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Intro to curiosity

Leslie Lewis

Provost Leslie Lewis on student inquiry, the new Goucher curriculum, and why intro classes just don’t work.

In 2017, Goucher will begin to institute a radical change in the way students fulfill required courses at Goucher. The current “Liberal Education Requirements” will give way to a set of “Inquiry” courses, designed to spark students’ curiosity to pursue further learning. There will be structural administrative changes—in 2016, the current academic departments will be reorganized into interdisciplinary centers—but also more substantive ones that orient students away from “Intro to” courses as a way to fill general requirements, putting in their place a series of courses designed to guide student inquiry. We sat down with Provost Leslie Lewis to find out what the new curriculum will be, and how it will work.

Goucher Magazine: What were the shortcomings of the old curriculum that this one is meant to address?

Leslie Lewis: I would say one of the main problems with general education requirements everywhere is that they become a formulaic, check-the-box kind of requirement for students. 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 throw-away 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?”

GM: That’s been one of the things about the liberal arts or the well-rounded student in a way, though, sort of forcing people to take things that they wouldn’t have chosen, forcing them out of their comfort zone.

LL: There’s a really good characterization of this old-fashioned curriculum written by [Carol Geary Schneider, former director of the American Association of Colleges and Universities]. The old idea is the breadth and depth model: breadth in general education, depth when you pick a major. She calls this the Cold War curriculum—it’s that outdated—and that’s quite right. The question, I think nationwide and certainly for our faculty who are engaged in this, is, what is the curriculum for the rest of the 21st century? A lot of people recognize that integrative learning is key, that interdisciplinary study is very important, that asking students or giving students what they need to figure out how to problem solve across disciplines is a really significant and important part of a liberal arts education.

Rather than going for breadth, we were really going for connections. The other very important conversation that the faculty were having at the beginning of this process was [about] the way in which curiosity about learning is a part of being human, and how that so often gets lost in K-12 education. How do we focus on curiosity, and help reawaken that for students who’ve lost touch with their own desire to learn? How do we really set up a curriculum that starts where students are?

In the old curriculum, we begin with foundations courses: writing, math, foreign language. It doesn’t really work to use that building metaphor, where the starting point is the foundation, because what we really want to start with is students’ own interests, inquiry, and then let them see that they need certain skills along the way in order to really be able to do what they want to do—let the skills come into play in that way. So we’re not saying, “Welcome to college, before you can get to the good stuff you’ve got to do all of these other things first,” which tends to turn students off, because they don’t get the purpose of it.

GM: I’m having trouble seeing what that would look like, would you be able to walk me through an example? It may just be me because I’m mired in the old model. I can see how that one works but…

LL: Okay, so right now one aspect of the education we offer that’s working well that we did not want to abandon is a first-year seminar that is focused on a topic of interest to a faculty member. The course doesn’t focus on “everything that you ever wanted to know” about this topic, but functions more as a demonstration of an area where a faculty member is really passionate about a set of ideas.

Right now there is a first-year seminar called Where the Wild Things Are: America’s Relationship to Wilderness. The point of this seminar is really to explore changing attitudes about wildness and attitudes about wilderness. Students in that class maybe chose that class because they read Where the Wild Things Are. Perhaps they really like that children’s book. In the course, though, they’re exploring questions having to do with the wilderness that was New England to early settlers—“wild beasts and wild men.”

From that first-year seminar, let’s say that there’s an inquiry course that is offered by psychology that asks students to think about or engage with the topic of abnormal social behavior. The student who had become interested in wildness says, “Wow, that would be an interesting way to think about the subject of wildness,” to add this context of what’s normal social behavior and what’s not.

Then in continuing on, let’s say that this student in this center- based inquiry course focused on abnormal social behavior gets really intrigued by the mental health system, and the way that mental health functions in society, and so then, perhaps, there’s an inquiry course that’s focused on the topics pertaining to special education, and that’s the next center-based inquiry course that the student decides to take.

Then from that course they get very interested in society and issues of social justice and injustice. So there is a center-based inquiry course that focuses on exactly those kinds of issues
about power and justice and asks students to look through that particular lens. So there you’ve got three inquiry courses. Students have then fulfilled the science requirement, the social sciences requirement, and perhaps the humanities requirement.

GM: Rather than taking, say, Intro to Psychology, Introduction to Sociology…

LL: Exactly. In those intro courses, what is guiding the education is the discipline. We’ve said, “Okay here’s how we understand the discipline of physics, of psychology.” Introductory courses really only make sense to people who are very far along in the discipline. They’re not student-friendly. They’re not starting where the student is. They’re starting where the discipline starts. You have to be really well versed in the discipline to know where it starts. What we’re doing instead is we’re really starting where the student is. We’re pushing students to really come up with where their interests are taking them, to be reflective enough to do that. That’s the point.

