College Forms Curriculum Committee
Issue   |   Wed, 09/23/2015 - 03:03

This year a new faculty committee has been formed to review the current Amherst curriculum. The Curriculum Committee, formed as a result of the college’s recently completed strategic plan, will provide recommendations for action to the Committee on Educational Policy, a permanent faculty committee, at the end of the academic year.

“The major focus of the [curriculum] committee is to figure out what is the right education for Amherst College students right now in this decade and entering the next,” said Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein.

The committee, which had its second meeting last Wednesday, will meet on a regular basis in Porter Lounge throughout the academic year.

One of the items on the committee’s agenda is to examine the college’s open curriculum. The open curriculum has not been modified since the 1980s, when Introduction to Liberal Studies, a required year-long program for first-year students, was scaled back to the semester-long first-year seminar.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, the open curriculum was an absolute good,” Epstein said. “There was no sense it should be questioned at all. We suspect some faculty sentiments may have changed over this. Some faculty are wondering or at least want to consider the question.”

In June 2015, the Committee of Six charged the Curriculum Committee with exploring three main questions. One of these questions is, “What are the advantages and drawbacks of the open curriculum in creating the Amherst education we seek to impart?”

“We’re doing it because we think it is the right thing to do,” Epstein said. “If we have any pressure at all, it’s coming from alumni. Those who went to school in the 50’s and 60’s had what was then known as the ‘New Curriculum.’ It was a very structured curriculum and many alumni swear by it, so what we’re having now is quite a few alumni interested, writing in, saying you really have to look at the open curriculum.”

But the open curriculum is just one of many issues the committee will discuss. The committee plans to examine study abroad, faculty-student research, integration of the Center for Community Engagement and more opportunities for project-based learning.

Several students are participating in discussions as at-large members of the committee.

“A recommendation to change nothing is just as important as a recommendation to change something,” said Tasha Kim ’18, an AAS senator on the committee.

Another topic of discussion for the curriculum committee is whether the curriculum in its current form meets the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.

“We bring a lot of students from different backgrounds at Amherst, but sometimes people have expressed a concern that we bring these people here and leave them high and dry,” Kim said. “We don’t necessarily provide students the tools to talk about diversity. The committee’s thinking that students should graduate with more knowledge of race, racism and history.”

Kim said other ideas that the committee plans to brainstorm strategies for meeting those needs. “Is the way we teach students now effective?” she said. “Should we modify the way our classes are structured? Do we need to do a better job of advising our students?”

The committee is also discussing the relationship between major requirements and the open curriculum. Committee members said that while the open curriculum guarantees the opportunity to take diverse courses, students majoring in two or more subjects generally tend not to take courses outside of those subjects.

“Whether or not this is a problem is a question,” said Sam Keaser ’17E, a member of the college’s Committee on Educational Policy. “One of the benefits of the open curriculum is that you don’t have required courses, unlike in a core curriculum. But better advising is always a plus, with faculty members encouraging students to branch out of their comfort zone.”