CEP receives suggestions from campus, begins curricular review

The Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) has begun the process of reevaluating the College’s curriculum with the hope that its actions will become legitimate proposals by the end of the academic year.

As part of the strategic planning efforts led by Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College, the CEP has solicited opinions on the curriculum from students, faculty members and administrators, and it has begun to develop potential amendments to the College’s offerings.

“Briefly, the CEP will develop the most promising ideas and proposals, in consultation with the college community, both at the idea-generating stage and at the idea-development stage,” the CEP wrote in a statement.

In the current development phase, the CEP aims to examine each of the proposals carefully with adequate community input. It plans to hold community forums, make presentations at faculty meetings and engage individual departments.

The committee has also made the proposals it has received available for public response. They are available on the Strategic Planning Committee’s (SPC) website at http://www.williams.edu/go/strategicplanning. The SPC is made up of a group of administrators and members of various committees that is designed to coordinate activities among college committees.

“The Strategic Planning Committee’s role is to monitor and coordinate work on the curriculum, student life and other initiatives,” said committee member William Darrow, a professor of religion. “The CEP will present a package of proposals regarding the curriculum; the SPC will vet its implications in all areas of the College.”

“[The SPC] is a long and short-range planning process that institutions need in order to establish their priorities and where they will put their resources and energies,” said CEP chair Laurie Heatherington, a professor of psychology, about the SPC and its relation to the CEP.

The CEP hopes that, after sifting through the myriad suggestions and considering its own members’ ideas, it can make specific proposals at a faculty meeting in the spring of 2001. If its proposals are accepted by the faculty, the CEP will then take the plans to the Board of Trustees to enact them.

Why now?

With the CEP committing itself to the task of curricular review this year, one might wonder why this has been judged an opportune time to undertake the process. Those on the committee generally agree that it is necessary for the College to undergo regular reevaluation, and they saw this year’s actions fulfilling that need.

Committee members also cited the arrival of Schapiro and a new team of administrators – along with the College’s large endowment and recent discussion of faculty course load requirements – as reasons for this year’s action.

“A great college should regularly review its curriculum, and we’ve been overdue,” said Darrow. “President Schapiro’s arrival and serious discussion of an instructional load reallocation are the catalysts now.”

Morgan Barth ’02, a student member of the CEP, concurred, saying that for Williams to maintain its perceived excellence, it was necessary for the institution to undertake such evaluation.

“I would say that even without having a huge amount of money and new administration, we would still be as introspective as we are right now,” Barth said. “It’s a sensibility formed by the idea that we’re the best at what we do.

“This demands constant assessment of what we’re doing,” he added. “Students need to assess if they’re learning what they want to learn and the faculty needs to assess if it’s offering its idea of what an education should be. Of course, a new administration with an extremely enthusiastic president, an endowment worth over a billion dollars and the fact that we’re at the beginning of the 20th century also invigorate the college community to seek change and progress.”

What has been done

The CEP’s year began with Schapiro’s suggestion that it examine all parts of the curriculum and explore all potential alterations. With these tasks in mind, the committee set about collecting ideas from all parts of the college community.

After the announcement of the curricular innovation planning project at the Sept. 20 faculty meeting, the CEP sent out a call for ideas to faculty members and students through memos, forums and a letter from student committee members in the Record. These efforts elicited over 50 responses, many of which included more than one specific proposal.

Among the respondents are students and professors from all divisions, including both tenured and untenured faculty. Some of the proposals are based on models newer faculty members have witnessed at other colleges and universities. The responses have dealt with both specific issues of curricular content and the structure of the system that supports the curriculum.

All of the suggestions received as of Oct. 18 are included on the SPC’s website, and the CEP is encouraging all members of the Williams community to look them over and offer comment.

“We hope that as people read this list they will continue talking to each other and to us (the CEP) about the curriculum,” wrote the CEP. “New or expanded ideas may be spawned by such a dialogue.”

Specific proposals

The SPC’s website contains abridged versions of many of the recommendations made to the CEP. The ideas range from small changes in course offerings to complete overhauls of the College’s curricular structure. According to the CEP statement, “The form of the communications being sent to us ranges from formal proposals including a rationale and implementation plan to one-paragraph ideas; from one-sentence pleas to consider remedies for current curricular problems to long reports and documentation of innovative ideas that have been instituted at other colleges and universities.”

Course and disciplinary requirements are a main area of focus in the proposals. Among the suggestions are a mandatory writing-intensive class, a computer literacy requirement, a foreign language requirement and various other competency prerequisites.

Other proposals call for the creation of a mandatory year-long first-year survey course and a required year-long research project.

Course and departmental structure also receive substantial attention in the recommendations. One suggestion calls for the adoption of a credit-hour system to replace the current four-course per semester system, while another proposes the abolition of winter study. Block scheduling and the development of a body of core knowledge requirement for each department’s majors are also mentioned prominently.

Some proposals that espouse the creation of new programs and departments. Among the suggestions are a service learning program, a Latino Studies department, a Williams in Washington program and a history of literature department.

Experimental and cross-disciplinary studies

In addition to the campus-wide collection of ideas, the CEP also hosted several professors with large-scale recommendations at its initial meetings this fall. Among these professors was Peter Just, an associate professor of anthropology.

Just, chair of the interdepartmental program for experimental studies and cross-disciplinary studies (EXPR), said he hopes to expand the program by encouraging faculty experimentation. His proposal called for EXPR classes to be only listed as such for one year. He also argued that the current system of course evaluation – in which tenure decisions depend in part on student evaluations – restricts the willingness of junior faculty to undertake experimental and interdisciplinary courses. He suggested a system under which professors would state their pedagogical goals for the course at the beginning of the year and then evaluate the extent to which the course met those goals.

“When I became chair, I wanted to return the program to its original mission – to promote experimentation and innovation,” Just said. “There’s a conservatizing effect of the course evaluation system, and people tend not to take risks. We want to create a risk-free environment for people to experiment.”

Barth said he is encouraged by the discussion of interdepartmental possibilities that the committee has heard about this fall. He believes that an increase in the number of experimental and cross-disciplinary courses offered at Williams could help break down sometimes unnecessary barriers between departments.

“I think the most important and exciting thing is all of the interdisciplinary thinking that’s going on,” Barth said. “It’s great to see all of the faculty members getting excited about new departmental and interdepartmental visions. In the liberal arts you aspire to learn how to speak clearly, how to discuss ideas and how to think critically. In a lot of ways, old departmental visions construct barriers. It seems like a natural part of the process to reexamine the role of these archaic structures.”

The future

In the coming months, the CEP’s challenge will be to cut down the massive list of suggestions into a list of refined proposals. The committee hopes that the entire college community will be active in this part of the process.

“The CEP has just begun, and will continue to digest, discuss, and evaluate these ideas and other ideas as they arise out of our discussions,” wrote the CEP on the SPC website. “We will consider the current state of the curriculum, what is working and what is not, and how the curriculum and the Williams educational experience might not only be ‘better,’ but the best that we can provide for our students.”

Among the concrete means the CEP planned to use to evaluate the ideas that have come in are reports at faculty meetings, open meetings and forums for students and faculty members in late November and early December and updates on the website.

Darrow believed that there would be many opportunities for students to participate in the planning and refinement process. “We will be staging an open all campus conversation in the coming months in which I expect students will play a major role,” he said.