to the state's insistence that all offerings be evaluated regularly. Enrollment is a factor in those evaluations. That's why some professors who teach electives try to market their classes, usually through posters and signs.

"But most universities are so swamped they don't need to," Abele says.

Which brings us to MUL 2010, a three-credit elective at the University of Florida titled Introduction to Music Literature. There are six MUL 2010 classes being taught at UF this semester, most with well over 100 students.

UF graduates may remember the course under its former name: "Music Appreciation."

"We wanted to get away from the image that you didn't have to work too hard," says David Kushner, head of the musicology/music history department at UF's School of Music. "It's not a snap, fluff course. Students have to write 6,000 words of accepted English prose to pass."

That's not to say the course isn't fun.

The English, biology and business majors who fill the classes do assigned readings and listenings. Those who have musical talent are asked to share their abilities. Instructors often bring in live performers.

Gary Galvan, who is working on his Ph.D. in musicology, is one of the instructors.

"The topics include the ethics of downloading music and censorship in music," Galvan says. "For instance, Eminem is banned in Daytona Beach. He can't perform there, and it's the spring break capital of America."

Galvan says the course is designed to get students to think.

"I look back at the instructors who made me think, who made a connection between the topic and the relevance to my life, and I try to do the same thing," he says. "Like noticing that none of the kids today are buying CDs, and then looking at the lawsuits being filed by the music industry. There are real moral issues there."

And yes, he says, several students have failed.

Steve Uhlfelder, a member of the Board of Governors, the 17-member panel that oversees Florida's university system, says elective courses are in some ways as important as core curricula.

"(Electives) should teach them writing, critical thinking and a sense of civic responsibility," Uhlfelder says. "That's a lost art today. I talk to students all the time and ask them who the vice president is. Fifty percent don't know. I ask them how many U.S. senators there are. Seventy-five percent don't know. They don't know about Brown vs. Board of Education or the Civil Rights Act. It's appalling. And these are smart students. That's what electives should be about."

Not beer brewing?

"I'm not saying no flexibility in electives," Uhlfelder says. "But we should encourage students to be critical thinkers because this is the last chance we have to get to them before they go out into the world."

One piece of advice for those choosing electives: Don't judge a course by its title. More than 130 USF students signed up this semester for BIO 2035. Sex and Today's World. The class has very little to do with sex.

It's a serious biology course that focuses on the application of biological principles to behavior and reproduction. "We discuss what good is sex," says instructor Johnny El-Rady. "Not what is good sex."


People make fun of some of the electives offered at Florida schools, but professors and administrators say they serve a purpose. Here are a few courses that have raised eyebrows:

University of Florida

MUL 2010: Introduction to Music Literature

  • Credits: 3
  • "A fundamental course open to all students (non-music majors) as an elective. Concert attendance, listening to records, reading and discussion."
  • University of South Florida

    AMS 6934 Selected topics (graduate course)

  • Credits: 3
  • "Open to non-majors. Variable topics such as Utopia, Florida on Film, The Blues, Film in American Culture, and Photography in American Culture."
  • St. Petersburg College

    PHI 2540

  • Thinking About Death
  • Credits: 3
  • "Such issues as how one's own death affects life choices, the possibility of survival of death, near death experiences, the implications of technology being able to eliminate physical death, the terror and attraction of death, etc., will be studied."
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