Committees & DTFs

Long Range Curriculum DTF Charge

May 3, 2012 (with membership updated 5/30/12)

TO:  Kristina Ackley, John Baldridge, Marla Elliott, Susan Fiksdal, Karen Gaul, Ruth Hayes (co-chair), Peter Impara, Abby Kelso, Phyllis Lane, Sara Martin, Allen Olson (co-chair), Mike Paros, Andrew Reece, Gilda Sheppard, Lisa Sweet, Joe Tougas

C: All Faculty & Staff DL

FR:  Andrew Reece (on behalf of the Facutly Agenda Committee) and Michael Zimmerman, Academic Vice President and Provost

RE: Charge to a Long Range Curriculum DTF

The Agenda Committee and the Provost are empaneling a DTF to take a holistic look at the College’s curriculum and to make recommendations to the full faculty.   Because the issues at hand determine how we define and present the College to our students, prospective students, alumni and various other stakeholders, we urge the DTF to consult broadly before  making recommendations to the faculty.  Additionally, because the array of possible items to be subsumed within a curricular review are so interrelated, we urge the DTF to think carefully about the curriculum as broadly as possible and to give appropriate attention to how changes in one arena might have implications elsewhere.

Background

The faculty of the College have, over the past two decades, embarked on a number of curricular reviews.  We urge the DTF to begin its efforts by reviewing the work of those who have begun down this path before them.  There is much to be learned in the documents that have already been produced.  However, we further urge the DTF not to be limited by that previous work.  While, for any number of reasons, many of the recommendations of previous DTFs have not been implemented, the environment, in many ways, is different today than it was in the past.  Recommendations that may have made good sense years ago may, therefore, not seem as pressing today. 

The most recent effort arising from the transcript reviews undertaken almost three years ago led the faculty to conclude that it was imperative to couple a curricular review with efforts to more fully engage students in the process of taking ownership of and articulating the choices made in their academic journey.  In an attempt to carve out a manageable workload, these two efforts were separated with the latter leading to the passage this past fall quarter of the constellation of motions surrounding requiring students to write iterative academic statements.  The current DTF is thus being called into service to address the curricular issues that were put on hold.

It is important to note that we are asking that the present curricular effort itself be somewhat limited.  As was the case when the RTaLE DTF was charged, we are concerned that if we don’t provide some boundaries to the work expected of the DTF, we will lessen the likelihood that we will be able to achieve a successful and timely conclusion.  At the end of this document, therefore, we will outline what we envision as the most likely potential future steps.

Context

While the College’s formal curriculum is certainly not the only mechanism through which students learn, it is arguably the most important one, and the one for which faculty are responsible.  Additionally, the curriculum, coupled with the way we present it, is likely one of the most important factors students use in deciding whether or not to matriculate at Evergreen.  Similarly, how students experience that curriculum once they are here shape the decisions students make about remaining at Evergreen, transferring to a more traditional institution or dropping out of higher education.  Those experiences include, but are not limited to:

  • whether they are able to enroll in programs they prefer;
  • whether they are sufficiently challenged in the programs in which they are enrolled;
  • whether they are able to define for themselves a coherent, integrated course of study extending across their years at Evergreen;
  • whether the curriculum reflects the values that Evergreen articulates as being central to its mission; and
  • whether the curriculum is as interdisciplinary and innovative as our literature claims.

Although as faculty members we should always be working to ensure that we create a learning environment that challenges students to achieve more than they ever thought possible while encouraging them when they fall short, current environmental conditions, both locally and nationally, make it ever more imperative that we focus on student retention and success.  Locally, the number of individuals likely to attend colleges is on the decline and as tuition far outpaces inflation, for reasons well beyond our control, we will see fewer potential students applying for admission.  Nationally, as student debt increases at a time when unemployment is at disturbingly high levels, more and more people are questioning the value of higher education in general and the liberal arts in particular. 

