Step 37: Examine the Core Program

One thing I really enjoy about being at a liberal arts college is that I get to participate in discussions about college-wide issues. One of more recent ones is about the Core Program at Oxy, which includes a selection of freshman writing courses that every student must take, called the Cultural Studies Program. Under the current curriculum, freshmen must take a CSP in both the fall and the spring semesters.

Before I go any further, perhaps it’s better to describe what the program is supposed to accomplish – which, at least from my point of view, is part of the problem. On paper, the program is aimed at improving the writing skills of students, especially during the fall semester, students are supposed to write some number of papers, which are critiqued and edited by the faculty. Unofficially, however, I have heard faculty talk about the CSP having additional roles: helping students adjust to the college workload, being a shared experience between everyone on campus, and introducing (and potentially recruiting) students to the breadth of disciplines on campus. Additionally, after the student protests last semester, there is also talk of using CSP courses as a way for students to explore their own identity and learn about the identities of others.

The main motivating reason for this recent discussion about CSP, however, is that student surveys say that students’ don’t find the courses particularly helpful in writing, despite the faculty still finding students’ writing not up to par. The question is then how we should change the program to simultaneously ensure students are actually learning, while fulfilling the various unstated goals that faculty have assigned the program… while getting around additional constraints, such as how very few tenured/tenure-track faculty is willing to teach these service courses. A number of proposals were thrown out, such as making the second semester division specific (ie. humanities, social sciences, physical sciences), making the second semester be about quantitative reasoning, pushing the second semester to the second year, and so on. While these are all suggestions worth thinking about, to me, I don’t think we are addressing the issue at the Core (get it?), that the goals we have prescribed to CSP may be inherently contradictory.

I don’t know if there is a solution here. Of the main three goals, my instinctive response is to question the value of a shared college experience. I know there are faculty who vehemently defend this component of the program, but it’s also the only goal of the three that do not squarely fit under the liberal arts banner. One argument I might concede from that angle is that a liberal arts college is not only about the content of courses, but also about being in an academic community, which is why shared experiences are – although I am not convinced that CSP is the best way to achieve that either. I am not saying that community building is not important, but that I think it’s possible to do it by building upon a base of writing and of broad knowledge. At least, that’s how I would classify my own education as belonging to the liberal arts: not by taking the same courses as other students, but by taking different ones then having conversations about our different trajectories. This framing even fits the narrative of CSPs being about the discovery and exploration of identity.

I suppose I should also consider sacrificing the writing competency and the broad multi-disciplinary focus. The case for the former was actually brought to my attention by a college. Their view was that the CSP’s current focus on writing is misguided, when there are so many other forms of scholarship, including various art forms, media, and even computer programs. To isolate writing as the exclusive product of academia is to exclude the scholars who produce in other ways, including not only artists and musicians and computer scientists (although not me), but also faculty who organize communities or advise national organizations. Instead of putting all of our eggs into writing, we should instead expand the CSP program so students see the alternate paths to being a productive member of society.

As for CSP allowing students to sample different fields, I think the best argument here is not that students should not do so, but that better ways to do so exist. One immediate thought I had was to enforce stricter distributional requirements – not only so many credits in each division, but a course in one of this list of departments, and so on. The obvious objection is that this encourages shallow memorization and disengagement as opposed to deep understanding, in which case perhaps the requirements should move away from being organized by disciplines to instead being organized by problems. Riffing off the identity theme, I can imagine a requirement that students must take two courses about personal identity, two courses about social identity, and two courses about global identity. Within each leitmotif are courses offered by multiple departments, from which students could choose; I can easily see computer science offering courses in all three. This actually doesn’t quite satisfy the goal of allowing students to sample – after all, they could take computer science courses in all three areas – but, with some assumptions about course content and instructor interest/competence, it should showcase how different fields of academia interact and provide different perspectives on the same issue.

As hopefully this entry so far has suggested, I don’t have an answer to CSP that will satisfy the entire faculty. I understand the value of each of the goals of the program, while simultaneously understand how each goal could be sacrificed in favor of the others. I think the point here should not be for me to come down on one side or the other, but to record my current thoughts, so that when this again comes up for discussion two, five, ten years down the line, I can see how my view has changed, so that I may more productively contribute to the discussion at that time.

Step 37: Examine the Core Program

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