Curricular Musings: Inviting in the Students

 

With the new academic year underway, it is both a pleasure and relief to be able to spend less time on the implications of the recent recession on higher education and more time on what we do best and love most: education and the curriculum.  This feeling of relief was most noticeable at the opening faculty meeting of the year, which took place, as it does every year, on the inspiring Bread Loaf mountain campus, 12 miles from Middlebury.

After the introduction of new faculty colleagues and the mandated business portion of the meeting, we shifted into our discussion segment of the meeting.  This year’s topic focused on changes in individual fields of study and how faculty, departments, and the College adapt, or need to adapt, to such changes to ensure that our faculty remain current and the College offers a course of study that best prepares our students to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Three faculty colleagues, Jane Chaplin of Classics, Noah Graham of Physics, and Steve Snyder gave terrific presentations on how their fields have evolved over time and how they themselves have evolved in their thinking of their respective fields.  Their talks provoked excellent discussions in small break-out groups about how each level—-the individual, department, and College at-large—-must be able to evolve if even the most traditional of disciplines is to remain relevant to future generations of students.  We will continue these discussions throughout the current academic year.

Following the meeting at Bread Loaf, I couldn’t help but sense that something was missing from the otherwise excellent discussion.  What was missing were our students…or more accurately the views of our students.  What did students think?  How do they see their education fitting into the complex and dynamic times in which we live and into which they will go post-Middlebury?

Of course faculty determine the curriculum and vote on changes to the curriculum, but student opinion and perspective couldn’t hurt, and in fact, could only help our collective consideration of the College’s curriculum.  A number of the College’s most meaningful innovations and initiatives have come from student proposals.  For example, in the academic realm, two new minors—in linguistics and global health—were driven by student interest and lobbying of faculty and administration, and an “unofficial minor” in food studies has garnered significant interest even though it is not in the College’s course catalog and it will not appear on a student’s transcript.  The students removed the term “minor” from the cluster of courses they recommended for those interested in the study of food—its production, distribution, regulation, consumption, nutrition, etc.—so as to avoid confusion over its “official” versus “informal” status, but the interest remains.  That interest reflects a kind of thoughtfulness that we should include in our faculty deliberations; none of the recent curricular initiatives coming from students (linguistics, global health, or food studies) undermines our commitment to a liberal arts education, and in fact, each underscores how what our students learn in the classroom can be applied to help transform or combine traditional disciplines into something relevant to their post-college plans.

There is a student education affairs committee (the SEAC), which meets with our faculty’s educational affairs committee (EAC).  I encourage the SEAC to continue to engage our faculty committee on curricular issues that relate to the many social, environmental, and humanistic issues we teach and study as part of our liberal arts curriculum.  But I also encourage students at-large or in groups that are not part of our committee structure to do the same—to invite discussion of curricular issues that interest them and that they believe will ensure course offerings that reflect the dynamism of our times while remaining true to our liberal arts tradition.  Such input can only strengthen our curriculum and the overall educational experience for our students.

11 comments

Norma Marie Anthony Martino

Norma Marie Anthony Martino’s avatar

Excellent remarks by Pres. Liebowitz. These thoughts and approach to higher education are precisely the reasons our daughter chose to apply to Middlebury College. She is a freshman this year, and having come from a Classical Lyceum in Italy is certain to expand and nurture her study of the humanities which she began five years ago in Italy. She has already reported how stimulating and positive her professors are, how friendly and interesting her schoolmates are, and how supportive and helpful are the staff and community of Middlebury College. To us, her parents, it appears that Middlebury College is a delightful microcosm of our global world and a perfect place to be enriched and bolstered for future endeavors.

