On Wednesday, Oct. 5, Vassar’s faculty will vote on the “Proposal on rebalancing the curriculum and the teaching load (2-2-1).”
The proposal would alter a professor’s yearly course load from 3-2 (three courses one semester, two the next) to 2-2-1. Under this new system, professors would teach two courses each semester and one additional “Dash One” course, which is outlined in the proposal as “something for which students receive Vassar academic credit” (The Miscellany News, “Faculty propose curriculum changes,” 05.29.2016).
The ultimate goal of the proposal is twofold: to both reduce the often excessive workloads that burden faculty and students alike and endow different departments with the freedom to define “Dash One” as they see fit, encouraging independent studies and other individualized options for learning.
The major pratfall of the proposal is its effect on the overall number of courses offered. It seeks to reduce both the amount of classroom units per semester and the amount of units a student can take per semester–the proposal would cap semesterly workloads at 4.5 units (specifically, 4 classroom units).
The proposal projects that there will be minimal or no increase in average class size, despite a significant reduction in course offerings. Accordingly, there will also be no increase in the size of Vassar’s faculty.
I was initially very hesitant when I first heard about the proposal. Such a reduction could prove to be very problematic in departments where meeting major requirements is already a major hurdle for some students.
When I brought the proposal up during a House Team meeting, many science majors specifically expressed concern that the reduction in the amount of courses offered would make already very-intensive majors even more difficult to complete. As a prospective double major, I was also worried about the potential barriers to my own program of study.
The proposal proactively took these concerns into consideration. To remedy this problem, the proposal would cap major requirements across all departments and majors at 10 classroom units. In addition, the number of total units required for graduation would be reduced from 34 units to 32 units. The proposal does not mention if Vassar’s three graduation requirements (quantitative analysis, foreign language and freshman writing seminar) would be altered in any way.
Reception by Vassar’s community has been mixed. Some peers have told me that the proposal is a direct affront to academic freedom because it places generalized, vague parameters around many disparate fields of study without taking into account the nuances studying certain subjects entail.
In April of 2015, The Miscellany News wrote a staff editorial condemning an earlier incarnation of the Dash One proposal. While the 2-2-1 plan has departed significantly from the three initiatives the Committee on Curricular Policies proposed two years ago, reduction in the amount of units a student would take per semester was a major component. While over a year old, many of the editorial’s arguments continue to be rehashed.
The Editorial Board then argued, “The reduction in credits is another impractical proposal, especially for students who would not be able to afford four years at Vassar. Many students need to utilize the five-credit maximum to ensure that they can fulfill their college experience in four years or fewer, and decreasing the maximum number of credits would make this harder for students…Students apply to our school because of the academic freedom the College offers, and the trust it puts in students to choose their own intellectual paths for four years. If these proposals came to fruition, it would effectively rewrite the academic culture at Vassar and reduce the freedom students get with their education here” (The Miscellany News, “Proposed curriculum changes detrimental to VC experience,” 04.08.2015).
In my capacity as Lathrop House President and a member of the Academics Committee of the Vassar Student Association, I’ve heard different incarnations of this same argument numerous times. The phrase “academic freedom” tends to lie at the center of these critiques.
Upon further examination of the proposal itself, I found that many of the rumors floating around condemning it as drastically changing academics at Vassar for the worst to be mostly unfounded or overly alarmist.
For one, departments have the option to opt out of the plan. The proposal reads, “Some departments may feel that the proposed 2-2-1 is not desirable in the context of their department. A department (or program with faculty appointed to it) may choose to maintain a 32 teaching load for its faculty and not produce a plan for DashOnes. In this case, the number of classroom courses offered by the department or program can remain the same as it is currently.” Some concerns about the impacts the 2-2-1 plan might have on certain departments (for example, Music) are valid and need to be addressed. Inherent dissonances between the specific needs of a department like Music and the plan must be reconciled.
However, for those concerned about the implications the 2-2-1 plan might have on specific majors, petitioning departments to opt out is an available option.
Moreover, the amount of agency granted to specific departments to define Dash Ones appears to me like an expansion of academic freedom, not a diminishment. Many department requirements, in conjunction with the College’s graduation requirements, can be laborious and taxing for students and faculty alike.
Reducing overall classroom work while encouraging further individualized study resonates strongly with Vassar’s mission of making “possible an education that promotes analytical, informed and independent thinking and sound judgment; encourages articulate expression; and nurtures intellectual curiosity, creativity, respectful debate and engaged citizenship” (Office of Communications, Vassar College, Approved by the Board of Trustees, May 2012). Creating intellectual spaces for innovative alternatives to standard classroom education sounds to me like a strengthening and further embodiment of the College’s mission statement.
Perhaps most importantly, the 2-2-1 plan acknowledges the labor faculty members (and their students) already perform. Many departments already require things like senior theses, which would be enveloped into units counted as “Dash Ones.” The proposal takes into account the fact that much of one’s learning occurs outside of the classroom. Acknowledging this as part of official curricular policy is a realistic reflection of the character of academics at a liberal arts school.
Personally, I would love to take more independent studies at Vassar. Establishing a rapport with professors has been one of my favorite aspects of my education here thus far. The Dash One proposal seeks to create more opportunities for such relationships to flourish.
Some faculty members feel similarly. As Dean of Studies Ben Lotto told The Miscellany News last spring, “[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 … [Professors] want to engage with students in their courses beyond that. They want to give them good and careful feedback … 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.”
The 2-2-1 proposal superficially appears to limit student agency over their own education by reducing the number of units they are allowed to take per semester. The intentional vagueness of the policy does indeed open up many questions that may be tricky to navigate. These issues need to be addressed. However, I urge everyone who has heard horribly negative and alarmist rumors about the proposal to actually read its content. No, the plan itself is not perfect. However, it provides space and potential for substantial improvements to academic life here at Vassar.
While the actual implementation of the plan will obviously vary by department, the bare-bones proposal appears inherently conducive to the character of a liberal arts education.