Faculty approves curriculum changes

The College faculty voted at last Wednesday’s faculty meeting to implement two new proposals made by the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP). The first will award a $4,000 summer stipend to professors developing an approved team-taught interdisciplinary course. This compensation replaces a one-time course release, or exemption from teaching a course during the semester, which the faculty approved in May 2001. The second, more controversial proposal establishes strict guidelines for the definition of concentrations, enhancing the clarity and applicability of the concept of the concentration. Both proposals passed with a clear majority and are to be implemented immediately.

There were several reasons for the change in the proposal involving interdisciplinary course development from the original version in last year’s proposal initiative. Since the impending comprehensive reduction in faculty courseloads will reduce the number of course offerings in some departments, having course release for professors developing team-taught courses would have either cut offerings even more or forced departments to hire part-time professors. The course release initiative was proposed and approved before the courseload reduction decision. Because of the reduction, faculty will have more time to prepare new courses since they will teach less during the semester. Finally, the proposal stated, “awarding summer stipends helps to recognize the special complexities of mounting an interdisciplinary team-taught course. This is also a way of indicating the College’s commitment to encourage team teaching.”

Last May’s proposal stated that between 10 and 15 faculty members would be approved to develop a course each year. Andrea Danyluk, professor of computer science and chair of the CEP, said that she expects the number of stipends will also be within this range. The proposal passed with a unanimous vote.

The second proposal requires that departments offering concentrations follow guidelines set by the CEP beginning with the next academic year. “Any new programs proposing concentrations will have to meet the new guidelines,” said Danyluk. “Existing concentrations have one year to make any changes, if necessary.”

The guidelines stipulate that a minimum of five courses be required for any concentration, including courses from at least two departments, an introductory or intermediate interdisciplinary core course and an interdisciplinary capstone course similar to the senior seminar currently required for most majors. The capstone course may be substituted by a commonly shared senior-year experience, such as a colloquium. The proposal also requires that students declare their concentration along with their majors at the end of the sophomore year, thus offering an incentive for students to make better decisions regarding the direction of their studies.

In addition, the CEP proposal suggested that the term “program” be used for all interdisciplinary programs at the College. There would be three categories of programs: those offering majors, such as American studies and comparative literature; those offering concentrations, such as such as African-American studies and environmental studies; and those offering neither, such as Latin American studies and leadership studies.

However, most of the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting focused on the definition of concentrations. “There are [currently] no specific guidelines that say how a concentration is supposed to look,” said Danyluk. The CEP’s new proposal provides a universal definition of a concentration, which will make the concentration concept less subject to a department’s particular ideas of a concentration while increasing the number of interdisciplinary courses offered to students.

In addition, the CEP hopes that the new structure will foster unity among students in a particular concentration, since they will take introductory courses together. Ideally, by the time they take their capstone course, their familiarity with each other will result in a comfortable and nourishing intellectual environment.

Joe Cruz ’91, assistant professor of philosophy, is currently co-designing a cognitive science concentration with Kris Kirby, associate professor of psychology. “For beginning students, we will take great care in crafting a syllabus that highlights the strong interdisciplinary connections between neuroscience, cognitive psychology, philosophy, computer science and linguistics,” Cruz explained. “Students will then have the resources for taking courses in those fields, and they will understand the material of those courses differently than if they had not taken a gateway cognitive science course.

“Seniors need a different kind of experience,” Cruz continued. “They require a forum for bringing together what they have learned over their time at Williams.” After taking introductory and interdisciplinary courses for the concentration, “the fact that they know things creates a different demand and a different dynamic in a capstone senior experience.”

Many students currently choose concentrations in a haphazard fashion. Tom Kohut, dean of the faculty, explained that one student “falls into” his or her concentration by simply happening to take the required number of courses, while another student takes the concentration very seriously.

Requiring students to adhere to specific guidelines and a time frame will make the process more uniform.

The recent proposal, which delved into the technicalities of teaching resource allocation, was not greeted by the faculty as warmly as the last year’s initiatives and incited a heated debate. Some faculty members expressed concern about forcing students to take so many courses, and many more were apprehensive about the logistics of the proposal, since the CEP’s recommendations come at a time when courseload reduction and its effects on course offerings are at the forefront of many faculty members’ and department chairs’ minds. However, Danyluk believes there should be little problem with staffing.

“The College is increasing the faculty as part of the process of courseload reduction/workload reallocation,” said Danyluk. “So this is an ideal time for programs to ask for staff, if necessary.”

However, not every program would have the opportunity to be adequately staffed. Kohut said that the College may have to assess which programs are stronger and in higher demand, thereby making some programs into official concentrations while others would remain clusters, which are not recorded on a student’s transcript. Currently, “we allocate positions to departments with the assumption that they will go to certain programs,” such as interdisciplinary courses or concentrations within departments, Kohut explained. An example of such a program is political economy, which is a subfield of political science.

Jim Mahon, chair of political economy, expressed his dismay at the proposal. “If the proposal passes,” he said, “The Latin American [studies] concentration won’t make it.”

He explained that although planning for the Latin American studies concentration goes back several years, “the bar has now been moved a bit higher” and it will be more difficult for concentrations still in the developing stages to follow the new regulations.

“I believe it will of
ten prove difficult in practice to staff multidisciplinary (and presumably team-taught) courses at both the sophomore and senior levels for concentrations,” Mahon said. “This makes me pessimistic about a Latin American studies concentration.”

However, some faculty insisted that they should be less worried about staffing concerns than about the educational ideals behind the proposal, and that logistical problems can be resolved if approached in the right way.

“If the will is there, and we are careful about how many concentrations we offer, it could still work, especially if colloquia become more common and team-teaching becomes less common,” said Mahon.

Joe Cruz ’91, assistant professor of philosophy, took a strong stand in favor of the proposal. “If programs have to answer to this standard, programs will make sense,” he said. “The Williams faculty has an obligation to make sure that the degrees that we offer have followed a curriculum that is as rigorous and thorough as we can make it,” Cruz explained. “When a concentration shows up on a transcript, that [is a] promise [by the faculty] that the student has been educated in that field… The motion that passed makes this promise easier to manifest.”

“Future programs will be able to confidently claim that the college has subjected its curriculum to a process of assessment that makes sure that the program is rigorous and rich. In my view, the motion really does ensure that the programs we have will be vibrant and intellectually rewarding.”

Regina Kunzel, assistant professor of history and chair of American Studies, supported the proposal, saying that staffing should not be a concern. “Having the proposal will give a strong incentive to increasing staff,” she explained.

The proposal also requires that new programs offering a concentration or major be reviewed by the College after five years. After this initial review, programs will be reviewed every 10 years. Currently, interdisciplinary programs that offer concentrations are African and Middle-Eastern studies, African-American studies, biochemistry and molecular biology, environmental studies, neuroscience, and science and technology studies. Programs that offer majors are American studies, comparative literature, political economy, and women’s and gender studies. Programs that offer neither, and were formerly called “clusters,” are Jewish studies, Latin American studies, Leadership studies, materials science studies, and performance studies.

The proposal passed by a clear majority vote. It needed a 65 percent majority in order to pass.