As a junior here at the college, I greatly appreciate this post and knowledge that the curriculum is being discussed. However, as the line is ‘inviting the students’ I would also like to explore one of the large issues I believe is plaguing the curriculum: the AAL cultural requirement (a stance which I say with confidence many colleagues of mine support… just ask Dean Shirley what students had to say of the Curriculum at Residential Life Training, which also happened upon the beloved land of Breadloaf). For priding itself to be a global institution, clumping (the following as quoted from the catalog) “courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean” is something of which we as an institution should be ashamed. Each of these places in itself is so incredibly broad, with such rich culture, history, and experience. Until Middlebury equates all lands of the earth in the cultural requirement, the curriculum will always be blemished in my personal view. Obviously it wouldn’t be practical to adopt a requirement for each seperate area and there are many opinions of how one could even attempt to put definite dividers on cultures of the world–however anything more than what we have now would be progess. I would encourage an exploration of adopting a policy of five of seven for example if using the ones explicitly listed in the requirement (North America, European, CMP, Africa, Asia, Middle East, Carribean). I know this is a discussion that has been occuring for many years, however I hope that as the curriculum is being evaluated, we do not cast this aside.

I agree. We could increase the number of requirements to 6 or 7 then make one optional, allowing for a greater diversity of options without bring forced to take a large number of requirements.

Brittany and Anonymous: there has been discussion over the years about the cultures and civilizations requirements, and they have been amended since they were first introduced about 15 years ago.

Perhaps engaging the SEAC and offering some concrete alternatives would be productive. Just be careful about the number of “requirements” you begin to propose, or at least consider the consequences. Faculty have their issues with requirements (which areas of the curriculum are you saying are more important than mine by requiring some and not others?), and so do students (if one is required to do more and more courses, one has less freedom to choose one’s course of study, and the chances to double major, something I don’t personally like or endorse, will be reduced).

So engage other students, your faculty advisers, the SEAC, and propose some alternatives.

Ron

President Liebowitz and Anonymous,

Thank you for the dialogue on this matter! And absolutely, offering concrete alternatives was the aim of my comment (and proposal), I did not intend in any way for it to be disparaging. I never knew the SEAC existed before reading this blog and I am contacting my senators about this matter immediately.

I can also greatly appreciate the concern over the issue of increasing the requirements: which is why what I initially proposed and will continue to propose is a four/five of seven type system, similar to how the academic requirements are given, which would not (or barely) increase the requirements. It would not be possible or reasonable to ask students to take a course pertaining to all the academic areas and all cultural & civilizations areas and I would never advocate for forcing all to be mandated. However to be competitive in the global arena and the complex and dynamic times in which we live (as one of your questions asked President Liebowitz) it will be to the benefit of the Middlebury community to appreciate and respect on an equal plane all areas of the world.

Looking forward to a continued discussion on the curriculum of our great institution!

Yours respectfully,
Brittany

Brittany: I did not take your comments in anything but a constructive way, and thank you for providing ideas…and committing to keep the discussion going through SGA and the SEAC. Much appreciated.

RL

Priscilla Bremser

Priscilla Bremser’s avatar

Chiming in late here… but I want to point out that the faculty at the Breadloaf meeting did actually hear from some students — namely the Solar Decathalon team, ably represented by Katie Romanov. This is a wonderful project, and the team has already done well in an international competition. For more information, see http://solardecathlon.middlebury.edu/index.php . (Full disclosure: I’ve had several of these students in class, and I’m not at all surprised that they’re involved.) Both Katie and the President noted the strengths brought by liberal arts students to this team effort.

As a Midd Junior, I have to say that I personally have one issue with the Middlebury curriculum. I really don’t understand the need for distribution requirements at all. I haven’t heard a convincing argument in favor of them yet, and indeed, I have found in my time at Middlebury that distribution requirements have done nothing but hinder, not enhance, my academic experience.

First off, as a competitive and selective college in terms of admissions, any Middlebury College student likely has had a varied academic experience upon arriving to Middlebury as a freshman. From the admissions website:

“Middlebury does not require a specific secondary school program of study, but we suggest:

Four years of English
Four years of one foreign language
Four years of mathematics and/or computer science
Three or more years of laboratory science
Three or more years of history
Some study of music, art or drama”

Clearly, most Middlebury students have already experienced a wide swath of academic options before taking their first Middlebury class. If a student has already taken AP Calc BC, AP Biology, AP Chemisty and AP Physics in high school, but doesn’t want to take a SCI or DED at Midd because they want to focus on languages or a social science, why should they have to?

