Getting Strategic: Curriculum and Community
Issue   |   Wed, 03/12/2014 - 02:10

This article is the first in a four-part series about the four core committees involved in this year’s strategic planning process.

Since October, the Integration of Curricular and Co-Curricular Learning Strategic Planning Committee has been examining the issue of how learning supports living at Amherst, how living supports learning at Amherst and how the two aspects meet in developing co-curricular learning.

This committee is one of the four Strategic Planning Committees engaged in investigating the meaning, identity and culture of the College as it reflects upon its current state and plans for the future. The Integration of Curricular and Co-Curricular Learning committee is charged with understanding how the College is currently using its residential, community and academic resources to develop its students for all aspects of life and how it can better use these resources.

“In some ways, we’re backing up and asking very big questions, very fundamental questions that guide our work,” said Judith Frank, Professor of English and Chair of the Committee.

The main questions the Committee has been investigation so far involve co-curricular learning, community building, the academic curriculum and how time is used. By early next fall, a final report on all the findings and proposed recommendations are expected to come out.

One main task of this committee is thinking about implementing co-curricular learning as the cornerstone of an Amherst education.

“We think of co-curricular activities as one that supports the intellectual mission of the college, of something that happens outside the classroom. We don’t think of them as extra,” Frank said.

Indeed, the Committee is shifting the emphasis from extra- to co-curricular activities in order to emphasize all aspects of learning at Amherst.

“The co-curricular in some ways, and the move from extra- to co-, emphasizes how much the things that happen outside the classroom are so much a part of the human development the curricular supports as well,” Frank said.

In looking at co-curricular learning, the committee is focusing on the integration of inside classroom activities, such as readings, lecture, discussion, with outside classroom experiences, such as internships and community service work.

“We’re thinking about a model of learning that goes beyond the intellectual proper, so for example, learning as involving civic awareness, emotional awareness, leadership,” Frank said. “Our hope is those are things students actually bring into the classroom, and they learn physics or English or their various disciplines with a whole self that is developing with the intellectual.”

An example of co-curricular learning is the English class Reading, Writing, and Teaching: a course designed with both inside classroom reading, discussing and writing and a community engagement component.

“Where people have a community engagement aspect — tutoring in the high school or adult learning center — and bring those experiences to think about education, social stratification, their own status as learners, education and race in America,” Frank said. “They bring it all into the classroom and the co-curricular becomes part of the intellectual.”

Another main focus of the committee is the residential aspect of an Amherst education.

Specifically, the committee is examining how to support sharing of experiences, facilitating communications and mutual learning of all members of the campus community.

“We think one of the biggest learning opportunities we have at Amherst is the very diverse community,” Frank said. “So if we think about diversity as an opportunity for learning in an increasingly diverse and internationalized world, we need to create supports in the residential life where that diversity will be reflected instead of people clumping together because they are comfortable with each other.”

Committee members say the need for greater cross-cultural sharing and learning is a major component of the residential aspect of Amherst, but it is also an area that needs further development.

“In general, there seems to be a very separatist culture on campus. People go into their separate groups or associations and there is not as much cross-cultural exchange of ideas,” said Jayson Paul ’16, a member of the committee.

Raizel DeWitt ’16, a student who attended a dialogue between the committee and members of religious life at the College, seconded this idea.

“I think Amherst is trying to create open and honest dialogue,” she said. “I’m not sure whether that can happen if we all segregate into our respective groups.”

This is one of several themes that committee members say have emerged as the committee continues to engage in extensive dialogue in order to listen to the needs of the many constituencies across campus. Additional parallel themes are the lack of a vibrant residential and social life, increased separation between faculty and students, between students and staff and the overall lack of feeling part of a community.

The community subgroup of the committee has been examining these issues by considering alternative models of residence from other schools and rethinking residential life.

Another main takeaway the committee has found from talking to various campus groups is the feeling of a lack of time in the face of immense tasks and responsibilities.

“The fact is that people feel their lives are incredibly burdened by stuff they have to do and don’t have time to do a lot of things they want to do,” Frank said.

The curriculum sub-group has been addressing these concerns by coming up with ways to open up space within the academic year to readjust the pace of learning.

“We’re thinking about taking the week after spring break because spring is such a long semester,” said Frank about a possible recommendation. “What if students just choose one of their four courses and they go deep? Maybe get to reread something, redo an experiment.”

Frank said time is a major concern to this committee because they recognize the major impact of time on the quality of learning.

“Learning doesn’t always happen when you have four courses a week and you’re reading as fast as you possibly can and you have papers due every five minutes,” Frank said. “That’s not always how learning should or best happens.”

Other aspect of the curriculum the committee is how the academic year should be scheduled.

“Especially with the amount of international students we have now who aren’t going home, the question is, how can we use our time during interterm and summer?” Paul said.

The ultimate goal of the committee is to answer whether or not the College is creating an environment that encourages thoughtful and critical engagement.

“Are we going to be a part of the problem or are we going to bring our critical intelligence to the problem of the way we are catapulted into our lives with extreme busyness?” Frank said. “We can’t be a quiet utopia, but what we can do is open up a space for critical thoughts, about the way you guys are going to live your lives. Hopefully we’re preparing you for this world that is not getting any slower.”