Curricular Review

A Progress Report

 By Christine Palm

Every discipline, from anthropology to zoology, is rife with ideas that sound good—until it’s time to put them into action. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more important than in the field of education, where the best kind of change melds theory and practice.

The 19 members of Trinity’s Curricular Review Committee (CRC) learned this over the summer as they wrestled with the daunting task put to them last spring: look at the school’s intellectual life and find ways to make it better.

“We were told at the outset to imagine what could be, not why it wouldn’t work, so we all felt tremendous energy for the process and the goal,” says CRC member Katharine Power, associate professor of theater and dance. “As a body we felt that change is good and provocative; the trick was to make some connection with our experiences as teachers—to find the intersection between the highly theoretical and what works in the classroom. Ultimately, we needed to ask not only: ‘Is this imaginative?’ but also, ‘Is this possible?’”

Several of Power’s colleagues on the CRC, which met three hours a day, three days a week for eight weeks, express similar enthusiasm, even as they grapple with the dichotomy inherent in trying to be imaginative and realistic at the same time.

“It was both an exciting and a grueling summer, and we got to know each other very well,” Margo Perkins, associate professor of English, says. “There was intense debate around the table, and it felt like a microcosm of how it’s going to be when thrown to the full faculty. What makes Trinity’s curricular review process different from that of most other schools is that we’re concerned with more than Curriculum with a capital “C”—meaning, which courses will be required. We’re also concerned with connecting it to pedagogy—not just what we teach but how. It has implications for the intellectual life of the school beyond any one course or major.”

The 184-page report is a candid, thorough examination of Trinity’s weaknesses, as well as its strengths. While it lauds the school’s excellent faculty and identifies its urban location as a strength that needs to be capitalized upon, it also cites “the lack of a strong and pervasive intellectual community” at Trinity. This same sense of intellectual malaise was addressed in the college’s Strategic Report, the CRC document says, and has been at the center of the March, 2001 study by CASE (Committee on Academic Standards and Excellence).

In addition, the CRC report states that Trinity, like many colleges across the country, is experiencing a “balkanization” of the faculty, owing to increased specialization within academic fields. This tends to lead to a curricular structure that segments, rather than integrates, the student’s experience.

A complex understanding

The central motivating question the CRC asked, then, is: “What changes in the curriculum might we propose that would simultaneously serve to strengthen intellectual community on campus?”

The report states the CRC’s desire to see Trinity College students “cultivate a complex understanding of communities and their interconnections, on campus and beyond it, local and distant, urban and global.” To this end, the CRC identified 15 ways a liberal arts education equips students with abilities that range from “practic(ing) methods of rational inquiry” to “develop(ing) artistic literacy.” (Please see sidebar for complete list.)

The report also sets forth three “curricular models” designed to illustrate how these ambitious goals could be met in different curricular schemes. The models are as follows:

“Model 1 is a comprehensive core curriculum that would require students: 1) to take a designated number of courses in each of three different thematic categories (Human Communities, Scientific Foundations, Cultural Crossings); 2) to attain and apply at least intermediate-level competence in a second language; and 3) to culminate their liberal studies with a (non-major) Senior Colloquium.”

Model 2 would require students: “1) to complete a four-course freshman-sophomore cluster (a ‘Focus Program’) patterned after the existing ‘gateway’ (Guided-Studies-type) programs,” as well as optionally adding some of the features of Model 1 as modular alternatives requirements.

The final proposal, Model 3, is “basically a variant on Model 2 that substitutes a two-course freshman sequence on the theme Cities and Citizens for the four-course Focus Program cluster,” and optionally includes the other Model 1 requirements.

The members of the CRC fully expect that their faculty colleagues will have plenty of their own ideas.

 “Our collective concern is that the faculty not see the three curricular models we outline as prescriptive,” Perkins says. “The point is to get the debate going. These models are more like templates, and we hope the faculty will read the report in the broadest terms, because we’re more interested in the goals. One of Trinity’s greatest strengths is that its faculty exerts a lot of power in terms of determining how the curriculum takes shape.”

The document has gone before the College’s various standing committees, which will make their own recommendations before it moves on to the full faculty.

In addition to the concrete educational recommendations that resulted, the curriculum review process has been, in itself, an education for many committee members.

“I’ve never been on a faculty committee quite this large before and I learned a tremendous amount last summer—more than I expected to learn,” says Sheila Fisher, associate professor of English. “While we all came from different professional backgrounds, we felt the freedom to express our individuality. As a result, I’m something of a convert to curricular reform. I was a product of the open curriculum system at Smith, so I’m coming from a place where I was thinking: ‘the fewer requirements, the better.’ But having read through a lot of material and having now done a lot of thinking about Trinity, I’m feeling we owe our students both higher expectations of them and a fuller sense of the world.”

For Katharine Power, too, there was a sense of exhilaration at being intellectually stretched.

“I think we all felt we were in the throes of a brand new world,” she says. “Our training is not in educational theory. We are trained in our disciplines and we have years of experience in our individual areas. But the ideas that came up about the process were vast, and often challenging.”

Power adds that she and the committee members were pleased with the support and interest they’ve received so far from the Board of Trustees and from other faculty members.

“This is not an ongoing thing; it’s a very special chance to make a difference in the life of the college,” she says. “Once every generation or so, a college goes through this process of self-reflection and regeneration, and this opportunity won’t come again for several years.”

Curricular review at a glance

The Curricular Review Committee’s report lays out 15 specific desired outcomes that students should achieve in the course of their education at Trinity.

• Discover their intellectual powers and the satisfactions of exercising them

• Become critical readers of complex texts

• Practice methods of rational inquiry (including techniques of research and investigation, analysis and problem-solving)

• Develop habits of informed analysis and evaluation

• Learn and practice effective strategies for working both independently and collaboratively

• Attain fluency in written and oral expression

• Acquire quantitative skills

• Achieve scientific and mathematical literacy

• Develop artistic literacy

• Achieve competence in a second language

• Acquire a focused and detailed mastery of a significant body of knowledge

• Become adept at integrating different fields of knowledge

• Cultivate the ability to make informed ethical judgements

• Acquire knowledge of several cultural traditions, including their own

• Study, and gain through experience, useful forms of civic and societal knowledge


Editor’s note: In a previous report on the curricular review process, student Allison Zanno ’04 should have been listed as a member of the Curricular Review Committee.

Back to table of contents