GM: There’s also a big focus on interdisciplinary education.

LL: The curriculum revisions that were unsuccessful in the past and other new ventures that some groups of faculty have been interested in have been very interdisciplinary. That’s why we have majors that not everyone has, like peace studies. We have faculty who are very interested in thinking outside of the disciplinary box, which is necessary to support this kind of approach.

So I would say, intellectually speaking, that we’re asking the faculty to think about their disciplines—to think about the first principles of their disciplines.

In conversation on this topic, a faculty member made a very good point: that science classes these days are taught with a focus on replication of the scientific method, as evidence collecting and methodology, and that sort of thing. But science was, at one point, called natural philosophy. If you dial the disciplines back to their origins, you can allow students to work with those questions as their way in, as a way of thinking about big questions and big ideas.

Because after all, the reason that we want students to take courses in these different areas is not for the breadth but rather because we’ want them to be able to problem-solve from multiple perspectives. It’s different to think about any given problem from the lens of the humanities, from the lens of the social sciences, from the lens of natural science, of the arts. We also have a faculty that has spent a lot of time together. For example, many of the minors that we’ve created are interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary, and our new academic centers structure supports and may enhance those interests of the faculty.

GM: It’s separate but related, the reorganization into Academic Centers.

LL: We went into the reorganization into centers with the understanding that, administratively speaking, we could do better. So many of our departments were so small that there were too few faculty to do what a department needs to do,—faculty searches, personnel reviews. Many departments just weren’t large enough units to really be functional. Somewhere along the way, faculty began to think about who wanted to create a new home with.. They got very creative and didn’t allow themselves to just fall into the usual. So changes were made based on who was already collaborating with whom.

Then what has been really fascinating, and I think really does put a different stamp on all of this, is that the group working on the new academic centers and the restructuring and the group working on the new curriculum said, “Wait a minute, what if we tie these two things together so that these inquiry classes and the first-year seminars are offered by centers?” And then we went one step further and said okay, well, we have those requirements in foreign languages and in writing and data analytics. We have three centers that are definitely responsible for those three requirements. In addition to those centers, we have eight others. If we pair them and ask the pairs to be responsible for one course for each student then we will have also fulfilled the state requirements for breadth—but through a very different approach.

GM: Will those pairs, will they stay paired or will that be switched?

LL: No, they’ll stay paired. We’ll see inquiry courses come forward form an individual center or maybe from the pair of centers together. I expect a little bit of both.

GM: Just as a practical matter, this starts not this year but the year after right?

LL: Fall of ’17.

GM: It will apply then just to the first-year students and expand as they go through?

LL: Correct. Although it may be some students who are already here choose to follow the new requirements, the requirement applies to students who matriculate in Fall 2017.. We’ll be ready for students if they want to shift and I expect some will because this is very exciting.

GM: It’s an interesting idea, that these faculty-generated first-year seminars will be the topics professors are most passionate about, and thus the best equipped to make students passionate about.

LL: That’s right. We model passion. What this really does is move us further away from a content driven curriculum. That’s not to say we don’t teach content—we do. But in our version of liberal education requirements for all students, we’re not saying that specific content knowledge is our starting point.

GM: Do you think that that’s scary to some people looking on?

LL: Yes. It’s definitely challenging.

GM: In some sense, a college degree indicates that there are things that you know, so does this change that assumption?

LL: I would say a college degree indicates that there are things you can do.

GM: Okay.

LL: Over the course of my academic career, I have definitely come to understand that we have to keep the focus on knowing rather than knowledge, always on the verb rather than the noun. There’s no such thing as knowledge without the knower. We might think that we can pour content into students’ heads or deposit knowledge as if into a bank account, but that’s not the way learning works and that’s not how knowing happens.

That means that what we really want to be doing is opening up learning for students. It’s the cliché, we want our students to learn how to learn, but it’s not just a cliché. It is really important to learn how to learn. And it’s not just that it’s important because then you can do well in the job that’s not yet been invented. It’s important because as human beings, learning is fundamental to who we are. That’s a point that I don’t think is often considered.. We’re most alive when we’re learning, when we’re following our curiosity. Finding things out. Examining what we think. At the core, liberal arts education is still about liberation.—liberation from the thinking of others, from unexamined opinion. That’s why the ah-hah! moments are so powerful for us. When we get that we understand something, see something new, know it within ourselves and not in some way dependent on other thinkers, we’re validated in a way that no other experience provides.