How an idea becomes a course

Among the requests brought before the Diversity Task Force this summer was an appeal for a more diversified curriculum. It is true that the U.S. Pluralism and Cultural Diversity requirements only go so far and those are the only classes required of everyone. Those students who have room for electives do not have a lot to choose from if they want a deeper connection to their own heritage or to learn more about communities different from their own. 

Part of the problem is the small size of the faculty. I often advise history majors, for example, to take a 300-level history topic that appeals to them when they see it offered. Currently, there are only three historians, and our regular topics classes are offered on a rotating cycle on top of the courses we must offer every year. So, the class you want might not come around again before you graduate. 

What we lose in not being able to offer a wide range of classes is balanced, I hope, with how closely we can work with our students. If you tell us what you would like to see offered in the future, there are things we can do to increase minority voices in the curriculum. Every path to a new course requires time, but not everything takes years. 

Substantial changes to the curriculum must go through review by the Academic Life Council, a committee that includes the Registrar, five faculty members, three students, and the VP and Dean of the College. The ALC considers proposals from the Chairs of the Academic Divisions and, if the proposals pass merit, bring them up for a vote before the whole faculty at a regular faculty meeting. Any changes to the Core Curriculum will come to the ALC from the Chair of the Core after the Core Curriculum Committee has discussed it. Suggestions for new courses might be submitted to the relevant academic Division or to the Chair of the Core, but that process will certainly take months, possibly years, especially if it adds a requirement to any program.

Classes can be developed more quickly through the 149/249/349 designations available in just about every major. Any member of the faculty can develop a X49 on a topic related to their discipline and get it on the schedule for next year. However, and this is important to keep in mind, even being able to offer such a class depends on multiple factors—how many required core and/or major classes is the faculty committed to offer on a yearly basis? Do they have the time and/or resources to develop and deliver a meaningful class?

 I was able to develop “The History of Murder” for the spring because I had just published a book related to that topic. If I decide on a new class to offer next year, I can get it listed on the schedule. The work to prepare the class, however, might take months. I am unusually lucky in that I can create new classes on a regular basis. I am looking for ways to offer incentives that make it possible for interested colleagues to do the same. In addition, if someone asked me to add new material to an existing class, I can try to do that as well. It never hurts to ask.

If current faculty cannot develop the desired courses, another option is hiring someone to offer that course. The danger there is taking advantage of contingent faculty, a.k.a. adjuncts, who get no benefits and are paid by the class. It would be shameful if, in the name of increasing underrepresented voices in the curriculum, we ended up underpaying minority candidates. 

I am in no place to comment on hiring practices as part of the discussion on diversifying the curriculum, but it is connected. As someone who has served on the Faculty Staffing Advisory Committee, I can attest to the fact that every year Academic Divisions request about 15 new hires and we are lucky if we can actually advertise one or two positions. A new hire is such a huge investment from the school that most programs on campus have been understaffed for a long time.

The last thing I want to do is discourage students from seeking change on campus. When we say change takes time, we are not just brushing off the conversation. We want to do a good job at what we teach. I have been teaching the ancient world history survey every year for twenty years now and I still consider it a “work in progress” because there is always more to learn. May it always be so.

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