Chad Wellmon has done a fair bit of dreaming and analyzing over the past four years. Blame it on the fact that he professes an equal love of math and poetry, of science and philosophy. Although he’s now an associate professor of German, Wellmon always assumed he’d grow up to be a physicist.
Most recently, his unique temperament and interests have been put to work upending the undergraduate requirements for the College of Arts and Sciences, under direct orders from Dean Ian Baucom himself.
Why change something that’s working? Both Wellmon and Baucom would say that undergraduate education wasn’t working as well as it could.
Like many universities, UVA incorporates a “distribution model” for its undergraduate curriculum—requiring students to choose from a smorgasbord of choices across various broad areas, in addition to basic requirements in writing and foreign language, before they step into their major.
Unfortunately, Wellmon and others say, this can devolve into a checkbox mentality—I’m looking for an afternoon class on this topic to fulfill this requirement—rather than a love of learning.
Wellmon saw that ingrained pattern as an indictment of the faculty, himself included. So he began pondering: What if he and his colleagues could instead create a compelling interdisciplinary experience, one that models how to pose sweeping intellectual questions that cut across academic fields—questions such as: What is beauty? What is data? What is a good life? What are the demands of justice?
Wellmon describes these as questions that students “are going to spend the rest of their lives, whether explicitly or implicitly, struggling with. Whether that’s trying to gather data to figure out which insurance plan they want, trying to model a good life for the children they’re going to have or being a member of their neighborhood or citizen of the nation. All of those questions are questions that afford no immediate answer, and they’re actually a joy but also a great challenge.”
No easy task
Curriculum reform is a common consideration in higher education in order to adapt to changing culture and student needs or to budget or enrollment concerns. Most universities start with their general education requirements in an effort to reshape the learning environment—and the graduates they produce. Deeper, broader thinkers, perhaps. Experienced researchers or cross-culturally competent leaders.
Others address the majors they offer. At Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, the president is looking at eliminating even departments and colleges.
But regardless of the model or the reason, enacting significant change takes time, with no guarantees. Duke University finally tabled its plans for a curriculum overhaul after three years of planning. “We underestimated the lack of appetite for change,” says Suzanne Shanahan, associate research professor in Duke’s department of sociology and previous chair of the curriculum review committee. “We have something that works. … Not enough people dislike it enough to do something different.”
In addition, a new dean stepped in who had other priorities. And so the planned overhaul eventually came to a halt.
Without a doubt, curriculum reform is universally hard. One small change here affects budgets and prerequisites there, so faculty and departments can’t always be faulted for deferring to the status quo over a compelling vision—tabling the great ideas for another day, another year, another dean’s passion.
At UVA, the College of Arts and Sciences took a step toward reform with its new Forums Curriculum in fall 2016, birthed under the leadership of the former dean, Meredith Woo. In this alternative to the traditional curriculum, students focus the majority of classes outside their major on one overarching theme such as Food, Society and Sustainability; or Space, Knowledge and Power.
The challenge, however, lies in the Forums’ scalability. At most, fewer than 300 students would be able to participate, according to Baucom. While applauding Woo’s creative curricular reform, Baucom (who stepped in as dean in summer 2014) says he wants to do more for all undergraduates who go through the College.
An emerging model
When it came time to start rethinking the curriculum, Baucom promised his support for whatever Wellmon and the existing faculty committee created and their colleagues wholeheartedly approved—“as long as it was ambitious enough,” Wellmon remembers.
For a full year, the group brainstormed, adding a healthy component of measurement and constant assessment from curriculum experts in the Curry School of Education.
Unlike at Plymouth State University, the College’s curriculum committee determined early on that it wouldn’t touch the majors. After all, faculty members are scholars of a particular discipline, and such expertise is crucial to actually answering the big questions in any depth. Instead, the proposed alternative curriculum would allow students to explore broadly and make connections across disciplines to help choose their major and shape a lifetime of learning.
Eventually, a curriculum model emerged. The next step, Wellmon says, was to refine that model with extensive feedback from College faculty and advisers and from peer educational institutions, before launching a pilot with a limited number of students. Leadership from Stanford University, Harvard University, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Dartmouth College, Barnard College and the College of William and Mary offered feedback in a combination of personal conversations and an on-Grounds symposium in January 2017.
