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Committee prepares core curriculum changes

| Friday, September 25, 2015

For more than 30 years, Notre Dame’s core curriculum requirements for undergraduates have remained virtually unchanged.

Over the course of the past year, a committee appointed by University President Fr. John Jenkins and Provost Thomas Burish has undertaken the task of reviewing the core curriculum.

CoreCurriculum_Graphic_WebJanice Chung | The Observer

The review, which occurs every 10 years, began at the beginning of last school year when Jenkins and Burish first commissioned a review committee of 12 faculty members and two co-chairs. In a letter sent to the faculty in Aug. 2014, Jenkins and Burish encouraged faculty members “to join in a campus-wide conversation about our core curriculum or general education requirements.”

“We have asked the committee to consult as widely as possible during this academic year, given the many students, faculty, programs and departments directly involved in general education requirements,” they said in the letter. “… Every ten years, Notre Dame reviews its core curriculum requirements precisely because these requirements signify and determine, to the best of our ability, the knowledge, dispositions and skills every Notre Dame undergraduate student should possess upon graduation.”

Proposed changes to the core curriculum

According to Marie Blakey, executive director of academic communications and a staff member of the review committee, committee members have held more than 50 meetings with faculty members, departments and other faculty groups interested in the matter to discuss possible improvements to the core curriculum.

A number of faculty have submitted proposals to the committee for additions to the curriculum, ranging from an ecological literacy requirement to a requirement for a course on U.S. diversity.

Debra Javeline, an associate professor of political science who also teaches a course on sustainability, submitted the proposal for a required ecological literacy course to an online faculty bulletin board in April 2015.

Javeline said eight faculty members representing a variety of departments collaborated to draft the proposal and encourage faculty support.  In total, 109 signatories endorsed the proposal.

“It turns out that there are more faculty members than you would believe whose work somehow touches on ecological issues, issues about climate change, sustainability,” Javeline said.

“… There are a lot of us who have transformed our careers in recent years. … The curriculum review process allowed us a venue to discuss and promote ideas that we’ve already been talking about.”

Javeline said she believes an ecological literacy course is a critical component to the undergraduate experience because environmental and sustainability issues have become increasingly urgent in recent years.

“I think the idea that you could graduate from the University of Notre Dame and not know something about your changing planet is just unacceptable,” she said. “To phrase it more positively, I think that students already are thirsty for this kind of knowledge and are seeking it out because they do have an understanding that this is the defining issue of our time.”

Like Javeline, associate professor of American Studies Jason Ruiz posted a proposal online for a new curriculum requirement — this one, for a U.S. diversity requirement.

Ruiz said members of the Department of American Studies voted unanimously to approve the proposal, which describes a suitable course as one in which “at least two-thirds of the content deals directly with race, ethnicity, class, sexuality or gender in the United States.”

This type of course is important, Ruiz said, because “part of [America’s] vitality and strength is in diversity.”

“I teach a lot of courses in race and ethnic studies, and students are hungry for this kind of stuff, and tell me, ‘I’ve never had a class like this,’” he said. “… I see the proposal as responding to student demand.”

Other proposals submitted to the committee include a community-based engaged learning requirement and a course on media literacy, among others.

Effectiveness of the review process

Despite the many events and outlets offered by the review committee to engage the faculty, several faculty members have expressed concern over the fundamental structure of the review process. In a reflection posted to the online faculty bulletin board, associate professor in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) Thomas Stapleford said the conversation among the faculty has lacked coherence and the review committee itself does not represent the faculty as a whole.

“I know many members of the committee, and I have a high respect for all of them,” he said in the post. “But none of that changes the reality: This committee was not elected by the faculty, it was not chosen by the faculty, it was not appointed by the faculty and it thus cannot, in any meaningful sense, be said to represent the faculty.

“Whatever the good intentions of the committee members or their good will (and I have not doubts on either score), this remains an appointed committee. It was constituted by the administration, at the discretion of the administration and thus any reform will be rightly seen as an act of the administration, not the faculty. The faculty has no ownership of this review.”

Student participation

Blakey said the review committee wanted to offer students as well as faculty the ability to contribute to the dialogue. Last year, the committee held two forums for students to express their ideas and concerns — one for students representing undergraduate majors, and the other for students representing individual residence halls.

Jacob Haley, a member of the class of 2015 who attended one of the forums last year on behalf of the department of mathematics, said although representatives of the review committee at the forum seemed interested in student feedback, the organization of the event prevented serious dialogue.

“I remember thinking that nothing from that meeting will have any sort of impact in the grand scheme of things,” Haley said in an email. “It would have worked a lot better if there would have been a different session for each college.”

Haley also said the conversation that did occur lacked relevance to the student body as a whole.

“I felt that a lot of the student comments were defending requirements related to their major or suggesting new requirements in their department,” he said. “For example, I remember one student in the classics department suggesting that the theology requirement should be replaced by some sort of textual criticism course.

“When I left, I remember thinking that in general, people seemed more concerned with defending their own interests than with discussing what Notre Dame students actually need to know.”

Junior Kate Hardiman, who attended the same forum for the PLS department, said while students were initially reticent during the event, they gradually began to participate actively. (Editor’s note: Kate Hardiman is a Viewpoint Columnist for the Observer.)

“I definitely got the sense that [the forum] was a formality,” she said. “… But it almost turned into a conversation of the students batting around ideas, and people were suggesting things like one-credit courses.”

Hardiman said committee members in attendance took notes throughout the event and seemed receptive to the concerns students expressed.

“Up until I went to that meeting, I didn’t feel like [committee members] were soliciting a ton of student involvement,” she said.

In addition to the student forums, Blakey said all undergraduate students received a survey last spring intended to provide feedback for the committee to consider. She said including partial completions, the response rate for the survey was 45 percent.

Continuing the conversation

No public events concerning the curriculum review have taken place this academic year, and Blakey said the committee has spent the past several months preparing a draft report containing preliminary recommendations for the curriculum. She said the committee expects to release the report later this fall, which committee members hope will encourage a new round of discussion and feedback from faculty and students. The report will not reflect any final changes to the core curriculum, but rather serve as a guide for further deliberation.

Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and co-chair of the review committee John McGreevy, as well as several other committee members, declined to comment until the report is released.

To learn more about the core curriculum review process, visit http://curriculumreview.nd.edu.

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