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PE replacements, student input and straight talk

| Friday, April 10, 2015

In April 2014, the University announced it would replace the freshman PE requirement with a new First Year of Studies class beginning in fall of 2015. Having passed the swim test with flying colors and become a force in team handball as a freshman, I can’t say I was pleased about it. I was less pleased when First Year of Studies Dean, skillful speaker and fellow blues player Rev. Hugh Page told the South Bend Tribune, “The decision was made based on what we see around the country and what’s in the best interest of our students.” This approach is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, an incomplete way to go about making decisions since the actions of our peer universities shouldn’t dictate what we do here and because “in the best interest of our students” comes off a little paternalistic when the ad-hoc committee making this decision last spring did not have a student on it.

But since the decision was made long ago, the important thing this April is to make sure that whatever form the new First Year Studies course takes is a positive use of students’ time. The class of 2019 will be the most talented and accomplished class ever to attend Notre Dame until the class of 2020 moves in, and it deserves to have academic requirements worthy of its attention and increasing sums of money. Eliminating PE will lay off or reassign at least 12 people on the University’s payroll and remove another timeslot where a smartphone and MacBook-dependent generation can be uninterruptedly social. In short, we need a really good reason to back up the change.

A proposed syllabus exists. I can’t get a copy of it. But having read around the topic and talked with some who are important enough to see the syllabus, I am going to do something I rarely do in The Observer and remain neutral for now.

We know at least the following. The class, called the “Moreau First Year Experience,” will be a graded, one-credit-per-semester course with a 50-minute meeting once a week. Thematically the class is based on the “five pillars” of a Holy Cross Education — mind, heart, zeal, family and hope — and seven themes — “Orientation to University Life, Strategies for Health and Wholeness, Community Standards and Cultural Competence, Strategies for Success in the Classroom, Discernment, Cultivation of Spiritual Life and Mind-Body Awareness.” There will be light reading and/or online assignments to complete before class to guide discussions and a capstone project at the end of each semester. All this will hopefully be commensurate with the time commitment of a normal one-credit course.

One could not infer this information from the University’s press release last April, in which Dean Page was quoted saying the following: “Rebranding and further centralizing health, wellness and cultural competency initiatives campus-wide — within the context of an integrative paradigm for our First Year Experience — better enables us to meet the evolving needs of students. It also promises to strengthen and diversify linkages between the academic, co-curricular and residential dimensions of the larger Notre Dame ethos and the Congregation of Holy Cross educational charism that informs it.”

“Initiatives campus-wide — within the context of an integrative paradigm … to meet the evolving needs of students” is weighed down with more linguistic baggage than Lindsay Lohan riding a Conestoga wagon. Capping it off with linkages, ethos and an informative charism gives it a buzzwordy finish that tells us nothing about the content of the course. Were someone, hypothetically, inclined not to like a given policy change and looking for weak, nonspecific verbiage to demean in writing as devoid of substance and indicative of a bad policy program, this would be it. If someone looking for evidence that purely in the name of doing as the Ivies do we were going to pan a constructive, decades-proven method of soberly acquainting Notre Dame students from every corner of campus, this passage would be the smoking gun.

What brought me around to the possibility that this change could be a good idea was talking with Jake Wittenberg, a fellow Stedsman and a student representative to the team designing the course. When I asked him how the course accomplishes anything you couldn’t get from simply living as a Notre Dame student, Witt said this over email: “Oftentimes students are only made aware of the incredible resources available to them too late to truly take advantage of them (I think everyone knows this feeling).” As a second semester senior who sometimes regrets never applying for a CUSE grant and just found out that you can access Ancestry.com through the library website, this resonates with me.

I’m not ready to embrace the course. I’m concerned about firing staff, inflating grades and decentering physical activity from student life. But I’m not ready to trash it in the student newspaper yet, either. For policy-making administrators not interested in stoking 1,000-person strong online petitions and viewpoint wars, the way forward is simple: Get students involved, stop making big decisions at the end of the year and, for the love of God, stop using “paradigm.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Caton

Alex is a junior political science major living in the caves and ditches of St. Edward's Hall. He has written for the Viewpoint section since spring 2013

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