Bo Odom (Educ ’12, ’15) serves as manager for curricular implementation in the College. With his curriculum design experience, he was tasked with ensuring feasibility from beginning to end. If successful, the pilot program would become the standard curriculum for all undergraduates going forward (with the Forums Curriculum always an option).
No more box-checking
The New College Curriculum, as the model came to be called, would replace all current general-education requirements and aim to deconstruct the checkbox mentality. The area of greatest change? A series of interdisciplinary courses for first-year students called the Engagements (see “New College Curriculum Framework” below), comprising eight of the 30 credits required their first year. Students would choose one class (two credits) in each of four categories:
Engaging Aesthetics—thinking critically about how we are shaped by art and aesthetic experiences
Empirical and Scientific Engagement—exploring the hypotheses we form (and questions we need to ask) based on evidence
Engaging Differences—recognizing the complexities of the human experience and resulting inequalities
Ethical Engagement—reflecting on questions of justice, democracy, liberty and more
“We’re asking people to stop worrying about checking the boxes,” says Lisa Woolfork, English professor. “And instead start applying all that energy—[which] they used to apply to meeting this list of standards—to actual intellectual labor, to thinking, to critiquing, to adopting a set of ideas and thinking through them and then changing their mind. Thinking in expansive ways, in ways that connect beyond the checkbox model of learning.”
Central to the success of the Engagements is a rotating team of faculty members such as Woolfork, known as College Fellows, who are invited to teach within specific Engagements. These individuals leave many of their departmental responsibilities for four semesters. The plan was for an initial cohort of 12 faculty to teach in fall 2017, with a second cohort to begin teaching in the spring. A third would rotate in for the spring 2019 semester.
At the same time, the number of students in the pilot was planned to grow from an initial 500 first-years in fall 2017 to 800-1,200 in fall 2018 (out of the usual first-year enrollment of about 3,000).
Even at full implementation, Wellmon estimates, less than 10 percent of the College faculty would need to be teaching Engagements.
Measure twice, cut once
The model’s remaining requirements (called Literacies and Disciplines) would be met by current classes and faculty. Literacies focus on fluency in rhetoric, world languages and quantitative skills. Disciplines are current general education classes that have been reclassified to ensure that students gain broader exposure to types of knowledge.
To create the Engagement courses, faculty cohorts would work together, across subject areas, to create syllabi (in some cases also co-teaching)—modeling what it means to tackle significant questions from more than one perspective.
“We have a lot of very successful students at the University of Virginia who approach school in a linear way,” says Woolfork. “But this [curriculum] requires something much more organic, where the boundaries are more fluid, where you think about … learning in ways that are broad and interconnected. That’s something that an ideal college learning experience should be about.”
After sharing the proposed curriculum model with faculty at the end of 2015, Wellmon and others working on it entered into a second year of critique and refinement. “I had coffees and beers and lunches and breakfasts and dinners with anywhere from one to five faculty at a time the whole year,” Wellmon says.
“Every single one of those was a kind of data-collection point for us, and then we would reassemble … and revise according to the feedback.”
The committee also considered feasibility for faculty and students. If it’s crucial to have the full range of disciplines represented in the Engagements, how does that affect a biologist, who has a lab to run? Can any student navigate the curriculum options—even someone who wants to major in, say, physics and studio art? That, according to Wellmon, would be one of the most difficult combinations, just to get all the classes needed. “So we ran dozens and dozens and dozens of models and just revised and revised and revised.”
When presented with the refined model in May 2016, the College faculty overwhelming approved—voting 210 to 41 for a two- to three-year pilot.
With a green light, the committee began inviting faculty to become College Fellows and to create the Engagements courses. Sarah Betzer was, as she put it, “absolutely thrilled” to be asked to help craft an Engaging Aesthetics course (which she teaches with Bruce Holsinger, professor of English). Betzer is associate professor of art history and now co-director, with Wellmon, of the College Fellows.
