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The six-member committee charged with revising the current General Education proposals and preparing them for a Faculty vote this fall will actively seek input from other faculty members as they work over the summer, one of the co-chairs of the committee promised this week.
The group met for the first time June 9.
"We want people who have expressed an interest in gen ed—and there are a lot of them—to feel in the loop," said co-chair of the committee Louis Menand, the Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language. "We don't want to produce a report in secret and then kind of spring it on the faculty."
This summer's committee—including two members of the 2004-2005 committee and four new faces—met for an hour-long introductory session the day after Commencement. It faces a steep challenge: the report produced by the 2004-2005 committee has been widely criticized for lacking a guiding vision and has generated little enthusiasm among the faculty thus far.
A NEW APPROACH TO AN OLD PROBLEM
Menand, an active member of the 2004-2005 committee, said this summer's committee will attempt to build on the work of the previous groups. "We're not just going to throw it out," he said of the current proposal. "We're going to think of ways to make it work better."
Menand added, however, that the new committee was not ruling out the possibility of starting from scratch with a new report.
The most recent General Education report, released in the fall of 2005, suggested that students be required to take three courses in each of three areas: Humanities, Science and Technology and the Study of Society. The report also proposed the creation of optional interdisciplinary general education courses, although many faculty members have criticized the report for failing to provide a clear definition of these courses.
In contrast with the plans of this summer's committee, the work of the 2004-2005 committee was often shrouded in secrecy; some faculty members have said that secrecy compromised the process of general education reform. The committee has been criticized for working independently of broader faculty discussions.
Although this summer's committee strives to talk openly with the Faculty, Menand also emphasized the benefits of drafting general education proposals with a small number of professors.
"We want it to be an open process to the extent that we can, but we want the committee to be able to work as a six-person committee," Menand said. "I'm encouraged that it's a small group. We'll get things done a little more efficiently."
The small-group approach is similar to one taken last year. The 2004-2005 committee—which included 13 professors, 2 deans, 2 students, and a number of administrative staffers—debated a wide range of issues surrounding general education, but the large group proved unable to write a satisfactory report. Eventually, five professors from the group, who became known as the "Gang of Five," spent last summer writing up a report that was finally deemed ready for presentation to the Faculty in the fall of 2005.
The membership of the summer committee parallels the three-by-three structure of the current Gen Ed recommendations, with two professors representing each of the three proposed areas. The two humanities professors on this summer's committee, Menand and Professor of Philosophy Alison Simmons, were both members of the Gang of Five. The two science professors on the committee, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology David R. Liu '94 and Ford Professor of Human Evolution David Pilbeam, and the two social science professors on the committee, Lindsley Professor of Psychology Stephen M. Kosslyn and Professor of Sociology Mary C. Waters, are new to general education committees.
For the members of the committee, the June 9 meeting in the Dean of the Faculty's conference room in University Hall was an introductory one—both to their task and to each other. The six members of the committee did not all know each other before the meeting, Menand said.
Saltonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier '60, who was a member of the Gang of Five, said that outgoing Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby was right to choose fresh faces for this summer's committee.
"I think the Faculty would have been impatient just to have the same committee facing it for the debate," Maier said this week.
The new committee's makeup could lead to some substantial changes in the general education recommendations before they are brought before the Faculty for a vote. The emphasis of the current report is student flexibility and choice, but many faculty members have argued that students need more guidance in choosing what kinds of courses to take. Some have expressed strong concern about the lack of a moral reasoning or quantitative reasoning requirement in the 2005 report; both moral reasoning and quantitative reasoning are currently required of all Harvard undergraduates.
Menand and Simmons have both said in the past that they favor more prescriptions than the current proposal contains, but Menand said this week that it would not be clear whether the committee as a whole had a prescriptive tilt until the committee members had a chance to meet further.
Liu, Waters and Kosslyn have not previously served on any of the curricular review committees. But Liu taught one of this year's new Life Sciences introductory courses, which have been suggested as possible models for the new general education courses.
Pilbeam was previously the chair of the review's Committee on Advising and Counseling.
A SUMMER OF FOCUS
In addition to the six members of this summer's committee, a number of administrators were present at the June 9 meeting. Those present at the meeting in University Hall were Kirby, incoming Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, incoming President Derek C. Bok, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross, and Assistant Dean of the College Stephanie H. Kenen. Outgoing University President Lawrence H. Summers, who was involved with the Committee on General Education as an ex officio member in 2004, did not attend the meeting.
"The administration, dean, and interim president are very interested in making progress on this issue and want to be involved in any way the faculty wishes them to be," Menand said.
Bok, who has written widely on curricular reform and recently published "Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More," has said that he will offer his thoughts on general education to the committee if asked, but stressed that he will not impose himself on the process.
The first meeting was an introduction that lasted a little over an hour. The real work, Menand said, has yet to begin.
"We haven't had a substantive meeting," he said.
At the next meeting, the committee will start with the basics, discussing principles of general education before moving to a consideration of the current report's proposals, Kenen said.
The committee members have not decided yet how frequently they will meet during the summer. "If we find that we're pretty much on same page quickly, we'll probably spend time writing and not meeting," Menand said. "We could meet every week. It's really hard to predict."
—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached at email@example.com.
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