New curricular proposals too restrictive for students

As students returned from restful breaks filled for most part with much-needed time away from campus, campus leaders sent an email about an ongoing curricular proposal that looks to revisit the current academic structure at Vassar for the first time in 40 years. This proposal, from the Committee on Curricular Policies, was discussed in a forum with Dean of Faculty Jonathon Chenette at the April 5 Vassar Students Association (VSA) meeting. In this forum, Dean Chenette gave some greater depth into the proposal’s goals. After hearing Chenette’s insights and reading this proposal, it remains clear that too many unknowns exist for this project to be implemented in time for the Class of 2020.

Vassar’s new curricular proposal seems like a Trojan horse for a Gen Ed requirement. To me, personally, these curricular proposal sound like we, as students, are being spoon-fed an approach to learning that will do nothing but set us up for failure. The proposal calls for students to take three classes in four out of five “curricular divisions” at Vassar, and implies that the faculty who have worked with this committee are not satisfied with the way students currently engage with academics over their four years and achieve a breadth of learning that could be argued a liberal arts education.

My sister goes to a state liberal arts college (SUNY Old Westbury) on Long Island and this proposal sounds very similar to what hat she’s told me her experiences have been. In order to graduate and demonstrate a depth of learning, she must take coursework in a number of “domains” as part of a General Education requirement. Old Westbury’s reasoning for this program, according to their website, is that, “…a general education requirement provides students with a broad multidisciplinary liberal arts education…” and it is not unlike that of Dean Chenette’s own rhetoric at Sunday’s meeting. Chenette meanwhile said in Sunday’s meeting that the goal of these curricular changes is to encourage a depth of learning students may not otherwise seek during their time at Vassar, as well as to address the structural complexity that multidisciplinaires have created on Vassar’s academic org chart.

I am not denying that all students at Vassar go into the depth of learning Vassar hopes for out of the current academic structure. What I am denying is that Vassar needs such a specific, rigorous and hand-fed path for students to get an in-depth liberal arts education. All this will do is force students, much like my sister, into classes in which they have no interest except to meet one of 12 class requirements. I sure wouldn’t want to spend 3 out of my 8 semesters completing nothing but requirements at Vassar, and neither should you.

In addition, the Class of 2020 may sound like a far-off spectacle, but these students will be selected by the Office of Admission in a matter of months, not years. In December the Early Decision class of 2020 will be receiving their matriculation packets, and it is up to Vassar’s Committee on Curricular Policy to be certain of this project’s success before then, otherwise it will need to delay this project’s implementation or revisit it entirely. Based on the questions asked at the forum, it seems the Committee on Curricular Policies has not yet considered all impacts of this radical change, such as how it will affect students applying to graduate school. It’s far too soon to consider passing such a resolution, lest we want to pass it first and figure out making it work later.

Here’s another great reason to doubt the success of these new curricular policies: There’s no guarantee that faculty will get the resources needed for these changes. I am not saying that there is some conspiracy among Vassar administrators to give us the worst possible education. Instead, I am noting that many departments remain understaffed, and another element of this curricular proposal—the IME—will require far more faculty advisers to assist students as they craft their senior projects. I actually do not have many qualms with the idea of an IME, but I do have qualms if it means more faculty advising students and subsequently offer even fewer classes. There’s no guarantee this will or will not affect class availability, and the curricular proposal does say it will work to improve staffing, but why not improve staffing in the status quo rather than introduce a more complex academic structure? It seems we’d have more to gain with adding staff in the status quo rather than implement such a structured system instead.

I can only imagine what this will also do to a campus environment that has been, for me at least, cooperative in very unorthodox situations. When I made plans to go JYA last year, the Committee on Leaves and Privileges was concerned about whether I’d fit in a media studies international program as an English major. If we suddenly had a slew of new requirements to worry about as sophomores when considering a JYA program, how could we possibly be expected to take a program that only gives one or two credits when we have to complete 12 other credits in order to meet the goals of this new curricular proposal? This goes along with a host of other concerns that culminate with something that sounds a whole lot like a general education program with a bit more creativity and a different name.

All in all I find these curricular proposals poorly thought out in the context of what a Vassar education currently entails here. Maybe if we were part of an institution that had 10,000 or more students, such as SUNY Old Westbury, I could see the value in promoting a more structured and procedural approach to creating a liberal arts education. I think if the faculty care more about a greater breadth of learning at Vassar they ought to offer more classes that students have requested, as well as focus on more effective peer and faculty advising in the status quo to help students meander through their four years at Vassar. I think we know better as an institution and community. I also think that we are jumping head first into something very complicated and not very Vassar-like at all.

I know the idea is to get us interested in a very well-rounded academic experience, but I don’t think it has to be done in such a procedural and structural manner. I’m not against revisiting our curricular structure, but why bring in something so unlike any part of a Vassar experience? We’re trusted with so much else on this campus from dorm access to unproctored exams, why not also trust us with an open educational experience?


—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.

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