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Forum invites responses to core curriculum review

| Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Members of the Notre Dame community had the opportunity to ask questions and express concerns about the proposed changes to the University’s core curriculum at an open forum Monday.

The formation of the Core Curriculum Review Committee was a direct result of a letter sent by University President Fr. John Jenkins and Provost Thomas Burish in Aug. 2014, asking Notre Dame faculty to “lead the process of reviewing [University] requirements and deliberating on possible changes to the curriculum.” The committee released a draft report containing a set of recommended changes to the core curriculum last November.

WEBTimelineGraphicEric Richelsen

Michael Hildreth, professor of physics and co-chair of the review committee, launched the forum by summarizing the committee’s proposed changes. In the draft report, the committee recommended reducing the total number of core requirements from 12 to 11, not including the Moreau First-Year Experience course.

The committee wanted to give students more flexibility within the core requirements, while also continuing to carry out the University’s mission of delivering a Catholic liberal arts education, Hildreth said.

If enacted, the committee’s proposal would require students to take three courses in scientific and quantitative analysis, one fewer than the two math courses and two science courses currently mandated by the University. Students would also have to choose three courses from the five “other liberal arts” categories — “aesthetic analysis,” “social sciences inquiry,” “advanced language and culture,” “historical analysis” and “integration.”

The draft report’s recommendations would maintain the current requirements of two theology courses and an introductory philosophy course. Instead of a second philosophy course, however, students would have the option of taking a “Catholicism and the Disciplines” (CAD) course.

“The idea of the course would be to broaden the faculty representation for faculty that were addressing the mission of the University throughout their teaching,” Hildreth said. “ … This is both a formative and potentially informative way of showing the students how these things would fit together.”

The committee suggested an increase to the University’s writing requirements by proposing that all students, even the ones that test out of the Writing and Rhetoric course, take a writing-intensive course in addition to their University seminar. This course would likely be double counted to fulfill some other core or major curriculum requirement, Hildreth said.

An integrated education

John McGreevy, dean of the College of Arts and Letters and co-chair of the committee, said the recommendation to implement “integration courses” came from faculty suggestions to include courses on broad topics, such as sustainability and climate change, in the revised core curriculum.

“Responding to those faculty and responding to students who want to see more work across disciplines, that brings together faculty and students on a common project from different angles, we came up with the idea — although it’s not entirely original — of the integration courses,” he said.

Hildreth said the integration courses would each be taught by two or more faculty members, combining ideas and perspectives from different disciplines and departments.

“What we envision is that the core course isn’t just an introduction to a discipline,” he said. “It’s showing how the broad ideas of that discipline relate to other disciplines, what’s the place of that discipline in the context of life and modern society and in the Catholic faith.”

The committee received suggestions for a number of interesting and diverse course offerings that examined big issues in today’s society, Hildreth said.

“We could have designed a very nice eight-year undergraduate exercise with all the recommendations we got for adding courses and components to the core,” he said.

Seth Brown, professor of chemistry, said he thinks combining two areas of studies in one course may result in more work for students.

“I think there’s some irony in saying that in order to have integration, we need to have separated faculty members,” he said. “In some sense, to me, we’re expecting more integration on the part of the students than we’re expecting from our faculty, which doesn’t really seem fair.”

McGreevy said the integration courses focus on incorporating new teaching methods more than they focus on incorporating new content.

“We expect that the very presence of those two faculty and their engagement every single day across the semester … will produce a different intellectual environment,” he said. “The very fact that these faculty are trained in different disciplines and that they approach the problems from different ways will result in a different kind of course, a different kind of intellectual experience.”

AP credit conflict

Hildreth said the committee recommended the University eliminate the use of Advanced Placement (AP) courses as replacements for core requirements.

“We really felt that these core courses that we’re teaching are not high school courses,” he said. “Then there’s really no reason why Advanced Placement should allow one to test out of what we think are the most important courses at the University.”

Hildreth said students could still use AP credits to place into higher courses or fulfill major requirements.

Ted “Fritz” Warfield, professor of philosophy, said he thinks the change in the AP credit policy may limit students who may have otherwise been able to pursue additional areas of study.

“I think there’s an obvious tension in the desire for flexibility and the treatment of the AP courses given in this proposal,” he said. “In my experience, the students who go through with the most flexibility are those who use the flexibility they get through, in some cases massive, AP credits to do things like double major or triple major.”

McGreevy said the removal of a math or science course will make the change a relatively even trade-off.

“We are uncomfortable with the fact that about 30 percent of the Arts and Letters students and 30 percent of the business students test out of all their math right now,” McGreevy said. “We’re not sure, then, that we’re really giving them the core education that we think they need.”

McGreevy said the committee also felt AP courses gave some students an unfair disadvantage over others based on their background.

“Students in inner-city high schools and students in rural high schools have less access to AP courses, and therefore they come to Notre Dame and have significantly less flexibility than the students who come to Notre Dame from high-power Jesuit [or] public suburban high schools,” he said.

Increased schedule flexibility 

Hildreth and McGreevy said the most common feedback point they received after more than 50 meetings with students, faculty, staff and alumni was a desire for an increase in flexibility in scheduling.

“If a student came here with no AP credit … there are some majors, mostly in engineering, where that student has no free electives,” Hildreth said. “Their entire course of study is completely determined, if you factor in the core and add in their major requirements.”

The draft report recommended each student be guaranteed three free electives, regardless of his or her program of study, Hildreth said.

“We did not want to add a course to the core curriculum,” he said. “Ours is at the very high end of number of courses asked of our students. The strongest complaint, or at least the most discontent, we heard from the students was the sheer number of courses in the core curriculum.”

Some students also complained about a lack of intellectual challenge in introductory courses, Hildreth said. The committee suggested the University refocuses these courses to emphasize the creation of a well-rounded education.

Bill Miscamble, a professor of history, said he feels students should be guided by a more rigid and comprehensive conception of a Catholic education.

“I hear from the engineer students who end up taking my history class in their second semester of their senior year … how they resent having to take a history class,” he said. “It’s my task to engage them and show them the benefits of taking it. And I would like to think that most of them, at the end of the course, see the benefits of it.”

Looking forward

Hildreth said the committee recommended the University create a committee to oversee the core curriculum.

“If we want the core to be owned by the University, then there should be University support for it,” he said.

Senior faculty are underrepresented in many of the introductory core courses, particularly theology, philosophy and math, Hildreth said.

“While we proposed a partially elected, partially appointed committee, we’re not really sure what that form will take,” he said. “ … But it’s clear that the governance structure and the participation of a University-wide community governing the core should be one of the goals of this exercise — because that’s currently not what we have.”

McGreevy said the committee plans to continue to discuss the core curriculum for the remainder of the semester. Over the summer, the group will convene to write its final report, which will likely be submitted for the University approval process next fall.

The changes to the core curriculum would be implemented in the fall of 2017 at the very earliest, McGreevy said, and will likely be put in place for the incoming class in the fall of 2018.

“We don’t have a great culture at Notre Dame of innovation and testing out new things in the core curriculum,” he said. “Our core hasn’t changed almost at all since 1969, for reasons good and bad. This gives us an opportunity to test out some new ideas.”

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About Katie Galioto

Katie, The Observer's former Managing Editor, is a senior majoring in political science, with minors in Business Economics and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She's an ex-Walsh Hall resident who now lives off campus and hails from Chanhassen, Minnesota. Follow her on Twitter @katiegalioto.

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