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Curriculum Queries

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) devoted much of its last three regular spring business meetings to reports on the undergraduate curriculum. Formal legislation on a new course of study, once planned for this spring, has been deferred until next academic year. International study, general education, concentration requirements, and advising were among the subjects covered. Although the limited faculty response to date suggested comfort with many of the review committees’ broad principles and specific suggestions, revising general education—outside students’ field of concentration—remains the most visible, and vexed, aim of the review. Tangible progress has been made on overhauling the introductory science courses aimed principally at concentrators (see “Enlivening Science,” page 62).

• International experiences. On April 12, the faculty’s standing Committee on Education Abroad endorsed the curricular-review recommendation that “all Harvard College students should henceforth be expected to pursue a significant international experience” (see “Addition by Subtraction,” July-August 2004, page 55). The committee defined such experiences, which are not mandatory, to include formal study abroad as well as thesis research, internships, employment, and public service. (Of 840 students who pursued some international experience from last summer through the 2004-2005 academic year, only 351 studied for credit and 75 percent scheduled their off-campus experience during the summer: students are loath to be away from classes, peers, and extracurriculars. For two students’ reports on studying abroad, see "An American in Paris" and "Sommersemester")

The committee seeks to double current student participation during the next few years, said its chairman, John H. Coatsworth, Gutman professor of Latin American affairs and director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. The key to making the various experiences valuable, he said, was involving the faculty in vetting their quality and relating them to course or thesis work.

• General education. In pursuit of what the April 2004 curricular-review report called “a liberal education in the arts and sciences” informed by a faculty “exercis[ing] its responsibility to define what students need to know,” it seemed that the faculty would be asked to replace the Core curriculum with a distribution requirement and “a new set of integrative, foundational courses.” These “Harvard College Courses” were to “define the basis of an educated citizenry” by crossing disciplinary boundaries. FAS dean William C. Kirby reemphasized this ambition in his annual letter last February.

But on May 3, general-education committee member Charles S. Maier noted his colleagues’ wide range of opinions. (A draft of those opinions, leaked to the Crimson, prompted some professors to suggest starting over.) Maier, who is Saltonstall professor of history, said the committee agreed that the Core’s “approaches to knowledge” was too focused on scholars’ disciplinary concerns. In his view, the new curricular emphasis ought to be on departmental courses devised for nonconcentrators, and Harvard College Courses redefined as small seminars, based in the residential Houses where possible, and focused on “educational engagement with the wider world.”

Buttenwieser University Professor Stanley Hoffmann said he was not “reassured” by the presentation. He questioned whether there were enough faculty members to cover the necessary seminars, and feared these would be even more specialized than current courses, not less so. Leaving the rest of general education to the departments, he said, would orphan the Core’s moral reasoning and foreign cultures courses—the latter a quixotic result given the emphasis on more international experience for students.

• Concentrations. Kemper professor of American history James Kloppenberg said that prompted by the 2004 report, the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) would advocate delaying concentration choice until the end of the third semester (rather than the end of freshman year), to extend students’ time to explore diverse fields. The EPC also favors limiting concentration requirements to 12 of students’ 32 Harvard courses. (Some fields now require as many as 16 courses for honors, all but precluding foreign study; this battle will be waged concentration by concentration, particularly in the sciences.) And honors would be determined by the quality of student work, not the number of courses taken. The EPC also plans to “recertify” concentrations to encourage new introductory courses, fewer requirements, and more small classes.

• Academic advising. At its May 17 meeting, the faculty heard reports on more extensive writing training, and renewed opportunities for education in rhetoric and speaking; on more pertinent course evaluations and innovative course design, better informed by knowledge of teaching and learning; and on science. Potentially the most far-reaching recommendations addressed College advising, perennially seen as a weakness.

The advising committee proposed as an “expectation that all faculty participate in some way in the undergraduate advising system,” as a form of teaching outside the classroom that offers students a valuable way to shape their learning. Just 39 regular faculty members now advise first-year students, when their ability to explore subjects is greatest, said committee chair David Pilbeam, Ford professor of the social sciences. Among the committee’s many recommendations are upperclass peer advisers, simplification of the current overlapping layers of advisers, improved Web-based information for students and advisers, and detailed calendars promoting student-adviser meetings at critical intervals (with guides for the conversations). Implementing even a fraction of these ideas, in part through a new associate dean of advising (who is being hired), would enhance prospects for realizing the goals of whatever new curriculum emerges.

Much else remains to be done, of course. Offering a broader perspective, Folger Fund professor of history Andrew R. Gordon, the department chair, on May 3 compared the current all-encompassing curriculum review to narrower examinations of general education in the 1940s and 1970s. He thought it “not outrageous” for the effort, begun in 2003, to take five to six years to complete and urged that the faculty be given the chance to consider all the proposals at once, so it could consider their interaction, before voting on any one. Dean Kirby, also an historian, though obviously not relishing Gordon’s timeline, agreed.