CEP looks at advising, minors

At the April 16 faculty meeting, Professor Lee Park, chair of the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), presented a report on students’ curricular choices during the 2013-14 academic year. The report collected data from three sources: institutional data on enrollment, surveys and focus group discussions with students and comments from faculty.

Based on these data, the CEP then offered several recommendations. The CEP reported that 40 percent of students at the College double

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major, according to data from the Registrar’s Office. The report noted that students who double major experience the liberal arts curriculum more narrowly than those who only have a single major: Single majors graduate having taken an average of 12 to 13 courses with different prefixes, while double majors graduate having taken an average of only 10 to 11 courses with different prefixes. The report also examined the rates of students who graduate with minimal distribution requirements in a given division, with the most noteworthy finding being that 30 to 40 percent of students graduate having taken only three Division III classes.

“Overall, these data suggest that there has been a narrowing of the breadth of our students’ educational experience over time,” the report stated. From the survey data collected from students, the CEP determined that 45 percent of students reported pressure to double major, often because of the perceived need to amass credentials for their future careers. Students expressed a desire for further conversations with professors about the value of a liberal arts education. Additionally, there was some frustration among students concerning the advising system. “Many students feel that their advisors simply check off boxes for them and never engage them further about why they make their choices,” the report stated. Significantly, 80 percent of the students surveyed said that they would minor in a subject if minors were available at the College.

Many of the comments made by the faculty echoed those made by students. Professors wanted more discussion about the value of a liberal arts education, and the need to balance a liberal arts curriculum with students’ concerns about a post-Williams career. Professors suggested deemphasizing grade point averages, moving to a credit-hour system, revisiting the structure of the course catalog and creating more opportunities for conversations between students and professors. In light of these findings, the CEP offered four recommendations. First, the CEP recommended ways to improve the advising system; there are already plans for advising workshops to take place during reading period and in the fall.

These workshops will mainly address how professors can ask thought-provoking questions and challenge students to go beyond comfortable curricular choices. Second, the CEP addressed the criticisms of the online course catalog, suggesting that an ad-hoc committee be created to help reimagine the course catalog so students can navigate it more easily. Third, the CEP recommended “initiating a broader conversation about the value of the liberal arts.” The form that this conversation might take is open to discussion, but the report said, “We envision a series of different kinds of events (including perhaps Lyceum-like dinners, symposia and the like) at which we can gather to discuss the topics that have come up this year.”

“The goal is the conversation, not answers to specific questions,” Park said at the faculty meeting. “Removed from the details of the curriculum, and taking a larger step back, we want to have larger conversations about the value of liberal arts, the value of a core curriculum and tensions between a liberal arts curriculum and training students for careers.” Finally, because of the strong support among students for the creation of minors at the College, the CEP recommended that next year’s CEP examine the issue more closely. This would entail surveying individual departments to get a sense of what a minor in their given discipline might look like, what effect the introduction of minors might have on the department’s number of majors and if some departments might be able to offer minors without all departments following suit.