Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series about the renewal of the University core.
After almost a year of exhaustive research, Boston College’s core renewal committee has begun outlining plans for a more engaging and interdisciplinary core curriculum.
The process began in October, when the committee and Continuum-a consulting firm hired to facilitate the process-started conducting extensive interviews, meetings, and brainstorming sessions with students, faculty, administration, and alumni.
“One of the reasons we decided to do this is because we felt going into this-and the interviews bore this out to some extent-is that students think of the core as … just a list, and not as an idea or even a set of characteristics,” said Mary Crane, committee co-chair and director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts at BC.
Although the committee is not yet sure what the new core will look like, it has a strong sense of what can be done to turn the core into more than just a list.
“At this point, I think pretty much everyone agrees that there are three priorities for the core,” Crane said.
According to Crane, these priorities are to inspire intellectual engagement, chart a purposeful journey, and establish an enduring foundation.
Intellectual engagement, Crane said, means that both students and faculty should be working with course material that they find interesting and challenging.
Students should also understand how the core contributes to their overall journey as college students, instead of just seeing it as a checklist of courses to complete. Crane said that the new core will therefore likely include an advising component to help guide students in their course choices.
In order to establish an enduring foundation, core courses must remain true to tradition Jesuit, Catholic and liberal arts values while still being relevant.
“The idea is to bridge traditional knowledge and what you need for the 21st century and to bridge knowledge of disciplines with more interdisciplinary ways of putting different perspectives next to each other,” Crane said.
She and the rest of the committee agree that focusing on interdisciplinary courses will help keep students and professors both interested and challenged.
Juliet Schor, a member of the core renewal committee and sociology professor, said that there are two main ways to make courses more interdisciplinary: through team-taught courses, in which two professors in different fields teach one course, or by offering linked courses, in which students take two separate courses based on the same topic.
Schor has experience with both options. Last year, students in a course she taught on the environment and sustainability were also taking an English course on environmental literature at the same time. This year, she is team-teaching People and Nature, a social sciences core class, with a history professor.
“Students really like having professors from two disciplines,” Schor said. “That’s one of the things they comment on the most.”
The actual format of these interdisciplinary courses has yet to be determined. Richard Cobb-Stevens, professor emeritus of philosophy, said that the committee might use the Perspectives program as a model.
Cobb-Stevens led the University’s last renewal process in 1991, when the Perspectives program was created. The yearlong course focuses on the great books of philosophy and theology and represents the University’s first real interdisciplinary effort.
“They encouraged departments to come up with imaginative ways of doing the core,” Cobb-Stevens said. “To my regret, really the Perspectives program was the only real interdisciplinary operation.”
In addition to creating more interdisciplinary courses, Crane said that offering courses at different levels is also being considered as an option. This way, she said, courses can be challenging without being overwhelming.
Nick Reposa, co-coordinator of UGBC’s Academic Affairs department and A&S ’14, said that students support this idea. In informal interviews, he said, many students expressed a desire to see interesting, but not burdensome, courses.
“That’s been one of the biggest issues that we’ve found in this process, because how are we supposed to make a class more interesting without not giving more work?” he said.
Reposa and Siobhan Kelly, co-coordinator of Academic Affairs and A&S ’15, have been working closely with the core renewal committee and Continuum to make sure that students’ perspectives are heard during the process.
They helped choose 16 students to represent the BC student body for Continuum to interview about their experience with the core and have conducted informal interviews of their own to collect information.
Continuum only interviewed 16 students, Kelly said, because the firm believes a small number of very in-depth interviews helps them better empathize with people and understand their concerns. Reposa described the group as “microcosmic of Boston College as it stands.” Eight A&S students, four CSOM students, two LSOE students, and two CSON students were chosen.
“Students haven’t really voiced any problems with the actual ideals of the core,” Reposa said. “I think they all agree that what the core wants to happen should happen, it’s just a matter of, is it happening?”
Now that the committee understands what students and professors are expecting of the core, the next step is to envision what this new core should look like.
“We’re sort of reframing the problem,” said Anthony Pannozzo, Continuum’s managing principal of research and innovation. “We ask a lot of questions and start imagining what the answers might be. It’s a generative process where we think of lots of different solutions and then test them with students and faculty to get their feedback and refine it.”
David Quigley, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and core renewal committee co-chair, said that the committee plans to have a number of solutions by April. Faculty will develop a small number of new courses over the summer, which, due to BC’s course registration schedule, will likely be available only to incoming freshmen for the fall 2013 semester.
“We’re trying to avoid a situation where a core is introduced once and for all at a given moment in time, and then 20 or 30 years later it is reconsidered,” Quigley said.
Pannozzo said that the current core will likely be in place for several years before a full-scale version of the updated one is released. Students can instead expect to see a small number of new courses each year, with the core renewal committee continually redesigning courses and offering new ones based on feedback from the BC community.
The committee does not yet know exactly what the credit distribution for these new courses will be like.
“In terms of interdisciplinary courses, in our current plan if a course is team-taught by an English professor and a sociology professor it is likely to be a six-credit course that would fulfill both one social science and one literature requirement,” Crane said in an email.
She also said that the number of courses students are required to take will definitely not increase, but that it is not yet clear if the number will decrease.
Tom Chiles, member of the core renewal committee and biology professor, said that in addition to academics, the committee will have to consider economic and business factors involved in enacting a new core.
“Is the University going to face a barrier based on mechanics and resources?” he asked. “Do we have the faculty for this? Do we have the number of grad students to TA to do this? …What are we going to design and do? That’s the next step.”
Such concerns are not unfounded. Crane said that after 1991, the committee did not have the resources to continue innovating new courses as it had intended to. This time, however, she said that they are looking at ways to avoid that situation.
The committee is still on schedule, Quigley said, and students can expect an official plan of implementation for the new core by April. This will allow for input and discussion before faculty begin working on new courses over the summer.
“The mark of success for this process will be if we are open to-a year from now, three years from now, five years from now-continued experimentation,” Quigley said.