Faculty committee proposes restructuring of curriculum

On Mar. 6 and 7, the College’s Committee on Curricular Policies (CCP) presented draft proposals to the faculty that would change the existing academic policies with regards to the course load and graduation requirements for all Vassar students from the Class of 2020 on.

If the proposals are accepted by the faculty and put into action as they currently stand, three primary changes will be made to Vassar’s academic rules and regulations, including changes to distribution requirements, the creation of an Intensive Mentored Exploration (IME) requirement and the revision of the existing policy concerning student course loads.

The idea for the first of the potential changes, affecting the distribution requirement system, reportedly came about during the May 2014 Dean’s Retreat, “Conversing About the Curriculum.” According to the first draft proposal itself, faculty members at the Dean’s Retreat showed great interest in changing the College’s course distribution requirements to offer a broader educational experience to future students.

The CCP’s proposal would seek to actualize these faculty discussions by mandating that students take at least three courses in four of the five curricular divisions: arts, foreign languages and literatures, social sciences, natural sciences and multidisciplinary studies. One of those three courses would have to be above the 100 level, and the requirements would have to be fulfilled before the start of students’ junior year. Exceptions to the policy would be handled by the Committee on Leaves and Privileges.

The proposal’s rationale explains, “The primary motive for these changes is to ensure that all students realize breadth of study across the curriculum. Many faculty consider our current unit-based stipulations (half outside the field of concentration and 1/4 outside the division of concentration) inadequate to ensure a level of curricular exploration that nurtures students’ ‘intellectual curiosity, creativity, respectful debate and engaged citizenship.’” The concluding quote makes reference to the the Vassar College Mission Statement.

The current policy forbids students from taking more than 50 percent of their classes or 17 of 34 units in a single field of concentration, which the new proposal would not change, and that at least one fourth of the 34 units needed to graduate be in one or more of the curricular divisions outside the division of their concentration.

If adopted, the CCP’s proposed changes may demand that students approach their academic plans, especially as freshmen and sophomores, differently. According to the draft, only 40 percent of students in the classes of 2012 and 2013 would have met the proposed requirements, suggesting that it would have had a significant impact on at least 60 percent of those students’ class choices.

The CCP also suggested in their drafted language that such a change to students’ distribution requirements could assist in spreading out class enrollments more evenly, giving increases to departments with low enrollment and decreases to overcrowded departments.

The authors maintain, however, that the exact effects of the changes cannot be confidently foreseen as yet, owing to the unpredictability of which departments and classes students would choose to register for to fulfill such requirements in the future.

The second proposal requested the creation of a mandatory Intensive Mentored Exploration, which would require that all students participate in either an individually mentored project with a faculty member in the department of their IME or a small seminar class with a strong emphasis on professor-student mentoring of a similar nature.

“Before spring break, all juniors would be asked to indicate 1) if double majors, the major in which they will complete the IME; 2) for a seminar-style IME, the course they intend to complete to fulfill the requirement; 3) for individual or small-group collaborative projects, at least three broad areas of interest,” the draft’s language reads.

A campuswide IME system would be overseen by the IME Subcommittee on Curricular Policies and endorsed by the CCP, who assert that the IME’s style of “integrative learning” promotes engagement with diverse perspectives, the development of intellectual self-confidence in students and the provision of more academic opportunities for student-faculty interaction.

“The basic concept is to require every student to do something in their senior year that is intensively mentored, that they’re passionate about, where they are taking a great deal of initiative,” explained Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette at a Vassar Student Association (VSA) Council meeting on April 5. “Like a thesis but with a much broader range of possibilities.”

The third proposal concerned the revision of students’ course load limits. The proposed language reads, “The normal course load in each student’s program is 4 or 4.5 units per semester. Permission from the Committee on Leaves and Privileges is required if the student wishes to take more than or less than 3.5 units.”

