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Committee Chairs Brief Faculty on Curricular Review

Calendar changes, advising centralization among early proposals

By Laura L. Krug, Crimson Staff Writer

Moving the College’s fall term exams before winter break and creating a centralized “Office of Advising” were among the few specific proposals mentioned last Tuesday, when leaders of the College’s curricular review briefed the full Faculty for the first time on their progress since the review began this summer.

The presenters, representing the four committees leading the review, focused instead on reiterating broad goals, from increasing the emphasis on international experience to revamping the general education system, and described the task forces they had formed to assist them in tackling specific issues.

Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby said in an interview before the meeting that the process is still in the brainstorming phase.

“The idea now is not to set up trial balloons that can be shot down, but to put out ideas,” Kirby said.

Some professors have complained that the review lacks an overarching goal.

During a brief discussion period at the end of the meeting, Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield '53 said he felt the speakers hadn’t given the Faculty much of an idea of where the inquiry was headed.

“No big theme emerged. I couldn't tell what the faculty thought was wrong with our present curriculum,” Mansfield said. “What is the idea behind the curriculum? To know that, you would have to start out with what's wrong with the curriculum.”

But Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71, who is spearheading the review, said the aim of the meeting was simply to increase transparency, to ensure that every faculty member who was interested would know what was going on.

A plan to move the College’s exams before winter break and possibly create a month-long January term caused the most debate following the four presentations.

“We are considering an alternative calendar that would begin fall semester two weeks earlier and finish exams before the holiday break, with a reading period of almost the same length as now,” said Jones Professor of American Studies Lizabeth Cohen, co-chair of the Pedagogy committee. One of her committee’s four task forces is focusing specifically on the structure of the academic calendar.

“Spring semester would begin the same time as it does currently,” Cohen explained. “With a more condensed exam period, commencement could conceivably be moved up…getting our students out for the summer earlier.”

A revamping of this sort would also make possible a January term of three or four weeks—the “4-1-4” calendar employed at schools like Williams and MIT.

Cohen said students might not be expected to enroll in the January term each year—they could be granted the time to use for thesis work or job-hunting—but that the option of the term could lead to greater flexibility with term-time courses.

“Rest assured that we are fully aware that such a January model would only work if faculty and students alike received full credit for participating,” she said.

But in the comment period, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes worried that such a plan might mean too much of an additional burden on students.

“I have never heard a colleague or an undergraduate say he or she suffers from having too little to do here. In fact, quite the opposite,” said Gomes. “For some of us, at one time, [January] had the appearance of a brief respite. That plan [4-1-4] has initial liabilities in terms of the psychic and mental health of the faculty.”

Mansfield echoed Gomes’ sentiments over the loss of relaxation time in January.

“I think a January term will be a hard sell,” Mansfield said. “More teaching time and less time for reflection and relaxation. That's what first occurs to me and, I'm sure, to most people.”

Professor of Government Lisa M. Martin, co-chair of the Committee on the Overall Academic Experience, said she was not surprised by the concern about the calendar changes.

“People are going to be very worried about it,” she said. “But I think we’ve presented it honestly. We just need to think about a way to make it work for everybody.”

Martin updated the Faculty about her group’s work in developing additional international opportunities for Harvard’s students.

“A significant international experience should be an important and expected part of a Harvard College experience,” Martin said. To make this a reality, she said the group is looking to expand the palette of experiences students might pursue abroad, from the traditional academic semester to jobs and internships to language immersion.

Martin also addressed the issue of integrating extracurricular activities—especially in the realm of public service and the arts—into the curriculum itself.

While she made it clear that students would probably not receive academic credit for such activities, she also said the group would look into creating more courses in the arts.

Commenting on the structure of the freshman year, Martin also suggesting that students might benefit from taking a “significant portion” of their first-year courses pass/fail, and ended her presentation on the subject of advising and how to centralize resources, possibly through the creation of an Office of Advising.

The other three task forces of Cohen’s pedagogy committee are examining the way the College teaches its students writing, the way teaching in general is done and how students learn most effectively, and how to increase both supervised research opportunities for students and the use of technology in order to foster contact between instructors and students.

Eric Jacobsen, co-chair of the committee on general education, began his presentation with a working definition of general education itself—a part of the curriculum that will ensure that students develop multiple perspectives on themselves and the world around them.

He said his committee had examined four models of general education, employed by different schools around the country.

The closed-distribution system, currently employed by Harvard and the University of Chicago, requires students to choose from an array of courses designed to fill core requirements. The open-distribution system, which allows students to choose departmental courses that satisfy broad area requirements, is used at Yale and Stanford. The other two options are the core class system, in which common courses would be required of all students, and the free choice model—which trusts that students, without any requirements at all, will work distribution into their course selections by their own free will.

Free choice, Jacobsen said, is the only model that the group has definitively ruled out.

The group is studying different curricular models, with options such as minor fields of study, clusters—subjects outside of students’ area of concentration that might not fit into a particular department—and large core courses dubbed “supercourses” that would provide every student with a common background.

The committee on concentrations concluded the presentations. Co-chair Diana Sorensen said her group is considering the timing of concentration declaration.

“We are looking at how to give students the ability to explore areas of the curriculum whilst remaining conscious of the concerns of the Faculty,” she said, “especially of the science Faculty, who believe in the benefits of an early decision.”

The concentrations committee is also examining different kinds of “capstone experiences” or culminating academic experiences that would occur within a student’s field of specialty.

The lengthy presentations did not leave much time for Faculty discussion, though several members of the Faculty did put forth thoughts on what they had heard.

In addition to Gomes and Mansfield, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana L. Eck spoke about what she called a “crisis in the humanities.”

“I feel that some of the deepest crises that we face as a human community have to do with humanist investigations,” she said, adding that she saw a dearth of research in the humanities. “The need for research in the humanities is as deeply urgent as the need for scientific research.”

Expanded science research, particularly in the biomedical fields, is an oft-stated University priority for the coming decades.

Martin said she was pleased with the way the meeting went, despite the lack of time for discussion.

“We presented a lot of information and I think we just wanted to let the faculty and everybody else know what we were working on,” she said in an interview after the meeting.

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