Revising our General Education Curriculum by May, 2017

Dear Colleagues,

We have a challenging second half of the semester. As you know, we’ve been engaged in a curriculum revision process that began several years ago in Curriculum Committee and then moved to our ad hoc committee to determine whether we wanted to pursue a curriculum revision. We approved that committee’s recommendation that we are due for a revision, and we approved the formation of what has become known as LAGER nearly two years ago. Their work has continued since that time.

Our current curriculum (the 1998 curriculum) provides an interdisciplinary introduction (FYS) and capstone (IDS 400) along with a series of distributed requirements in various areas, many of them aligning with particular departments or divisions of the college.  LAGER’s proposal has some topical requirements (e.g. writing, language) but largely takes a different form from this model, creating a less defined, less disciplinary central experience (what is currently called Communities in Practice) including experiential learning, team-based learning, and student projects. We’ve been discussing this model for the past year.

The deadline in LAGER’s charge was to have a new model approved by the end of this year. Recently, we’ve heard the charge from Jane that we not only need to have a new model approved, but that we also need to implement it for the first-year class arriving on campus this coming August. That’s obviously a tall order, but one that we think we can achieve.

In pursuit of that goal, Clerk’s Committee has identified some guiding principles for the remaining months of this semester.  Some of these principles we have heard from the community, and some of them we feel necessary to follow in order to arrive at an approved model in May.

We must respect those many voices who have advocated for a version of our “critical perspectives” curricular components in the new curriculum. It is clear that a significant component of our faculty feels that the academic scholarship, analytical structures, and institutional values represented by our existing “critical perspectives” curricular component should be represented in our new revised curriculum. It is clear that this is not just a few people pushing an agenda, but instead a commitment that many faculty wish us to make, with sincere passion for these issues and concern for our students and for the institution’s identity.

At the same time, there are other precedents, efforts, goals, and desires that compete with holding critical perspectives as a (or the) fundamental driving force in our revised curriculum. LAGER’s model intended fewer specific topic areas and more emphasis on learning communities. The Art and Science research pushes us toward a themed multi-year experience guided by student interests and infused with collaborative work.

Also, though the critical perspectives (CP) have wide and strong support, that support is not universal. If we specify more parts of our general education curriculum with particular content, such as the CPs, the areas not specifically represented (currently quantitative literacy, arts, and nearly the entire BPSS division) may raise a concern about why we are not representing all of the topics we teach here in the general education curriculum. Representation is a much weaker basis for a coherent curriculum than a designed experience.

We must act quickly, and we must incorporate the recommendations from Art and Science. This is the message that Jane presented at our faculty meeting on March 8th. The four main recommendations that the college has chosen to implement are:

  • Collaborative student-led problem-solving
  • Ethical leadership
  • Improved campus spirit
  • Team-based advising

The first of these four seems to be the most critical for the general education curriculum, although ethical leadership could also be incorporated there. This list is not prohibitive – obviously, we can include other components in our curriculum as we see fit, such as writing, public presentations, language, the three SACS-based requirements, and critical perspectives. However, we must be able to offer all students an authentic experience with all four of these in order to achieve the increased enrollment potential indicated by Art and Science. So, student-led collaborative work (the “major plus a passion” idea) should be central to whatever we do, and we should find a home in the curriculum or in other areas for ethical leadership. LAGER has worked hard to make their central experience (the part they’ve been calling Communities in Practice) reflect student-led collaborative experiential learning.

On the flip side, this mandate means that we can’t do as some have suggested and pass just a revision to FYS now, while deferring the curriculum revision to some future date. We can’t have an incoming class enter the school without the major curricular requirements they are expected to meet mapped out in the catalog. If we were just to revise FYS, we would be failing to follow the Art and Science recommendations and failing to meet the charge Jane assigned us, and we would be in effect putting yet another class through our old curriculum.

