Tuesday, October 04, 2011

NIMBY (academic edition)

[WARNING: what follows is an administration-heavy post that will likely bore most readers to tears. Faculty, please read on only if you're masochistic. Students, please read on only if you want to learn faaaaaar more about the inner workings of your university than you ever dreamed you'd know.]

I've been serving on the Curriculum Review Task Force since its inception back in March. In the half-year since this project got off the ground, I've probably been involved in three dozen meetings (some two or more hours long), written fifty pages of position papers, policy statements, memos, information requests, findings summaries, and spreadsheets. I've read two or three hundred pages of curricular data and carefully scanned the websites of two dozen peer institutions whose programs serve in some way as a model for our own. After all of this work, I feel like we might finally be near to having something to show for our effort.

To be sure, there's more work to be done, but for the first time I feel like we might have reached the point where we'll start rolling downhill again. We've got the information on department curricula we asked for from chairs and program directors, and as we begin sifting through that info we'll be writing our responses to the departments, even while we collect a little bit more data on ILS components before writing similar responses there.

We were intentional in our move to address departments and degree-granting programs first: since several powerful people first got involved in the task force specifically because they perceived its function to be to mount an assault on ILS, we wanted to make clear early and often that we would consider just as carefully the efficiency and the sustainability of departments and programs as well. It would be unacceptable, we wanted known, simply to chuck aside ILS and retreat to the cozy confines of our disciplinary silos.

From the get-go, aside from the usual (and expected) assortment of trolls who got on board the ILS-bashing bandwagon when it first rolled into town, my impression was that folks were behind us. With times as hard as they are (and faculty as overworked), we'd look for efficiency in whatever place we could. ILS, though certainly not a sacred cow, would be considered no more carefully or critically than would the departments.

But when it comes to paying the bills, everyone seems to be busted.

Evidence showed that, expressed in terms of required courses, our degree programs are larger across the board, on average, than their corresponding programs at peer institutions. Our students, not surprisingly, take longer than their peers elsewhere take to complete these programs. Therefore we asked departments to identify ways they might move to make their programs more sustainable: might they remove unpopular concentrations? cut back on course requirements? improve opportunities for "double-dipping" courses?

What we're discovering is shocking: while the curriculum in general is in disarray, every department, on its own, is doing a fantastic job.

The story goes something like this: "our university's curriculum is clearly unsustainable. Students aren't graduating on time, and that's scaring away students, so our retention suffers. My students have a hard time figuring out how to put their schedules in order so that they can graduate in four years, and I have a hard time advising them. But...

"...my department is functioning fine. We offer a premier program, the likes of which you'll find nowhere else in this state, no matter the price." At this point the story follows one of two paths. Either (a) "our program is efficient and sustainable: the number of hours we require is well below the university average, and our students graduate on time far more often than their peers in other programs" (admittedly, this is sometimes true: there are a small number of very sustainable program on campus) or (b) "we recognize that our program makes excessive demands on our students' time, but these demands are in line with the rigors of our discipline and with the accreditation standards laid out by our discipline's professional governing body."

So where's the breakdown, folks? Who's to blame? Are we going to pick up the switch and start thrashing away at ILS, the same old whipping boy we've been beating since I got here over six years ago? (This approach is puerile, people: though ILS could be better, it's not entirely broken...and as a liberal arts institution that purports to take that mission seriously, we need some sort of ILS-like program in order to maintain our street cred.) Or are we going to waste more time pointing every finger we've got at our colleagues in other corners?

Or maybe...just maybe...we'll get the balls to ask ourselves tough questions: do we really need that extra concentration or those curiously complicated course requirements? Can we serve our students as easily through advising as we can through administrative fiat, thus making their schedules more flexible? Just what do our students gain by being forced to take these specific six courses, and not simply six from among ten or twelve, chosen according to their individual interests and aptitudes?

I can't end this post without a note of thanks to the folks in my own department. I've been at odds with many (most, perhaps?) of them on the matter of reducing our concentrations (we could easily, I feel, stand to combine our pure and applied concentrations into a single one), but I like the moves that were made today in our department meeting to make more flexible the applied concentration. I appreciate their willingness to move in that direction.

Compromise, folks, compromise. It's how shit gets done.

I apologize for the pottymouthery. I've been hard at work since 7:00 this morning (it's now nearly 11:00), and my internal filter fell off a long time ago. I'm off to bed.

(Oh, from the "it gets much more fun from here on in" department: I'm tremendously excited about the next few days in both of my classes. Applications of quadratics in Precalc...and symmetric group silliness in Abstract!)

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