VSA, admins present Rebalanced Curriculum

Chair of Academics May Venkat ’20 kicks off the academics forum held on Sunday, Oct. 28. At the meeting, Professors Bjork, Chenette and Garrett answered students’ questions regarding the forthcoming curricular rebalance. Courtesy of Yijia Hu.

As students anticipate adding a new crop of classes for the spring semester during pre-registration next week, the College is looking further ahead at bigger changes to the curriculum.

In October of 2016, the faculty passed the so-called “2-2-1,” or “dash-1,” policy, aiming to address overload on the part of both faculty and students and to streamline the curriculum on the whole. Because departments cannot add faculty tracks on their own to alleviate overload, the professors who proposed the plan instead addressed the issue in the context of the curriculum. The initial solution was to change professors’ course loads, with faculty teaching two courses each semester plus one additional course, the titular “dash-1,” instead of three during one semester and two the next.

Since passing the policy, the faculty and administrators involved in designing the new curricular structure have determined many of its details.

The VSA Academics Committee, led by Chair of Academics May Venkat ’20, held a forum on Sunday, Oct. 28, to introduce the details of the Rebalanced Curriculum, now formally titled the Vassar Intensive Experiential Work (VIEW) initiative. Venkat—along with Raymond House President Nick Gorman ’21 and Davison House President Milo Mitchell ’21, who both sit on the VSA Academics Committee—presented the basic changes to existing curricular expectations for students. Academics Committee members were joined by Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Music Jonathan Chenette, Professor of Chemistry and Associate Dean of the Faculty Teresa Garrett and Professor of Education and Director of Asian Studies Christopher Bjork, who elaborated on details of the plan and responded to student questions and concerns.

The Rebalanced Curriculum, which will go into effect in the 2019–20 academic year, shifts the numbers and distribution of requirements for students, as its name implies. In order to graduate, students will be required to fulfill 32 units of coursework, instead of the current 34 units.

In addition, the maximum per-semester course load will be reduced from five to 4.5 credits. Students will still be able to apply to the Committee on Leaves and Privileges to take more than 4.5 credits a semester, which Chenette and Garrett assured at the forum would be a fairly easy and open process.

Finally, there will be a maximum of 11.5 units for major requirements in each department and program. A maximum of 10 of these units can be traditional courses, with the remaining 1.5 units set aside for intensives for majors that opt to include them.

According to the VIEW Guidelines for Students that will soon be distributed, “Intensives are envisioned as innovative learning opportunities that will complement more traditional courses by extending beyond the classroom for a variety of faculty-mentored experiences requiring a high level of student agency and independence.”

As Chenette, Garrett and Bjork, the last of whom heads the Intensives Committee, explained at the forum, the new policy leaves idea of intensives intentionally broad. Intensives—which count for a full or a half credit—may include projectand group-based courses, local community-engaged and field work, and focused research and multidisciplinary study, all with the potential for non-traditional structures, mentorship experiences and travel.

In an interview, Dean of Studies and Professor of Mathematics Benjamin Lotto spoke to the value of the range of coursework that falls under the intensives initiative. “You want to be taking courses that have different learning modes: lab courses, field-based courses, traditional classroom courses, lecture courses, seminar courses,” he said. “All of those are just different ways to grapple with learning and knowledge.”

Intensives can be either graded or ungraded classes, with some specifying certain expectations for enrolling students— as well as special permission—based on differing expectations in coursework. Students and faculty members, or a combination of the two, are able to propose ideas for intensives.

Chenette, in an interview, quelled students’ fears that the introduction of intensives adds a whole new element to their already full schedules. He stated, “The rebalanced curriculum is not a radical new direction but rather an intensification of elements that already distinguish a Vassar education—lots of close work with faculty members and student peers, relatively few requirements and dynamic and exciting opportunities to connect ideas and learning with action and impact in the world.”

Venkat concurred, expressing, “There are already built-in intensive opportunities that we’re now just recategorizing as this intensive distinction. These opportunities have been on campus. We are just trying to highlight them and make them a more prominent feature in our academic coursework.”

