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Committee co-chairs explain proposed changes to Core Curriculum

| Monday, December 7, 2015

Future students of Notre Dame may be facing a different set of requirements for graduation than those currently taken by undergraduates under the University’s core curriculum.

The Core Curriculum Review Committee — charged by University President Fr. John Jenkins and Provost Thomas Burish in an Aug. 2014 letter to the faculty “to lead the process of reviewing [University] requirements and deliberating on possible changes to the curriculum” — released a draft report on Nov. 30 containing a series of recommendations for changes to the core curriculum.

Core Curriculum new!Susan Zhu | The Observer

Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and co-chair of the review committee John McGreevy said the recommendations of the committee are “the most significant recommendations for change since 1970.”

“I think it would be really hard to look at this document and think of it as revolutionary, but we’re not used to any change, and so even a little bit of change takes getting used to,” he said.

Some of the more notable recommendations of the report include a reduction in the total number of course requirements from 12 to 11 — not including the Moreau First-Year Experience course — and a new option for students to choose between several categories when fulfilling certain requirements. For example, whereas current undergraduates must all take one course each in history, social science and fine arts or literature, if the University decides to adopt the recommendations of the committee, in the future, students will select three courses from among the five categories of “aesthetic analysis,” “social sciences inquiry,” “historical analysis,” “advanced language and culture” and “integration.”

Aesthetic analysis, social sciences inquiry and historical analysis roughly correspond to the current requirements in fine art or literature, social sciences and history, while advanced language and culture and integration are new additions.

Michael Hildreth, professor of physics and the other co-chair of the committee, said the committee’s proposed curriculum would offer greater flexibility to students while still remaining true to the ideals of a liberal arts education.

“Part of the core is really based on the traditional, classical, medieval core of the liberal arts. And so that still forms the base of our thinking for how you would organize a curriculum,” he said.

 

The “ways of knowing” approach

Hildreth said one regard in which the proposed changes would increase flexibility is through the new “ways of knowing” approach endorsed by the committee in the report. According to the report, the committee envisions nine distinct ways of knowing — quantitative analysis, scientific and technical analysis, aesthetic analysis, historical analysis, social science inquiry, advanced language and culture, integration, theology and philosophy. Students must take classes that fall under at least seven of the nine “ways of knowing.”

“Each of these [ways of knowing] represents an important modality for approaching, analyzing and understanding different aspects of our lives and our world,” the report states. “ … These different ways of knowing are often aligned with traditional academic disciplines. It is implicit, however, in a ‘ways of knowing’ approach that a given discipline may not be the sole vehicle for understanding a particular mode of thought.”

The new approach would increase flexibility, Hildreth said because students would be able to select from a more diverse set of offerings, potentially from several disciplines, when signing up for a course to fulfill a certain requirement.

 

Reasoning behind the recommendations

Addressing the rationale for the recommended changes, McGreevy said besides providing students with increased flexibility, the committee wanted “to give students some new experiences” — particularly with the addition of the integration course, a team-taught course spanning two or more disciplines.

Moreover, he said, the proposed changes reflect the committee’s desire to respond to concerns raised by students within designated focus groups.

“We heard in the student focus groups a lot of interest in team-taught, multidisciplinary courses on a big picture question or enduring question in the past. … In a way, those courses won’t happen unless there’s some incentive for students to take them as part of their core requirements,” McGreevy said.

Hildreth also explained the committee’s proposal to eliminate AP scores as a way to test out of University requirements, saying, “If you take it to its logical conclusion, if you allow some AP, then there’s no reason not to allow all AP. And then we would have students who could AP out of everything. And then there is no core curriculum anymore.”

 

The theology and philosophy requirements

Alongside the committee’s various recommendations, one element of the core that would experience little modification is the requirement for students to take two courses in theology and two in philosophy. Following the committee’s proposed curriculum, students would still have to take two courses in each, although they could substitute a “Catholicism and the Disciplines” course for their second philosophy course.

According to the report, the reason for the continuity is that “as central threads in the Catholic intellectual tradition, theology and philosophy have played and should continue to play a central role in Notre Dame’s core curriculum.”

However, Hildreth said, in the new curriculum, students with previous coursework in theology may have the opportunity to take a more advanced first theology course than the standard “Foundations of Theology.”

“Frankly, if someone comes to Notre Dame after spending 12 years in Catholic school, maybe they know some theology, and it’s possible that they should be allowed to branch out early into other areas of theology that they may not have had an opportunity to experience yet,” Hildreth said. “ … We’re certainly not advocating that they be able to place out of a theology course — we still feel that two theology courses are an important part of the curriculum — but maybe they should be given a little additional flexibility.”

 

Ongoing discussion

Marie Blakey, executive director of academic communications and a staff member of the review committee, said moving forward, the committee hopes to engage with the University’s different colleges and departments, as well as individual faculty and students, in a campus-wide discussion concerning the proposed changes.

“Every single regular faculty member got an email on [Nov. 30] inviting them to look at the site, download the report and respond individually,” Blakey said. “ … There’s meetings not only with college groups but some departments who are particularly affected by the curriculum, like the math department or the social science department chairs. And then, I think, we’re also just deciding, based on where the questions go, what kind of additional responsive activities we might [have].”

Hildreth said the report will undergo certain revisions before the committee presents it formally to the Faculty Senate and Academic Council, and ultimately Jenkins. He said already the committee is planning to make several modifications for the sake of clarity and hopes to receive constructive feedback.

“ … We’re hoping we can move forward with this and get it approved. But it’s time for constructive dialogue. We’re not going to ram this through anything. We’re expecting to take the rest of the academic year for discussion.”

According to the report, the committee plans to present its final report to faculty and administration in the fall of 2016. For more information on the committee’s recommendations, visit http://curriculumreview.nd.edu or download the report at http://curriculumreview.nd.edu/assets/183212/university_of_notre_dame_core_curriculum_review_committee_november_2105_draft_report.pdf

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  • 1.) Law of Unintended Consequences #1: With the removal of existing hard-fast requirements, e.g., X history, X science, some departments/institutes/programs will be phased out – their enrollments will reduce drastically, if not disappear entirely – as they rely on students who “need to fulfill a requirement” to take their courses. This is will be felt most acutely in the College of Arts & Letters {the College, presumably, with the long-established reputation of being all about “teaching”}.

    2.) Law of Unintended Consequences #2: Students & Departments – Get used to navigating a whole new system of course attributes when scheduling courses.