Core conflict: LAS proposal up for a vote

By Thomas Regan 

A proposed change for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ core curriculum — which would be its first significant revision in more than 35 years — faces a vote on March 31.

The proposal was met with strongly differing opinions during a meeting of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Committee on Academic Policy (LASCAP) on Feb. 25.

The proposal’s supporters argue that the core will reinforce fundamental skills — writing, speech and mathematics  — with upper-level courses in any discipline designed to practice those abilities. Proponents believe the “vertical” (in-depth) aspect of the core would lead students to focus their elective courses in a particular subject area. Ideally, this would lead to the pursuit of a minor.

Critics voice concern that on top of the old core — which is kept virtually intact and still totals about 42 credits — the addition of about seven intensive or upper-level courses could take away from minors, and free electives while making second majors practically impossible.

Dr. Jonathan Millen, associate dean for the Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that the proposed core would push the reconstruction of some courses in every department, revitalizing the academic community.

“Departments are going to have this opportunity to really rethink what their courses are going to be,” he said. “We think that that’s not only going to energize faculty, but it’s also going to get students really excited because they’re going to be in these courses that are injected with new thought.”

The proposal would change the current core, by adding a required oral communication course, and offering the ability to choose between the present two sciences (six credits) or a single science course with a one-credit lab (four credits). The credit total for that part of the proposal comes out to anything between 43 and 45 credits.

Yet, as the document continues, there is a global perspective element that says, “no additional credits required,” but then states that one course must be taken. In addition, the vertical dimension is prefaced with “no additional graduation credits required,” but says, “This requirement fosters depth and coherence in a field outside of the (first) major. Note: These two courses are electives to be determined by the student in consultation with his or her academic adviser as consistent with the specification below.”

Because of the document’s language, Dr. Cynthia Lucia, professor of English and director of Film and Media studies, fears that some of the proposal’s elements, particularly the “vertical” requirements, may prove more cumbersome than beneficial to students trying to pick up a minor.

“While there is a six-credit ‘Vertical Integration’ piece, there are additional ‘verticality’ requirements that aren’t labeled as such,” she said in an email. “I believe this adds an element of confusion for both students and faculty advisers, and it may have the effect of discouraging students from pursuing minors and/or double majors.”

In addition, the proposed curriculum change includes an increased emphasis on continued learning in skills — writing, math and speech — plus an added global perspective.

All told, the proposed core could add about seven courses to the current load, though its supporters suggest that courses within majors, minors and the core would be able to satisfy these changes.

“We want all students to do some sort of applied math after they take their initial math course,” Millen said. “In addition to taking an introductory speech course, students would be expected to take another speech course along the way that will enhance their oral communication skills. Another example would be writing. Right now, everybody does the elements of composition and then they do research writing.”

This proposal would add two writing intensive courses that could be within their major, minor or electives.

However, Dr. Vanita Neelakanta, professor of English, who admits to her ambivalence on the proposed core, doubts how much focus would be placed on a course that is supposed to concentrate in writing.

For example, the proposal says a writing-intensive course would require at least 16 pages of writing assignments.

“I don’t think 16 pages is adequate,” she said. “I understand that there’s been objection from certain departments where writing is not the main focus. I’m also a little leery on how much attention will actually be paid to the writing, as opposed to the kind of material that they’re talking about.”

The hope for these intensive courses, according to Millen, would be to minimize the number of additional credits, while providing students with added practice of skills.

“Double-dipping changes everything,” he said. “It could lead to a minimal increase at most.”

Neelakanta is unsure whether every student would have the ability to double-dip a course to satisfy requirements, especially while the current core is remaining largely intact.

“I think that once it is implemented it will prove a real challenge, logistically. There is so much that we’re trying to take from the current system and then tweak it and move it around to fit a new set of criteria. I feel in doing that, we might run up against a lot of problems, like [quantitative in the English major], where not every requirement  is going to be applicable to every single discipline. So when you start mandating these blanket requirements, then you could face real issues in terms of how every goal is to be realized by every discipline or department.”

The current core will be assessed leading up to the Middle States reaccreditation in 2018. However, Jane Rosenbaum, adjunct professor in English, said the assessment would have been more useful if it had been done before attempting to propose a change.

“As [Provost] DonnaJean [Fredeen] pointed out at the last LASCAP meeting, we’ve never done a comprehensive assessment of the core,” Rosenbaum said. “This would all be so much simpler if that had been done, and then we would know where it needed tweaking, and then there would be much less dissension.”

Millen understands that a lot of the proposed core’s opponents worry that advisers won’t be able to effectively keep track of how many requirements one course could satisfy. He says that DegreeWorks would simplify this.

“If we code DegreeWorks correctly, which says if you take this course, it will check these two boxes, it’s a non-issue,” he said. “Courses will satisfy multiple boxes, and then advisers simply need to be trained in how to use DegreeWorks. For some reason, I think the core committee, of which I’m a member, has not done a good enough job of explaining this to folks. It’s a critique that’s easily addressed.”

Voters on March 31 will be the seven members of LASCAP — three administrators and four faculty members.

Applying new core to current students

Out of curiosity, I looked at how my courses would match up with the proposed core to help determine how I would fare under the new system. In theory, I would be marginally affected.

Since I am a journalism major and all I do is write, write some more and write again, I would easily satisfy the writing-intensive element of the proposal. As for the oral requirement, I have taken both speech communication and advanced speech communication in my major, so, I would satisfy that as well. The computer-assisted reporting class, a journalism course involving writing based on the interpretation of data, would conceivably check off the quantitative-reasoning aspect.

I have already completed about half of my advertising minor, and thus I have taken the series of related courses required to satisfy the vertical dimension of the proposal. However, I would need to take one course that is focused on the global perspective, and as a result, I would likely lose one of my free electives.

Yet, after sitting down with a friendly adviser, I was able to examine several senior students’ programs and found a number of less fortunate individuals. Now, I would like to preface this by saying that Liberal Arts Associate Dean Jonathan Millen did express the idea that the proposed core would require a change in courses.

Nevertheless, one of those students, who majors in psychology, would be five classes short of completing the proposed core without a significant change in the focus of the courses within her major. Her department would need to offer two “writing intensive” classes within her major, an oral communication course and one concentrated in the global perspective. In addition, the student would be unable to satisfy the vertical dimension aspect because she does not have a minor or series of non-major related courses.

Another student with a major in history and two minors would satisfy his vertical dimension requirement, and presumably, a history major would sail through the global perspective part of the proposed core. However, unless his history courses were made writing-, oral communication- or quantitative intensive, he would miss out on those requirements and end up four classes short.

Finally, we looked at a student majoring in film, TV and radio with a minor. He  studied abroad, which should grant him global perspective, though the plan does not say so. The minor would get him out of the vertical dimension and his major course would satisfy the oral communication requirement and one of the writing intensive requirements.

While there is merit to the proposed core, the school would have to offer different courses or change existing courses so students like the aforementioned can satisfy those requirements. And in an ideal world, these courses would be designed first and then the core would change.

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