Student-led courses fall in CEP

Once a special feature of the curriculum, student-initiated courses do not exist at the College today, although the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) this year considered their reintroduction. The submission of a course proposal to the CEP by Aroop Mukharji ’09, Eric Kang ’09 and Harris Paseltiner ’09 prompted the committee to re-evaluate its stance on classes developed by students.

The nine-page proposal outlined a singer/songwriting tutorial to be instated for the 2008-2009 academic year. Mukharji explained that after taking the singer/songwriter Winter Study course with Bernice Lewis, who spoke about previous failed attempts at starting an advanced component as a semester course, he was inspired to try again. “It hadn’t been attempted in some time, and I thought there was a reasonable case for the course, so I decided to take it on,” he said.

The three students emphasized that the course would be “student-initiated and organized, but not student-taught or student-graded.” After having been in contact with several members of the administration, including Dean Merrill and the chairs of the English and music departments, Mukharji, Kang and Paseltiner submitted a rough proposal to the CEP in late August.

According to Monique Deveaux, CEP chair and professor of political science, the CEP could not accept the course because student-initiated courses no longer exist in the College curriculum. “Instead, we took up his proposal in order to decide whether there were reasons to recommend to the faculty that they consider re-introducing such courses to the curriculum.”

In re-evaluating their position on the matter, Deveaux and the CEP looked back to 2003, when student-initiated courses were eliminated by a faculty vote. Peter Just, professor of anthropology and chair of the program that housed the courses at the time, cited lack of student interest, inadequate staffing and problems with final evaluations as reasons for shutting down the courses. The last remaining student-initiated course, a class on non-fiction writing, ended in 2003.

After reassessing its position at a Sept. 24 meeting, the CEP decided not to pursue the matter and declined to bring it forward to the general faculty. “The consensus by the end of the discussion was that the factors that caused student-initiated courses to be eliminated in 2003 were still significant concerns,” Deveaux said. “Unless we had evidence of strong and widespread student – and at least some faculty – enthusiasm for such courses, it didn’t make sense to try to solve these other problems.”

According to Mukharji, the time spent putting the proposal together, despite its rejection, was fruitful because it made the CEP aware of the resurgence of some interest in student-initiated courses. While the CEP will not further pursue the issue at the moment, “Depending on student demand and interest in such courses, that could change,” Deveaux said. “As I said to the students at the end of that meeting, the ball is in your court.”

Peter Murphy, professor of English and dean during the days when student-initiated courses were at their peak, offered a different spin on the matter. Staying away from this type of course is only routine maintenance of the curriculum already in place, he said. “In a plain way, these decisions simply reflect the way the faculty thinks about the curriculum at the moment. Different eras have different attitudes.”

Murphy saw the recent reluctance on the part of the administration to allow greater student involvement in the curriculum as part of a major cultural shift. “Everything is much more highly supervised,” he said. “Everyone involved, from students to parents to reaccrediting agencies, wants everything to be much more tightly observed and controlled. Students are different too.”

Nevertheless, according to Mukharji, the three already have plans to pursue their singer/songwriter course next year as an independent group study and David Kechley, chair of the music department, has already agreed to advise them.

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