To some, they're tough - to others, they're fluff

It's late in the afternoon on a bumpy two-lane road between Guerrero, Coahuila, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas.

Professor Mario Montano is driving. Days and hundreds of miles ago, near Brownsville, his 11 tired students heard a talk on immigration by a US Border Patrol agent. They attended a lecture on palm-forest ecology, and learned about folk religions and water rights. Images of days spent hard by the Rio Grande with poor Mexicans are recorded in their journals.

Yes, there will be a test, and an oral presentation, an annotated bibliography, an electronic portfolio, and a Web page. All in 3,000 miles and three weeks.

Colorado College's Anthropology 385, "Rio Grande River," is just one of several cutting-edge classes pushing the boundaries of traditional course design on campuses nationwide.

In some cases, they're putting new twists on old subjects, like Joe Hoyle's "Socratic Accounting" at the University of Richmond in Virginia - students learn from the hundreds of questions he asks each of them over a semester. No lecture.

Others are melding disciplines. Paul Brazina's "E-commerce" (Web-based electronic-commerce) classes at La Salle University, in Philadelphia, are designed for nonbusiness majors. Hundreds of hot new courses like this spring up each year.

Some of these are tough and others, frankly, are fluff. But all serve to test the limits of what a college or university finds acceptable in the name of educating men and women.

To some extent, these schools are merely responding to a growing demand. In the past, most college students faced a fairly limited set of choices: After fulfilling the requirements for their major, they might have had room for a few "fun" electives - a class in art, or maybe music. But now, with the increasing popularity of interdisciplinary and self-designed majors, students can pick and choose from a wide range of courses, forcing departments to be more innovative in their offerings.

Debate over the value of these new courses has intensified in recent years, along with criticism that many of them are ephemeral or lightweight.

"When I hear about some of these courses, I wonder, why does this have to be offered by a college?" says Jeffrey Wallin, president of the American Academy for Liberal Education, an accrediting body. "What colleges should do is prepare you for your life - give you the intelligence, principles, and grounding to cope with changes rather than bring you up to date on things going on now."

Others see the flowering of new courses in a more benign light.

"On every campus you have intelligent and agile faculty members who dream up interesting things to do and ways to engage their students," says Jerry Gaff, vice president of the network for academic renewal at the American Association of Colleges and Universities in Washington. "Some courses are less academically rigorous and less respectable than others. You can't make a snap judgment. It takes time."

Dr. Brazina, executive director of the new E-commerce Institute at La Salle University couldn't agree more. "Trendy" is a barb frequently shot these days at e-commerce degrees and courses, he admits.

"It's true," he says. "Many of the new e-commerce courses and degrees being offered are very trendy. It looks like schools have scrambled to invent courses." The mistake is in developing a "major" or "degree" on the fly that may work today but not a year from now, he says.

Instead, his view is that e-commerce works best if it is integrated in low-profile throughout the curriculum - which he has done. His program embeds e-commerce in "modules" into English and other humanities courses, thus reaching well outside the confines of business majors to make this expertise available to every student at the institution.

But Dr. Wallin says that while e-commerce may well be a legitimate course subject, he's still a bit leery of the academy's rush to embrace it.

"The question that must be asked is whether a course is merely pandering to current fads in education," he says. "There's a tension built into every institution: a desire to educate students, and the institutional desire to be a successful business. They've got to keep the dorms full."

Other observers, however, say the flowering of innovative classes that seems like college-lite to some are actually useful adaptations.

"One man's frivolity is another man's serious academic pursuit," says Charles Cook, director of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits Northeastern institutions. "There has been a tendency toward greater relativism in recent years. We also see a greater array of offerings than 20 to 30 years ago when the world was neatly divided up. There's greater emphasis on interdisciplinary studies."

Perhaps with that in mind, Victor Coonin, an art history professor, and his colleague Bradford Pendley, a chemistry professor, at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., decided over lunch to offer a class that explored both at the same time. Interdisciplinary studies are hardly new - but in this case the innovation was in melding art and science.

In "The Art and Science of Early Italian Painting," students this spring will learn introductory chemistry - atomic theory, composition of atoms, chemical bonding, the nature of light and how it interacts with pigments. And they will do it crouched over a wooden plank, painstakingly reproducing their own Italian-style masterpiece using methods mastered centuries ago - by layering linen and egg tempera paint.

"We're not favoring one method of inquiry over another," says Dr. Pendley. "We want them to see that, whether they approach a problem from a scientific or an artistic standpoint, they're just related expressions of the human mind."

Back on the dusty road with Dr. Montano, the Colorado College anthropologist, the opportunity to defend his new course against charges that it is lacking in intellectual gravitas has arisen a few times.

"Every one of my colleagues has a right to bring that criticism," he says. "I don't feel offended. It's part of my responsibility to bring something respectable and rigorous. And I have a right to show them it's not one of those touchy-feely courses.

"Mine is not a course for cultural tourists," he continues. "If I have a critic, I say: Here, you can see what [the students] have done - the critical thinking. You can go to the documents and see the evidence."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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