Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

January 25, 2017

Faculty Debate Graduation Requirements, Interdisciplinary Courses in A&S Curriculum Review

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With liberal education under siege nationwide, faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences pushed forward discussions on their plans to restructure the college’s curriculum.

At a curriculum review faculty forum Monday, faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences discussed their progress in reviewing the college’s undergraduate curriculum and considered plans for the semester.

Despite some disagreement regarding how to implement a new curriculum, many faculty agreed that substantial restructuring was necessary.

“Please don’t let the idea of something new worry you too much because what we have now is pretty bad in some respects. It really, truly is,” said Interim President Hunter Rawlings, who stressed that faculty members direct and define the curriculum.

The major issue that prompted this curriculum review is confusion surrounding the purpose of graduation and distribution requirements, according to Prof. Thomas Pepinsky, government, chair of the curriculum review committee.

“If you ask all of [the faculty] in this room: what are the graduation requirements and why are they what they are?” Pepinsky said. “My guess is that very few of [the faculty] can answer both those questions.”

For Gretchen Ritter ’83, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, this lack of clarity surrounding the distribution requirements — both among faculty and students — does not allow students to “claim” their education.

“Having a curriculum structure that people understand and can articulate, that works for our students as something that they claim, identify with, and embrace — that is to me one of the things that we should be clear about,” Ritter said.

Due to the nature of graduation requirements, several faculty said that the curriculum has a distinct checkbox nature.

“In the committee, there’s a general sense that having every Cornell course as fulfilling a particular requirement is counter-productive,” Pepinsky said.

Discussion also focused on the timeline by which students fulfill their distribution requirements. Pepinsky said here has been talk to move curriculum requirements to earlier in the undergraduate career.

While no formal proposal for a curriculum was given at the forum, faculty members presented the concepts of foundational and interdisciplinary courses.

Pepinsky outlined two different ways that courses may be foundational. One invokes “a foundation as a platform of knowledge that must be mastered as a precondition for more advanced study.” The other sees foundational knowledge as “a very broad introduction into a way of thinking and approaching problems.”

Prof. Charles Aquadro, molecular biology and genetics, introduced a genetics course that he developed as an example of a course that could target a foundational function.

Because this course has no prerequisites, Aquadro says he assumes “most students aren’t actually interested in going on further in science.” For this reason, Aquadro says that he must present the information on a personal level.

“I must go into their world and build on things that they already know or understand,” Aquadro said. “I challenge the students to think about their beliefs and ask questions that explore the topics with students who come from across the University.”

Prof. Derk Pereboom, philosophy, proposed a type of interdisciplinary course concept, focused around “Challenges Confronting Our World,” as he called it. These challenges include democracy, race, gender and mental health — global issues that can only be successfully tackled from several different disciplines.

“Interdisciplinary courses could be fashioned around all these topics, which would teach our students how to effectively propose and seek out solutions to these kind of challenges,” Pereboom said.

This type of course could be taught by two or more faculty from different departments, according to Pereboom.

“There is a nationwide move away from liberal education. It’s a serious, long-term trend,” Rawlings said.

While recognizing the difficulty of the endeavor, Ritter stressed the importance of collaboration among all faculty as they understand the process beyond the departmental level.

“It is easy to fall back into thinking about the implications of this or that in one’s own department,” Ritter said. “But we’re calling on everyone here today to think really as college citizens, to think from the perspective of the student first.”