Concentrations Revamp Requirements

Four departments seek to open disciplines to a wider audience

With the College’s massive curricular review now in the rearview mirror, four individual departments conducted academic overhauls of their own late this year, revamping their concentration requirements to appeal to a wider variety of students.

English, Classics, Music, and Astronomy modified their undergraduate programs this past year to give their concentrators greater flexibility and more accessible options.

Many departments say that they wanted to de-emphasize preparing their concentrators for future academic work in the field, prioritizing a compelling introduction to the subject matter instead.

“We did this because we didn’t think the concentration should be pre-professional scholarly training,” says Mark J. Schiefsky, the Classics department’s director of undergraduate studies, while explaining why the department decided to eliminate its long-standing (and notoriously rigorous) general examinations.

“We’re supposed to be offering something that’s of much broader appeal and utility to the students,” says David Charbonneau, the Astronomy department’s director of undergraduate studies, who pioneered that department’s curricular overhaul.

He adds that while the old Astrophysics requirements prepared students well for graduate school, newly developed offerings will be of much broader appeal to students who wish to go into other careers, such as science journalism.

SNOWBALL EFFECT

None of this year’s concentration overhauls were directly spurred by the recent College-wide curricular review that has helped pave the way for the full launch of a new General Education program this fall, but the modifications reflect an atmosphere of curricular transformation, according to some professors.

English Professor Elisa New says that although her first two attempts at revising the English concentration flopped, the College’s curricular review—initiated by her husband, former University President Lawrence H. Summers—helped the reform movement within the English department gain “momentum.”

The “idea that the rest of the world was reforming itself” helped convince a number of English professors that it was time to review their own requirements, New says.

Music department chair Anne C. Shreffler says that the curricular review helped professors think more creatively about their own departments’ curricula.

“As you’re thinking about Gen Ed, you don’t want to think about it in isolation,” she says. “You want to think about the whole experience that students have, and obviously the concentration is a huge part of their experience.”

The increased departmental emphasis on the needs of students not bound for graduate school appears consistent with the final report of the College’s Task Force on General Education, which emphasizes that since only a small fraction of graduating seniors plan to enter academia, scholarly training is comparatively less important than the sensibilities necessary to make thoughtful decisions in the world.

This heightened focus on practice over scholarly theory is best reflected by the Music department’s decision to embrace musical performance.

Chamber music and conducting courses will finally count toward concentration requirements, and students can qualify for honors by performing a recital at the end of senior year rather than writing a thesis.

Recently tenured music professor Alexander Rehding overhauled the syllabus for Music 51: “Theory 1” when he took the reins this past year—not only by making it a divisible course, but also by encouraging students to compose and perform in many genres. The previous version of the class was less free-wheeling, focusing on the Bach chorales as the basis of learning in “a very controlled environment,” according to Rehding.

Rehding says he hopes that the new Music 51—as well as the revamped Music concentration as a whole—will appeal more to students who may lack classical training, but like to play GarageBand or sing in student groups like Kuumba.

The new “era of globalization” to which the Final Report of the Task Force on General Education repeatedly refers has also found its way into the Music curriculum—which has focused mostly on Western greats like Bach and Beethoven.

Now, Music concentrators will be required to take a class in non-Western music—Music 51c: “World Music History and Repertory”—which will be taught next year for the first time by Music and African and African-American Studies Professor Kay K. Shelemay.

FLEXIBILITY BUILT ON A ‘COMMON GROUND’

This year’s concentration changes also reflect a desire to give students leeway to pave their own path within their concentration—but not before they take classes that ground them in the framework of the field.

The English department has slashed most of its requirements—including its “Major British Writers” series, English 10a and 10b—in favor of granting its concentrators more electives. But the reduction has come with a renewed commitment to “common-ground” courses.

Starting next year, English will require concentrators to take one class in each of four areas: “Diffusions,” “Arrivals,” “Poets,” and “Shakespeares.” Four classes will be offered per category per year, and they will be capped at around 25 students, according to Daniel G. Donoghue, the English department’s director of undergraduate studies.

English concentrators—too often inundated with large lecture classes—have been asking for smaller classes for a long time, according to New, the English professor.

In the renewed “Astrophysics” concentration (“renamed from Astronomy and Astrophysics”), a similar movement for common-ground courses is taking place. Concentrators will be required to take the newly created classes Astrophysics 16: “Stellar and Planetary Astronomy” and Astrophysics 17: “Galactic and Extragalactic Astronomy” in the hopes that the courses will foster excitement about astronomy early in their undergraduate careers, Charbonneau says. The department has also added three more Astrophysics classes requiring only a basic level of proficiency in physics and math to make the subject accessible early on.

Originally, it was not unheard of for concentrators to take only physics and math prerequisites for the first two years so that they could study astronomy at a high level in their junior and senior years—a sequence that concentrators say drove some students away.

ONE SEMESTER LESS

All four concentrations being modified have reduced the total number of concentration requirements to compensate for students’ now delayed concentration declaration date, which was moved from the end of freshman year to the end of sophomore fall during the curricular review in 2007.

The Astrophysics concentration has reduced the number of its basic requirements from 16 to 12, English has reduced the number from 12 to 11, Classics has reduced it from 12 to 11, and Music has reduced it from 14-15 to 13.

Schiefsky, the Classics department’s director of undergraduate studies, says that it would be unrealistic for the department to expect students who started learning Greek and Latin in their sophomore year to take the “[Masters]-level” general exams at the end of their senior year.

“With two years, you can’t expect the students to read this entire reading list with that kind of knowledge of ancient languages because—poor souls—they didn’t have the time to acquire this knowledge,” says Classics assistant professor Francesca Schironi. “You can’t read Pindar nonstop with two years of Greek.”

Doing poorly in the six-hour general examination—which consists of sight translations and analyses of passages from writers ranging from Terence to Herodotus—can jeopardize Classics concentrators’ chances of receiving honors and even graduating.

But the sort of broad-based, survey knowledge that the generals were intended to encourage won’t be lost. To compensate for the demise of the examinations, all concentrators will need to take at least one 112-level survey course of Latin or Greek literature—among the most rigorous offerings in the department.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE

In the process of reviewing their concentrations, department leaders have sought not only to open their fields to a wider variety of students, but also to streamline. While joking that the Classics department’s concentration description is currently the longest in the Handbook for Students, Schiefsky has reduced the number of tracks within the Classics from seven to two: “Classical Languages and Literatures” and “Classical Civilizations.” Astrophysics has eliminated the difference between the “basic” and “honors” track, instead allowing any concentrator to choose to write a thesis as late as senior fall. The English department’s shift to only four non-elective requirements (one in each of the “common ground” areas) also bespeaks a more simplified structure, and the Music concentration has pared down a snarl of 14-15 requirements that befuddled even Shreffler, the department’s chair, in a phone interview.

Department leaders are hopeful that by bringing their requirements up to date, more students will be encouraged to enter their niche fields—an imperative that becomes more pressing as the number of concentrators in Astrophysics, English, and Classics dwindles.

But professors in the affected departments do not appear to be feeling a sense of crisis yet.

“We will always be the minority,” Schironi says of those who study Classics. “I think it’s good we can take care of our students. Apparently our concentrators are very happy when they are here—unlike in other departments—so I don’t think we should become a big department in that sense.”

—Staff writer Bonnie J. Kavoussi can be reached at kavoussi@fas.harvard.edu.