CEP presents newly developed skills requirement to College community

As a part of its ongoing efforts to implement substantial reform to the College curriculum, the Committee on Education Policy (CEP) recently publicized the implementation of Skills and Content requirements, which include requirements for courses that are Writing Intensive (WI) and develop quantitative and formal reasoning (QFR) skills. The Skills and Content requirements will become effective for the entering Class of 2006 next year.

The institution of the requirements is part of large-scale curricular reform, which was developed by the CEP and approved by the faculty last year. The CEP has been working to implement the changes since the approval of the proposals in May.

The major changes contained in the approved proposals are the reduction of the physical education requirement from eight credits to four, the implementation of the Skills and Content requirements, the creation of an expanded tutorial program aimed at increasing the amount of tutorials taken by students, the development of an experiential education program in New York City and an increase in the availability of team-taught interdisciplinary courses.

Due to the high level of effort required for the implementation of all the programs, the CEP intends to phase the changes in over a period of at least two years. The first change was the reduction of PE credits, which applies to all students, and the implementation of the Skills and Contents is the latest development.

Under the Skills and Content guidelines, academic departments may apply to the CEP for certain courses to be designated as “writing intensive” if the courses include a substantial amount of writing (a minimum of 20 pages), which will usually be divided into several different assignments. Furthermore, instructors must focus on writing style and the quality of argumentation.

The qualifications for writing intensive programs further suggest that the separate assignments involve several drafts for a single assignment in order to maximally refine a student’s writing abilities. In order for instructors to pay close attention to discussions in class as well have time to critique papers in detail, enrollments in writing intensive courses are limited to 19 students.

Beginning with the class of 2006, all students will have to take two writing-intensive courses during their tenure at the College. Documents provided by the CEP, however, suggest “students will benefit most from writing intensive courses by taking them early in their college careers and are therefore strongly encouraged to complete the requirement by the end of the sophomore year.”

According to Anastasia Moro ’04, a student member of the CEP, things are moving along with an informal classification of classes that could be designated as writing intensive or QFR courses. “We have revisited the definition of ?writing intensive’ courses and we are looking through the catalogue to determine which courses fit the description and which do not, so as to get an idea of what we’d be offering now that a writing intensive course is required,” she said.

The other part of the Skills & Content guidelines is requiring courses that involve quantitative and formal reasoning. Based upon surveys conducted as part of its research process last year, the CEP found that the current Williams curriculum was inadequate in building a foundation of formal reasoning.

According to documents released by the CEP, “Williams students should be adept at understanding and communicating quantitative information. This skill demands the ability to apply a formal apparatus to the making of decisions, a comfort with numbers, and a possession of the research tools necessary to accumulate data to support or disprove hypotheses.”

To that end, departments may apply for QFR-designation if courses have “regular and substantial problem sets” that hone the ability to reason in the language of mathematical symbols and use formal rules to obtain specific answers. In explaining CEP’s intentions with the QFR guidelines, CEP documents indicate “translating real world phenomena into a mathematical description, computing quantitative results, and relating those results in words are the sorts of skills we would like to develop.”

While most courses that could be QFR-designated are offered by the Mathematics Department, other departments may also offer QFR-designated courses, as long as they “emphasize the use of multi-step mathematical, statistical or logical inference.”

Some examples include Computer Science 134: Introduction to Computer Science, Economics 255: Econometrics, and Philosophy 103: Logic and Language. Students must complete at least one QFR-designated course before their senior year.

Other parts of the implementation process are progressing as well. While tutorial expansion is labeled a program, in reality, it simply entails an increased number of tutorials available to students. Tutorials are courses in which two students must write weekly papers whose themes are critiqued and defended during weekly meetings with the professor. The format, which was developed at Oxford University, was brought to the College during the presidency of Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas Francis Oakley.

The effort required to develop a tutorial is great. “Creating any new course is a huge amount of work,” said Danyluk. “For a variety of courses on campus, what you can apply for is summer grants. That has always been true. What has happened now is that the grants are more available.”

In previous years, professors were ineligible for a grant if they had received on in the past. However, under the auspices of the tutorial expansion program, professors are eligible for more than one grant, provided they are developing separate courses. Danyluk predicted that the expansion program would have a gradual effect on the curriculum beginning next year, as more tutorial courses are developed over the next few summers.

A third portion of the reforms is the development of the Williams-in-New York program, aimed at creating avenues for experiential education. The original CEP proposal called for regularizing the use of experiential activities by creating a formal post for central coordinator/facilitator, as well as a “Williams-in-New York” program.

The New York program, which like the Williams-in-Oxford program would be an extension of the College, would avail students with opportunities to actually experience what they are learning in class and apply it to reality.

Establishing a physical extension of the College in New York as a study-away program would serve to address the problem of College’s geographic location. New York is an attractive location for experiential study due to its geographic proximity, cultural, racial and ethnic diversity and overall cultural richness. Students will spend one semester in the program, and do the equivalent of two courses of academic work in addition to at least 15 hours a week of related work in New York City.

“We’re working on the job description for the experiential education coordinator right now, and could potentially have a person in place by next year,” said Danyluk.

She mentioned that the Williams in New York poses additional issues due to the high level of physical plant issues; namely, a building suitable for housing 15 to 20 students must be purchased and configured to fit the requirements.

“We went down [on Nov. 29] to formulate the requirements for the building. We also looked at similar programs in New York, and having looked at others, [the implementation and creation of the requirements] might involve some change,” said Danyluk.

While she emphasized that nothing is definite, Danyluk said that it is not inconceivable that the program would be in place for next year. The funding for the purchase of the New York facility might come from the College, but it is possible that an alumni gift could partially or fully cover the cost of establishment.

The last part of the reform is the increase in the availability team-taught interdisciplinary courses. Under the proposed model, faculty with mutual interests could propose a format for a course, which pending CEP approval could be developed fully.

This plan seeks to integrate the work of faculty from different departments and allow them to truly teach together, rather than splitting a course into parts. In this way, faculty from different departments or sub-fields could teach on a single topic from different angles, which would broaden students’ understanding of the topic.

“What I’ve heard about the team-taught courses is just the discussions we’ve been having, which emphasized the importance of professors really collaborating on the material instead of simply teaching two classes in one ? we also discussed that true collaboration is labor and time intensive, but important,” said Moro.

Also, according to Moro, faculty are being strongly encouraged to develop team-taught courses, and the reduction in faculty course load, which go into effect shortly, will make new course development much easier.

On the whole, Danyluk was pleased with the progress thus far, and was positive in her comments about the CEP and its projects. “It’s been a real interesting process, and we have a very good CEP this year,” she said. “It has been a very hardworking group, which is part of the reason that the process has been so good. Also, in general, we’ve had a lot of support from the administration from the very start.”