The Collegian
Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Core replaced with seminars

Faculty voted at the end of spring 2009 to stop teaching Core - the year-long course requirement for first-year students - and to replace it with a two-seminar sequence to start fall 2010.

The vote occurred in the last academic meeting of the 2008-2009 academic year on May 11. About 250 people -- composed of 190 eligible voters -- discussed the results of a report by the First Year Experience Committee, which evaluated Core and developed possible changes to the course. Many faculty members from every school were eligible to vote.

During two rounds of voting, a plurality of 184 faculty chose a two-seminar sequence over two other options -- the current two-semester Core course and a Core plus one course -- a decision that requires committee members to develop seminar guidelines during the summer. Faculty held an hour of discussion before the vote, said Libby Gruner, chairwoman of the committee.

This fall, the committee will continue to develop a course description, which will then have to be approved by the faculty. Once the course is approved, faculty can begin to submit seminar ideas and syllabi to the committee for approval.

There will need to be enough professors to teach 53 seminars each semester, and some faculty will most likely teach multiple sections of a seminar.

A two-semester course will include two semesters of seminars developed by professors. As of now, students will not be required to take courses from the same professor both semesters, or take courses in the same field. The seminars will include elements from the English 103 Expository Writing course, which will no longer be required for graduation.

"A variety of courses in classics and philosophy and religion, in economics and physics ... could introduce students to the intellectual possibilities in a way that was never really achieved by the Core course," said Scott Davis, professor of religion.

Davis taught Core in the 1999-2000 and 2007-08 academic years. He said he didn't like that three-quarters of the books taught in the current Core course were written after 1600, which fails to give students exposure to the full spectrum of world history and literature. He would develop and teach Core seminars, he said, and would revise his current syllabi to fit the new requirements more soundly.

David Leary, who started the Core courses while he was the dean of arts and sciences 20 years ago, said he supported the decision because it was what faculty members had approved. Still, he said he thinks the current Core courses could be successful if they had enough support from faculty and the university administration.

He said he liked that students went through a common experience with Core because everyone was required to take them, noting also that students and professors were exposed to ideas and writers they might not have otherwise read.

Leary also thought it was important that Core courses used primary sources instead of textbooks or secondary sources, and he said he hoped that remained true with the seminars.

Leary coordinated the coming year's Core courses and said they will involve a trip to the state Capitol and will use a play as a text.

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Faculty had two options other than the two-seminar sequence, a sequence similar to the current Core course and a model called Core plus one.

A two-semester Core course would have been similar to the curriculum used for the past 18 years, but would have included a library research component and required smaller classes, with a goal of a 16-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio.

The two-seminar sequence will also attempt to maintain that ratio.

A Core plus one course would have included a course in the fall semester -- similar to the existing Core course -- and would be followed during the spring by a special topic seminar. A list of topics would have been developed by professors for the second semester, reflecting his or her area of interest and expertise, according to the report.

To develop the different models for Core, committee members held seven open forums on campus during the 2008-09 academic year. Some students, as well as faculty and staff, attended the forums, Gruner said. Committee members also met with the current and former coordinators of Core, academic advisers, international studies advisers and others.

During the decision process, the models other schools employ were also examined. The two-seminar model is common, Gruner said, while not many other schools have a course similar to Core or Core plus one.

Committee members also met with members of the Westhampton College Government Association and the Richmond College Student Government Association. WCGA members stressed that the course should be two seminars, and their support for the current Core requirement was split evenly, Gruner said.

RCSGA members were in favor of more choice for students, said Mike Murray, RCSGA president. He said RCSGA members liked elements of Core, such as the idea that because all freshmen took the class together, they shared a common experience. RCSGA discussed ways they could integrate those elements into an option that gave students choices. He said they took a holistic approach to the discussion and talked about the entire freshmen experience and how Core fit into that.

Murray also said that RCSGA members were happy with the proposed changes.

Gruner said she and other committee members struggled to get students to say much about completely different options for Core, and Murray agreed.

"It took a while to get anyone to actually suggest anything other than tinkering with Core," Gruner said. "There is a very strong sense in the student culture that Core exists."

Murray said students were excited about changes to Core, but were limited because they did not have a reference to other possibilities.

The committee members have already received commitments to teach the Core seminars from professors from the T.C. Williams School of Law, the School of Continuing Studies, the Robins School of Business and the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, Gruner said.

"I expect that moving to a first year seminar approach will result in a greater number of our faculty teaching first year students than was previously the case," said Provost Steve Allred in an email to faculty and students, "and that faculty from a broader range of disciplines will be involved in this effort."

Kevin Kuswa, director of debate, said he voted for the changes because of the options freshman will be offered through the different seminars. Kuswa also said he hoped there would be a communication studies component to the courses.

Committee members are planning to hold faculty workshops, similar to those held for professors who taught Core. Professors will also be given incentives similar to those who taught Core, including stipends for attending the workshop. Committee members are also trying to set up ways to recognize student performance and excellent teaching.

The committee members are Libby Gruner, chairwoman of the committee and associate professor of English and woman's studies; Erik Craft, associate professor of economics; Joanna Drell, associate professor of history; Joe Essid, director of the writing center; Al Goethals, professor of leadership studies; April Hill, associate professor of biology; Dan Palazzolo, professor of political science; Carol Wittig, head of instruction and information services; and Joan Neff, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice.

This version of the story includes minor edits.

Contact staff writer Stephanie Rice at stephanie.rice@richmond.edu

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