Scientific Revolution

February 23, 2006

Smoothly overhauling the undergraduate curriculum at a university of 50,000 is about as easy as, well, getting a bunch of academics to agree.

In October, the University of Texas at Austin’s Task Force on Curricular Reform issued a report with recommendations that seek to standardize the first-year experience and bring coherence to general education. Faculty members have had time to digest the report, and commenting season is now open. And science and engineering faculty members, have opened fire.

The report calls for a mandatory interdisciplinary course in each of the first two years, and the establishment of University College, a new division that all freshmen would enter before going on to discipline-specific colleges.

Ben G. Streetman, dean of the College of Engineering, said that “it would be disastrous for us if we lost our freshman class.” Streetman said that administrators in the college spend a lot of time recruiting, doing things like hosting dinners for students who have high SAT scores and their parents. Those students, he said, want to go straight into the College of Engineering, not University College, which wouldn’t have its own exclusive set of faculty members.

The task force anticipated Streetman’s concern, and recommended that colleges be allowed to grant “pre-admission,” or reserve a spot in the second year for students who want to enroll in a specific program. But he isn’t sold. Students who look to Texas for engineering “will say, ‘I’ll go somewhere where I can be admitted right away,’” Streetman said. “In a field like engineering, a student has to get started right away. It seems to me the proposal would inevitably add a year to graduation time.”

Students would be able to take some courses toward a science or engineering major, but would have to save room for the “signature course,” large, full-time faculty member taught, interdisciplinary courses with discussion sections. Evan Carton, a Texas English professor and a member of the task force, said that such courses would be a great way to introduce students fresh out of high school, who are used to discipline specific courses, to a higher level of intellectual exploration. Linda Henderson, a Texas art history professor told The Daily Texan that the first-year signature course – “Inquiry Across Disciplines: Nature” – will “wow” freshmen with some of the university's most esteemed professors.

John Durbin, a Texas math professor and former head of the Faculty Council, said he’s “a little dubious” about the “wow” factor. “Are people who are doing serious research going to teach these courses very often?” he asked. “And the top teachers around … are going to be teaching anyway.”

Durbin said that the emphasis in defining a curriculum shouldn’t be on impressing students or creating a new college – which some faculty members have lamented as just another layer of bureaucracy – but on “what the content of the course should be,” he said. “There are certain things you want students to know, and that’s what the emphasis should be.”

Enough sections of a signature course would have to be created for all freshmen and sophomores, and the content would, according to the report, depend on “the particular interests and expertise of the faculty who design and teach them.” Faculty members from the humanities and sciences would be encouraged to collaborate to design courses.

Some professors raised concerns about how signature courses would be constructed in the University College system. In written comments that the Faculty Council is collecting, two faculty members questioned whether “intelligent design” might sneak into a course where professors are teaching outside of their own disciplines.

“To present such a course and have it be possibly the only ‘scientific’ course that a liberal arts student would be exposed to would be a gross failure," wrote David Crews, a professor of psychology and zoology. “This is but one scenario under these guidelines. There needs to be some qualification that the collaborating faculty actually represent the disciplines that are being taught.” The task force suggested forming committees of experts to vet courses before they are offered.

Many of the dissenting faculty members' comments -- which back a minority report written by David Hillis, a biology professor and task force member -- suggested that time and money would be better spent on more personal advising that would encourage students to explore when they have a chance, and improving teaching in the colleges.

Andrew Carls, who graduated from Texas as a government major in December and is a member of the task force, thinks that answers to many of the concerns will become clear as meetings are held for faculty members in coming weeks. For his part, Carls, who began as a biology major, said he “would have loved to come into the University College to explore.” Carls also said he would have liked the “flags” system, which identifies skill areas and tags departmental courses as qualifying for a particular flag, like “writing.”

Paul Woodruff, a philosophy professor and task force member, acknowledged that some changes might have to be made for majors like engineering. Woodruff, who is also the director of the interdisciplinary Plan II Honors Program which takes about 180 of Texas’ top students each year, was adamant that interdisciplinary classes can be rigorous.

He said a geologist and an engineer are currently talking about developing a sustainability course that can be a signature course pilot for next year. “One of our main goals is to give students ways of looking outside of the boundaries of departments,” Woodruff said. “I wouldn’t expect someone who spent his life teaching basic math courses to grasp” what kind of courses do that, Woodruff added, referring to Durbin, his close friend.

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