Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Ways of knowing

Posted by Arjendu on January 23, 2008

Last week’s ECC session was devoted to reports by the team-leaders of Carleton’s curricular redesign teams. Carleton, in the middle of the transition to a 5-course (over 3 terms) teaching load for faculty, and an ambitious capital campaign, is — sensibly enough in terms of timing, but insanely in terms of pressure on the faculty — also reconsidering the general graduation requirements for the first time in well over a generation. That is, the requirement for various majors are being left untouched, and most of the broad structure as well, but the ‘distribution’ requirements are being reformulated (or not, if the faculty votes the changes down).

There are 3 teams, and each came back with a distinctive plan (the details of which I cannot discuss here, because they are not complete, they are confidential, and it would be totally unfair to the full faculty, which gets to see them in a few weeks). Despite the differences, there was a common theme to them all: (1) They took the recently formulated Carleton College Mission Statement seriously. (2) They moved away from the current content-based distro: ‘3 from the sciences, 3 from the social sciences, 2 from humanities, 2 from arts and literature + language + sundry other’ system to a ‘ways of knowing’ system (more below). (3) The overall impact in all cases was to slightly ease the requirements (though not necessarily, depending on the student’s choices).

The shift to ways of knowing is in keeping with the way the College (and its faculty) have been talking about education for a while now. That is, there is are far more similarities between a suitably mathematical Economics class and a Physics class than between that Econ class and an Anthropology class in terms of how students are challenged or how they learn — even though both the latter would count as Social Science. And if we claim to teach our students how to think rather than content (content-based education is looking pretty rusty in the information age/post-google world), then our requirements should reflect that. So on campus we’ve been talking about quantitative reasoning courses, criticism and interpretation courses, practice of aesthetics courses, empirical reasoning courses, etc.

Anyway, it was very interesting to listen to the current state of the redesigns, and I made myself a pain as usual, in this case by insisting, for example, that my Revolutions in Physics class seemed to fit in the category of a course on the ‘Foundations of Western Civilization’ because I didn’t really see how anyone could claim that modern Western culture did not rest on physics, specifically via technology. Most of my heckling was done — and received by the team-leaders — in the spirit of forcing people to define their terms more carefully. (It’s one of my favorite things about being at Carleton, actually, it’s small enough and collegial enough that this sort of argument can be conducted — usually — in a pretty spirited but friendly fashion). Similar arguments were thrown at them from my colleagues from across the campus, and the leaders promised to take our comments under advisement before the big event: Presentation to the full faculty.

That’s the part I am looking forward to. The faculty will not be allowed to comment during the first presentation to give the teams a fair chance of actually being able to present their plans. As Bill, the co-chair of the ECC, said: We’re going to need duct tape.

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