Faculty propose curriculum changes

Faculty members recently proposed a rebalancing of the academic curriculum that will allow students to personalize their studies and diversify their schedule. Photo by Emma Jones
Faculty members recently proposed a rebalancing of the academic curriculum that will allow students to personalize their studies and diversify their schedule. Photo by Emma Jones
Faculty members recently proposed a rebalancing of the academic curriculum
that will allow students to personalize their studies and diversify their schedule. Photo by Emma Jones

As another semester draws to a close, faculty and students alike find themselves ready to embrace a change that would reduce the intense workload they all face each semester. In light of this, a group of dedicated professors and a student liaison, VSA Vice President for Academics Logan Hill ’16, recently drafted a “Proposal on rebalancing the curriculum and the teaching load (2-2-1).”

The proposal will go to vote at one of the first faculty meetings of the Fall 2016 semester. It would change the standard teaching load from 3-2 to 2-2-1. That is, professors would no longer teach three courses one semester and two the next, but rather two courses each semester and an additional “dash-1” course, which is defined in the document as “something for which students receive Vassar academic credit.”

The language is intentionally vague about the dash-1. Dean of Studies and proposal contributor Ben Lotto explained, “We didn’t want to create a list for fear of unintentionally boxing in these possibilities.” Instead, departments and programs will be able to define these alternative learning options as they see fit, allowing students and professors alike more freedom to individualize their course of study. As Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology Candice Lowe Swift described it, “[T]he dash-1 is that dynamic component to the curriculum, to the Vassar curriculum, which would always allow us to be responsive to student needs.”

The rebalancing will include a reduction in the number of classroom courses offered. The proposal document reads, “At the core of this plan is a paired reduction of the average number of classroom units elected by students per year and reduction the number of classroom units offered per year.”

This will mean certain programs and departments will likely have to restructure their major sequences and carefully consider which courses they will continue to offer. Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alison Keimowitz Keimowitz commented, “This is really an opportunity for departments and programs across the campus to take a really deep look at their curriculum and make some decisions.” Lotto agreed, “[T]hat’s an exciting conversation because then you aren’t just doing what you’ve been doing. It brings a certain amount of intentionality about what we’re doing into each department and program and major.”

While most faculty members are appreciative of the proposal, there is some criticism of the justice of reducing classroom offerings. “There is much support among the faculty for the 2-2-1 proposal simply because they see it as the only way that they can reduce their somewhat burdensome teaching load relative to our peer institutions,” Professor of English Donald Foster expressed. “But there’s also the recognition that it’s once again being done at the expense of the students and classroom instruction, which is why I and many others feel that it’s the wrong way to solve our problem.”

He elaborated, “I would say it’s been well thought out, how to try to get the faculty workload lighter, but…there’s no way to conceal the fact that it’s a diminishment of what we’re offering the students and it coerces students to go along with it by limiting how much classroom instruction they’re going to get for their tuition dollar.”

That said, fewer traditional courses does not equate to a reduction in total instructional offerings, per se. Swift explained, “[W]e don’t see this as a reduction in the curriculum, we see it as acknowledging some of the work that we already do and also raising the standards of some of the work that we claim to be doing, and also really asking professors to think outside of the box with regard to some of the courses that they’re offering.”

In fact, lessening the credit requirements could be beneficial for overall academic experiences. Keimowitz asserted, “[B]y reducing the size of some of the very large majors, in that way it gets back to some of what a liberal arts education is to be, which is not necessarily [having] half or more than half of your courses in one area of study.” The requirements under the proposal would likely still be rigorous, but would also allow for more exploration outside of the major sequence, undoubtedly a key feature of liberal arts study.

At the heart of the need for rebalancing is the fact that both students and faculty are continually oversubscribing. “If you compare our faculty to student ratio to that of our peer institutions, we have one of the best ratios, we’re close to the top of that list. And yet, at almost all of those institutions, faculty teach two classroom courses each semester, whereas here we’ve been working at a 2-3 load,” Keimowitz noted. “So what’s the difference? And the difference is that our students are taking five or more classroom courses a semester, which is effectively like having 25 percent more students, in terms of demand on classes.”

