The Grounded Curriculum

How can our courses and teaching capitalize on the benefits of a physical campus?

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

July 03, 2012

As traditional college campuses have struggled to maintain their distinctive identities, I have observed some faculty members reacting with excessive fear for the profession, while others blithely ignore the developments and assume that campus life will carry on as always.

The list of challenges is long: public outrage over sky-high tuition, the rise of MOOC's (massive open online courses), shifts in student demographics, the overcrowded faculty job market. I suspect most of us feel the way I do about all of that: fairly certain that things are going to change, and in some substantial ways, but not exactly sure how, and definitely not sure what to think or do about any of it.

Sometimes I feel like jumping into the fray and founding or joining a new technology-driven initiative in course design or delivery. At other times I feel like locking myself in a room with 20 Web-deprived undergraduates and a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, and forcing everyone to look one another in the eye and discuss the meaning of life for a few hours.

Lately, though, I have been pondering a middle way, and slowly forming the conviction that the survival of traditional college campuses—for those of us who deem that survival a good thing—could depend upon our taking fuller advantage of a particular feature of our situation. It's a feature that can never be rendered obsolete or diminished by the rise of new technological innovations: the ground upon which we are standing.

I mean, quite literally, the physical presence of a campus, with all of its built and natural environs, and its location within an equally grounded local city or town.

Traditional college campuses need to capitalize more effectively on the facts that they are a physical presence within a natural environment; that their presence plays host to many people working and living together in myriad formal and informal communities; that those communities are driven by educational, philosophical, economic, and sociological factors; and that those factors can be analyzed, understood, argued about, performed, and represented through the lens of just about every discipline under the sun.

I am not talking about all the ways in which your traditional college campus already sees itself as grounded in a local city or town. Perhaps you have a robust community-service learning program or a community-affairs director, and all of that other good stuff that is driven by your administration, staff, or a few community-minded faculty members. Fine. A good start. But not good enough.

What I am proposing is a "grounded campus" and a "grounded curriculum"—a radical reimagining of the campus and the town as a laboratory for more and more experiments in teaching and learning. Perhaps the notion of a laboratory is too limiting, since the fullest vision of my proposal includes learning experiences in which students not only study, explore, and represent their grounded environments but also make changes in them. I am proposing that we think of the campus as a laboratory in which we have the option to rebuild the lab itself if we so choose.

To translate that into practical terms, start by looking at examples of the approach that already exist around you. I am not claiming a revolutionary idea here. I am hoping, rather, to encourage faculty members to seek out and learn from colleagues who are working to ground teaching and learning in the surrounding environment, and who can help us capitalize on what is distinctive about a traditional college education.

If you have a woods, pond, or a creek on your campus, chances are good that one of your colleagues in the environmental sciences has her students out there collecting samples for analysis. Chances are equally good that a studio-art professor has his students doing sketches of those same landscapes for a course. You might even have a medieval-literature professor who takes his students on short "pilgrimages" to the religious sites on the campus, as I wrote about in a previous column.

If you have a community-minded historian, like a friend of mine at a nearby college, you might know someone who is having her students do oral histories of local citizens for a class project. Or perhaps, like me, you have a colleague who has her accounting students help low-income residents with their taxes. Maybe you have a religious-studies professor who brings his students on a tour of a local mosque.

When you begin to think along those lines, the possibilities become easier and easier to imagine. Political-science students could undertake a review of the student-government structure on campus, compare it with the various forms of local governments, and recommend changes. Or push those same students off campus and have them sit in on local-government meetings. Students in economics or marketing could analyze the business profile of the campus bookstore or dining hall. Or pick a nearby pizza shop that's popular with students and offer it the services of your college's business students.

A grounded curriculum that makes better use of the physical campus will not replace or beat back online education, in whatever form it takes. But we can have many flowers blooming. Online learning experiences have a distinctive contribution to make to our profession, and so, too, do traditional learning experiences on residential- or commuter-college campuses.

I foresee some critics objecting that the idea of a grounded curriculum is insular or provincial, and that we should not encourage a blinkered view of the world by keeping students' attention on their campus. But while this approach to education could become insular, it does not have to. As a professor, you might include a grounding experience at the beginning of your courses, for example, and then shift away to regional, national, or global environments. As a friend of mine once said, you build your ship on the land and then you sail off to foreign ports. Spend a few weeks in the harbor before you embark upon your global adventure.

In addition to helping us focus on what makes a traditional college experience unique, the grounded campus can offer us two other substantive benefits.

I am in the final stages of writing a book on cheating in higher education, and I have not found a more effective means to prevent it than creating assessments that are customized to the particular environment and time period in which a course is taught. That does not necessarily mean grounding course content or assignments in the local environment. It could also mean, for example, asking students to engage with recent or current developments in your discipline (that is, grounding a course in the present moment rather than a local place).

But connecting course assignments with things happening on the campus or in the local town makes it difficult for students to pull ready-made responses from the Internet or to buy term papers from someone sitting in a cubicle on a different continent. If you are engaging them in real-world issues and problems in their own backyard, you also will increase students' interest in your course and thereby reduce the incentive to cheat.

Much of the cheating in our courses happens because we rely on formulaic or generic assignments, or we reuse the same paper topics or exams each semester. Assessments in a grounded curriculum throw a substantial barrier in the way of academic dishonesty, a barrier that might be just enough to tip many students away from a poor decision.

A grounded approach also gives future alumni deeper connections with their campuses and the local cities. Imagine the sense of loyalty that would be felt by an alumnus who worked with her peers on a marketing campaign for the campus bookstore for her senior project, and who stops back in every year to keep an eye on how it has evolved.

The grounded campus creates students who are fully engaged with their institutions. Those students become alumni with checkbooks. I suspect we can feed our endowments more richly from that fertile soil.

I will continue writing occasionally about this proposal, and its implications for the profession, in the coming academic year. Next month I plan to profile a faculty member who has been doing some groundbreaking work with students and residents in his region. If you have arguments for or against the grounded campus, or can point to examples of faculty members and courses that are good models for grounded teaching and learning, please post them in the comments online or join the conversation on Twitter, with the hashtag #groundedcampus.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2008). He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at