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Building a 21st-century curriculum

Rethinking the Liberal Arts at Goucher College

Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger had this to say about a liberal arts education: “I respect no study, and deem no study good, which results in money-making.” That idea of education, as “studies worthy of a free-born gentleman,” divorced from practical concerns, which held sway over the liberal arts for much of the twentieth century, is increasingly being challenged in American colleges. And as the paradigm shifts away from what one scholar called the “cold war model,” educators are rethinking the benefits of the liberal arts, and how best to go about reaping them.

A recent survey of employers by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) found overwhelming support for the idea that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major,” and employers rated “integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning” as highly desirable skills among employees. In other words, colleges like Goucher have been teaching job skills all along.

The idea of an all-encompassing curriculum has stood the test of time better than many, more vocation- oriented, approaches, though the specifics of that curriculum have varied. (Astrology, for instance, a staple for Seneca, is now largely absent from the halls of academe.) Now academics are tweaking the formula for a new century. At Goucher, professors and administrators have been taking a hard look at the traditional way of teaching the liberal arts, and they’ve come up with an innovative system to replace it, scheduled to take effect in the fall of 2017.

“The handwriting has been on higher education’s wall for some time,” says political science professor Eric Singer, who took part in an ad hoc committee to look at changes to Goucher’s curriculum. Higher costs, and dwindling numbers of students able to pay them, are putting colleges and universities in a bind. “And converging with those sorts of business and demographic challenges has been the question of relevance. In a changing world, is the traditional liberal arts curriculum the appropriate delivery system for students who were wanting to find out how they can navigate an increasingly complex, chaotic, and perhaps interdisciplinary world?”

Ending the Cold War Curriculum

The “Cold War curriculum,” a phrase coined by AACU President Carol Geary Schneider, takes breadth and depth for its organizing principles. In her 2010 essay, “General Education 1.0,” Schneider says the breadth comes early, in the form of general education require- ments during the first two years of school, while depth comes later, once a student has chosen a major. The problem, she argues, is that too often “there is no intention and certainly no game plan for helping students make their general studies serve as a context for their major studies. The entire design fosters specialization rather than integration, and critics have complained vehemently about exactly that design flaw ever since ‘breadth and depth’ began to gain steam.”

In an age of disruption and change, the argument goes, students need to be ready for dramatic shifts. Rather than teaching a body of knowledge, colleges should concern themselves first with the tools to gain that knowledge. The AACU’s 2007 report on the subject lists inquiry and analysis as essential preparation for students, but also teamwork, ethical action, and intercultural competence.

The question remains, though, for educators: How does one teach inquiry? And is it different than teaching, say, biology? For Goucher Physics and Astronomy Professor Rodney Yoder, who also took part in the curriculum committee, it made sense to start with the students.

“One of the things the committee did at the outset was to say ‘we don’t need to have discussions about our historical identity,’” Yoder says. “But we have a pretty good sense of who our students are—what their challenges are, what their interests are, and where we need to meet them. They’re not just any students, they’re the ones who choose Goucher.”

Yoder says the committee developed a shorthand to describe Goucher students—curious, creative, and collaborative. “Then there’s the social justice side,” he adds, “the global outlook that we get. And this is an amazingly non-competitive culture. The students don’t like to compete with each other. They like to see themselves as all in the same boat, and to work together.”

Faculty looked at the experiences of other colleges to see how they’d handled the integration of learning requirements and majors. Some curricula focus on one concept—say, “evidence”—and carry that through required classes in the sciences and humanities. Goucher faculty considered this course, Yoder says, but “in the end we concluded that it was more Goucher-like to give students the tools they needed, and guide them toward a personally relevant integrated learning pathway, rather than telling them how to do it up front. The addition of a required capstone experience for seniors, in which students reflect on and bring together their learning experiences, is designed to reinforce this goal.”

Yoder says that surveys and focus groups with students, along with faculty experience, showed that Goucher did some things well, but fell short in other areas.

“It was a really great opportunity for us all to reexamine where we are and where we’d like to be,” he says. “To be honest about what we’ve been able to achieve, and what we’ve been more aspirational about.”

