College seeks to redesign general education requirements

600 incoming first-year students will test the first phase of the new curriculum

nscollegecourtesyuva

All three components — the Engagements, the Literacies and the Disciplines — seek to strengthen the undergraduate liberal arts experience.

Courtesy University of Virginia

After over four decades, the College is reevaluating its general education requirements by implementing a pilot curriculum to emphasize innovative, interdisciplinary learning. The program is comprised of three components — the Engagements, the Literacies and the Disciplines. Students are required to earn a certain number of credits in each of the three categories before they graduate.

The Engagements refer to courses that create a unique first-year experience that connect students to the University and Charlottesville communities through big picture thinking. The Literacies focus on writing, language and computational skills, while the Disciplines attempt to break down departmental barriers in order to increase interdisciplinary learning.

All three components seek to strengthen the undergraduate liberal arts experience. This summer, incoming students were given the opportunity to choose between the new curriculum, forum curriculum and traditional curriculum.

“Overwhelming demand [for the new curriculum] encouraged us to increase the available seats from 540 to 600 [students],” Academic Programs Manager Clarence “Bo” Odom said in an email statement. “We presently have 600 students enrolled in the New College Curriculum, and an additional 110 enrolled in Forums.”

A New Way of Teaching and Learning

The Engagement courses are the cornerstone of the new curriculum. The Engagements offer first-year students a more intimate classroom setting of about 25-30 students, and prompt students to discuss big questions in the four main subject areas — engaging aesthetics, empirical and scientific engagement, engaging differences and ethical engagement.

The Engagements are each half semester two-credit courses. Students are required to take two Engagements in the fall and spring semesters of their first year, with one Engagement per subject area. The courses are taught and designed by a group of College Fellows selected by the General Education Committee in conjunction with the Dean’s office; however, the cohort of fellows will have a new group of professors every couple of years.

“That’s one of the things we are committed to in this proposal, is that we are not creating a permanent group of Fellows. We want a constant turnover. The hope there is for constant fresh ideas,” Chad Wellmon, Co-Director of the College Fellows and Associate Professor of German Studies, said. “The structure can constantly change itself and that was very intentional on our part.”

In addition to the Engagement courses themselves, students are obligated to attend a guest lecture series at the Paramount, which are designed to tie back to class discussions.

“So [the lecture series] is going to mean teaching in a way that I hope is really exciting. I will have to be responsive to other events happening around U.Va. and in Charlottesville,” College Fellow Laura Goldblatt said. “So there is a real attempt I think to think of these courses as deeply embedded in the University community, but also embedded in the Charlottesville community.”

Goldblatt will be co-teaching an Engagement course with Professor Lisa Woolfork called “Making the Invisible Visible.” The professors plan to take their students to visit some of Charlottesville’s controversial Confederate memorials and historic buildings to discuss how the built environment causes people to act and move. Site visits will be incorporated into other courses as well.

Wellmon will also be co-teaching a course with Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan called “Knowledge You Can Trust.” The class investigates the extent to which institutions and news sources can be considered reliable or trustworthy.

“[Teaching this course] gives me an opportunity to get out of my departmental confines and teach courses that address a much broader swath of intellectual questions that I have,” Wellmon said. “I’m [a professor of] German intellectual history and so this is the kind of course I wouldn’t really be able to teach under a normal departmental configuration.”

The Engagements courses were a major selling point for some students. Neemah Koroma, an incoming first-year student in the College, said she is the most excited to take her Engagements course requirements because of their focus on contemporary issues and broader ethical implications.

“Each section of the new College curriculum seemed to offer a higher amount of ethical and social thinking that could allow me to truly engage in the world around me and become, in a way, a world thinker,” Koroma said.

The Traditional versus the New Curriculum

With the exception of the College Fellows program and Engagements courses, the traditional and new curricula are quite similar.

For the most part, the literacies of the new curriculum are the same as the competencies section of the traditional curriculum. They both require students to pass their first and second writing requirements and complete four semesters of a foreign language, unless they are deemed proficient by a language placement test.

The main difference between the literacies and competencies is a quantification, computation, and data analysis requirement incorporated in the literacies section of the new curriculum. Students must take two courses in this field, which include subjects from Philosophy to Statistics.

The two curricula also vary in terms of the way the general requirements are set up and categorized. The disciplines of the new curriculum are meant to replace the area requirements of the traditional curriculum.

“One thing that the faculty committee voted on last May was that our general education requirements needed a revision for a number of reasons, one of which was there was no real coherence in the courses [students] took for the general education program,” Wellmon said. “So they had coherence in their major, but there was no real coherence or even a real plan with respect to the courses they took outside their major.”

While the area requirements are organized into five categories, the disciplines are split into seven categories and mandate students to take 3 credits from each of the seven disciplines. Thus, the goal is for the new curriculum students to gain a more comprehensive liberal arts education by exposing them to a diverse variety of classes that are not limited by department titles.

“The idea there is simply to not tie specific courses to specific departments because departments don’t really represent the shape of scholarly knowledge,” Wellmon said. “The disciplines are meant to map much more onto contemporary scholarship and show that contemporary scholarship is not bound by departments, that it really cuts across [departments].”

The new curriculum will not prevent students from getting accepted to pre-professional schools such as the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the McIntire School of Commerce. Students from both curricula are ensured equal admission consideration.

Additionally, pre-med and pre-law students have been told not to feel deterred from enrolling in the new curriculum because the curriculum leaves room in students’ schedules for required coursework and allows some of this coursework to fulfill general requirements. Advanced Placement, Dual Enrollment and International Baccalaureate credits will also transfer equally to the new and traditional curricula.

Looking to the Future

At the end of spring semester, a committee external to the curriculum will assess it. The faculty can then vote on whether to extend the pilot program, terminate the program or implement the new curriculum permanently.

“I know that taking the [new] curriculum might be a risk, but it seems like such a wonderful approach for students where they can know about the world around them, while still being somewhat bound in a campus,” Koroma said. “So I want to help the University to understand how it will function and what tweaks need to be made to make it just right.”

If the program fails, students currently enrolled in the new curriculum will still receive full credit for their general requirements. However, if the program is successful, the goal is to revise it with the data collected and eventually make it the curriculum for all College students.

“This is innovative. It is rigorous. It is feasible,” said Goldblatt. “I mean what [students] gain is the opportunity to really be participants in a conversation that is unraveling right now at the University of Virginia and elsewhere and I think that’s the kind of opportunity incoming first-years don’t always get.”

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