Turning An Idea Into A Core

Suppose you are a tenured Faculty member interested in helping the Faculty increase the number of Core courses by offering a course in your area of expertise.

And suppose, as Gruff Professor of Goats and Goat Technology, your area of expertise is the world of goats and the men and women that herd them.

Your idea would join a number of others attempting to fill out the new Quantitative Reasoning Core Requirement and other areas which had become anemic in recent years. You would become part of a process of course creation now in full swing in restaurants and committee rooms across campus.

In the roughly year-long process of getting your goats with dialogue, review and revision, you might get angry as your academic methods face their most rigorous review since the beginning of your teaching career.

You will almost certainly get lunch at the Faculty Club, perhaps several lunches if you get angry enough.


However, at the end of the process, you will also get a place in the Course catalog, for Historical Studies A-98: "Goat Herding in World History"--to be known affectionately to your future students as "Goats."

Step 1: The Idea

Like your own idea for "Goats," most new Core courses are a reflection of their instructor's academic interests, although in some cases these interests become Core course ideas through the suggestion of Core subcommittee members.

Professor of Psychology Patrick Cavanagh, whose Science B-44: "Vision and Brain," entered the Core in 1992, says that he and a co-instructor were approached with the idea by the Core office.

"The Core office came to us and said 'What's the most fun thing you can ever imagine doing?' and we just laid it out for them," Cavanagh says.

Subcommittee members recruit Core instructors from their own departments, and new tenured Faculty members are frequently given the option of teaching in the Core even before they are given office space.

"Eighty to 85 percent of the ideas that materialize materialize out of the imagination of instructors," says Director of the Core Program Susan W. Lewis. "Sometimes this thinking is provoked by a conversation with the chair of a subcommittee--frequently they get together for lunch."

Lunch at the Faculty Club is an almost indispensable step in the process--Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Jeremy R. Knowles says that Historical Studies Subcommittee Chair Jorge I. Dominguez has eaten more Faculty Club-prepared wild mushrooms than anyone else he knows.

Dominguez, who is also Dillon professor of international affairs, says these lunches begin with a general conversation about the professor's research interests--in your case, the world of goats and the men and women that herd them.

He says the conversation then turns to an attempt to wed the Faculty member's research with the stipulations of Historical Studies.

"If you can identify a research topic that fits well within Historical Studies, that's the equivalent of 'bingo'" Dominguez says. "We try to fit their research within the guidelines [of the Core]. That's the task of lunch."

Professor of Music Thomas F. Kelly, whose Literature and Arts B-51: "First Nights: Five Performance Premieres" is a recent and very popular addition to the Core, says that his course began of a similar combination of academic interest and Core feasibility.

"When I came to Harvard, they asked if I had any ideas, and the course began with the idea of putting music in its cultural and aesthetic context," Kelly says. "They said 'Great, now write it up.'"

After lunch, your next step would be this 'write-up'--a letter to Dominguez summarizing your course's aims, with a few notes on possible lecture topics, readings and coursework.

"This letter is an idea that hasn't been transformed into a proposal, just an idea with a few details attached," Lewis says.

The committee chair then responds, in writing or in person. In the case of "Goats," this feedback might include criticism of your intention to require a 30-minute claymation film on Armenian goat herding as a final project.

Loeb Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology David G. Mitten, whose Literature and Arts B-21: "The Images of Alexander the Great" came into the Core four years ago, says that this was the first step in a beneficial process of review for his course--"the suggestions made simply improved the course," he says.

Step 2: Proposal

After reviewing Dominguez's feedback, you would then convert "Goats" into a formal course proposal for the eyes of the Historical Studies subcommittee.

This proposal would look much like a course syllabus, with a list of lecture topics week-by-week, coursework requirements, reading assignments and section topics.

"A firm proposal is a crucial step, because it means working out the course in [the professor's] own mind, coming to grips with what their intent is in the course," says Literature and Arts subcommittee chair Richard J. Tarrant. "After this, the rest is to some degree just logistical and bureaucratic."

Your "Goats" proposal would then be considered by the Historical Studies subcommittee, and comments and criticisms voiced in this closed-door meeting would be relayed to you in a letter from Dominguez. Students chosen by the Undergraduate Council participate in these meetings, but do not vote.

As a tenured Faculty member, you will find the Core subcommittee's review of "Goats'" academic aims and methods will probably be more rigorous than any departmental course review--probably more rigorous than any academic review in your entire career as an instructor.

Dominguez says that this sort of rigorous review results about one-fifth of the time in angry Faculty members.

"It's usually some form of 'How dare you? How dare you tell me how to teach my course?'" he says. "It's traumatic to have your view questioned, and most departments have no oversight whatever. This means a lot more luncheons."

Professor of Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature Ruth R. Wisse, whose Literature and Arts A-48: "The Modern Jewish Experience in Literature" is a recent addition to the Core, says the review process can also be beneficial for new Faculty.

"This was the first time one of my courses had undergone a peer review, and the very idea seems a wonderful one," Wisse says. "I really appreciated the fact that it was looked at by people who knew [the Core system] and could make suggestions."

After reading the committee's criticisms, you would amend your "Goats" proposal accordingly.

These amendments could include switching one lecture from "Herding and Politics, part IV," to "Goat Cheese and Social Power in Medieval Korea," and including a first paper on the depictions of goatherders in the operas of Uzbekistan.

After making these amendments, your revised course proposal would be reconsidered by the subcommittee, and hopefully approved for consideration by FAS's Standing Committee on the Core Curriculum.

Step 3: Acceptance

The Standing Committee, whose meetings you also are not usually allowed to attend, is made up of the chairs of all Core subcommittees and chaired by Knowles. Undergraduate Council-chosen student representatives again also have nonvoting input.

Chair of the Science Core subcommittee Henry Ehrenreich, says that by the time a course proposal reaches the Standing Committee, it usually is a fairly finished product.

"Acceptance by the Standing Committee is not a pro forma thing," says Ehrenreich, who is also Clowes professor of science. "But by that time the proposal has been vetted enough that things become a bit easier."

Co-chair of the Quantitative Reasoning Core subcommittee Benedict H. Gross says that the Standing Committee--made up of experts from all fields--may raise questions not touched upon by the specialists in subcommittee.

"It's often more difficult to get through the Standing Committee, because they're not experts," says Gross, also professor of mathematics. "They say, 'That doesn't make sense to me, how is it going to make sense to students?'"

The Standing Committee is the final hurdle for "Goats," but it may still raise enough questions to necessitate another amendment to your proposal.

After this final round of amendments, and reconsideration of your proposal by the Standing Committee, approval means a place in the course catalog.

Estimates vary, but the entire process, from idea to implementation, should take a year on average, and two years at the longest.

However, as a busy Faculty member committed to courses in history (such as "Goats, Moats and Boats: Livestock, Castles and Commerce in the Middle Ages") and literature ("The Hidden Role of the Herd in the Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky"), your teaching schedule may be too full to fit in a Core course for another two or three years.

Dominguez said last week that his most recent lunch would probably not yield a listed course until Fall 1999--"Professor X is not underemployed," he says.

With this process behind you and "Goats" in the catalog, Dominguez and his subcommittee would continue to provide oversight--some courses have even been removed from the catalog for various reasons after two or three years of Core existence.

After months of discussion, dissension, amendment and revision, the only thing remaining is to order the books and reserve the classroom. After a year as a dream, a proposal and a topic for debate, "Goats" is finally a reality

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