Optimizing student learning through quality academic programs
Carleton's rich curriculum and exceptional academic programs are vital elements of the inherent strength of the College. We also are blessed with uncommonly energetic and participatory students who are engaged in seemingly innumerable extracurricular activities. For the most part we have been content to take a decentralized approach to our curriculum and student activities. Because our faculty structure is departmentally based, the curriculum tends to emerge from separate departmental entities, with limited coordination with other departments and interdisciplinary programs. Beyond the need to satisfy our distribution and major requirements, students are not formally encouraged to coordinate their courses or activities. Even though our current approach provides maximum freedom for students, faculty, and departments, does it optimize our ability to accomplish our broader educational goals? Are we doing enough to assure that as students progress through their four years here they will build on previous experiences to enhance the liberal arts areas of growth and development we espouse? Do we need better dialogue and coordination among departments and programs, including non-academic programs? Should we do more to see that our overarching goals are addressed in a logical progression and that by graduation students have been asked to think about their education in a context that extends beyond the commencement platform into the world beyond?
These questions suggest that we need to step back and view the Carleton education through a wider lens. The relationships between departments and concentrations, the growth and development of students as well-rounded people during their time at Carleton-especially during the transitional first and last years-and our distribution and other requirements all should have a greater level of intentionality aimed at accomplishing our overall goals. At the same time, we would like to encourage our students to become more deliberate about their own educations, develop a clearer sense of their abilities, and achieve a level of independence that will well prepare them for the future. This will demand that a balance be struck between structure and freedom. The following recommendations are intended to be the first steps toward organizing our academic program to achieve our purposes more effectively.
Recommendation 1: Provide more coordination and oversight of the curriculum by creating a programs and curriculum committee to advise the Dean of the College on decisions related to the academic program
There has been widespread expression of the need for stronger and more systematic oversight of the curriculum. Departments and concentrations/programs make changes in their requirements and decide course offerings for the following year often with little attention to the common enterprise. Tensions exist among departments and concentrations and programs over annual course offerings. Occasionally questions are even raised about the viability of certain interdisciplinary programs in light of their dependence on a small core of faculty members.
We believe there needs to be more coordination and communication among all groups concerned with curricular matters. We therefore recommend that the faculty establish a standing Education and Curriculum Committee (ECC) subcommittee on programs and curriculum. This subcommittee would have more responsibility for managing curriculum and programs than does the present ECC. Membership would consist of the faculty on the ECC, the Dean of the College, and the associate dean serving on ECC. Although details would be worked out in discussions next year, we envision a body that would take considerable responsibility for weighing needs, setting priorities, and ensuring that our curriculum reflects stated educational goals. The subcommittee's responsibilities might include making recommendations about new majors and new programs, helping to work out staffing and curricular details of existing majors and programs, providing advice about the viability of majors and programs, and recommending allocation of faculty positions. This standing subcommittee would act as an advisory body to the Dean of the College in the same way the FPC advises the Dean and the President on faculty personnel matters.
Recommendation 2: Reassess, and perhaps restructure, the curricular organization of the College, including departments, interdisciplinary programs, majors, concentrations, area studies, and special majors
In the two decades since concentrations were initiated at Carleton, the complexity of our curricular structure has increased dramatically. We have added numerous interdisciplinary majors and concentrations to our system of strong department-based majors. Although the resultant variety, richness, and freedom of choice are appealing in many ways, they come at a price. There is increasing confusion, and in some cases tension, related to faculty commitments to departments and interdisciplinary programs. In several cases, shifting faculty interests have either left significant holes in departmental curricula or jeopardized the viability of concentrations.
All indications are that the curriculum of the future will move us even further into areas that don't fit neatly within the formal disciplines. Consequently, we need to make adequate provision for experimentation and innovation in some of these areas. At the same time, we do not think it is desirable to recenter our curriculum away from department-based majors; they provide essential depth as well as important physical and intellectual loci of learning and growth for our students. In order to address this dilemma adequately, it will be necessary to take a serious look at how all our majors and programs interact and decide on a sustainable, more efficient, mutually supportive structure. The proposed programs and curriculum committee would be an ideal group to undertake this analysis and to make recommendations to the ECC and the Faculty.
Recommendation 3: Rejuvenate the advising system, particularly for first-year students
The transition from high school to college requires a major adjustment for most students. For some it goes smoothly and without undue difficulty. For others it is a highly traumatic time, leading to serious difficulty or even withdrawal. As society and the Carleton student body become more diverse, the transition into college is likely to become even more difficult. It will also be more important that we pay closer attention to orienting new students to Carleton. It is our responsibility to help students make a smooth adjustment to Carleton and become integrated into the life of the College. Academic advising plays an essential role in this effort. We have abundant evidence, primarily from student surveys, that our academic advising system for first- and second-year students is not as effective as it should be.
As a first step in strengthening the advising system we recommend the broadening of our first-year student seminar program so that every incoming student would be assigned a seminar, preferably in fall term, and that the seminar instructor be the student's advisor. One or more themes might be chosen to link seminars, thus providing students in different seminars a topic for discussion. Seminars taught by advisors would encourage a more substantial relationship between advisor and student, one that would allow more reflective and comprehensive discussion. It would encourage attention to the student's entire program, including extracurricular activities, priority setting, and time management, as well as his or her intellectual development and academic progress. If the number of students per seminar were limited to 12-15, faculty members would have the time to function as advisors in a broader sense of the word, including interaction with students informally outside of class. The writing requirement could be closely linked to the seminars.
Good academic advising is important throughout the four years of college. We have chosen to focus on developing quality advising and strong relationships between first-year students and their advisors because we believe a solid foundation in the first year will lead to more student growth in the remaining years.
Recommendation 4: Examine the senior year, paying particular attention to the senior integrative exercise and the transition out of Carleton
The senior year, like the first year, is one of transition and change. Yet in our discussions with students, faculty, and staff in the Division of Student Affairs, there was a widespread sense that for many of our students this important capstone year is less successful than it could be. The fourth-year experience needs rethinking. For example, there appears to be too much unevenness among Senior Integrative Exercises (Comps). Carleton should take a more active role in making the senior year a period for closure, reflection, and planning. Because we believe in our philosophy that a four-year residential experience is important for the intellectual and personal growth of our students, we need to think carefully about what we hope to accomplish during this important final year.
We recommend that the ECC and the Faculty, working in close cooperation with staff from the Student Life area, review the Senior Residency Requirement and undertake an analysis of the senior year, Comps, and the ways in which we support students in making important decisions about their futures. Possible questions include: should Comps be expanded to become a more complete year-long or two-term capstone experience? Should they be completed before spring term? Should distribution requirements be completed before the senior year?