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Archive for Monday, December 31, 2012

KU’s new curriculum will have ripple effects on academic departments, graduate students

December 31, 2012

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When new freshmen step on the Kansas University campus in fall 2013, they'll be the first class to map out its college experience based on KU's new Core Curriculum. A few upperclassmen may opt in to the new requirements, as well.

But the university's new curriculum won't just change the way undergrads thumb (or click) through the course catalog to figure out what they'll take each semester.

What happens when students no longer walk the well-tread path through the same set of required courses that others have walked for decades?

What happens to the graduate students, sorely needed by faculty to conduct research, who pay for their education by teaching those staple introductory courses that undergrads take by the hundreds? And what about departments that use those courses as showcases, hoping they'll entice students to choose their subject as a major?

As of yet, no one is sure. The institution of a new curriculum is a process with a lot of moving parts, KU officials say.

"It's a profound experience in the life of a university," KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said, "and that's why people don't do it too often."

The focus of the new requirements — the first ever to apply to all undergraduates at KU, regardless of their school — is to provide more flexibility and focus more on the skills students will develop.

But departments will be watching and adjusting to how things shake out when it comes to organizing courses and funding graduate students.

"We're going to have to be building it while we fly it," said Thomas Heilke, KU's dean of graduate studies.

That's because the specifics of the curriculum have yet to be determined in full. And even when details are worked out, it may be unclear exactly how it will affect the populations of the hundreds of undergraduate courses out there.

"There might be someone who had a ready audience for a course because it was required, and now is something that students select," Gray-Little said, "and there may be less enrollment or more enrollment. All of those things over time could happen as the result of a curriculum change."

One thing that's clear is that the structure of undergraduates' requirements will change. Right now, students pursuing a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of General Studies degree in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — which contains most KU undergraduates — have several requirements that can be filled only by one or a handful of courses. The Core Curriculum, meanwhile, is made up of 12 skill-based requirements, which students will have a number of options to fill.

As previously reported by the Journal-World, KU's two-semester Western Civilization sequence will likely no longer be as universally required.

But the current requirements steer hundreds of students each semester into other courses, too, such as the introductory public-speaking course offered by the communication studies department, "Speaker-Audience Communication."

Somewhere around 900 undergraduates take the course each semester, said Tom Beisecker, the chairman of the department.

"It's obviously important to the department," Beisecker said, "because we have a number of our graduate students who are supported by that course."

The class also serves as the introduction to communications studies for many students who go on to major in the subject, he said.

It's not clear yet just how the course will be affected by the new curriculum, he said, though he noted that it will fit neatly into one of the 12 skill requirements: oral communication.

Danny Anderson, the dean of liberal arts and sciences, said that the new curriculum will open new opportunities for departments as well. Faculty have the opportunity to pitch courses for inclusion in the new requirements.

"On the one hand, if a department had to organize itself around serving a single class, it will have much more flexibility now to think about different kinds of things it can teach," Anderson said. "It will mean that the departments and the college dean's office will need to work together as we watch some of the changes that will happen over time."

Also watching how things turn out will be the English department, from which most KU students are currently required to take two introductory classes. All students in the College are also required to take a more specialized 200-level English course, as well.

"Those are the courses that many of our graduate students do teach, and where they learn to become strong teachers," said Anna Neill, the English department chairwoman.

It appears those two introductory courses will still likely be required of most students, Neill said. But the 200-level requirement will likely not exist in the same way.

"It makes us especially concerned that the humanities remain central to a general education at KU," Neill said.

Individual schools will still have some leeway to set additional general-education requirements, though, and Neill said she believed many of those schools would still prefer their students to develop a good reading, writing and critical thinking background.

"We think we're going to be able to absorb that and be able to train graduate students," Neill said.

Heilke said he and other leaders would work to ensure that graduate students won't be harmed by the changes. In fact, he said he hoped they might be helped. KU is also re-evaluating education for doctoral students, and one goal is to increase research appointments as a source of funding in relation to teaching positions.

"It'll be a challenge," Heilke said. "It's not clear yet what the nature of the challenge will be."

The changes may require some problem-solving from departments, as well, Gray-Little said. But the focus of the new curriculum will be clear, officials say: a better, more modern educational experience for undergraduates.

Comments

KU_cynic 1 year, 11 months ago

The portion on the English department appears a bit disturbing if a primary raison d'etre for these 200-level courses is to employ KU's English PhD students. I think a perusal of years-to-degree and academic placement outcomes for KU English PhDs would reveal some very sobering data on the high cost and low value of a PhD in English from KU. If the current core curriculum is abused to subsidize an otherwise low-value graduate degree then all the more reason to reform the curriculum. No sacred cows.

Paul Decelles 1 year, 11 months ago

Actually teaching assistant-ships are critical in many departments for graduate student support so I wouldn't pick on the English department here.

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