While applying to overload, that is, take more credits in a semester than is permitted by the general procedure, would still be feasible under the new proposal, it would perhaps be less sought-after. The committee that drafted the proposal hope that by reducing both the required credits and the offered courses, students will consider their options more carefully and pursue what truly interests them. Swift asserted, “[W]e’re trying to de-emphasize quantity and put a heavier emphasis on the quality of the academic experience.”

Many faculty have expressed frustration that they can’t offer students as much support or engage as fully on an individual level as they would ideally like to do. Keimowitz voiced that frustration, saying, “[C]oming out of a semester now where I was teaching three classroom courses, I think classroom courses suffer and I think my research students suffer because I’m less available. So I think in that way, there will be this subtle change to how everybody’s work flow is operating, and I think it would really change those interactions.”

Lotto furthered, “[Professors] want to engage with students in their courses beyond that. They want to give them good and careful feedback. They want to give them robust sets of assignments. And when you’re doing three courses, there’s only so much room for you to do that for all your students in all your courses.” By dropping the faculty workload to teaching two classroom courses per semester, as most peer institutions do, the proposal would allow faculty more time to work with students on projects they are passionate about.

In his recent article “When the Vassar Bubble Pops, What Then?” for Boilerplate Magazine, Foster argued that the faculty at Vassar is overworked due to overspending on administration. His proposed solution to this issue includes hiring additional faculty.

However, faculty hiring is the prerogative of the Board of Trustees and the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, and as such is naturally out of the hands of the faculty members themselves. Therefore, they decided to approach the issue of overloading, both on the student and faculty ends, from an angle over which they do have jurisdiction: curriculum. Swift clarified, “[The proposal] is not an argument for or against increasing the size of the faculty. I think some of us on the committee would love to see the size of the faculty increase, but that’s not within our power…[We thought about] what sorts of things are within our power to create greater opportunities for deeper engagement. More faculty would help with that, but I think the dash-1 would also help with that.”

Such a proposal has long been in the works. Foster explained that a similar 2-2 proposal was almost considered in 2007, but was put off when the recession hit. Now there is a renewed drive to rebalance the workload and rethink curricula that are perhaps outdated. Swift noted, “[M] any programs and departments, especially departments, have been operating on tradition, traditions that we have not revisited for a very long time.”

She continued, ”[The curriculum proposal] is an opportunity for us to get creative and to reestablish a connection between what students are interested in doing now and what we think might be important in terms of continuity of the field.” Lotto corroborated, “[A]ny time we create opportunities to really talk deeply about what our curriculum is, it’s going to benefit students. It’s when we feel too busy to really have those conversations or if we go on autopilot for too long that we’re not necessarily doing as well as we can by students.”

A transition to a more open definition of what a college learning experience looks like could allow Vassar students and faculty to explore their academic passions in alternative ways. “[One of the main goals is] revisiting tradition and revitalizing certain things and giving up others so that we can make room for newer things, and things that are happening today that are more relevant,” noted Swift.

Vassar students and professors have already demonstrated their interest in temporally and regionally relevant studies by designing courses such as the International Studies class offered this past spring, “The Twenty-First Century Worldwide Refugee Crisis,” or taking not-for-credit courses involved with community engagement. The proposal seeks to recognize those efforts at creative and conscious learning as well as open up channels for further exploration and the sharing of new ideas.

According to its website, “[Vassar is] a highly selective, residential, coeducational liberal arts college.” This proposal is aimed at helping students make the most of their time here and reap the full benefits of a liberal arts education. “[F] or most people, it’s the only opportunity that you’re going to have, these four years, to engage so fully in political life, social life, academic life, all on these fronts at once,” Swift noted. By opening up the curriculum to alternative educational practices and simultaneously reducing the intense workload on faculty and students, the creators of the proposal aim to restore some of the academic fluidity and curiosity that a liberal arts college ought to foster.

One Comment

  1. In an interview, Foster said the college needs to reinvest in its core mission of teaching. And while the 2-2-1 plan is well intentioned, he said, there might be other ways to address the problem of faculty workload, such as adjusting it to reflect individual professors’ research output.
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