Students discuss flaws of Peoples and Cultures requirement

Every spring the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) receives a copy of the annual Course Package for review. This Course Package contains descriptions provided by the departments and programs of changes made to the college curriculum. After review by the CEP and approval by the Faculty, these changes are presented to the Williams community in the form of the Course Bulletin, our cherished purple bible. What exactly are the Course Package and the review process and what is the relevance to Peoples and Cultures courses?

Let’s start with the contents of the Course Package. Each department/program chair from all three divisions has to fill out a general information sheet providing changes to their curriculum. These information sheets are then compiled into one big packet the CEP calls the Course Package. The general outline for this information sheet that the department and various program chairs have to fill out is as follows:

Title of Department/Program:

For Faculty Action

a) Changes in major and honors programs:

b) New courses:

c) Substantially revised courses:

d) New tutorials:

e) Peoples and Cultures courses

For CEP Consideration

a) Courses to be discontinued:

b) Previously discontinued courses which will be offered next year:

c) Courses to be bracketed:

d) Courses to be unbracketed:

e) Additions to or deletions from lists of courses offered by other departments:

FYI-Tutorials offered:

The actual contents of this information sheet vary from department to department. Some departments have major changes in their curriculum on an annual basis that are noted in this information sheet; while other departments leave everything above completely empty because nothing has changed for the coming year.

At any rate, once the Chair of the CEP receives this information it is brought to the CEP membership in the form of the Course Package and the work of review is divided amongst the members of the committee based on their associations with the three divisions. Those students who are Division III majors review the packet for Division III. Those faculty members on the committee who are Division III professors review the packet for Division III, and so on.

You might be wondering, “So what? What does this matter to Peoples and Cultures courses?” If you look closely under the heading “For Faculty Action” you can find (e) Peoples and Cultures courses, drowned in everything else that the CEP must review. All departments that are offering a new Peoples and Cultures course make note of it under (e).

The source of this new Peoples and Cultures course can vary: 1) a brand new course is being offered that fulfills the Peoples and Cultures requirement, 2) the structure of an existing course is changed so that it now fulfills a Peoples and Cultures requirement and 3) a professor, the chair of the department, the CEP, or anyone else for that matter has a revelation that an existing course actually does fulfill the Peoples and Cultures requirement and should be designated as such.

There are several other important points about the process that I must point out. First, this is the only time of the year that any Peoples and Cultures course is reviewed. Furthermore, the only courses that are reviewed are new Peoples and Cultures designations. None of the courses that have been designated as such in the past are reviewed unless a particular designation is questioned and brought to the attention of the CEP by one of its members. Lastly and most importantly, the method of approving a new Peoples and Cultures course is somewhat arbitrary from year to year. Although there are set guidelines for what a Peoples and Cultures course should be, the only information that the CEP receives about a new Peoples and Cultures course is the title and the course description.

Why is any of this important? Let’s, for a moment, assume that we all agree regarding the importance of Peoples and Cultures courses. Let’s assume that we all agree these courses are important and necessary for students graduating from Williams. If this is so, then the outline above demonstrates that the CEP lacks the detailed scrutiny and methodical review that these courses require.

I must admit that as a Division III major and former member of the CEP, I did not think very critically about this issue and did not take the review process as seriously as I should have. However, many students have approached me with deep concern regarding the designation of some courses as Peoples and Cultures. I hear stories of how students take a Peoples and Cultures course and the course does not come close to fulfilling the requirements set forth by the CEP. It is for this reason that I must bring to light the CEP and the Peoples and Cultures course review process.

We need to address this issue. Maybe we should do a review of all Peoples and Cultures course in more detail. Maybe we should require that all professors teaching a Peoples and Cultures course fill out a separate information sheet with a set of criteria that must be fulfilled. Or maybe we should even think about having one Peoples and Cultures survey course that all students must take.