The current course load limit before special permission from the Committee on Leaves and Privileges would be required stands currently at 5.0 units, though many students choose to exceed that number. With a narrower window for students between minimum and maximum required course load, along with plans to grant fewer exceptions to that rule than to the current one, the CCP has posited that this policy would impact class enrollment pressures to the effect of having 70 fewer students on campus.

“The fact that students can take five or six courses right now does put more pressure on faculty and takes more of their time,” Chenette later remarked, in an interview. “It conceivably closes out an opportunity for another student to take whatever class because some people could be taking it as their fifth or sixth class. [This] should make opportunities more widely available for a broader number of students.”

The CCP also asserts that this alteration would bring Vassar more closely in line with the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of a standard credit hour as is used for federal financial aid purposes. Purportedly, it would allow fewer sections to need to be run for certain classes or departments, freeing up faculty time and resources to facilitate the implementation of new programs like the IME system.

Although the suggestion of an IME requirement was reportedly met with tepidly positive responses after copies of the three curricular proposals had been distributed via email by members of the VSA to the student body, the other two proposals have sparked both concerns and criticism from many students.

“It didn’t seem like very many people felt terribly strongly about [the IME proposal], but no one disapproved,” commented Class of 2017 President Jonathan Nichols ’17 during the VSA Council meeting on April 5. “I got a lot of negative feedback on [the other] proposals.”

Many students have labeled the proposals unnecessarily stringent and intellectually stifling. Class of 2018 President Rebecca Pober ’18 remarked. “Vassar prides itself on being a free curriculum…It seems like [these proposals] are trying to require more breadth but allowing less time for students to do that.”

She went on to say, “If you’re saying that Vassar has a free curriculum but students read the website and see all these requirements, then it’s not really that free…We’re already exploring. That’s the reason why we came to Vassar.”

Others have voiced similar concerns that new regulations such as these would be not only unfairly rigid for students, but against the spirit of liberal arts and Vassar’s reputation for academic self-determination. Class of 2015 President Zoe Fullerton ’15 commented, “The biggest concern that I got from [the Class of 2015] was that this goes against what Vassar and a liberal arts education means. From a personal perspective, I was pre-med, and there are a lot of requirements that are imposed upon pre-med individuals already. Because of the way Vassar works, I was able to change my major during junior year, but that was not something I would have been able to do with all of these requirements.”

The CCP’s proposals have also been met with indignation from some at the fact that students’ long-standing request for the creation of a social consciousness requirement has made little progress while other ideas such as these have already entered their drafting stage.

Despite heavy criticism, many have defended the CCP’s recommendations. VSA VP for Academics Logan Hill ’16 wrote in an emailed statement, “Most of the really valid critiques I’ve seen have been about the process of implementing the proposals, while those dealing with the rationales underpinning the proposals have honestly been a bit weak. I think it’s important to ensure that any new requirements can reasonably be accomplished by every Vassar student across the curriculum. However, the criticisms of the proposals’ rationales have largely centered on the ways they impinge on Vassar’s ‘open curriculum’ and students’ ‘freedom.’ I don’t think it’s reasonable or practical to allow a student to decide carte blanche what they want to take on their own.”

“Breadth and depth ought be balanced out, and requirements are one way to help accomplish that,” Hill continued. “I don’t think eight or nine units outside one’s major division or having to focus more deeply on 4 to 4.5 units each semester impinges seriously on anyone’s academic freedom, and I’m certain Vassar students will continue to do really amazing and creative things with Vassar’s still open curriculum.”

Chenette, who currently chairs the CCP, also stood by the committee’s ideas. “The point people need to remember is that we already have lots of requirements here. The major requirements that everyone has to do could equally be challenged as being paternalistic,” argued Chenette. “It’s a matter of degree. We could end up with a situation, depending on how the distribution requirement proposal goes, for instance, where in fact the total number of courses required outside your division could be lower than it is currently.”

The CCP maintains that the changes are far from finalized, and could yet take entirely different forms from the current drafts or could be rejected entirely. Until such decisions are made, however, the CCP encourages students to direct questions, comments and concerns regarding the proposals at any of their members in the coming months.

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