Faculty approve "modest adjustment" to curriculum

By Brian Martucci

After nearly four years of intensive work to restructure the college’s graduation requirements, a final agreement on new curricular requirements is within sight for Macalester’s Educational Policy and Governance Committee (EPAG). The faculty approved the new graduation requirements–which include a writing course and a quantitative methods course–at the Nov. 9 and Nov. 16 faculty meetings. The guidelines are expected to be in place when the Class of 2011 enters Macalester in the fall of 2007, according to Registrar Jayne Niemi.

Many of the new graduation requirements are mere modifications of ones that already exist. According to EPAG Chair Ruthann Kurth-Schai, what could have been a major restructuring of Macalester’s graduation requirements became a relatively modest adjustment. “We found that both students and faculty were most supportive of a course-based model [similar to the one already in place],” she said in an interview. There was also a concern among faculty that too many graduation requirements would burden students already working to complete their majors, she added.

One of the changes involved refining the requirements for first-year courses, removing a clause calling for “class discussions or reflections on how the course contributes to the liberal arts or to the College’s mission.”

Another change mandates that the senior capstone experience be formally required of all graduating seniors and subject to peer review.

The new writing course requirement has all students take, in addition to a first-year course, a specially designated writing-intensive course before their senior year.

The other new graduation requirement mandates a course in “quantitative thinking.” Students will be required to take specially designated courses comprised of “sophisticated reasoning built upon numerical, logical, and statistical skills,” according to the amended language. Each quantitative course will receive a designation of Q1 through Q3, depending on intensity. Q3 will indicate the most intense and Q1 the least; all students will be required to take the equivalent of a Q3 course (either three Q1s, two Q2s, or one Q3). An example of a Q3 course would be Principles of Economics; a Q1 course might be a 200-level political science course with a statistics component.

Many faculty members expressed concern that students do not receive adequate instruction in writing and quantitative thinking, and view the new requirements as potential solutions.

Two other requirements are new essentially in name only: “internationalism” and “U.S. multiculturalism” requirements will replace the current international and domestic diversity requirements, respectively.

The faculty also passed implementation recommendations that outline the creation of four subcommittees to oversee the approval of courses for the writing, quantitative thinking, internationalism, and multiculturalism requirements and to address student and faculty needs with regards to the new graduation requirements.

THE NOV 9 MEETING

President Brian Rosenberg opened the faculty meeting on Nov. 9, which was primarily devoted to a debate and vote on EPAG’s proposals. “General educational requirements send a message to trustees, prospective students, and alumni about what an institution’s faculty perceive to be important,” he said. Rosenberg also reminded faculty gathered in Weyerhaeuser Boardroom of the need to move past the issue of curricular renewal and focus on other, more contentious and immediate issues. “It sends a bad signal not to reach some sort of conclusion here,” he said. (MOVE UP OR MAKE PULL QUOTE)

The desire to bring the new graduation requirements to a vote was strong enough that most of those scheduled to speak at the meeting waived their right to do so to allow more time for debating the merits of the proposals.

Debate over specific points, especially on the writing and quantitative reasoning proposals, was so lively that two of the six new requirements as well as guidelines for the plan’s implementation did not make it to a vote during the meeting’s one and a half hours.

Speaking extensively on behalf of Macalester’s student body was Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) Vice President Jess Hasken ’07.

When the controversial writing requirement came up for debate, Hasken raised concerns that requiring both a first-year course and an additional writing course could be too large of a burden on some students.

“[There is often a] disparity in first-year courses as to the level and intensity of writing required,” Hasken said. “Intense first-year writing seminars should be given the option to fulfill [the writing requirement].”

Defending EPAG’s proposal, Kurth-Schai said that the committee’s objective was to spread the writing instruction out over a longer period of time.

“[We are] conscious of the graduation requirements which need to be filled in students’ first two years here,” Kurth-Schai said. “[Our] desire was to spread some of the requirements out over all four years.” Other faculty agreed, arguing that the writing expected of students becomes more involved as their academic careers progress and that the spacing of writing requirements beyond the first-year should reflect that.

The debate over the quantitative thinking requirement was equally contentious. Some faculty expressed concern that the complex new requirement “unfairly targets” humanities and arts majors by forcing them to take mathematics or economics courses that may not have anything in common with their field of study. Supporters, however, envisioned a “broadly supported program” across many disciplines, not just math and science, with the goal of training students to analyze statistics and public policy.

THE NOV 16 MEETING

The U.S. multiculturalism requirement generated what may have been the most heated debate across both meetings. Philosophy Professor Martin Gunderson proposed an amendment striking clauses requiring “an understanding of the ways in which unequal distributions of power and resources have developed and continue to affect people in the U.S.” and “an understanding of efforts to promote agency, equity, and social justice within the U.S.”

Professor Paul Solon of the History Department offered his support of Gunderson’s amendment to strike the new U.S. multiculturalism clauses. “The domestic diversity requirement [at Macalester]…has been seen by some as a `political correctness’ requirement, and some students and faculty might resent that connotation,” he said. (PULL QUOTE?)

Professor Kurth-Schai spoke against Gunderson’s amendment and in favor of the new language. “The domestic diversity requirement was originally conceived to address the fact that educational performance is connected to class and race [in the United States]” and as such is integral to students’ understanding of the cultural, social and political dynamics of this country, she said.

Other faculty members raised the concern that removing clauses from the requirement would make it more difficult for students to fulfill their graduation requirements.

The amendment to remove the U.S. multiculturalism clauses was eventually struck down, and the new language was adopted.

THE HISTORY OF CURRICULUAR RENEWAL

The movement to modify Macalester’s graduation requirements gained steam during the early part of the decade in response to similar restructurings at other liberal arts colleges around the country. President Rosenberg, while at his previous job as Dean of the Faculty at Lawrence University, actually oversaw such a process there. Beginning in 2002 and continuing through the spring of 2004, EPAG hosted over a dozen forums and discussions for professors, faculty, student representatives and students alike to get a sense of both how the Macalester community felt about curricular renewal and if any community members had any specific ideas for the process.

The “idea drive” cul
minated with a May 2004 report that found that “many faculty members expressed the view that the [current] curriculum does a relatively poor job of purposefully encouraging and facilitating the development of certain highly desirable competencies, including writing, quantitative reasoning, and information fluency.”

From there, surveys distributed to both faculty and students helped shape EPAG’s focus. The committee was surprised to find that both groups expected a curricular model similar to one the college currently followed, according to Kurth-Schai.

EPAG then drew up six proposals for new graduation requirements, passed “in principle” by faculty members in May 2005, and refined over the summer in preparation for a final vote this month. Professor Kurth-Schai noted that the May vote technically gave the committee’s proposals the go-ahead: “[At the November faculty meetings, we voted] on the wordings of these proposals, not the actual requirements they specified.”

Final versions of all graduation requirements and the implementation guidelines should be available by the end of the semester at macalester.edu/curricularrenewal.