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Faculty pass new Gen. Ed. Requirements

By Emily Sorkin Smith

Section: News

November 5, 2017

Faculty voted at their Nov. 3 meeting to pass the new General Education Requirements, which, if the Board of Trustees also votes to approve, will go into effect for the class entering in fall 2019.

General Education requirements have not been fully revised since 1994, according to the Task Force on General Education’s proposal, published on Sept. 5, 2017. The Faculty Meeting was led by chair of the Faculty Senate Susan Curnan (HELLER) and featured discussion of the merits of multiple requirements.

“I believe that this debate is really about what a university is, and more importantly is about what we believe Brandeis is and should be,” argued Joel Christensen BA/MA ’01 (CLAS), whose written statement was read by a colleague at the meeting. Christensen expressed his strong support for the new Gen. Ed. requirements, saying, “Only a rigorous training in the humanities can tell us which futures are just and fair for all human beings.”

Debate of the new requirements centered on the language requirement, which states undergraduates must reach “‘intermediate’ proficiency (at least the level of a third semester of language instruction).” This matches Brandeis’ existing language proficiency requirement. Students are also still allowed to place out of the requirement through test scores, classes taken outside of Brandeis or if they are native speakers of a foreign language.

Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, chair of the Classics Department, argued the many benefits of language study and how studying a foreign language is in line with Brandeis’ core values of social justice and tolerance. American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL) studies “have shown that even temporary exposure to language learning makes students more empathetic, tolerant of and engaged in celebrating diversity,” Koloski-Ostrow said. “We at Brandeis praise that as part of our educational benefit too.”  

The requirements’ emphasis on the humanities drew criticism from faculty across disciplines. “It’s fairly common in my department to have concern about the extent of the language requirement and about the freshman writing experience,” Susan Lovett (BIO) said.

Lovett expressed concern that language-learning pedagogy has not changed in many years, and many other attendees began to express their disagreement, forcing Curnan to call the meeting to order. One professor shouted, “Have you ever been to a language class at Brandeis?”

David Powelstock (GRALL), a member of the Task Force, argued for a basic training in liberal arts, invoking the example of climate change. “We have all the science,” Powelstock argued. “What we don’t have is people who are leaders in our political democracy who are capable of standing up…and making smart policy.”  

Faculty at the meeting also debated the merits of the University Writing Seminar (UWS) requirement, which remains in the new proposal, criticizing whether it is useful to students and improves their writing. The Task Force’s proposal maintains UWS, but also requires students participate a “Critical Conversation” led by faculty and an experiential learning trip as part of the larger “First Year Experience”  category.

Dawn Skorczewski (ENG), Director of the University Writing program, argued in support of the UWS program, saying, “When I came here I observed that Brandeis students seem to be excellent students but the writing that I saw did not seem to reflect that excellence…I thought that how they wrote did not represent their intelligence.” Skorczewski explained the UWS program is undergoing review and significant changes, including additional science-focused courses. The program hired a new lecturer, Elissa Jacobs, to teach a UWS course titled “Darwinian Dating: The Evolution of Human Attraction.” Jacobs has a Ph.D. in biological anthropology.

John Burt (ENG), a member of the Task Force, argued the new requirements give departments flexibility and empower them to strengthen their students’ writing abilities while recognizing how writing differs across disciplines.

The new curriculum states the Writing Intensive courses, part of the “Foundational Literacies” requirement, should be taken within each student’s area of study. “If the department is unhappy with the way writing is taught by UWS,” Burt said, “they can also remedy that in their own person, in their own course.”

The Task Force stated in the curriculum proposal its “understanding of Brandeis as a mid-sized research university with a focus on liberal arts undergraduate education and with a commitment to social justice and inclusion and the use of our knowledge to repair the world.” The requirements are intended to reflect these values.

The number of required courses for undergraduate students rose from 11 to 13. The Task Force reviewed the requirements at Brandeis’ “peer institutions” and found most of them to have at least 12 required courses. The new requirements are split into five categories: Brandeis First Year Experience, Foundational Literacies, Schools of Thought, Health, Wellness and Life Skills and Global Engagement.

Related Coverage:

Required classes rise in new general education proposal

How Brandeis’ new Gen. Ed. proposal compares to Boston-area colleges

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