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Core curriculum requirements to change for class of 2022

| Friday, November 18, 2016

Since its founding, Notre Dame has prided itself on its commitment to the liberal arts, requiring all students to take a core set of courses deemed fundamental to a Catholic liberal arts education. Over the span of nearly 50 years, these core courses have changed but little, and current Notre Dame students are subject to most of the same University requirements for graduation as were students in the 1960s.

However, on Nov. 10, University President Fr. John Jenkins announced in an email to students “the most significant changes to Notre Dame’s core curriculum since the late 1960s.” These changes come in the form of a new core curriculum, set to be implemented for the class of 2022 beginning their freshman year in fall 2018.

updated curriculum webJoseph Han | The Observer

The new core curriculum — that is, the set of requirements an undergraduate student must complete before graduating from the University — reflects “a shared vision for Catholic liberal arts education in the 21st century,” Jenkins said in the email.

As outlined in the final report, the new core curriculum will differ in structure from the current curriculum, modifying the number and types of current University requirements, increasing flexibility for students to choose between different requirements and introducing several new course options to satisfy certain requirements.

A core designed for increased flexibility

Under the current core curriculum, students take a selection of courses from the arts and sciences: two courses each in mathematics, science, theology and philosophy; and one course each in history, fine arts or literature, the social sciences and writing and rhetoric. Additionally, students must complete both a University seminar and the Moreau First Year Experience (FYE) course within their first year at Notre Dame. The FYE course was introduced in the fall of 2015, replacing what was formerly the physical education program for freshmen.

The new curriculum will reduce the total number of math and science core courses; allow students to take a new “Catholicism and the Disciplines” (CAD) in place of the traditional second philosophy requirement; and give students the option to choose between taking a history or social science course, and between a fine arts, literature or advanced language and culture course. Furthermore, the new core will introduce the option to take an “integration course” — or a team-taught course focusing on a broad, inter-disciplinary question — as well as implement a number of other, less visible changes.

Many of the changes arose out of an expressed student desire for more flexibility in fulfilling core requirements, co-chair of the Core Curriculum Review Committee Michael Hildreth said.

“[One goal] was temporal flexibility, in terms of when to take the courses. I think [students] found that the current First Year of Studies structure was very restrictive,” Hildreth, associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Science, said. “And then more flexibility in terms of what would count as a general education requirement as well.”

Fellow review committee co-chair John McGreevy said moreover, the new course embraces a “ways of knowing” approach, intended to move students and faculty away from the perception that fulfilling an individual core requirement constitutes nothing more than “checking off a box.”

In the new curriculum, course requirements correspond to one of the nine “ways of knowing” — quantitative reasoning, science and technology, art, literature, advanced language and culture, history, social science, theology and philosophy — instead of being associated exclusively with a given department or discipline.

“The idea with ‘ways of knowing’ is that we’re not just saying to departments, ‘OK you get two [core] courses,’ which was kind of how the old core was done,” McGreevy, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said. “But actually [we’re saying] that faculty from different departments might be able to teach courses that fulfill a particular way of knowing.

In its full form, the new core curriculum will require students to take one course in in science and technology and one course in quantitative reasoning as well as another course in either; two theology courses; two philosophy courses or one philosophy course and one “Catholicism and the Disciplines” (CAD) course; one course in history or social science; one course in fine arts, literature or advanced language and culture; and one integration course or a course in another “way of knowing,” excluding quantitative reasoning and science and technology.

The introduction of new courses to the core

Two courses presented in the final report — the integration course and the CAD course — are entirely new to the core and have no equivalent in the current curriculum.

The integration course, which is one of the options students can choose from in fulfilling core requirements, will provide students the chance to take an “interdisciplinary look at big questions,” Hildreth said.

“What we’re intending is a team-taught course, where two professors would be in the classroom 100 percent of the time,” Hildreth said.

Already, certain courses are currently offered or have previously been offered at Notre Dame that might count toward the integration requirement, such as a current course on sustainability and a previously offered course on the history of Ireland that was team-taught by a history, an archeology and a literature professor, McGreevy said.

Similar to the integration course, McGreevy said, the CAD course will offer students an alternate way to consider a classical subject: in this case, Catholic intellectual life.

“One way to really get at Catholic intellectual life is to take a philosophy course. Another way is, for example, to take a class in art history on the Sistine Chapel and on Catholic tradition in art,” McGreevy said. “And I think those are equally valid ways to give some intellectual substance to the Catholic identity of the University and the curriculum.”

The introduction of the CAD course means that students will no longer have to take a second philosophy as is required under the current curriculum — a recommendation that has prompted varying reactions among philosophy faculty.

