News

Undergraduate education conference homes in on new curriculum

By Ashanti M. Alvarez

Faculty at Rutgers are in the midst of considering the first stable core curriculum for undergraduates, replacing the previous college-based distribution requirements.

At this year’s Conference on Undergraduate Education – the 10th annual conference – faculty members heard from deans and faculty from other schools with experience introducing and revising core curricula, a lengthy process requiring much discussion and debate about the meaning, purpose, and goals of an undergraduate education.

“What I took away was that this is something that doesn’t have to be done all at once,” said Martin Gliserman, chair of the conference and professor of English at the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS). “I like the idea of a constant conversation.”

core chart 2SAS faculty are holding three open forums early next year – February 14, March 5, and April 1. They will be town hall-style meetings, and faculty members from across Rutgers are encouraged to discuss what a future core curriculum might look like. This year’s new arts and sciences undergraduates are following an interim curriculum based on distribution requirements [PDF].

Randy Gallistel, chair of the Ad Hoc Core Curriculum Committee (AHCCC) and professor of psychology at SAS, told attendees at the undergraduate education conference that written proposals help the committee organize and analyze ideas more efficiently. “I can’t tell you how much it helps to have thought-out, written proposals. They focus the discussion,” he said.

The conference started with presentations from four guests: Katherine McAdams, associate dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland–College Park; D. Kent Peterman, associate dean and director of academic affairs at the University of Pennsylvania; Cathy Popkin, chair of the Slavic department at Columbia University; and Trace Jordan and Vincent Renzi, associate directors of the Morse Academic Plan at New York University.

Each described the present core curricula for arts and science students at their respective schools, as well as recounted the processes in revising and developing curricula at their institutions, similar to the discussions under way at Rutgers subsequent to extensive transformations in undergraduate education.

At Penn, faculty and deans launched a pilot course for half the student body as an experiment to revise their curriculum. The experiment led to unparalleled faculty participation in the process.

“During the pilot, we had huge turnouts during forums,” Peterman said. “This was unprecedented at Penn. We felt that was a significant outcome of the process.”

Popkin, from Columbia, described in detail six courses that all arts and sciences students are required to take: Contemporary Civilization, Literature Humanities, University Writing, Art Humanities, Music Humanities, and Frontiers of Science. Students there also are required to take courses in science, major cultures, foreign language as well as two terms of physical education. They also are expected to pass a swimming test.

The effect of an entire class reading the same texts over the course of a year is “breathtaking,” Popkin said. “You go up any elevator, sit down in any dining hall – even taking a bus – and people are debating. It’s really truly a matter of everyday life... I firmly believe that a shared set of readings raises the intellectual levels of all future courses.”

Twenty years ago at NYU, arts and science students had distribution requirements much like the ones in place at Rutgers today.

“These courses were not typically taught by regular members of the faculty,” Jordan said. “They were of very variable quality. None of the courses had small sections. There was no real intellectual engagement or discussion.”

A long process established seven core courses in addition to writing and foreign language requirements. Renzi said the key to keeping the core curriculum relevant is that the faculty regularly review the requirements. “You shouldn’t think of this kind of review [at Rutgers] as something that’s once and done,” he said.

Requiring a common course, or courses, for all arts and science undergraduates is something the AHCCC is considering, Gallistel said. Such an approach, however, poses staffing issues, as faculty have to leave their departments to teach core courses. “We’re wondering whether you can’t steer some sort of middle course,” Gallistel said. “The administrative and scholarly hurdles of setting up such courses often distract us from broader discussions.”

McAdams, from Maryland, suggested a pilot period, much like the one implemented at Penn. “Why don’t you make one course that everyone has to take, and then you see what you get?” she suggested. “Then you know what the goals are. You see if the benefits merit the trouble.”

Ninety faculty members registered for the conference, and more than 120 attended the event, according to Monica Devanas, director of faculty development and assessment programs at the Center for Teaching Advancement and Assessment Research, which co-sponsored the event with the New Brunswick Faculty Council. The conference took place at Trayes Hall in the Douglass Campus Center.

Archived from October 24, 2007