‘Making Sense of the College Curriculum’

Authors discuss new book examining the faculty role -- and how professors view their responsibilities.

June 5, 2018
 

How does the college curriculum evolve?

That's the central question of Making Sense of the College Curriculum: Faculty Stories of Change, Conflict, and Accommodation (Rutgers University Press), which is based on contributions in the form of in-depth interviews with 185 faculty members from 11 colleges and universities, representing all sectors of higher education. The authors identify trends that cross sectors, in particular the care with which professors consider the goals of various programs and requirements. While the book makes clear that change in the curriculum is rarely speedy, and sometimes messy, it finds that under certain conditions, professors do agree to make meaningful changes.

The authors include Robert Zemsky, chair of the Learning Alliance, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several books, including Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise (Rutgers University Press), which argued for consideration of more dramatic changes than perhaps would be endorsed by the professors interviewed for his new book. He was joined by Gregory R. Wegner, director of program development at the Great Lakes Colleges Association, and Ann J. Duffield, a strategic planning and communications consultant to colleges and universities who serves on the Board of Trustees of the Sage Colleges.

Via email, the three authors jointly responded to questions about the new book.

Q: What led you to approach the topic of the curriculum in this way, with a focus on discussions with faculty members?

A: Actually, we started out heading in the wrong direction. We thought our task was to document what worked as colleges and universities sought to revise their curricula. We should have known better -- simply put, there had not been enough successful curricular redesigns to produce an informative study. We then restated our task, making it a riddle that needed to be solved. Why had there been so little curricular change? Why not the same kind of restructuring in response to disruptive change that was recasting the work of lawyers, librarians, bankers, even physicians? To answer that question, we needed to talk with faculty, to listen to them, not as adversaries or recalcitrants, but as actors in a drama with an increasingly uncertain denouement. We needed to learn directly how faculty members described their experience -- with students, faculty peers, administration and society as a whole. We needed to go in search of what it meant to be a faculty member in a turbulent era.

Q: Your book features interviews with faculty members from many sectors of higher ed -- were there differences in perspectives by sector?

A: Higher education's skeptics and critics notwithstanding, the common thread linking almost all the faculty whose stories we collected was a commitment to helping students harness the power of knowledge. Often, but certainly not always, the actions faculty take to help students differed by sector, reflecting both student attributes and institutional goals. It was not uncommon for some faculty to describe their role in terms that combined academic preparation with social development of students. Faculty from institutions that prepare students to enter specific careers upon graduation often spoke of the constraints of external accreditation or certification requirements. Across the spectrum of institutions, public or private, faculty spoke of the pressure they feel to curtail costs, on the one hand, and to help their institutions recruit and retain capable students on the other. A recurring sentiment was that the faculty role has come to encompass a growing number of responsibilities, often at the cost of being able to teach students well.

Q: What did you find, across sector, as the primary motivations for professors in terms of how they seek to organize the curriculum?

A: Almost always the motivation to change stemmed from dissatisfaction with the supply of courses. Changes in the discipline, faculty interests or student demand would spur a drive to create new courses within a department. Alternatively, a decline in enrollment in existing courses that represent the specialties of tenured professors would spur strategies to change graduation requirements for majoring in a given department or otherwise highlight underenrolled courses to attract greater student interest. A fundamental desire within academic units was to preserve the core elements that define a field of study. Those elements often coincided with the expertise of tenured faculty members, and there was always an awareness that recasting the curriculum can impact the jobs of real people. Beneath every proposed change are the self-interests of departments or individual faculty who have benefited from the curriculum as currently delivered. In the most telling of our faculty stories, it most often fell to administrators to deliver the message that the curriculum needed to change -- for reasons of efficiency, intellectual integrity -- and often to heighten their institution's competitive standing among prospective students and their parents.

Q: How did your research change the way you view faculty members' relative priority of teaching versus research?

A: Here there was both good news and not so good news. Among the faculty we talked with, there was both a broad and deep commitment to teaching, to doing it well and to exploring alternative pedagogies. In the 180-plus faculty stories we collected, there was a palpable passion for their own as well as their students' growth and discovery. Sometimes it was a journey that translated into new research interests. In other cases, the desire to make it new for themselves led to different ways of conceiving the learning process. Active learning techniques, faculty-student research and technology-enhanced instruction were increasingly common. What was lacking was a parallel commitment to the curriculum -- and for good reasons. Almost uniformly, the faculty featured in Making Sense of the College Curriculum had had enough -- too much regulation, too much focus on economic models that rewarded butts in seats and almost nothing else, too many failed attempts that taught the same lesson -- it's just not possible to get there from here. What faculty wanted was to do their own thing, wherever possible unencumbered. It was a perspective that mirrored in an equally unencumbered commitment to their research.

Q: For college leaders -- from the faculty or administrative ranks -- what advice would you offer based on the book for those who seek to change the curriculum? How can faculty support be built?

A: The lesson we hope our work teaches senior administrators and faculty leaders is that they bear a special responsibility for spurring curricular change, all while making certain that curricular redesign is in fact the work of the faculty. Success needs to celebrated, faculty champions should be recognized and faculty initiative rewarded.

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