September 3, 2006

Of liberal arts colleges, a core curriculum, and contingent faculty

One might suppose that the following is an object lesson about the type of overgeneralizing that Donald Kagan swims in for his Commentary magazine piece about imperious faculty. (Much better: head to University Diarist's corresponding entry and the fascinating comment thread.) Are faculty blocking a core curriculum either through their pomo aspirations or laziness/caring more about research? Given that Kagan wants us to see all institutions as he paints Harvard, I'm a bit skeptical, but let's head to another institution, one that not only is a liberal-arts college but one where the faculty deliberately tried to craft a common entry point for students.


About 23 years ago, give or take a week, we freshmen at Haverford College were at the end of Customs Week (i.e., orientation) and starting classes. Every one of us was enrolled in the new all-frosh English class that the faculty had decided was critical to a good undergraduate education. Before, there were composition classes and English requirements, and students who had certain AP scores had been exempt... but no longer.  We want everyone to go through a common experience, faculty explained to us. You will read Great Literature and have Intellectual Experiences.

For those who don't know about Haverford, it's a small (thousand-student) college that is still loosely associated with Quakerism. It has an honor code that students administer. In my day, students proctored the exams, where I chose which exam slot to take a final in, signed out the exam, walked to any of several available rooms, and completed the exam (usually with a handful of classmates who are taking finals from different classes). The full load was four courses, which made sense given the reading and general workload of courses. I was a bit of a geek even among Haverford students, but the environment was thoughtful and intellectual.

The faculty is small enough that they can all get together and debate the curriculum. It may take a large room, but they can fit into a big room (and not an auditorium). So they can craft a direction for undergraduate education, and they do, both within departments and the college as a whole. In the mid-1980s, the history department's intro history class was a large-for-Haverford (i.e., 150-person) lecture twice a week and then individual sections taught by faculty on Fridays. I truly enjoyed my first-year physics class (Lyle Roelofs and David Pine deeply impressed me as teachers), but the physics faculty were ambitious enough to redesign it entirely several years after I left. So when the faculty decided to create an all-frosh English experience, they meant it in a serious, ambitious way.

And so we exposed ourselves to Great Literature, such as Moby Dick and Invisible Man (the Ralph Ellison book, not the Claude Raines movie). We all tromped into Quakerish not-quite-comfortable Roberts Hall to listen to Literary Muckety-Muck mumble into the microphone about Ellison's meaning, we all had relatively small sections with individual faculty, and we wrote. Oh, we wrote.

Haverford is an all-undergraduate institution (well, not quite: I knew one masters student in biology when I was there in the mid-80s, but she was the only one as far as I was aware). So there were no graduate TAs to take on the burden of the English classes.  Every member of the English department took at least one section, but that wasn't enough. Even at Haverford, they could not manage to run a common experience, one with thoughtful, serious intellectual intentions, without either hiring contingent faculty or breaking down the commitments of the faculty in other departments to their own disciplines and the courses students expected to take in their majors. There was no other way to run the frosh English course, so the college hired contingent faculty.

I was taught by such a visiting assistant professor. He was nice and a Milton scholar. He told us in the spring that every time he taught Milton, the majority of the small class who took it had serious life crises. I'm not sure if that's the nature of Milton or those who study him, but in any case, he tried hard.  I think he tried a bit too hard—our papers were returned with all sorts of codes and different colors of pen and highlights for his comments—but he did his best under the circumstances and, a few years later, moved into banking. He came to our graduation, and for a few seconds I didn't recognize him.

But my first-year experiences at Haverford—taught by a visiting assistant professor not only in English but also in history and math—illustrate the limits of the teaching faculty at any institution with disciplinary boundaries and commitments to existing students. If you have existing, established courses of studies, where you must teach courses for majors, then who teaches the common-experience courses? You can't just rearrange the specialists to teach the general courses, because they're committed to the upper-division courses. You might stretch the faculty a bit to accommodate a few core courses, but the stretching is limited in those institutions where there already are problems covering the existing courses (i.e., in almost every public institution). 

If Haverford is one of the premier liberal-arts colleges, and it turned to contingent academic labor when instituting a partial core curriculum, what would happen if we instituted a true core curriculum with a limited set of mandatory courses? It matters not whether the faculty are imperious or what the standard ranked-faculty course load is: there just isn't enough wiggle-room in existing commitments to shift around where people teach. Unless a miracle happened and someone committed to hiring tenure-track faculty for these positions, we would see tremendous hiring of contingent labor to fulfill these responsibilities. We all know the grinding nature of English and math courses at state universities—here, where there is at least part of a potential core curriculum, we have the worst exploitation of contingent academic labor, the worst budget situation where the central administration treats the departments as teaching cash cows, and the worst gap between the promise and the reality of university education. Many who teach calculus and English comp do fabulous jobs, but they do so in spite of the conditions, not because of them.

The irony is that the disciplinary organization of a university—the boundaries that make a common curriculum almost impossible without exploiting contingent academic labor—is also what allows for deep intellectual exploration either for majors or for graduate students. Yet that disciplinary organization and the resource and prestige competition the disciplinary boundaries foster also encourage territorialization, turf defenses that dovetail with faculty identifying with a discipline. I tend to value that identification in many regards. I'm an historian in an interdisciplinary field (social foundations of education), but I am not competent to teach other things in education (such as psychology), and I am skeptical of efforts to infuse what we do in other courses. Yet I know that such a structure also creates limits. Part of the reason for the menu-like structure of distribution requirements is because allowing different departments to offer courses that satisfy the requirements evens out the burden of teaching the general-education reqirements more than might otherwise be the case.

I suspect that most of those who call for a core curriculum do not wrestle seriously with these institutional arrangements. I looked through ACTA's Becoming an Educated Person (2003) and could find no references to the funding or resource arrangements needed for what they define as a true core curriculum. I certainly wouldn't mind additional tenure lines in areas such as English, math, and history: there's nothing wrong with an historian's full employment law! But that's unlikely, and I'm not sure the alternatives would provide a sufficient base for a quality undergraduate education.

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Posted in Academic freedom on September 3, 2006 12:36 AM |