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General Education Task Force nears completion of new curriculum


By Sam Carlen and Jacob Maranda

The General Education (GE) Task Force is close to issuing a new GE curriculum, with the final draft facing a faculty vote Nov. 7.

The latest draft includes an ethics requirement, controversially excluded in earlier drafts, and a new “Writing in the Major” requirement. It may also include a revised Studies in Physical Movement (SPM) requirement, another item omitted from earlier drafts. The proposed “Active Body” requirement will be voted upon at the Nov. 7 faculty meeting, along with any other amendments.

Additionally, the draft includes “Power and Race,” “Creativity,” experiential learning and first-year seminar requirements and eliminates the current art and literature requirements.

The latest draft cuts the maximum number of courses needed for the GE curriculum from 26 to 16. This number is still too large for some faculty, however – a poll taken at an April faculty meeting showed that 35% of faculty present wanted 9-12 courses, while 32% wanted 13-16 courses.

Latest draft limits double-counting, other changes

Under the proposed curriculum, most courses can only fulfill a single GE requirement, a marked shift from the current system. Some courses will still be able to fulfill two GE requirements, namely those that also meet the “Power and Race,” “Writing Across the Curriculum,” “Ethics in Context,” or “The OLE Experience in Practice” requirements. Previous drafts didn’t allow double-counting at all, said Task Force member Ulises Jovel ’20.

The latest draft makes a number of additional changes to the working draft released in March. It clarifies the “Creativity” requirement, specifying that students engage in creative activities like studio art, film or dance, or study the creative process itself.

“We are hoping that the creativity requirement will boost interdisciplinary courses among departments,” Jovel wrote in an email.

The latest version also lowers the maximum number of courses for the foreign language requirement from four to three and adds a “Writing in the Major” component which provides students with major-specific writing instruction. It also adds experiential learning, such as lab work, to the science requirement, Jovel said.

However, a number of proposed requirements that prompted significant discussion among faculty and the Task Force were dropped in recent weeks. Chief among them is the proposed portfolio requirement, where students would collect academic work from their time at the College and label these items according to the academic outcomes they demonstrate, like “writing in context.”

The GE draft presented to the Board of Regents during their Oct. 10-11 meetings on campus included the portfolio requirement. Faculty have since voted it down.

Another proposed provision is the interdisciplinary “Grand Challenges” requirement, which would have students explore a major societal problem and work in teams to propose solutions. The Task Force thinks such a requirement ought to be piloted first and opted not to include it in their latest draft, Jovel said. However, the faculty could pass an amendment adding it to the curriculum at the Nov. 7 meeting.

The inclusion of an ethics requirement has been an ongoing point of contention throughout the revision process. One major division was between having an ethics requirement in the GE curriculum and having ethics instruction integrated into every major. Some faculty didn’t want an ethics requirement at all. Faculty voted in favor of a standalone ethics GE at an Oct. 10 meeting, Jovel wrote in an email.

Three years in the making

The most recent draft of the GE curriculum comes in the latter stages of the multi-year revision process, which began with the formation of the GE Task Force in fall 2016. The Task Force’s work represents the first major push for revising the GE curriculum in about 25 years.

The Task Force hopes to address a number of problems they identified with the current GE curriculum, including faculty disengagement and student apathy, according to a May 2018 Task Force report. It also sought to make the curriculum smaller and more flexible – St. Olaf’s current GE core is one of the largest among peer institutions, according to a May 2019 presentation to the Board of Regents.

The Task Force hosted numerous forums between students, faculty and administrators over the course of 2017-18 academic year to gauge the extent of these problems. The primary takeaways were that the current GE curriculum is “not as equitable or inclusive” as the mission of the College requires, and that the current curriculum is restrictive to many students because of its size, as outlined in the May report.

As a result of the forums and overarching considerations, the Task Force released a draft of the new GE curriculum in March 2019. The document excluded art, literature and SPM requirements and replaced the two current science requirements with one, among other changes. It also didn’t include an ethics requirement, prompting 58 faculty members to sign an open letter opposing the move.

SGA Senate offered conditional support for the draft at an April 2019 meeting. The Senate resolution stated that their endorsement is contingent upon the Task Force presenting their draft to the student body for further discussion.

At the end of the 2018-19 academic year, the Curriculum Committee created a six-person GE Summer Transition Team tasked with continuing the Task Force’s work. The group worked to clarify the First Year Experience requirements, develop a potential portfolio requirement and describe how the Task Force might integrate ethics and writing in the major into the curriculum in some form, among other tasks. The Summer Team also finalized the calendar of events for fall 2019. These included three faculty meetings, a presentation of the GE core to the Board of Regents and a final faculty vote on Nov. 7.

“I do believe that there is a disconnect between the St. Olaf that the Regents perceive and the St. Olaf that the students currently experience,” said Board of Regents Student Committee Coordinator Melie Ekunno ’21.

Board of Regents’ influence

If the curriculum is approved at the Nov. 7 meeting, it will then go to the Board of Regents for final approval.

The Board has consistently expressed their opinions on how they believe the GE curriculum should be altered throughout the revision process.

“I do believe that there is a disconnect between the St. Olaf that the Regents perceive and the St. Olaf that the students currently experience,” said Board of Regents Student Committee Coordinator Melie Ekunno ’21. “There were Regents who thought that having the FOL component was redundant, as many other schools no longer required learning a foreign language.”

While the Regents hold views that may differ from those of the student body, the group holds little sway over the actual provisions in the updated curriculum, Ekunno said.

“I feel like the people who have the biggest say are the faculty, more than the Regents or the students,” Ekunno said.

While some students have expressed concern over lobbying attempts by the Regents, Ekunno said the Regents do not have this power. Rather, the Regents focus on larger questions surrounding the College and its future.

“They are thinking about the college 10 years from now, 15 years from now – those are the kinds of things they’re thinking about,” Ekunno said. “They are thinking about big, multi-million dollar projects.”