CEP reflects on impact of 2001 reforms

Two years after the touted curricular reforms of 2001, there is little consensus among the faculty and administration of the College regarding the success of these changes. Ratified by the faculty in May of 2001 following recommendations from the Committee on Education Policy (CEP), the reforms, which were packaged as the Proposals for Curricular Innovation (PCI) included an expansion of the tutorial program, new writing and quantitative skills requirements, increased interdisciplinary programs and a new focus on experiential education that included the creation of a Williams in New York program.

The least contentious of the reforms have been the writing and quantitative skills requirements. Starting with the Class of 2006, students must successfully complete two “writing-intensive” courses and one “quantitative/formal reasoning” (QFR) course prior to graduation.

Wendy Raymond, associate professor of Biology and member of the CEP, said that the writing requirement allows students and faculty to be more concerned with the development of students’ writing skills.

“I think the writing-intensive requirement focuses additional faculty attention on how to help students become better writers. It takes a lot of time to learn how to write well, and it takes a lot of time to assist someone in that process. The writing-intensive designation encourages faculty and students to take that time,” she said.

However, it also appears that the writing requirement has facilitated limited change. “In terms of the writing requirement, we were very much on the conservative end of the spectrum – it’s not all that difficult to meet it,” said Thomas Wintner ’93, associate dean of the faculty.

He added that even before the requirements were set in place, a great number of students would still easily have satisfied the requirements.

The quantitative skills requirement had a similarly small impact on the curriculum. “Since it’s only one course, it’s unlikely that it’s going to cause major problems for students in terms of scheduling down the road,” Wintner said. Raymond said that she was “not aware of. . .changes in our teaching or learning environment, particularly in Division III, brought on by the QFR requirement.”

The expansion of the tutorial program was considerably more contentious than either the writing or QFR requirement. The changes were designed to increase both the number of tutorials available to the entire student body and the number of tutorials available to sophomores with limited or no prerequisites.

On the surface, the expansion of the tutorial program was a definite success, growing from 21 tutorials only a few years ago to 47 tutorials next year. Of these tutorials, 20 will be taught at either the 100 or 200 level.

However, a number of criticisms have arisen regarding the expansion. The first is that expanding the program has increased the size of seminars and lectures by diverting faculty away from already large courses.

Colin Adams, professor of mathematics and chair of the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR), said, “For every tutorial that is offered, some other class that might have been 19.5 [students] has to grow to 31.5 on average. The students in that class have a worse experience because of the tutorial.”

Adams noted that the sentiments he expressed were his, and not those of the CPR. He also made it clear that he is not opposed to tutorials. “The experience can be one of the most beneficial and important that a student has at Williams,” he said.

However, he added that he was deeply concerned by the $4,000 course development stipend awarded to faculty who teach tutorials.

“I am dead set against paying faculty to create additional tutorials,” he said. “We are skewing the system. Faculty may not be choosing the best paradigm for teaching the material or for maximizing the benefit for the entire student body. The College should not try to push the faculty in a pedagogical direction by dangling monetary enticements in front of them.”

Another purported problem with tutorials is that they do not consistently meet their enrollment limits, which leads some to wonder why the program needed to be expanded in the first place. Last fall, the average tutorial contained 7.5 students, out of a possible ten.

This year, the average tutorial enrollment is eight, according to Mary Morrison, associate registrar for Records and Registration. Yet this number is slightly misleading, because four of this year’s 39 tutorials accepted more than ten students.

A final criticism of the expansion deals with the nature of tutorials themselves.

“While tutorials work well for some students and faculty in some areas of inquiry, they hardly represent curricular innovation. Indeed, they are nothing more than a ‘rediscovery’ of medieval Oxford – hardly the kind of creative thinking we need to lead us into the 21st century,” said Mark Taylor, professor of humanities and religion.

Still, there was broad agreement that tutorials can be extremely effective pedagogical tools. “If there’s a criticism out there that this is going back to medieval roots, we’re watering them afresh,” said Stephen Fix, professor of English and director of the tutorial program.