If The Evergreen State College is to continue to fulfill its mission, for it to be able to thrive in these difficult times while remaining true to its core values, it is critical for us to imbue our curriculum with a shared sense of purpose and to do so in a manner that is fully transparent to all who encounter it.  In short, we must be able and willing to make the case for the educational experiences we provide and which we value in the context of the world students face.

The conversations at faculty meetings last quarter about those values were informative and should shape the work of the DTF.  Without attempting to fully summarize the almost five hours of discussion that took place, we believe it is important to note that you resoundingly reaffirmed your belief in the value and power of the liberal arts.  You made it clear that you hold dear Evergreen’s long term belief that innovative, interdisciplinary pedagogy that is student centered is central to what the College is all about.  You also articulated the position that our role as a public institution is to be treasured.  Being a public institution of higher education means that we must be able to serve a wide array of students from diverse backgrounds, while helping them to understand the obligation their education places on them to make meaningful contributions to the communities in which they live.  Looking to the future, you thought it essential for the well-being of the institution, the region, and the planet as well as the psyche of our students that we continue to affirm the importance of the principles of both sustainability and respect for diversity.  Finally, you noted and greatly valued the unique level of autonomy the institution gives to both faculty and students.  But you recognized that such autonomy comes with a higher level of responsibility, again for both faculty and students, than is typically present at other colleges and universities. 

The DTF’s challenge, therefore, is to make recommendations about ways to improve aspects of our curriculum that bear on our most important challenges, preserving the best of what we have developed while suggesting new enhancements, in light of all of the factors that make Evergreen such a special and vibrant locus of learning.  We recognize that this is neither an easy task for the DTF to accomplish nor for us to outline.  We are confident, however, that there is ample good will and a great desire for us to move forward collaboratively.  We are convinced that faculty and students deserve the discussions that the work of the DTF will engender.

Questions

In an attempt to help the DTF focus its attention on what we see as some of the most pressing issues, we are outlining a list of questions that we believe should be addressed.  We recognize that it may well be the case that some of our questions will lead the DTF to ask many more.  We also recognize that some of our questions may not lead to motions to be placed before the faculty.  Nonetheless, we are of the opinion that laying out these questions is the most productive way to frame the issue for the DTF while not being overly proscriptive.

Creating Appropriate Learning Environments

  1. What are the most appropriate learning environments for students new to Evergreen (including high school direct students, transfer students and non-traditional students)?  Do high school direct students have different needs than transfer students?  How can we ensure that appropriate seats are available in programs that meet their needs?
  1. Is the claim that some students are not being sufficiently challenged by the academic work in their programs a significant concern?  If so, what can be done to rectify the situation?  What is the best way to differentiate lower level work from upper level work?  How can we ensure that adequate opportunities for students exist at all levels?
  1. What can be done to ensure that adequate opportunities exist for students to pursue well- defined areas of study over the course of their tenure at the College?  In areas where prerequisites are appropriate, how can we guarantee that sequential programs are regularly offered?
  1. Do the faculty have a shared sense of expectations for the level and amount of work expected of students undertaking independent learning contracts?  Are students enrolling for such opportunities being provided with appropriate levels of guidance?
  1. What is the appropriate balance between program and course offerings?  Should all/most programs be offered for 16 credits?  Is there an optimal length of time for programs (i.e., one, two or three quarters)?

