Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 23, 1997

CAS to discuss possible curriculum reform

Amid criticism by some Pitt faculty members and trustees that the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) general education requirements are unfocused and too complex, arts and sciences professors plan to meet Nov. 4 to discuss a process and timetable for reviewing the CAS curriculum.

The discussion, part of the agenda for the fall meeting of the full Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), 3:30-5 p.m. in 1P56 Forbes Quadrangle, could lead to the first overhaul of Pitt's undergraduate arts and sciences curriculum since 1981.

CAS, a part of FAS, is the undergraduate arts and sciences unit at the Pittsburgh campus. It enrolls most of Pitt's undergrads. Of the 16,180 full-time and part-time undergraduates this fall at the Pittsburgh campus, 9,428 are enrolled in CAS.

FAS Dean Peter Koehler said he expects that the Nov. 4 discussion will lead to the formation of a faculty committee to investigate the following questions:

* To what extent have the 1981 CAS curriculum reforms achieved their goal of providing Pitt undergrads with a high-quality liberal arts education?

* Will the current curriculum remain valid for the late 1990s and early 21st century?

* If not, how should the curriculum be revised? Asked whether FAS faculty members might decide to retain the current CAS course requirements, without changes, Koehler replied: "It could be. I'd be surprised if the faculty said that." The dean emphasized that "curriculum reform is a faculty prerogative," but said he believes that any curriculum reform committee should include representatives of all three FAS divisions: humanities, natural sciences and social sciences.

Koehler said he would ask such a group to work with David Brumble, FAS associate dean for undergraduate studies, who spent much of last spring and summer discussing the curriculum with students and faculty.

Brumble said he met with 190 junior and senior faculty members last summer, about one-third of the FAS faculty. "We met, usually over lunch, in groups of no more than six people," Brumble said. "I intentionally tried to get a mix of different disciplines and faculty ranks at each of the meetings." The associate dean summarized his discussions with faculty and staff, together with written comments he received from 20 FAS departments and programs, in a document that he has been circulating among FAS faculty. So far, the document — which he calls "a report on the state of the ongoing conversation" rather than a formal proposal — has gone through 40 drafts, Brumble said.

The latest draft notes: "Last year, the Board of Trustees expressed concern about the CAS curriculum; they were concerned about what seemed to be a lack of focus in our general education requirements, for example; and they were concerned about our students' basic math skills and their skills in writing, speaking and computing.

"In October 1996, the FAS chairs and program directors decided unanimously that we ought not to deal with these problems piecemeal, that we ought rather to review the CAS curriculum in its entirety. Particular concern was expressed about the number and the complexity of our present requirements." Brumble said he found that "about 90 percent" of the arts and sciences personnel and students he talked with agreed that CAS's current general education requirements are "very complicated" and lacking in focus; that their complexity forces many advisers and students to spend much of their time talking about how students can meet particular requirements; and that the complexity and number of CAS general education requirements "contribute to the difficulties our students are having graduating in four years," among other criticisms.

Based on a system he learned about on a visit to the University of Rochester, Brumble is proposing that CAS replace its general education requirements with a "cluster" plan that he said would encourage students to make intellectual connections among their courses.

Each student would take one cluster of courses in each CAS division outside the division of the student's major. "Or, we might want to require three clusters, one in each division, for all students, since so many come to us undecided" about a major, Brumble wrote.

Departments would be encouraged to propose clusters of at least three closely related courses, with the courses crossing departmental lines. Brumble suggested a Renaissance Literature Cluster, to include the English department's Shakespeare course, the history department's "Renaissance in England" course and the French and Italian department's "Renaissance Italian Literature in Translation" course.

Dean Koehler said, "David's proposal has many advantages, and there are many faculty members who like it. There are also clearly some faculty members who don't like it, and there are some who don't like the process by which we got to this point." Rather than ask Brumble to present a formal proposal to FAS and risk faculty voting it down because they felt they weren't consulted, Koehler chose to recommend forming a curriculum reform committee.

"During a curriculum revision, you need to involve the faculty in the debating and fighting and compromising," Koehler said. "When they get finished with that process, they feel a sense of ownership in this thing called curriculum reform, and they can deliver it in the classroom with renewed vigor." Provost James Maher called the curriculum review "an internal FAS matter" in which he would not intervene, except to remind the school that any curricular changes must be consistent with the school's long-range budget plan. As for the course cluster idea, Maher said: "I'll be very open to that as a possible new approach to the general education requirements, if that's the way the FAS faculty want to go." The last time the CAS curriculum was overhauled, the process took more than two years and involved a 26-member faculty committee headed by then-CAS Dean Irwin Schulman, who led the reform effort.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 5

Leave a Reply