Some of Middlebury’s academic peers agree that distribution requirements aren’t an essential factor in providing a liberal arts education (Amherst, Brown) and I would laugh at anyone who would tell me that an Amherst grad’s academic experience is any less varied, broad, or ‘diverse’ as a Midd grad’s; I would go so far as to say that a “truly” liberal liberal arts education is one that endows its students both with the responsibility and the freedom to choose their own academic path. Middlebury College students are adults when they arrive on campus as freshman, and they should be the masters of their own academic ship. Students should have complete freedom over the classes they want to take in their four year, 36 course, $200,000+ Middlebury experience.

I would really appreciate hearing a truly convincing argument in favor of distribution requirements.

Sincerely,

John

Ronald Liebowitz

Ronald Liebowitz’s avatar

John,

Thanks for your comments. I will leave it to my faculty colleagues who glance at this blog to offer up some arguments for distribution requirements at Middlebury.

I, personally, have some strong views on what students who graduate with a college degree ought to know, and maybe that will be a soon-to-be post on this blog. I will say that while I have those views, I share some of what you voice here. I am not so sure our current requirements, which in essence were passed by the faculty in the early-to-mid 1990s, with some minor tweaks after, are the most relevant for our students today.

I proposed two years ago to our Ed Affairs Comm that we revisit our distribution requirements and reduce them significantly and/or simplify them significantly, but the faculty did not agree that change was needed.

I think the issue of requirements needs some kind of review, along with our very conservative and restrictive stance (relative to about 70 other liberal arts colleges) regarding the ability of our students to take even 1 course Pass/Fail. That is, as I understand the latest information, we might be the last liberal arts college (among 70 queried) to not allow a P/F option for a regular semester course. I have changed my position on this over the course of my 26 years here, and hope we have a chance to discuss this issue, too, sometime this year.

I will bring the issue of distribution requirements up once again with our Ed Affairs Committee and see how interested they are now in this issue. Perhaps students sponsoring an open forum on this issue (and the P/F issue) might be a good idea.

Ron

Parker Woodworth

Parker Woodworth’s avatar

I came across this post a little late, but feel inclined to lend my two cents nonetheless:

John,

I can certainly appreciate your stance on distribution requirements. The spirit of a liberal arts education is to allow and encourage students to engage in a significant breadth and depth of study, and attempting to steer that exploration can interfere with a student’s educational agenda. In the same sense, a liberal arts education is lacking if it produces graduates without an academically diverse background.

As you point out, Middlebury students generally arrive with four years of vigorous secondary school under their belts. However, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to require students to continue to branch out during college. Middlebury, as you correctly assessed, is extremely expensive. I would hope that someone with a $200,000 degree would have at least some basic understanding of history, for example, or at least fundamental deductive reasoning skills. To dismiss Middlebury’s duty to produce graduates with facility in many disciplines on the basis that they may or may not have been exposed to them in high school does students a disservice.

Many students talk about “getting around requirements” or “taking the easy way out” by, for example, taking a CW in the math department (for a math-brained student) or taking logic for a DED requirement (for a humanities-prone individual). This isn’t avoiding requirements at all, but living exactly in the spirit of them: an english lit major who had a visceral reaction to algebra probably won’t get much out of calculus, but could benefit from the deductive reasoning that logic offers. Similarly, the finer points of Kafka might be lost on a physics major who would greatly enjoy learning about important mathematicians while honing his or her writing skills. It’s unlikely that either student would take those classes without the requirement, and it’s undeniable that both would benefit.

To many, the goal of a liberal arts education is to dedicate four years to studying whatever seems interesting. Unfortunately, this attitude will not always produce the dynamic and multi-faceted graduates which Middlebury prides itself on cultivating.

I hope I’ve at least provided some food for thought in your considerations of distribution requirements.

Parker

Sites DOT Middlebury: the Middlebury site network.