“There is almost uniform agreement from the former student perspective that tutorials were among the best academic experiences they had at Williams,” Wintner said.

The third prong of the curricular reform, which included the creation of several new interdisciplinary programs, has not been a particularly controversial affair. Recently, new programs were created in Jewish Studies, Cognitive Studies, Legal Studies, Leadership Studies and Genomics and Proteomics.

Again, the primary concerns with these programs pertain to the allocation of resources. Noting the preponderance of new programs that have been created, Kai Lee, professor of environmental studies, said, “We probably have more than can be done well over the long term. . .The financial tightening that’s begun and may intensify in the next couple of years could put a lot of pressure on interdisciplinary initiatives.”

“The focus on interdisciplinary programs must be implemented judiciously,” Adams said. “Just because an area falls between departments does not mean that it should be supported over a mainstream area. For every program that we institute, there is somewhere else we have to cut. What happens to the hundreds of majors in the big (and therefore traditionally understaffed) departments like psychology, economics, history and English if too many resources go to the interdisciplinary areas?”

The final component of the curricular reform was an increased focus on experiential education, spearheaded by the creation of a Williams in New York program. The program was originally proposed in 1995 by Robert Jackall, professor of sociology, and would allow a group of 15 to 20 students to spend a semester in New York City, working in part-time internships and completing a double-tutorial taught by College faculty.

So far, the only change to emerge from this proposal is a section in next year’s course catalog listing courses that include some amount of field work or hands-on learning. The Williams in New York program is stalled indeterminably for financial reasons.

“The Williams in New York Program was put on hold after we started considering the cost of various New York City venues in light of the reduced size of our endowment. As markets recover, the status of the proposed program will be reconsidered,” President Schapiro said.

According to Wintner, the program was estimated to cost between $10 and $11 million to establish. The primary costs involve securing student housing in New York City.

Because the faculty has voted to implement the program, the administration cannot unilaterally decide to discard it. “If we were to choose to completely put the kibosh on the Williams in New York program, ultimately it would have to be revisited by the faculty,” Wintner said.

In the meantime, Jackall will be offering a course in the fall of 2003, “New York, New York,” which will be a prerequisite to a Winter Study course based out of the Williams Club in New York City and will be primarily composed of internships.

Still, all parties concerned are adamant that the program will be realized: “My intention is to see that program thriving while I am the Williams president,” said Schapiro.

At least one professor has questioned the process that produced the curricular reforms. According to a full professor in Division II who requested anonymity, the curricular reform process was primarily a symbolic process designed to attract attention to the incoming administration of President Schapiro.

“There was a determination to pass something, to show that the new regime was in charge, but they didn’t have any ideas,” the professor said. “The rhetoric was ‘new frontier,’ ‘new vision,’ but they didn’t have any vision. They took these ideas that had been around forever, packaged them as major reform, and then the incoming regime used them to put its stamp on the institution.”

Part of the problem, he contended, pertains to the composition of the CEP. Because the main power constituencies of the College are represented in students, faculty and administrators, it is difficult for the CEP to come up with revolutionary, challenging ideas.

The composition of the CEP was in fact discussed by the committee in the past year. In the end-of-year report that it submitted to the Faculty Steering Committee, the CEP wrote that it had “discussed its composition at the beginning of the year.”

“We agreed that despite its rather large size, it works quite well. We do not recommend altering the size or areas of expertise represented,” the report said.

The one theme on which all parties agreed is that it is too early to fully evaluate the effects of the curricular reforms. But Jana Sawicki, professor of philosophy and women’s studies and CEP chair, noted that the committee will soon be pursuing strategies to measure its effectiveness. She explained that changes might include senior exit interviews and new questions on student course surveys.

According to the CEP report, its agenda for next year will include discussing the credit-hour system, following up on the Williams in New York program and considering the introduction of “technical-intensive” and “research-intensive” courses into the curriculum.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *