Arts & Sciences releases proposal for new curriculum

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
March 7, 2017

The Curriculum Review Committee (CRC) in the College of Arts & Sciences today has released a draft Arts and Sciences curriculum proposal, organized around modes of inquiry – distinct approaches to framing questions and solving problems across the disciplines – rather than topical content. The proposal also offers students more choices at different points in their academic careers.

The new Arts & Sciences curriculum proposal uses five modes of inquiry to develop a course of study in which students take foundational courses early in their undergraduate careers. These foundational courses allow students to engage with and reflect on different ways of thinking in addition to their other disciplinary, interdisciplinary or applied and problem-driven learning goals.

The draft proposal will be discussed Thursday, March 9, during an Arts & Sciences town hall meeting from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium, Klarman Hall. The CRC is also planning a student forum, as well as other opportunities for Arts & Sciences faculty members to review the draft proposal and provide feedback through the end of April. The committee is also soliciting feedback from the broader Cornell community, including advising staff, faculty from other colleges and schools, and alumni. Pending review and feedback, the college aims to bring a version of this proposal to the faculty for a vote in May.

“I want to thank all those who have participated in the Curriculum Review Committee, liaison group and various discussions leading up to this point,” said Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts & Sciences. “I believe the committee has put forth a thoughtful proposal that reaffirms and clarifies our core values of breadth and freedom while encouraging our students to claim their education and become lifelong learners. Establishing a living curriculum with intentions to pilot various approaches enables our faculty to renew its commitment to undergraduate education in an ongoing and carefully considered way that I believe both our college and university can support.”

The new approach to the curriculum responds to common questions and concerns identified by Arts & Sciences faculty and students, and it reaffirms two core values: breadth of knowledge and student freedom. The proposal seeks to build on college strengths articulated through a yearlong discussion process – the breadth of the college’s course offerings, Cornell’s tradition of interdisciplinary research and teaching, writing across the curriculum, and language learning.

The proposed curriculum introduces “foundational courses” to satisfy inquiry-based requirements. Foundational courses may be new or they may be remodeled versions of current courses that will be tuned toward the five proposed modes of inquiry: humanistic inquiry; social and behavioral inquiry; scientific inquiry; mathematical and quantitative reasoning; and interdisciplinary exploration.

Foundational courses may introduce students to a set of questions, issues, materials or problems, or provide basic or introductory skills needed to complete advanced work. Identifying these courses and encouraging students to take them early in their Cornell careers will give students direction outside of their majors, communicate the value of exploring early, and help faculty to better advise their students by highlighting the foundations of the Arts & Sciences experience, the committee explained.

At the same time, three other Arts & Sciences core values are also key to the new proposal:

  • All courses teach critical thinking and disciplinary or interdisciplinary ways of thinking, knowing and doing.
  • Students should not be discouraged from exploring the full breadth of course offerings in the college.
  • Department autonomy remains essential. Denoting courses as foundational does not imply a preferred curricular structure for departmental majors or that certain courses are more or less valuable than others.

The CRC has been working since January 2016 to explore new ideas for the college curriculum, including discussions about the mission of a liberal arts and sciences education today and the ways in which graduation requirements reflect and support that mission. The committee was chaired by Laura Brown, the John Wendell Anderson Professor of English. Thomas Pepinsky, associate professor of government, is chairing the group this semester.

The committee conducted extensive outreach to solicit feedback through collegewide meetings and focus group conversations with faculty and students. The departmental liaison group held discussions in individual departments and programs, and conveyed feedback and suggestions to the CRC. In all, more than 300 faculty members and students have participated in conversations about revising college requirements.

The liaison group drafted a “Principles of a Liberal Arts and Sciences Education” document in November. The thinking presented by the liaison group was fundamental to the CRC’s formulation of the new proposal, resting on broad agreement among faculty about those principles.

“This is an exciting time for the Arts & Sciences community,” Pepinsky said. “This proposal stakes a big claim for student autonomy, interdisciplinarity and faculty engagement in the college curriculum, and reaffirms faculty commitment to language, writing and breadth. This draft will focus the college community’s ongoing discussions around the distinctive Arts & Sciences experience here at Cornell.”

The full proposal, including a comparison of current requirements with those of the new proposal and sample undergraduate schedules, is available on the college’s curriculum discussion website. Comments are welcome through a website form.

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