Welcome to Teaching, a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education. This week’s edition was put together by Beckie. First up is a conversation with Chronicle reporter Vimal Patel about his recent article on colleges’ attempts to overhaul their core curricula. Read on for one university’s approach to engaging sophomores and a heads up on an upcoming conference.

The Challenge of Curricular Change

Our colleague Vimal Patel is no stranger to campus politics. Vimal covers graduate students, which often finds him reporting on their efforts to unionize — obviously, a controversial issue. So perhaps that was good preparation for the thorny topic — curricular change — that Vimal waded into recently for Idea Lab, The Chronicle’s section on pervasive problems and potential solutions. I took the opportunity to ask Vimal to share some of his impressions with us.

BS: This was your first time writing about curricular reform. What stands out to you? Did anything come as a surprise?

VP: I didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of just how far a curricular overhaul’s tentacles reach into other parts of the university. Curriculum has implications for the very way a university sees itself. So it can change how a university is marketed to prospective students. It can dramatically alter the work schedule of professors and have implications for how many graduate students a department can fund. Adding a diversity requirement, for example, could steer students toward some classes and away from others, reshaping a department’s resources.

BS: Interesting. The main example in your story is Plymouth State University, which is redesigning its core around clusters. It sounds like the university’s president is really passionate about this approach, and that he sees a new curriculum as helping to boost recruitment and retention. I found this argument surprising. What’s the thinking there?

VP: I did too. In fact, professors and administrators I spoke to for the story weren’t convinced that students consider a university’s curriculum when they’re making a decision about colleges. Thinking back to my time in college, I certainly didn’t. And I don’t know that any of my friends made a decision about where to go based on curriculum. Birx was looking at the slide in undergraduate enrollment, and he felt he needed to create excitement around something new, and give the university’s admissions and marketing people something distinctive they could use to sell the university to prospective students and their parents. But there’s certainly an element of faith to all of this.

BS: You also describe the challenge of getting professors to buy into a new curriculum. Wasn’t lack of faculty support the issue at Duke University, where a long-discussed revamp was shelved? What might the university have done differently?

VP: Yes, faculty members from across the university had a wide breadth of concerns. Some felt the university could have done a better job of reassuring faculty members that there wouldn’t immediately be a dramatic change to how resources are allocated. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, one of the other examples, administrators reassured faculty members there would be a grace period before resources were shifted, giving departments or programs a chance to plan ahead or adjust.

BS: At Boulder, there was a concern that the old core led students to “check boxes” rather than pursue their passions. Is there really a way to avoid this, other than getting rid of requirements entirely?

VP: I had the same thought. Any curriculum has the possibility of devolving into an exercise in box checking. That’s why a lot of professors are ambivalent about curricular overhauls. To them, the best-designed curriculum is no match for a student who doesn’t take the process seriously. There might not be ways to eliminate box-checking entirely, but they felt like they found a way to minimize it. They reduced the number of different categories a student was required to pick a course from, and allowed some courses to fulfill requirements in more than one category.

BS: If curricular overhaul isn’t the answer, what is?

VP: In many ways, curricular overhaul debates remind me of the push to reform doctoral education. Both occur when there’s general agreement that something’s not working right. But from there, there’s hardly consensus, and endless competing priorities. It’s all complicated by the difficulty of measuring success — or failure. How can you know for sure, for example, that changes in retention were the result of a new core curriculum? It’s hard to draw a straight line from an institutional change to a student outcome.

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Support for Sophomores

Last week, we asked what your college does to guide students through the sometimes-overlooked sophomore year. One interesting response came from Mark Canada, who described a program called the “Sophomore Sojourn” at Indiana University at Kokomo, where he is executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. The program is part of a broader effort to include at least one “transformative learning experience” in each year of college, wrote Canada, who is also a professor of English.

The Sophomore Sojourn, as the name suggests, involves travel. Professors take students on daylong or overnight trips connected to their disciplines. Hospitality and Tourism students, for instance, have visited Churchill Downs.

The program offers a slew of benefits, Canada wrote. It connects students to their disciplines, helps them envision future career options, builds a sense of community, and, for students unsure if college is worth the cost, “could provide the guiding light they need to make it to the finish line.”

Have you incorporated a short trip into a course you teach? What did your students gain from it, and how do you know? Share your example with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and it may be featured in a future newsletter.

Improving Intro Courses

Professors and administrators will gather March 25-27 in Houston for the Gardner Institute’s annual Gateway Course Experience Conference. The meeting, a reader explained, “is a chance for participants and other interested parties to share ideas and experience from the Gardner Institute’s Gateway to Completion (G2C) program,” which aims to improve courses with a high failure rate. Is there an upcoming conference you think other readers — and we newsletter writers — should know about? Use this form to tell us about it.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

— Beckie