University faculty voted Friday to make the New College Curriculum the mandatory general educational model for the future classes of the University’s College of Arts and Science. The curriculum features engagement classes that teach first-year students the themes of aesthetics, ethics, science and difference — and was launched in 2017 as a pilot in the College, with more than 500 students choosing to enroll in its inaugural year. Around 1,900 students are currently enrolled in the curriculum.
After five years developing the New College Curriculum program, which included a three year trial, the College faculty was asked to vote on two motions — first, whether to continue the program, and second, whether to make the New Curriculum mandatory for future classes.
Both motions passed — motion one with 416 in support and 128 opposed, while motion two passed 270 to 263 with 19 abstaining to vote. The motion to make the curriculum mandatory will go into effect with incoming first-year College students in the fall of 2020. Five current students who were in support of continuing and expanding the curriculum demonstrated outside the vote Friday morning to voice their support to faculty.
Brie Gertler, acting dean of the College, said an intense faculty debate occurred before the vote in which members openly shared a range of perspectives. Gertler said the decision is “a strong endorsement of the work done over the past few years by a dedicated team of faculty.”
Although motion two passed, faculty and students have both argued against it. Some criticism came from STEM faculty members who were concerned that the New Curriculum will not emphasize STEM fields and could inhibit students from fulfilling pre-med requirements.
New Curriculum supporters countered that opinion, stating they believe opponents have a noteworthy concern but think this can be addressed by expanding the New Curriculum into STEM fields. They say that the New Curriculum has plenty of opportunities for STEM faculty members to create courses about empiricism and in the humanities.
Kevin Lehmann, a professor of chemistry and physics, supported the New Curriculum as an option but opposed making it the mandatory curricular approach. Lehmann is a faculty fellow who recently began teaching his first engagement course in the New Curriculum.
“Students arrive at college with a wide range of backgrounds, interests and life goals,” Lehmann said. “A set of courses, as diverse as our students, should be available to allow students to grow intellectually while fulfilling their requirements.”
Lehmann believes that while the College faculty has an obligation to define what is required for a degree, the University should respect a student’s choice and allow “greater flexibility” for students to determine the best approach to their general education requirements.
“I believe that each student should ultimately have the power to decide what is best for him or herself,” Lehmann said
Chad Wellmon, co-director of the New College Curriculum and an associate professor of Germanic Languages and Literature, was surprised by the results of the vote. He said that typically attempts to change the curriculum at other universities fail, but the University’s approach was different since its inception.
When designing the New Curriculum, Wellmon and his committee were told by Ian Beaucom, dean of the College, “I don't want a report on a curriculum because historically so many of these things just kind of end up in giant reports that get put in drawers … I don't want that. I want a curriculum.”
Wellmon and his colleagues offered a curriculum that makes students take three different types of classes — engagements, literacies and disciplines. The key difference between the New Curriculum and the Traditional is the engagement classes. These are seven week courses that allow students to discuss and investigate the four habits of mind — ethics, aesthetics, empiricism and differences.
Politics Prof. David Leblang supported the New Curriculum in both motions.
“I'll tell you why I like it,” Leblang said. “One is that the courses — the engagements — by design are interdisciplinary and are multidisciplinary, and I just think that's where more learning occurs, when you see you see an object and you approach it from different perspectives. And the second reason is that I think that's where innovation comes from.”
Leblang argued that the change would be more appealing for students deciding where to attend college.
“My son is a junior in high school, and we're in the process of looking at colleges,” Leblang said. “The programs that appeal to him the most are the ones that are — I don't know how to say it any better — they're interesting.”
Linda Columbus, an associate professor of chemistry, noted that the Traditional Curriculum fails to fully educate its students because of how Bloom’s taxonomy, a way of learning often shaped like a pyramid, is inadequately applied. This strategy relies on memorization and a foundational discipline base to acquire the basics of a subject which then provides support for more applied critical thinking.
“What happens in our Traditional Curriculum is that we don't practice going up and down the Bloom's taxonomy — we go one way and then we get up there we expect [the students] all to be able to integrate and think,” Columbus said. “So we need to be flipping it … You may not have all the information to do it right.”
She further explained how the New Curriculum fixes the issues with the Traditional Curriculum.
“You're practicing integrating and thinking in an interdisciplinary way and integrating knowledge before you have all the foundation so that by the time you're getting it all together in your third or fourth year you're bringing that practice to your discipline,” Columbus said. “I think that for me is the sole purpose of continuing to evolve.”
First-year College student Austin Orfield is enrolled in the New Curriculum and believes the lab portion of the New Curriculum’s engagement class fails in its mission by expecting too much from its students very early in their first semester at the University.
“They asked us to identify a problem on-Grounds, but the issue with this is we’d only been on-Grounds for like two weeks,” Orfield said. “And as first-years, it's kind of hard to find routine problems when you've been here for less than a month.”
Orfield thinks that the work required for the labs take too much time with little results. Currently, labs account for only 10 percent of engagement grades.
“We have a lot of work weekly, and it's not enough to substitute for a class and it's very frustrating,” Orfield said. “It's so time consuming for not a large portion of your grade, and it's just kind of like a question of why we're doing it.”
In an opinion column for The Cavalier Daily, second-year College student Hunter Hess argued against the continuation of the New Curriculum. Last semester, as a first-year in the curriculum, Hess wrote that the engagements lacked cohesion and created scheduling conflicts.
“Adopting the curriculum across the entire College would be a huge mistake, forcing every student into an unorganized and limiting curriculum,” Hess reiterated in his most recent piece.
Other students such as Noah Strike, a second-year College student, advocated for the total adoption of the New College Curriculum. Strike wrote an opinion column, circulated a petition and organized a rally before the vote Friday morning.
Strike said that although online articles were a way to voice his views, he knew that wouldn’t be enough to show his support.
“Actually having physical student bodies outside the room with posters, looking at faculty members as they walk in and say, ‘We care about our education, we care about our curriculum choice, we'd want you to know that,’ I think that'll be a much more powerful statement,” Strike said in regard to the demonstration.
Four other students joined Strike to demonstrate outside the vote at 9:30 a.m. Friday, including third-year Commerce student Logan Murtha.
“I would come out if it was 7:30 on a Friday,” Murtha said. “I had such a positive experience in the New Curriculum from being a student my first year to then being a TA my second year, and as one of the few students on the board that helped design the new labs, I got to work really closely with the faculty. We really would fight for the curriculum at any time of day. I was really happy to be able to be present.”
Gertler praised the support students demonstrated , which she said improves the New Curriculum, and called their participation “invaluable.”
Leblang shared a similar sentiment to Gertler’s. For Leblang, his vote was reinforced by the students’ show of support.
“They make me feel more comfortable in my decision,” Leblang said. “I was really happy that they were so enthusiastic about it as I am. So it just made me feel better about my opinion.”
Wellmon was also thankful for student involvement leading up to the decision. He also believes that the New Curriculum will not only support students’ education, but also benefit teachers due to the relationship it promotes between students and faculty in engagement courses.
“To be with these first-year students on their first day they get on Grounds, or will go first step into a classroom is, is to remember why I went to graduate school, or why I opened books in the first place,” Wellmon said.
This article has been updated.