We must, where possible, maintain open pathways to participation by our colleagues. A successful general education curriculum requires faculty eager to teach it and students eager to participate in it. This is something we should keep in mind as we discuss and design the components of the new curriculum. The more restrictive and specific our demands for particular courses and elements are, the fewer faculty there are on campus who can teach them, much less teach them eagerly, and thus the fewer topics and the fewer choices we will have available for students in those areas. It may sometimes be better for the viability of the curriculum and for the institution (if not for a particular topic or educational principle) to allow more freedom in how we accomplish a curricular goal. Our current critical perspectives requirement, our FYS, our historical perspectives courses, and our IDS courses all reflect that openness to a variety of paths toward teaching a particular requirement. Those courses aren’t all perfect, but HP and our past QEP in writing have shown us that faculty are willing and able to learn and apply best practices to courses of their own design, even if those faculty are not originally trained in a particular discipline or pedagogy. And having a rich diversity of courses and disciplines able to cover the critical perspectives has allowed students more choice and more agency in designing their own course of study than a meager proscribed list of limited possibilities.

We must respect each other, and we must follow our process with good will and efficiency. Quaker tradition places equal value on all voices. Quaker business practice requires us to be open to changing our minds, considering suggestions as they arise, and willing to move toward consensus. We have a short timeframe in which to do difficult work, and we hope that we can remain respectful of each other’s gifts and wisdom while always working towards a positive consensus.

Next Steps

For us to approve a curriculum by May, and to implement the parts of it that need to be in place by Fall 2017 for the incoming class, we will need to reach a compromise on how to reconcile these competing models and interests. We have five regular Wednesday afternoon meeting times as shown in the table below, plus the potential to have additional meetings after the end of classes, which is obviously undesirable but not without precedent, and which may be necessary if we cannot make progress toward consensus.

April 5 – Faculty Meeting
April 12 – Faculty Forum
April 19 – Formerly Faculty Development; now likely to be scheduled instead as a called faculty meeting or other meeting
April 26 – Faculty Meeting
May 3 – Reserved for called Faculty Meeting
May 10 – Reading Day

Clerk’s Committee is committed to providing as much discussion time as we can and as much as we need to reach our goal of May approval. At the open discussion we held on March 15th, we discussed a variety of different models and approaches, but it seemed like we were making some significant progress toward agreement on a model where the critical perspectives were addressed at various touchpoints (in three to five different courses or experiences spanning a student’s career) in the LAGER model. That would allow us to maintain the critical perspectives component in the curriculum while still preserving the designed experience model and student-led collaborative work that are present in the LAGER design, which in turn implement some of the Art and Science recommendations.

Toward the end of that meeting, that harmony fell apart somewhat, as people expressed frustration with the entire process  or prohibitive discomfort with other parts of the LAGER model.  That was a difficult note to end on, but we hope that we can return to the earlier sense of progress that the first hour of the discussion produced surrounding the critical perspectives.

Obviously we also need to return to the issue of the central experience (in the LAGER model, the Community in Practice) and figure out what it should contain, how many credits it should include, how it should be structured, how to make it student-led, collaborative, and experiential while still teachable by our existing faculty, and how to ensure that it provides a positive, passion-based experience as a companion to the major. That’s  a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, and we have the advantage of being able to discuss it further and design it next year while our incoming class takes their first-year courses, language, and writing, and explores potential majors. So, it does not need to be entirely nailed down by May, although we should agree on its form in broad strokes.

There may be other sticky issues remaining as well, and we can address them as we move through the coming weeks.  We hope that we can remember that:

  1. Our 1998 curriculum is far from perfect. We agreed that we wanted a change, and a major change, two years ago when we approved this process.
  2. We need to adopt a framework this spring, but we can refine and revise the details later as we experience it and teach it. We’ve done that a lot with the 1998 curriculum. Many of the concepts in it were new and ill-defined when we approved them, and we designed them and redesigned them and made them better over the subsequent years after approval.

In order to address and include our many goals, we’re going to have to find a compromise position on how these concepts and disciplines fit into our new model. It is 100% likely that what we end up with will not fit any one person’s desire for how it should look, so we’ll all need to be open to a good-faith effort to honor all of these competing priorities as best we can. If we can all get to a model we can live with, with some opportunities for each of us to do some new creative teaching, that also has the potential to provide deeper, personalized student experiences, that’s a success. The perfect is very much the enemy of the good here.

Thanks for the time you’ve already spent on curriculum, the time we’re asking you to spend over the next two months, for your concern for our teaching, for our students, and for the college. We look forward to our ongoing conversations and to building a new, exciting model by the end of the year.


Clerk’s Committee