A&S considers curriculum changes

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
August 30, 2016

The College of Arts and Sciences is undertaking a yearlong conversation with students, faculty and staff, asking them to reflect on the college’s liberal arts and sciences mission and on ways in which the curriculum and graduation requirements support that mission.

“It has been 15 years since we last covered this topic in a collegewide discussion,” said Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “In that time, we have witnessed a lively national debate about the effectiveness of distribution requirements, about the concept of a core curriculum and about students’ preparation for careers in a changing world. This context gives us a rich opportunity to create a formal process of reflection and reassessment within the College of Arts and Sciences.”

The college has created a Curriculum Committee, led by Laura Brown, the John Wendell Anderson Professor of English, which is framing the conversation in relation to three “scenarios,” each of which offers a distinct format for student learning. Professor Peter Lepage, director of education innovation for the college, serves as an ex officio member of the committee.

“Determining the curriculum is one of the most important responsibilities of the faculty,” said Interim President Hunter Rawlings. “I am delighted that our Arts and Sciences faculty are reviewing the curriculum to ensure that our students develop the critical thinking, close reading, and clear writing and speaking capabilities that are the hallmarks of a strong liberal arts education.”

The committee will gather feedback through a series of broad, cross-college discussions and focus-group interactions, as well as through a website that will serve as a hub for communications throughout the process. Students, faculty, staff and alumni are also welcome to submit ideas and feedback using this form.

“This is an exciting and challenging topic, for our own college community and across higher education today,” Brown said. “We’re eager to support a full discussion that enables us to learn from each other and that connects us with creative ideas to advance liberal education.”

The three scenarios under consideration include:

This scenario depends – like the current system – on the menu structure to delineate breadth or “distribution,” and it follows the current practice of broad labeling of a large selection of courses. But this approach defines an explicit set of learning goals, which in turn directly match up with the menu itself, and which also express the educational mission of the college with succinctness and intentionality. Under this scenario, the college would describe the learning goals and educational purpose of a liberal arts undergraduate education and point to a set of curricular requirements that directly reflect those goals.

This scenario also depends on the menu structure, but it trims the menu, designating a limited and intentional distribution curriculum in which the selection of courses that fulfill the requirements is more focused than the current broad labeling. This approach also creates a time-sensitive framework in which students must take half of their distribution courses in their first two years, so as to lead from general education to specialization. In addition, this scenario includes a required overview course that introduces the mission, impacts and outcomes of liberal education. Under this scenario the college would support a focused and sequential approach to breadth, and offer a coherent and collective learning experience that systematically represents the scope of each major area of study.

This scenario engages inquiry and supports creative problem-solving skills through a broad curriculum of inquiry-driven courses. Distribution is not fulfilled through a segmented menu, but through an arrangement of complementary cross-disciplinary courses that, taken together, represent the range of disciplines in the college. This scenario is anchored by a new common course – a required introduction to liberal studies and epistemology. Under this scenario, the college would highlight problem-solving by using that practice to generate a curriculum that offers breadth through cross-disciplinary inquiry.

Along with Brown and Lepage, other members of the Curriculum Committee include faculty members Gerard Aching (Africana studies and Romance studies), Anindita Banerjee (comparative literature), Claire Cardie (information science and computer science), Derek Chang (history and Asian-American studies), Brian Crane (chemistry), Melissa Ferguson (psychology), Kelly Liu (molecular biology and genetics), Tom Pepinsky (government) and Kim Weeden (sociology); students Leighton Cook ’18 and Madeline Gerrick ’17; and Kim Stockton (executive support).

“This is an evolving process this semester, and its next stage will be entirely shaped by what students and faculty help us learn – about how we collectively define the identity and the role of the college in supporting liberal education,” Brown said.

Said Ritter: “For this effort to be truly meaningful and successful, we need to have a broad and deep conversation about curriculum on the part of the entire college community. Over the coming months – in department meetings, student discussions and faculty gatherings – I encourage our students and colleagues to get involved. This is an exciting opportunity to renew our long-standing commitment to educational excellence in the college and at Cornell.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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