On the achievement side: the majors. “Our students have experienced the Goucher education as a path to the majors,” he says. “And they tend to be very satisfied with their major.”

Less successful, in Yoder’s opinion, were the so-called Liberal Education Requirements (LERs)— which put forth a set of subject areas that students had to cover during their time at Goucher. Yoder and others on the curriculum committee felt that the LERs had become a set of hurdles to jump, and weren’t connected to the rest of the curriculum in any meaningful way.

“The other side of the curriculum is the changing of the LERs,” he explains. “Personally, I feel that the LER system was old fashioned. It was unimaginative, and I think many of our students were encouraged not to pay much attention to it.”

Provost Leslie Lewis agrees. “I would say one of the main problems with general education require- ments everywhere is that they become a formulaic, check-the-box kind of requirement for students,” she says. “Even in advising students, we’ll say things like, ‘Oh, just take this course to get this requirement out of the way.’ That’s a third or a quarter of your college education being treated in this off-hand, almost throwaway manner. The real question is, ‘How can we really utilize that time that students are in classes to be just a little bit more purposeful?’”

Finding Passion in Learning

A model presented itself in something Goucher was already doing, and— according to student feedback—doing well. Frontiers courses, the required seminars for first-year students, have been popular, if sometimes offbeat-sounding, presentations, driven by professors’ own interests. German professor Antje Krueger, for example, offers a seminar on international comics and graphic novels, while Peace Studies professor (and poet) Ailish Hopper takes on “the relationship between poetry and social change.” The similarity in the disparate offerings is the excitement of the presenter.

“When we were thinking about the new curriculum, that was very much an important piece,” says economic professor Gina Shamshak. “To have students see us and have us model how to be passionate, how to conduct research and how to talk about certain topics using the language and framework from a particular discipline or blend of disciplines.”

“It’s not so much that it’s about everything that you ever wanted to know about this topic,” says Lewis, “but more a demonstration of an area where a faculty member is really passionate about something, about a set of ideas.”

The main changes in the curriculum build on that idea of being inspired by passion. While the nominal subject of a first-year seminar may be, for example, American romantic comedies, the students are actually learning the methods and tools of scholarly investigation.

The next step, faculty involved in the design of the new curriculum say, is to transfer that leadership role to the students, to get them to follow their own scholarly passions over three courses designed to be more open-ended than the usual lecture method of university teaching allows. They may start with a topic, or question, but the path the courses take over a semester will be determined by the students. In a more traditional course, say, Political Science 101, the professor is the expert at the front of the class, imparting the elements of their discipline. In these inquiry-based courses, the professor acts as a guide, allowing a certain amount of latitude. How much latitude will depend on the course and the professor.

“You can imagine it would be chaos if you had 400 students who walked in the door and each wanted to do something different,” says political science professor Singer. “There have to be some organizing themes and parameters that define these inquiry courses.”

“Rather than telling a student, ‘You should be learning about the latter stages of the Enlightenment,’” Singer continues, “we’re going to be saying ‘If you’re interested in any historical era, what are the approaches that allow you to learn about it? How do
we use primary source materials? How do we sift through different sorts of data?’ The idea here is that it’s about method and pedagogy, as opposed to content.”

The inquiry courses are, in some sense, an attempt to build in a little of the chaos Singer references, to allow for the sort of happy accident that can awaken a new interest in a student, without allowing it to derail things.

“Because it’s so open-ended,” says Yoder, “our hope is that students can use that as a jumping off point into a future major, as well as taking whatever is interesting to them and taking that back to their eventual field of study.”

Introductory classes, which have been tradition- ally used to satisfy requirements in the liberal arts, are great for educating students about a specific discipline, less so for teaching this sort of overall approach to learning. The inquiry-based model, then, allows students to satisfy the requirements for a multi-disciplinary education, while reserving the straight intro courses for students looking to pursue a specific interest, or even a major.

“Some people sort of prickle at that,” says economist Shamshak. “We’re not saying the content doesn’t matter, but it’s more about the process. I think we can relinquish these hang-ups we have with needing to deliver particular content in our general education courses. That’s not the role of the course anymore. The bigger question is ‘What is it about how this discipline approaches this problem or question, and what tools do they use in their analysis?’ Delivering content in the major is a separate endeavor from exposing students to an area of study, especially when that exposure is student-driven by design in the course.”