Some examples of proposed intensive courses include a biology course on water accessibility in Puerto Rico that includes a trip to the island at the semester’s end, a history of the architecture on the Vassar campus, a course investigating restorative justice, Haitian Creole language instruction and a small-group multidisciplinary reading class on early Chinese language, literature and culture.

One of the major goals of the intensives, the presenters described, is to allow students freedom in pursuing much of the focused work they are already doing, including fieldwork, certain extracurriculars and thesis preparation, all which may have counted for course credit or independent study but will now fall more uniformly into the intensives category.

In an interview, Bjork expanded on the overarching vision of VIEW. “Taken together,” he explained, “these curricular initiatives are designed to recognize and catalyze deeper learning, to encourage more meaningful and close interactions between students and faculty, and to create space and opportunity for exciting, forward-looking explorations of what a Vassar education can and should be.”

Venkat also detailed two specific goals of the curricular redesign: First, the maximum of 4.5 credits per semester is intended to help improve the mental and physical stresses of overworked students. As Venkat articulated, “You don’t need to stress yourself out beyond belief and take five courses and overload and then burn out. Rather…you can really enjoy and do other things on campus, things that make you happy.”

Second, the per-semester reduction will also make studying abroad easier, since some international programs only offer four credits. The VIEW curriculum is also more inclusive of students without AP or IB credits to transfer, which in some cases rounded out the 34 required units.

The introduction of VIEW conforms to a trend in the past decade of colleges focusing on so-called high-impact educational practices. As Lotto explained, “The goal of [capping majors at 10 classroom credits] is to give students room to really pursue a liberal arts education.”

The forum continued with students raising questions and concerns. One query addressed the difference between community-based intensives courses and fieldwork through the already existing Office of Community-Engaged Learning, a differentiation which has yet to be fully defined, according to the panelists’ answers. Other students raised questions about funding for intensives with trips or other costs, to which Chenette replied that financial aid will apply to any associated costs. Additionally, class sizes are not expected to change drastically on average.

A key concern remained regarding the Class of 2021, next year’s juniors, since students in that class will be most affected by the transition to the new rebalanced curricular structure. Beyond the standardized 32-unit graduation requirement, Bjork, Chenette and Garrett emphasized that each department and program has a plan for phasing in the new changes and are aware that the transition may present some difficulties.

As Chenette expressed, however, “Change is never easy, and we’ll doubtless have some kinks to work out no matter how carefully we plan; but this change holds the promise of making high-impact learning experiences, closely mentored by faculty, more a part of every Vassar student’s education.”

A final concern raised at the forum was the accessibility of the intensives, both in terms of physical accessibility and access to enrollment. Garrett echoed the legitimacy of these concerns, stating, “Close work with faculty is not anything new at Vassar, but who gets to have that experience has not been very inclusive. I want us as a faculty to think about how we’re broadening and making these experiences more accessible to the whole student body.” She assured students that conversations about accessibility have taken place and will continue to be a priority. Enrollment in intensives, she went on, will not be extremely competitive nor necessarily predicated on a personal relationship with professors.

Finally, Venkat emphasized that Academics Committee will serve as the primary resource for students’ intensive ideas and any concerns they may have. She went on to state that students should contact their departments or programs for specific information. Every department and program has a transition plan to facilitate current first-years, sophomores and juniors completing their majors. The forum panelists encouraged students to meet with their major advisor and/or department or program chair to discuss this transition. For questions beyond the scope of students’ major departments, Venkat recommended students meet with their class deans in the Office of the Dean of Studies.

Additionally, at the forum, Garrett stated that she, Chenette and Bjork will serve as points of contact for any questions or concerns that arise. She added, “Whatever you raise will help all students have a better experience and have the rollout be better.”

In reflecting on the changes presented at the forum, Lotto affirmed VIEW’s consistency with the spirit of a Vassar education. “Our curriculum has not been set in stone,” he opined. “It’s always been a very dynamic curriculum.”

Bjork expressed his excitement that the College was undertaking broad questioning of the efficacy of our curriculum, conversations which only crop up from time to time. He stated, “I think after making adjustments over the first few years, the curriculum will be much more vibrant for students.”

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