At an institution as large as the University of Texas at Austin, getting an answer from students about the freshman and sophomore academic experience depends on whom you ask.
Two years ago, a commission appointed by the university's then-president found that "while the current system offers students myriad courses of study, it fails to equip undergraduates with a core body of knowledge essential to a well-balanced education. For too many degree plans, the current curriculum resembles little more than a vast a la carte menu."
A task force headed by William Powers, the university's current president, released a report last October recommending that Texas work to bring coherence to general education. Fast forward to Monday, when a faculty group overwhelmingly voted in favor of a plan approved by an educational policy committee that is designed to bring commonality to the first- and second-year curriculum.
The Faculty Council, which comprises faculty members from each college, set in motion what would be the first substantial undergraduate curriculum change in a quarter century (though it wouldn't go into effect until at least 2010.)
The amended motion, which requires a few additional steps before taking effect, would require students to take two interdisciplinary "signature courses" -- called such because they are "intended to add a unique signature to an undergraduate's first and second year at Texas,” said Linda Golden, chair of the Faculty Council. A freshman course would focus on a contemporary issue; a sophomore course would be narrower in scope. An example included in the proposal: "Making Sense of Life," which would combine religious and philosophical approaches to ethics with government studies and English.
A second component of the plan calls for a requirement that students take a series of courses in writing, quantitative reasoning, global cultures, cultural diversity, ethics and leadership, and independent inquiry. Students would also be encouraged, but not required, to follow thematic strands that are intended to give them an area of expertise within the undergraduate core. (A provision in the plan for an additional science and technology requirement was removed and sent back for review because some deemed it confusing.)
Golden, who is a professor of marketing administration, said the proposed new courses are intentionally broadly defined so that the university's dean of undergraduate studies can work with individual colleges to make the requirements compatible with current major requirements. "We've given a skeleton, and with the approval, we're opening the doors for colleges to provide the flesh," Golden said.
The educational policy committee said because students are already short on time, it does not want additional credit hours added as a result of the proposed changes. Ben G. Streetman, dean of the College of Engineering, said the new requirements might mean restrictions on what electives colleges can offer.
The most controversial idea that came out of the task force's report never made it into the proposal voted on by the Faculty Council. That provision would have required all freshmen to enter into a new general education division and would have prevented them from declaring a major in their first year.
The proposal was nixed in the spring amid mounting criticism from faculty -- and particularly those in the science fields -- who said that it would prevent them from recruiting students who were ready to enter a specific college in their first year.
“It lost a lot of support after the issues became known,” Streetman said. “The way the plan reads now, it's going to require a lot of work [to implement], but I think it's going to be fine."
But Paul Shapiro, a professor of astronomy and a member of the Faculty Council, said he still has concerns. Chief among them is a practical one: how to find enough teaching assistants who have an expertise in multiple fields to make the interdisciplinary courses run effectively. When he voiced that concern before Monday's vote, Shapiro said he was told that discussions about resources would be tabled until a later meeting.
Paul Woodruff, dean of undergraduate studies, said the university plans to hire both full-time faculty and graduate assistants.
"In astronomy and physics, we are already experiencing a crisis in funding for TA support," he said. "It's remarkable that we're talking about an expansion here."
Shapiro said while he supports the idea of requiring students to learn from professors outside their disciplines, he didn't see a "strong reason to emphasize multidisciplinary learning over other methods of teaching" and to make these courses the "featured requirements" of the new plan. "What this means is that professors are asked to experiment at the expense of this mass of students, to create something novel on a large scale."
Golden said the plan was generally received with "tremendous support" from faculty. Because the curricular changes are considered at Texas to be "major legislation," they require a no-protest vote of the full faculty. If passed, the plan moves on and would eventually come back to the Faculty Council for a final vote.