Ensuring the Richness of the Learning Experience

  1. Do we offer a wide enough array of “interdisciplinary” programs, particularly at the lower division?  What do we mean when we use that term?  How disparate must the disciplines be for the learning within a program to be truly interdisciplinary?  Are there steps we can take to encourage more such teaching?
  1. Would it be advisable to build structures that might help link programs together at various points during the quarter, thus encouraging broader student interaction?
  1. The percentage of year-long and two-quarter programs has been decreasing in recent years.  Should this concern us?  If so, are there steps we can take to promote more programs of longer duration?
  1. The percentage of programs offered by multiple faculty members has been decreasing in recent years, with larger programs being far less common.  Should this concern us?  If so, are there steps we can take to promote larger teams?
  1. Are we content with the percentage of our students who integrate community-based learning components into their academic experience?  What should we do either to ensure that we continue our success in this arena or expand the opportunities offered to students?
  1. Are we doing all we can to ensure that our students, at all levels in the curriculum, work towards a mastery of oral and written communication skills, including the quantitative and creative expression of ideas?  Can we devise concerted efforts to ensure that our students maximize their chances of encountering academic experiences that support the values embedded in our five foci and our six expectations?
  1. Are we content with the percentage of our students who gain an in depth experience with another culture, either through study abroad, through language study, or via immersion in a different American culture, through their academic experience?  What should we do either to ensure that we continue our success in this arena or expand the opportunities offered to students?
  1. Are we doing enough to ensure that our students are able to articulate the value of a liberal arts education and to understand the obligations to society that arise from the privilege of having earned a liberal arts degree from a public institution?
  1. Have we done all we can to encourage students to integrate their curricular and their co-curricular activities?

Promoting Pedagogical Innovation

  1. Is there something the College might do to promote pedagogical innovation in the curriculum broadly and within programs?  Have we created an environment where pedagogical experimentation is encouraged, where we learn from those experiments and where colleagues are not punished when some of those experiments are less than fully successful?
  1. Do we have appropriate structures in place to enable faculty members to explore new teaching opportunities with a wide array of colleagues?  Do we have a rich enough culture of faculty conversation to maximize the chances for faculty to learn about the interests and passions of colleagues?
  1. How might we create venues for faculty to discuss their pedagogical strategies and to share best practices with colleagues?
  1. Are we confident that, as a faculty, we are doing all we might to encourage students to think critically about the many facets of complex issues while simultaneously encouraging them to make their own judgments and choices as citizens and political actors?  Do we value genuine inquiry rather than a particular point of view?

Time Frame

The DTF will be empaneled by the middle of spring quarter.  We encourage the DTF to meet immediately with the Deans and the Strategic Enrollment Group.  Both of these groups have long wrestled with the impact of curricular issues on student recruitment, retention and learning.  The purpose of these meetings, therefore, should be for DTF members to be briefed about this ongoing work, to learn about past efforts to address curricular change, and to permit members to request specific information that will inform their deliberations.

The DTF should use its limited time during the spring to plan for its summer work.  We envision that the DTF might want to schedule two weeks of intensive work during the summer.  (As has been the case with other major summer governance initiatives, the College will compensate DTF members for their summer efforts.)  This work will likely include prioritizing the questions posed, articulating any new ones, gathering and analyzing any pertinent data (with the help of the Strategic Enrollment Group, the Deans, and the staff of the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment), and beginning to craft suggestions for the faculty.  The DTF should develop a plan to fully engage the faculty in a half-day discussion of what it considers to be the most pressing issues during the fall faculty retreat.

The Agenda Committee will devote significant time at three faculty meetings during the fall quarter for the DTF to continue to discuss these issues with faculty.  The DTF’s first formal suggestions and/or proposals should be presented to the faculty by the middle of the winter quarter.  Because a curricular review of the sort outlined is multi-faceted, we recognize that proposals might be introduced over more than one quarter.  While it will be important to ensure that proposals brought before the faculty be integrated, they need not be presented all at once.  Depending upon what the DTF believes is possible, proposals may be placed before the faculty throughout the spring and fall quarters.  The DTF should conclude its work no later than the end of fall quarter 2013.

Next Steps

There are questions and concerns that, while important, fall beyond the scope of the work of this  DTF.  They will be taken up by future DTFs as progress is made on the issues outlined above.  These other questions and concerns include, but are not limited to, designing a new planning structure that more fully engages faculty that our current planning units do, reviewing the way we create and present transcripts, and encouraging more ways for faculty to integrate their scholarly and creative/artistic pursuits with their teaching.