“For as much as we value teaching at UVA,” Betzer says, “it is extremely rare to sit down with a colleague even in one’s own department and talk about syllabus design. … That’s not for the faint of heart. It really is sleeves-rolled-up, group workshopping.”
“We are giving students a broad perspective intellectually,” says biology professor and College Fellow Debbie Roach, “so that, for example, someone who goes into the sciences isn’t just thinking, ‘How do I get my degree in science?’ but also has an exposure to the arts, has an exposure to ethical questions. And vice versa: a student who’s going into the arts has an understanding of empirical approaches.
“This broad education creates a better citizen to be able to contribute to future advances. It’s just very exciting.”
For example, an associate professor of social neuroscience in the department of psychology offers a class called Thinking Like a Scientist. A professor of government and foreign affairs teaches What Is Inequality and Why Should We Worry About It? And a second professor of biology discusses ethical dilemmas in Genetics: Solutions for Life!
“I could not be happier with my choice”
The first classes of the New College Curriculum kicked off in fall 2017, with about 600 first-year students enrolled, Wellmon says. And College Fellows soon began hearing encouraging reports.
Wellmon speaks of first-years confiding in him that they’d planned all along to major in English (“all I loved was reading novels”) until they fell in love with the ethics of data—jointly taught by Wellmon and Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies. “So I had a whole section of them enroll, in their second semester, in statistics courses.”
Betzer and Roach have heard the same: students newly discovering poetry or biology and signing up for additional classes.
Caroline Kirk (Col ’21) says she was so impressed by Woolfork and her class Race, Racism, Colony, and Nation that she’s considering adding a minor in African-American Studies.
“I could not be happier with my choice to join the curriculum,” Kirk wrote in an email. “The Engagements courses have been my favorite classes each semester. ... While most first-years sit in large lectures, we have had the opportunity to stake claim in our first-year education and participate. I need that in the classroom.”
Peyton Baylous (Col ’21) says she changed her major as a result of her Engagements classes—switching from biology to global public health. “If I had done the traditional curriculum, I think I might have just focused on premed requirements,” she said in an email. “These classes seemed to offer a more abstract and complicated approach which didn’t just apply to a career, but a life. … [The new curriculum] also exposed me to fields of studying and ways of thinking that I had never encountered before.”
Smoothing out the rough spots
But the new curriculum hasn’t resonated with all students or faculty. About one-tenth of the initial new curriculum students chose to return to the traditional curriculum because of varying issues, Odom reports. He says he worked to learn their concerns and suggest adjustments to the curriculum or the process.
Stefan Baessler, associate physics professor, was one who voiced concerns and found the curriculum team receptive to addressing them. He still worries, though, that the changes will be especially challenging for physics majors, with their heavy load of core courses. He also expressed that the new configurations in the Disciplines classes seemingly make it possible for students to avoid the sciences altogether.
It depends on how narrowly you define “science,” Wellmon counters. Any course categorized under “Living Systems,” for example, “has been judged by a standing faculty committee to be a science.” And students must take three courses from science-related Disciplines categories, including Living Systems.
Wellmon also points out that undergraduates who know what they want to study have always been able to navigate the requirements and bypass (or heavily emphasize) certain departments. The Disciplines put classes under broader categories than in the past. And while students must take credits under each of the seven Disciplines, those credits must also range across six different departments.
Apart from specific course questions to work through, the proposed changes also introduce financial ramifications. But a $40 million gift earmarked for curricular innovation efforts—from Thompson Dean (Col ’79)—is helping compensate departments for the temporary loss of a faculty member and compensate College Fellows for their additional hours in curriculum creation.
A late-spring comprehensive assessment will help Dean Baucom and the curriculum committee determine the future of the New College Curriculum: whether the planned second pilot year will be sufficient for launching it as the standard curriculum for all undergraduates, or whether a third pilot year is needed for more refining.
Not every question is yet answered, but as Duke’s Shanahan points out, “You have to be able to take a leap of faith.”
Wellmon and his colleagues contend that the leap will be worth it if students are exposed to “an intellectual way of living that’s not something you only do in a class, but [that] provides great joy, love, beauty and challenges over the course of your life.”