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January 19, 2017

A&S to get new general ed requirements

Students entering the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences in fall 2018 will be required to take at least one diversity course as part of new general education requirements (GERs).

According to the requirements approved recently by Dietrich school faculty, diversity courses “focus centrally and intensively on issues of diversity, and do so in a manner that promotes understanding of difference. They provide the student with analytical skills by which to understand structural inequities, and the knowledge to be able to participate more effectively in our increasingly diverse and multicultural society. The courses may address, though not be limited to, such issues as race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religious difference, ability difference and/or economic disparity.”

Although courses typically can’t fulfill multiple requirements, diversity courses also may fulfill other GERs, and may be within students’ major field of study.

The revised GERs also call for students to take three courses in “global awareness and cultural understanding,” including a course in global issues, a course in a specific geographic region outside the United States and a course in cross-cultural awareness.

Existing GERs call for three foreign culture/international courses, with at least one course in a non-Western culture.

John Twyning, associate dean for undergraduate studies, said the changes reflect the recognition that defining Western and non-Western is increasingly difficult. “It’s not a useful category,” he said.

In place of a second course in literature, arts or creative expression, students will be required to take a “course in creative work” in which they will be required to produce creative work of their own.

Twyning said the desire was to encompass creative work that would include engagement in newer technologies — such as writing a program for a game or an app — as well as more traditional forms such as studio arts, theatre, writing, visual arts, music or dance.

The existing requirement for a course in philosophy will be altered to reflect the importance of ethics, Twyning said, adding that students on the Undergraduate Council, which developed the revised GERs, were vocal in their desire for the change to a required “course in philosophical thinking or ethics.”

History requirements will be altered to require “a course in historical analysis” to reflect the principle of historical investigation, in place of the current requirement of “a course in historical change,” which Twyning said council at times found difficult to define.

Current students in the Dietrich school will have the option of continuing under the GERs that were in place when they matriculated, or switching to the new ones.

This marks only the second time in 35 years that GERs for arts and sciences students have been updated. The prior revision was proposed in 2001 and approved in 2002. (See May 2, 2002, University Times.)

At that time, although the issue of diversity course work was raised, faculty opted only to encourage that students take diversity courses, rather than to make such courses a requirement for graduation.

Twyning said the Undergraduate Council spent more than a year and a half reviewing GERs before bringing proposed revisions to the faculty in spring, culminating in the November full faculty meeting, when the changes were approved.

Jessica Hatherill, the Dietrich school’s senior administrative officer for undergraduate studies, noted that student representatives on the Undergraduate Council played an active role in making the changes. “It’s exciting and reassuring that students played such an engaged role.

“They should be engaged in their education,” she said, adding that they took it upon themselves not to merely be present, but to be informed, researching issues and bringing student opinion to the table.


Requirements for demonstrating second-language proficiency, although debated, remain unchanged.

The Dietrich school requires students to complete two courses in a second language with at least a C-; however, exemptions currently are granted to students who complete three years of high school language class with a B or above.

Some Pitt language faculty advocated that incoming students instead be required to demonstrate foreign language proficiency by scoring 4 or better on the advanced placement (AP) test for a foreign language.

That proposal — presented as an amendment to the proposed GER revisions, moved by Randall Halle of German and seconded by Lina Insana of French and Italian languages and literatures at the Nov. 17 faculty meeting — was referred to the Dietrich school Undergraduate Council for study in a 67-62 vote.

The language faculty will be meeting with the council soon to discuss the data needed to more fully consider the issue.

Twyning, who chairs the Undergraduate Council, said the first order of business is to gather information, including determining how many students might be required to take additional courses, how many take the courses even though they are not required to, as well as the potential costs.

In addition, he said students are concerned about the impact on their schedules. The required language courses currently are taught as two five-credit courses, which he said are scheduled during one class period five days a week — taking the place of two other classes in a student’s schedule. That can present scheduling difficulties, particularly for students in majors requiring a large number of credits, he said.

Halle said that the possibility of shifting the credit load of introductory language classes will be examined.

David J. Birnbaum, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, was instrumental in authoring the language amendment.

“Revising the GERs needn’t be a lengthy process because we have not proposed any change in the language requirement, which would still be one year of college-level study or the equivalent,” he told the University Times.

“What we have proposed is that students who have acquired their proficiency before arriving at Pitt demonstrate through a placement test that what they have is really equivalent,” as is required for math and writing placements.

Halle said the existing language requirements are not in question. “No one is debating the two-semester requirement. That is part of the general education requirement.”

However, students should demonstrate their proficiency, he said. “There’s no better vehicle for entry into the global world than language. It’s a misconception that everyone speaks English.”

The goal, he said, is to ensure that students, by the time they graduate, are able to “move in the spirit of another culture,” able at least to travel to another country and order meals, negotiate transit and find a place to stay.

“High school language education is dramatically different school to school and class to class. There’s no guarantee it’s the same quality across the board,” he said, in arguing for a language placement test.

“It may be the case that students will place out; it may also be the case that they won’t.”

He said language faculty will continue to advocate for the change. “I personally am interested in pressing very hard.”

However, the issue should be of concern not only to language faculty, he said.

“It behooves us to have a standard that bespeaks the status of Pitt as a world-class institution respected amongst its peers,” he said, noting that while the University has risen in educational rankings, its language proficiency requirement “is basically from the 1980s” when the University was a much different institution.


The Undergraduate Council is under no obligation to bring the issue back to faculty for a vote, “although it might well come back to a vote,” Twyning said.
If language requirements were to be revised, given the lengthy process for informing faculty and receiving input, any changes could not be made in time to coincide with those taking effect for students entering in 2018, he said.

“It does take up a lot of time, to make sure stakeholders are fully engaged and communicated with,” he said.

How soon the issue could be reviewed depends in part on how quickly the necessary data are gathered, and on the Undergraduate Council’s other duties.

“Council is going to be very busy dealing with the consequences of the current review after the vote,” he said, noting that the council must determine which courses will fulfill diversity requirements and which will fulfill other GERs. In addition, the council is looking into teaching evaluations.

“We’ve got a lot on our plate,” he said, noting that the Undergraduate Council — made up of a dozen faculty members and five students — meets approximately once a month.

Another factor is the Dietrich school’s upcoming transition in leadership. A search is underway for a successor to Dean N. John Cooper, who will step down in August.

Twyning noted that solutions, such as piloting a testing program for language proficiency, may entail a dramatic pull on resources and therefore would be a decision for the dean and provost. Such a decision may well be left for the school’s new dean, he said.


The full GERs are posted in the Dec. 7, 2016, Dietrich school gazette at

—Kimberly K. Barlow 

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