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John Harvard's Journal

Reconfiguring the Curriculum

July-August 2006

Much work on refashioning the undergraduate curriculum remains for the next academic year, but the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) concluded its spring meetings by adopting several significant changes. Students will have more time to choose their concentrations, and new options for minor fields of study, encouraging them to investigate diverse disciplines; professors will supervise writing and speaking more directly; and new humanities courses and wholesale changes in the life sciences aim to provide better academic experiences. Together, those measures may help a new committee on general education (the most contested terrain in the three-year curriculum review) progress toward legislation in the fall.

•Concentrations. At its April 18 meeting, the faculty voted that, beginning with the class matriculating in September, students be required “to declare a field of concentration before the end of classes in the third term of enrollment.” Harvard has required freshman-year concentration choice, earlier than at other colleges and universities. Given students’ need to begin fulfilling other mandates (expository writing, foreign language, the Core curriculum or its general-education successor, and the standard 12 or more term-length concentration courses), many found it hard to explore course offerings and discover a new passion.

To allay concerns in the sciences and engineering that undergraduates might inadvertently foreclose options by failing to pursue needed courses in sequence, students will now have to have “a documented advising conversation with a representative from one or more prospective concentrations” before the end of their first year. The departments may not limit fall courses in the sophomore year to students who indicated an interest in the concentration the prior term.

•Secondary fields. Optional four- to six-course sequences could be offered by departments or standing degree committees; students could be recognized for work in one, alongside their concentrations. Following the vote on April 4, more than a dozen departments began advancing proposals for such sequences to the Educational Policy Committee for review.

•Writing and speaking. FAS voted on May 16 to replace a Core subcommittee focused on expository writing with a stand-alone faculty committee to review the teaching of writing and speaking throughout the College curriculum.

As these changes progressed, faculty members advanced other changes in course content and pedagogy that will, over time, determine directly what kinds of general education and concentration experiences students have.

•Humanities. Following the successful launch of the new introductory life-sciences course, with team-teaching and fresh approaches to classwork and laboratories (see "'The Excitement of Science'" and “Enlivening Science,” July-August 2005, page 62), dean for the humanities Maria Tatar briefed the faculty on May 2 about innovative “portal” courses in that division, “expansive in scope and integrative” of subject matter. Several will appear as “general education courses: humanities” in the Courses of Instruction 2006-2007. For example, Stephen J. Greenblatt and Louis Menand will present an “introductory humanities colloquium” covering “major works of literature and ideas” from Homer through Joyce, probing “the kinds of issues addressed in humanistic studies.” In a later conversation, Tatar said her colleagues were responding to “real hunger out there among undergraduates for broad-based, integrative courses” investigating large topics in life, literature, and philosophy—in contrast to “boutique model,” specialized classes for concentrators. The new courses, varying in size and pedagogy, are “an experiment, a sort of humanities laboratory” that she hopes will “ignite interest” from students, as they have already among faculty members.

•Life sciences. Reflecting changes in basic knowledge and the opportunity to devise smaller concentrations more appealing to students, the faculty on April 18 approved a wholesale revision of undergraduate studies in biology. In presenting the plan, professor of anthropology Daniel E. Lieberman noted pointedly that undergraduates found current concentrations “too large, too broad, and too confusing.” In response, the new “life sciences cluster” replaces the biology and biochemical sciences concentrations with chemical and physical biology; human evolutionary biology; molecular and cellular biology; organismic and evolutionary biology; and neurobiology. These five fields are complemented by the existing biological anthropology, social and cognitive neuroscience (in psychology), and chemistry tracks—all building upon the new Life Sciences 1a and 1b introductory sequence, and each better able to provide focused advising and pertinent laboratory experiences (descriptions appear at www.lifescience.fas.harvard.edu).

The interdisciplinary revamping of an entire field such as life sciences suggests how rethinking introductory, general-education, and higher-level courses can bring faculty members together to refresh education throughout undergraduates’ Harvard years. That goal has been elusive so far, because little agreement exists on a general-education successor to the Core curriculum. In faculty meetings, professors aired concerns that a distribution requirement would qualify too many departmental courses as “general-education” equivalents; that the emerging integrative courses were not clearly in the offing; and that important goals (familiarity with a foreign language, quantitative analysis, ethical principles, and public service) were being orphaned.

Interim president Derek Bok’s analysis of undergraduate education in Our Underachieving Colleges, published last December, explicitly dissects models of general education, and acknowledges the “long and inconclusive debate” on the subject nationwide. In one of his last official comments as dean, at the last regular FAS meeting of the year, William C. Kirby informed the faculty that Bok had asked him to convene a summer working group to ready recommendations on general education for the fall agenda.