“A lot of people think we should have kept the two-course philosophy requirement. I didn’t think it was a bad idea,” head of the philosophy department Jeff Speaks said. “ … People defended [the requirement for a second philosophy course] on different grounds. One is that philosophy courses are not courses students have at all in high school. It’s very hard to teach students much about philosophy in one course.”

Examples of current and previously offered classes that might fulfill the CAD option include “Between Religion and Literature: Meaning, Vulnerability and the Human Existence,” taught by Vittorio Montemaggi, and “Storming Heaven: Christianity in the Reformation Era,” taught by Brad Gregory, as well as several others named in the report of the Catholic Mission focus group of the review committee.

Modifications to current courses

Besides introducing new courses to the core, the approved curriculum will significantly modify several current requirements. One requirement in particular that will undergo change is the foundational theology course.

Currently, students must take two theology courses during their undergraduate career at Notre Dame — first a “Foundations of Theology” course, focusing on the role of Scripture and tradition in theology, and then a more advanced course chosen from a variety of offerings.

Under the new curriculum, students will be able to choose between three options for their first theology course — the traditional “Scripture and Tradition: Foundation of Theology,” as well as two new choices, “Scripture and Tradition: The Mystery of the Person of Christ” and “Introduction to the Catholic Faith,” department chair of theology Matthew Ashley said.

In addition to providing more options for a foundational course — a recommendation which Ashley said came from within the theology department itself — the new curriculum will also allow students who may have had substantial background in theology to place out of the foundational course and instead take two upper-level courses to fulfill the requirement.

McGreevy said the rationale behind introducing a placement test was that many students have received years of Catholic school instruction before coming to Notre Dame.

“We think there should be a mechanism so that students who have had significant theology background in high school can test out of the first course and go right away into upper division courses,” McGreevy said. “We interviewed too many students who thought they were bored in the introductory courses.”

Like the foundational theology course, the new quantitative reasoning course represents a significant departure from previous requirements. Hildreth said during the review process he convened a committee consisting of members in psychology, economics, math, anthropology and finance to address anxieties raised that the new quantitative reasoning courses would water down current math requirements.

In the end, Hildreth said, everyone on the committee “agreed on what turned out to be quite a rigorous set of standards.”

Hildreth said courses currently satisfying the math requirement will also satisfy the quantitative reasoning requirement, and that additionally, new courses like formal logic and computer programming will potentially fulfill the quantitative reasoning requirement under the new core.

Other core course requirements will change in similar ways, and the specific classes that can satisfy them will undergo review by specially designated committees convened to determine learning goals for each of the “ways of knowing.”

The two requirements that will remain unchanged are the University Seminar and the Moreau First Year Experience — the latter of which was not reviewed by the Core Curriculum Review Committee owing to its relative newness but which is currently undergoing review by a separate committee.

Additional changes

In addition to the modifications made to the actual course requirements themselves, several other facets of the core curriculum will change. For example, whereas students can currently test out of certain core requirements with sufficiently high Advanced Placement (AP) test scores, with the implementation of the new core curriculum students will no longer be able to use AP test scores as substitutes for requirements.

McGreevy said eliminating AP scores as a means of placing out of requirements came out of a recognition that AP courses are essentially different than courses offered in college.

“Right now, in theory, if you were a mechanical engineer, for example, you might not take another writing intensive course [after testing out of writing],” McGreevy said. “And we’re saying no, at least one more.”

However, under the new curriculum, students will be able to use AP scores to place out of writing and rhetoric and instead take a different writing-intensive course.

The logistics of implementation

The extent of the changes recommended by the review committee and approved by Academic Council will necessitate a significant logistical effort on the part of the University.

In some cases, the project of implementation has already begun. One of the recommendations of the review committee was to have a higher percentage of regular faculty — that is, tenure or tenure-track faculty — teach entry-level courses in subjects, such as math, philosophy and theology, that tend to have a large number of graduate and post-graduate students teaching beginning classes.

“We actually started a process of making first philosophy classes, in high percentages, taught by regular faculty members three or four years ago,” Speaks said of the philosophy department. “Right now, I think we’re in the vicinity of 70 percent of seats taught by regular faculty members, and we’d like to get that number even higher.”

To facilitate the implementation of the new curriculum, McGreevy said University Provost Thomas Burish will announce a transition committee. Once the new core curriculum is in place starting in the fall of 2018, a permanent Core Curriculum Committee will take over the responsibility of overseeing the preservation and maintenance of core requirements.

In the end, some of the committee’s recommendations in their current form may undergo slight modifications as challenges and obstacles are met in the implementation process. However, Hildreth said he expects the basic ideas behind the review committee’s proposals to remain unchanged.

“We expect that, if not the letter, the spirit of the report will be what is implemented,” Hildreth said.

Associate News Editor Megan Valley contributed to this report. 

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