Sunday, October 17, 2004

Curriculum for a Liberal Arts Education

Scott Kleinman has been discussing curriculum and liberal education and I've meant to try to contribute a little to the discussion. A couple of years ago I was on the Educational Policy Committee at Wheaton that re-wrote our curriculum -- with what I think were good results.

Faculty members who've been through a curriculum review are probably already clicking away in horror, since curriculum reviews are notorious bloodbaths of vicious infighting. This didn't happen at Wheaton, partially because the co-chairs of EdPol and the Provost were very sharp politically, but also because we managed to avoid making the curriculum review a turf battle.

I'm not going to go through the 'quia' of the curriculum review right now. Rather I want to talk about what we ended up doing, which I think is innovative and does a good job of accomplishing the contradictory goals of a 'core' and 'distribution' that is the problem for all curricula: you want students to have some basis of shared knowledge, but you also want to give students the freedom to study their interests.

Wheaton's curriculum is divided into "Foundations" and "Connections" (and there's also a stealth "Breadth" requirement that only rarely comes into play). Foundations courses are those all students need to have: Writing 101, Mathematics (can be fulfilled either with traditional math or computer science or a logic course), two semesters of a non-English language,and a silly, politically correct "Beyond the West" course (I don't think it's silly to study cultures beyond the west; I just think it shows a lack of confidence to require it).

The real heart of the new curriculum, though, is the "Connections" requirement. Students have to take paired (or tripled) courses that are linked together across traditional disciplinary groups. Some examples of "connected" courses would include an Anatomy course that the students would take at the same time as Figure Drawing; a course in the chemistry of pigments and art materials connected with an Art History course on conservation; a course in the math of voting theory and a political science course; and (the one I teach) a course in Science Fiction with a course in mathematics (we use Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and Borges' Library of Babel).

The purpose of the connections is to get students to take courses outside of their interest areas but nevertheless see these courses as being relevant to them. This is particularly useful for science courses, which non-science students tend to hate and avoid. Our experience thus far is that students not only report significantly more satisfaction but also perform better (in terms of attendance, grades, and subjective teacher response) than those who take identical courses without the connection (i.e., the student just takes Anatomy without the Figure Drawing).

Just as significantly, Connections allows the faculty to promote interdisciplinary work without sacrificing disciplinary knowledge: we don't have an English prof attempting to teach biology; we have a biology prof teaching Darwin and an English prof teaching Victorian culture.

To make sure that students sample the major disciplines, there is a 'breadth' requirement that causes students to take at least one science, one social science, one humanities, but thus far just about everyone fulfils these with the two Connections.

The Connections curriculm has been great for the faculty, also, as we've had a real opportunity (and some funding) to work together to produce more integrated connections, like the Math/SciFi one, in which all of our assignments are coordinated and interconnected. So, for example, as students are reading Cryptomonicon, they are doing problem sets about cryptography (including a lot of number theory); when they read Borges, they're doing combinatorics; when they read "The Infinite Assassin" (brilliant story by Greg Egan) they're doing infinities and Cantor sets.

The other elements of the curriculum are the inclusion of writing and quantitative analysis in all of the majors (rather than as separate courses), a 'capstone' experience for each major, and the "infusion" of race, gender, etc. throughout the curriculum (PC requirement, but actually being done very well, in my opinion, as it has led to a lot of faculty working up additions to their classes of high culture from, say, China, Japan, India, etc. rather than the kind of tedious whining about western culture that I had in college).

Overall I'm very pleased with how the curriculum turned out, and thus far it seems to be working. But, I'd add, there is no such thing as a "correct" curriculum. Rather, there's a match between faculty, students, institution and curriculum. If there is such a match, then the faculty and the students have the enthusiasm to make the curriculum work. So far, so good.

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