The new curriculum, presented Thursday by the Curriculum Committee, would center around five modes of inquiry: mathematical and quantitative reasoning, scientific, social and behavioral, and humanistic and interdisciplinary.

Dana Daniels / Sun Staff Photographer

The new curriculum, presented Thursday by the Curriculum Committee, would center around five modes of inquiry: mathematical and quantitative reasoning, scientific, social and behavioral, and humanistic and interdisciplinary.

March 9, 2017

Faculty Debate New Curriculum Proposal for College of Arts and Sciences

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Pressured by intense focus toward STEM fields and increasingly professionally-minded undergraduates, faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences must now reevaluate what exactly a well-rounded liberal Cornell graduate looks like.

This reevaluation comes in the form of an entirely new curriculum for the college. The Curriculum Committee presented the first draft proposal — a culmination of 15 months of effort — to Arts and Sciences faculty in a town hall on Thursday.

In creating this draft and in the revision process, Gretchen Ritter ’83, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, encouraged faculty to consider “the broader college citizen perspective in thinking about what we would like to see for all of our students,” she said.

Dean Gretchen Ritter ’83

Dana Daniels / Sun Staff Photographer

Dean Gretchen Ritter ’83

“[The draft] is a very thoughtful effort to reflect a lot of the input and discussion that has happened so far, but we all fully expect that there are going to be things in this draft that not everybody will agree on,” Ritter said. “The task over the next few weeks is to take all of that input and try and revise, adjust and produce a better, stronger draft to bring back later this spring.”

The underlying force behind the proposed curriculum is to simplify the curriculum so that students understand the rationale behind the classes they are required to take — a component that is severely lacking in the current curriculum, according to Prof. Tom Pepinsky, government.

“The notion that the curriculum had to be simple has always been something that has motivated the committee,” Pepinsky said. “It’s drawn from a broad perception that the curriculum that currently exists is hard to explain to students. We wish to make sure that we would make it simpler and more legible to our students, and also to us as well.”

The Proposed Curriculum

The greatest changes to the curriculum concern modes of inquiry, a new concentration on breadth and emphasis on near-completion of distribution requirements in the first two years.

The new curriculum would center around five modes of inquiry: mathematical and quantitative reasoning, scientific, social and behavioral, and humanistic and interdisciplinary. These five modes would replace the seven distributional categories in the current curriculum.

From these five modes, students would be required to take eight courses instead of taking nine courses from the seven distributional categories. It would also be required that students complete at least five of these courses within the first four semesters.

In terms of the concentration on breadth, the new curriculum would add a third category — human difference — to the existing geographic and historical breadth categories.

The language requirement would remain unchanged, and writing seminars may be integrated into newly proposed “foundational courses.”

These foundational courses are one of the most pronounced steps away from the current curriculum. One proposal is that only foundational courses would be able to fulfill distributional requirements. This proposal would be piloted rather than implemented immediately, according to Pepinsky.

In sum, the new curriculum would reduce the total number of required courses from 21 to 16.

Faculty Input

Following the presentation of the proposal, faculty were invited to ask for clarifications and question the motivations behind the changes. This format additionally served as a platform for the faculty to express their concerns and the issues that the new curriculum poses.

In styling the curriculum around modes of inquiry, faculty members voiced their fear that this new style of thinking took emphasis away from the content itself.

“As I read the description in terms of the five modes of inquiry … reading how those are interpreted, I got the very strong impression that the focus is more on skills development rather than content,” said Prof. Sandra Greene, history.

Other professors shared this concern, particularly for classes within the humanistic mode of inquiry.

“I’m a little concerned about what happened to the content,” said one English professor. “I happen to think that I teach my students not simply the mode, but something about literature, what it is, the history of it, the nature of it. I think I’m actually teaching knowledge rather than appreciation.”

Some faculty even questioned the necessity of restructuring the curriculum, unconvinced by the committee’s reasoning that student fail to understand the current curriculum.

“I have been polling my students for two years about their experience with the distribution requirements,” said the English professor. “I don’t know where the motivation for [the curriculum change] is coming from. My students love the idea of being able to take courses in different departments. No one has ever asked me ‘why do I have to take a science course?’ They know that science is important.”

To this point, Pepinsky explained that the confusion comes from current classification of courses into requirements. In the current system, every course is assigned a distributional category for its fulfilment of a distribution requirement.

“You’re right that no student has ever asked me ‘why do I have to take a government course?’” Pepinsky said. “What they can’t figure out — and what they do ask me about — is what’s the rationale for this particular set of distributional categories, and why they combine in the complex way that they do in the current curriculum.”

Because the new curriculum focuses on fulfilling course requirements in the first two years, students would no longer be required to take electives under the new curriculum.

With the elimination of elective coursework, faculty fear that this would tempt students to retreat into their concentration and avoid courses outside of their major.

“I worry about the disappearance of electives on some level in this freedom vacuum,” said Prof. Tom Ruttledge, chemistry. “My fear is that scientists, my science students, will retreat further into science. This is what they do if we don’t have these requirements.”

Ruttledge added that parental pressure could play a significant role in this as well.

“There’s a pressure, I sense, from parents of a lot of science students in particular, that science is a good route to a job,” Ruttledge said. “And anything that distracts you from science is going to distract you from a good profession.”

For Ruttledge, this logic threatens the college and was cause for concern.

“Then we become an institute,” he said. “Not a college of arts and sciences.”

Admitting that this is a possibility even within the current curriculum, Pepinsky explained that part of the goal of the new curriculum is to encourage students to pursue courses following foundational coursework.

“The reason why there are fewer courses required is because we hold the belief that encouraging students to explore widely early will encourage them to choose these courses on their own,” Pepinsky said. “The principle is not to force students to take courses outside of their interests, but to encourage them to want to take those courses outside of their areas of specialization.”

The committee will continue to revise the draft of the curriculum following Thursday’s town hall. A student forum will be held on April 19 to gather student input before a draft is finalized. Faculty will vote on the new curriculum in April.

  • Thoughts

    As an engineering alum, a few things come to mind:

    1) Why are there less math/science classes required of humanities majors than humanities classes for STEM majors?

    2) For students in hard majors, cramming an extra distribution class in the first two years could screw up sequencing and/or lead to a truly hellish semester somewhere in the last two years.

    3) The big problem with distribution classes is that we all know there are extremely easy classes available to fulfill any of these requirements without learning a damn thing. I think distribution requirements are a good thing, but many people succumb to the pressure to take the easy A and avoid the subjects they hate or struggle with. Either we should get rid of all the BS “Why The Sky Is Blue” type classes and make everybody fulfill distributions the way they’re intended, or get rid of distributions and just give everybody 8 unrestricted electives so they stop wasting their time.

    • Dan

      I can’t answer your three points, but after attending and working at several universities, I have noticed this: There seems to be a larger proportion of scientists in campus orchestras and foreign language classes than there are music majors involved in science organizations or taking laboratory courses.

      • For Dan

        Sure, and its’ obvious why. The one group, scientists in orchestras, is spending its free time doing what it loves. The other group, music majors, is spending all its time doing what it loves.