David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Elective Surgery

November 2004:  We hated to admit it, but until November, we hadn't received any official questions from anyone who wasn't part of our basic foursome.  Then, one of our brave readers came forth with a question, and was willing to sign his name. (This article has had several dead links removed.)

WCAC/QuAAC Corner: Elective Surgery

(Or: Dave and Gary have sailed their course)

David Fleming, division chair, English, humanities and communication

Gary Franchy, division chair, math


Gary: Today's query is from Shane Brooks of the Lansing Campus. Shane writes,

"As part of my job as a Career and Education Advisor, I am often explaining the concept of open electives to students.  Every now and then, after telling a student that 'You can take any class you want to fulfill an open electives requirement,' they reply "Even underwater basket weaving?"

I think everybody knows what the speaker is talking about, but I'm still curious as to the origin of that reference. 

Also what makes people think it would be easy to weave baskets underwater?  I mean you're either holding your breath and risking drowning, or you have all that scuba gear on, which I would assume impedes the weaving process.

Any light you can shine on this subject would be much appreciated."

Dave: Umm. 

Gary: Yes, Dave.

Dave: Do you remember when we started soliciting questions for this column?

Gary: Yes.

Dave: Did we ever bother to limit the scope of the questions?

Gary: Not that I recall, but as long as they keep "experts" in quotes, I don't think it really matters.

Dave: Oh, in that case, Wikipedia hypothesizes that the origin of this term was derived from the traditional practice of actually soaking canes in water to make them more flexible for weaving. Later, the term "underwater basket weaving" became a synonym for an "undecided" major in college, or a random college degree (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underwater_basket_weaving).

Gary: The joke has certainly taken on a life of its own. I just Googled "underwater basket weaving" and received 10,300 hits. In the category of too-much-time-on-their-hands, someone has created a master list of potential basket weaving classes.  The website of the fictional W.I.T. lists classes such as:

·         MBW311 Advanced Atmospheric Basket Weaving, Laboratory

·         MBW250 Basket Weaving Ethics

·         MBW510 Introduction to Basket Genetics

·         MBW810 Neural Networks through Basket Weaving

As well as the oxymoronic "MBW100 Basket Weaving for Non-majors."

Dave:  Yes, but the real jokes are some of the actual courses offered by legitimate colleges and universities.  For example, the University of Georgia course on basketball, where the assistant men's basketball coach asked test questions such as, "How many points do you get for a three-point shot?" (Withers 2004).

Gary:  Hey, that's mathematical literacy.  Duke offers a course that I would imagine helps their basketball players not drop the ball: "The Physics, History and Technique of Juggling."

Dave: It's not just the athletes that get the easy classes; apparently, there's hope for geeks, as well. According to the Princeton Review, Muhlenberg College teaches "Religions of Star Trek," while Indiana University-Bloomington offers a course in the much more rigorous-sounding "Star Trek and Religion."  They suggest that after students complete the course, "true Trekkies will want to transfer immediately to Georgetown for its 'Philosophy and Star Trek' class."

Gary: It enables students to boldly go where no student has gone before

Dave: What have I told you about split infinitives? 

Gary: To really stop using them.  Meanwhile, "Goth" students at the University of Pennsylvania could really sink their teeth into "Vampires: The Undead." 

Dave: I'm assuming that it's a night class.

Gary: Naturally.  Also, you have to make sure you don't cross your professor.

Dave: But of course.  And I really hope that the material isn't (w)hol(l)y watered down.

Gary: You know folks, once you invite a punster in, they can come and go as they please. 

Dave: I think it's time to return to the original question. 

Gary: Shane. Shane. Come back.

Dave: {Groan} So are we comfortable with the explanation that the origin of the term is derived from the placement of the reeds, rather than the weaver, under water?

Gary:  Almost.  Let's ask Dr. Joe Kearney, math professor at Grand Rapids. He's a model shipbuilder extraordinaire and I believe they use that same technique.

Dave [dials phone]:  Hi, Joe.  We seek your expertise.  When you do your shipbuilding, do you immerse the wood in water?

Joe:  Wood can certainly be soaked, even overnight, for bending purposes. Oftentimes a better method is to steam the wood, as you would steam a garment.  Another way to make the wood pliable is to let it steep in boiling water for a minute.

Dave: That sounds sooooo easy! I'm going to make a ship for Lincoln's Christmas present. It will be fantastic. No doubt the child will want to pass it down to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren...

Joe:  Not so fast, Skippy. 

Gary: Hey, only I get to call him "Skippy."

Joe: Sorry.  Being prepared is the key.  Working with steamed/steeped wood requires immediate attention.  For instance, one should always plan to have the proper tools ready after boiling to bend the wood, especially if there is a compound curve to be accomplished.  I could go into those details, you know, but suffice to say there are specially made tools, crude and custom rigging, and other challenges.

Gary:  Does the type of wood matter?

Joe:  Definitely.  One might think to use balsa, but it is a very poor wood to work with.  It is far too soft, and the grain is too rough to carve well.  Basswood or Limewood (European Basswood) works best.

Gary:  Tell us about the boats you make.  How long does it take you build a ship?

Joe:  The completion of a scratch-built ship project can take four months to several years.  My model of the Andrea Doria (http://home.comcast.net/~kearneyjf) took seven years to build.


Gary:  Seven years!!  That's a lot of time you "sunk" into the project.

Joe:  Not at all.

Gary: Well, just make sure you keep your model of the Stockholm away from it.

Joe: Goodbye, Gary.

[Joe hangs up]

Dave: Well, now I'm going to get started on Lincoln's ship.

Gary:  Uh, Dave, you only have a month before Christmas and Joe said it takes him a minimum of four months for a simple ship.

Dave:  I could make something a little simpler. 

[Two weeks later]

Gary: How's that family heirloom coming, Dave?

Dave: I've just put the finishing touches on it this morning.

Gary: Nice!

Dave: Really!  Do you think Lincoln will like it?

Gary: Well, none of his friends will have one.

Dave: That's for sure.  Well, Shane, I hope we shed enough light on the subject for you.

Gary: And, as always, feel free to keep asking questions.

Dave: Go on, Gary, I know you're dying to say it.

Gary: Bye, Shane


The picture of Dave's ship is from: http://schools.cbe.ab.ca/b143/boats/building/models.html


Winters, Bud. (2004, August 31).  NCAA academic reforms renew basic debate. 

          Seattle Times.  Retrieved November 2, 2004, from