Another change in Goucher’s curriculum is a college-wide shift from offering three- and four-credit courses, to scheduling around four-credit courses only (some electives will be offered for two credits).

It’s a practical change—working out a schedule that permits blocks of three and four hours is a logistical nightmare—but the effect is that slightly fewer classes will be necessary to graduate, and fewer classes will be offered. Some of those cuts will come from intro classes, as students who might have taken them just to satisfy requirements will no longer do so, allowing for fewer sessions tailored to more engaged students. Other cuts won’t be so easy, but that’s part of the plan, or at least an anticipated consequence, says Yoder.

“One of the things I see over and over is that Goucher students are bright, they’re energetic, they’re committed, they’re really curious, and I love that about them,” he says. “However, the level that they’re able to follow through tails off badly at the end of the semester. They don’t live up to their potential when it comes time to get it all done at the end.”

That goes for faculty as well, Yoder believes. “We have a tendency to try to be all things to all students,” he says. “This means that we’re aiming above our weight class in some ways, and I think we manage it to a surprising degree. I think being realistic about ourselves—what we’d like to do, and what we can manage—and making those priorities is the thing we ought to be doing. Those are all questions that all of us are having right now.”

Moving Into The Future

Dance Professor Iyun Harrison is new to Goucher, but his time with the committee working on the curriculum changes has given him a crash course. “I think at core,
what the curriculum revision has done—regardless of what the general education requirements change to—is that it’s asked every program to look at what they’re offering and ask why and how? Why and how are we doing what we’re doing, and then the question is how can we do it with an integrative approach.”

Harrison says the department system, with its divisions of knowledge into separate “silos,” doesn’t work for students raised in an age when anything is available online. “What it’s doing,” he says, “it’s asking us to move immediately into the future. …You have folks that have been teaching in a tradition, for a very long time. They’ve written a syllabus and they’ve been teaching that same way. And then we have young people coming in who don’t think in silos. Because they have access to information.”

Most of the elements of the new curriculum were passed by faculty vote at a meeting in May (discussion of a foreign language requirement were postponed until a September meeting, where it also passed), but faculty members who took part in the revisions are careful to acknowledge that the changes are not without dissenters.

“Everything I say, you should recognize that there’s someone else out there saying ‘No, that’s not the case,’ or ‘You’re exaggerating the situation,’” says Singer.

“We’ve just asked—and the faculty has agreed— that they’re going to start from scratch in some ways,” says Yoder. “This is a big change, so it’s definitely going to be messy at first.” One way the college plans to ease the transition is a new Center for Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching, which will focus on faculty training and research.

“The inquiry-based model is very different in that we’re having a conversation and [students are] leading,” says Shamshak. “A lot of faculty are understandably unsure what that’s going to look like. Faculty need the resources to learn how to teach in this new way, but I think a lot of us are excited by the opportunities it affords us.”

One of the faculty members who feels at home with the inquiry-based classes is sociology professor Jamie Mullaney. She and others who’ve received training in the method produced a sample syllabus to show how it could work. Mullaney says the professor needs to learn when to lead the class, and when to step back, to “bring in good research, and make sure they know how to formulate questions in a proper way, ask the right questions, collect the data properly, if they’re doing that. You can pepper the process with lectures and readings, but really you’re introducing a problem that students will learn to explore on their own.”

“I think having this contoured curriculum and approach to all these things that we think are important components of an undergraduate education, makes us distinctive,” Singer says. “Not because we want to be distinctive in the marketplace, but because we think it will actually have some value to students when they leave this place.”

“The conundrum for learning is that it has to be both structured and unstructured at the same time,” he says. “The challenge is: How do you invite a kind of discipline, but at the same time allow that sort of chaos? All of us, that’s what we’re in search of really.”

“Some faculty are nervous and anxious about how to implement it safely,” says Yoder, “but [there is] very little outright disagreement with the philosophy. I think once we’ve started seeing how it works, it’s going to feel really good. I’m excited about where we could go.”

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