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March 22, 2018

Proposed Changes to Arts and Sciences Curriculum Would Shorten Language Requirement and Add Diversity Requirement

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The College of Arts and Sciences curriculum committee released a report on Tuesday that recommends shortening the college’s language requirement and instituting a new “human difference” requirement.

According to the report, the current language requirement, which is fulfilled by taking one non-introductory class or 11 credits of instruction in one language, would be replaced by a new requirement, in which students must take one non-introductory course or two language courses of at least three credits each in the same language.

Students could satisfy the requirement by taking sign language, according to the report. The Student Assembly approved a resolution last Thursday that called on the University to accept American Sign Language as an option for the language requirement, The Sun previously reported. Prof. Tom Pepinsky, government, chair of the committee, said the committee did not add this “because” of the S.A., but the group was “aware” of the resolution.

Prof. Thomas Pepinsky presents at the Arts & Sciences curriculum change students forum on April 19, 2017.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

Prof. Thomas Pepinsky presents at the Arts & Sciences curriculum change students forum on April 19, 2017.

The committee also proposed a reorganization of distribution requirements so that there would be 10 requirements — ranging from Physical Sciences to Human Difference — and students would have to take a course in each of these categories.

The current system requires students to take five courses in at least four of five categories, such as cultural analysis and historical analysis. They also must take courses to fulfill geographic breadth and historical breadth requirements. The committee recommended that this system be “simplified.”

“Our hope is that it makes it easier for students to navigate their way through the college, by making the goal of the Cornell liberal arts model clear to them,” Pepinsky said. “It also should be — if we’ve done this right — it should discourage people to think about these distribution requirements as just boxes that they have to check, and give them more ownership over the choices that they make.”

According to the report, the committee was “charged” in spring of 2016 to start reviewing the Arts and Sciences curriculum. After 15 months of work, members of the committee presented the first draft of the curriculum proposal in a town hall meeting in March 2017, The Sun previously reported.

The proposal released on Tuesday is the final version of the report, and faculty will need to approve it in a vote before further planning can take place, according to Pepinsky. He said undergraduates, as well as faculty members from “across the departments,” provided input that went into the report.

One reason the committee recommended a change in the language requirement was due to “concern” that the requirement causes some students to leave Arts and Sciences, according to Pepinsky.

“The origin of that is faculty and student concern that the language requirement was leading students to transfer out of the college,” he said. “And of course we don’t think really that’s good if they transfer out of the college.”

Pepinsky said the committee heard that some students were “so frightened” of the three-course requirement that they decided to alternatively take an upper-level class to finish the requirement.

“And if students are doing that, then we’re not encouraging language exploration and language learning,” he said. “We’re encouraging people to get out of the language requirement.”

Pepinsky also said the new requirement may “be able to increase our coverage of less commonly taught languages.” Students may be more encouraged to try languages such as Swahili and Hebrew if they are only required to take a language for two semesters, he explained.

Patrick Walsh ’19 called the language requirement “just a box [he] needed to check off” and said he did not want to “complete” the requirement.

“I took 3 semesters in Spanish, and while I liked the courses, if I could do it again taking only 2 I certainly would,” he told The Sun in a message. “Even after 3 semesters, I don’t feel like I retained that much Spanish since I am not actively using it in my everyday life.”

Walsh also said that this proposed plan “helps even the playing field a little bit” for students entering Cornell.

“Freshmen from all over the world come from vastly different high schools which may or may not have prepared them in learning a foreign language, so it can be harder to double major/add a minor for those students who have to take the 3 semesters route instead of just a single higher level course,” he said.

However, Prof. Mitchell Greenberg, chair of the romance studies department, criticized the proposed change. He said he sent a message to faculty in the Department of Romance Studies to “call them to a meeting” where they can discuss the proposed requirement.

According to Greenberg, Cornell’s existing language requirement is at an equivalent or lower level to “peer” universities.

“Everybody is quite concerned that this is not a good idea,” he told The Sun. “Obviously, we’ve also compared these recommendations to all our peer institutions, and we found that, except for Brown, which has no requirements, our requirements are totally in line or even less than our peer institutions.”

Greenberg said language professors are afraid that Cornell is “leaning more towards becoming a technical school” and emphasized the importance of studying languages at a University focused on globalization.

“What’s the point of being a globalized Cornell if we’re eliminating a student’s ability to put progress in a language so they can go out into a world and communicate with other people and other cultures?” he said.

In regards to the proposed 10 distribution requirements, one of them is a “human difference” requirement, which could be fulfilled through a class that studies nationality, race, gender, class or other identifications.

“Human difference is responding to students and faculty interest in having some set of courses that are required for students that approach the problem of diversity in the contemporary world from any number of different directions,” he said.

Hadiyah Chowdhury ’18, a feminist, gender and sexuality studies major, said that this requirement would not have affected her, as much of her studies have “been based on issues of marginalization or oppression or race, gender, class,” but she hopes that it will have an impact on a student who “didn’t necessarily have those ideas coming into Cornell.”

“I think that it could be really good because I think that it will encourage people to take courses that they might be interested in but maybe didn’t have the time for previously,” she said.

Other changes the committee recommends include instituting a freshman pre-major advising seminar worth one-credit and making students complete, over their first two years at the University, courses in five of the 10 distribution requirements, according to the report. In addition, the committee suggested that the First-Year Writing Program receive more funding and “programmatic support,” which would promote social science and science seminars.

They also expressed support for interdisciplinary courses and said these courses should have their own enrollment code, which would “enhance their visibility.” The committee also proposed that the “Physical and Biological Sciences” requirement be broken down into two categories, “Physical Sciences” and “Biological Sciences,” and that students should have to take a class in each category.