Students Become Curricular Guinea Pigs

From the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 10, 2002

Curriculum reform is often hashed out in committees. The "what ifs" liveand die on the table, and what emerges from the process is more half-hearted compromise than grand experiment.

That's why the University of Pennsylvania moved the debate over curriculum reform from the committee to the classroom. The research institution is proceeding in a way that should make scientists on campus proud -- with a set of established variables, a control group, and a willingness to be proven wrong. "Why shouldn't we go about these important changes with the same seriousness with which we conduct our scholarly research?" asks Judith Rodin, the university's president.

In 1998, when officials began to discuss changing the undergraduate curriculum, almost everyone had a plan. But with so many competing visions, they knew reaching agreement would not be simple, says D. Kent Peterman, director of academic affairs. "We've been through that before," he says. "What happens sooner or later is that idealism gives way to political horse-trading."

So they decided to try something different.

For the past two years, incoming freshmen have been asked whether they wanted to be guinea pigs in a pilot program that offers more freedom, but also requires them to take a series of rigorous interdisciplinary courses, many of which are team-taught. From among those who say yes, 200 are chosen at random, while another 100 are placed in a control group. The university then conducts focus groups with students in both categories, interviews them individually, asks them to fill out questionnaires, tests their skills anonymously at the beginning of the program, and plans to do so at the end, too. Officials also track the majors students choose, the courses they take, and the grades they earn in those courses.

Many professors see curriculum reform as a hollow ritual performed every 10 to 15 years for reasons that have more to do with public relations than pedagogy. Even when the effort is sincere, it's often hamstrung by poor management and a failure to build consensus, according to Andrea Leskes, an expert on curriculum reform and a vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Penn's approach is smart, she says, because it allows the university to "see what works" instead of foisting a well-intentioned but potentially misguided strategy on the whole college.

That's not to say the process has been trouble-free. The university is finding some of its goals too ambitious, and persuading faculty members, particularly in science departments, to take the experiment seriously has been a much bigger challenge than officials here predicted.

'Beeman's Baby'

Richard R. Beeman, the dean of Penn's School of Arts and Sciences, is the man in charge of making the pilot fly. He says the current curriculum "isn't perfect," particularly the distribution requirement, those courses students take during their first two years. Others describe it as "a shambles" and "a hodgepodge" badly in need of an overhaul.

But Mr. Beeman dreaded the "arduous, conflict-ridden and sometimes depressing" experience of curriculum reform, which he has seen close up more than once during his 34 years at Penn. The experiment -- referred to on campus as "Beeman's baby" -- was designed to circumvent all of that.

Among the books Mr. Beeman, a historian, has written is a biography of Patrick Henry, who was known as the "Voice of the Revolution." Despite the bow tie with pastel sailboats, Mr. Beeman is something of a firebrand himself: He is known for speaking his mind when holding his tongue might be more judicious. He calls the development of the pilot "painful." Team-teaching has been a "headache." When he meets students, the first words out of his mouth are "so, what the hell are you doing here, anyway?" As one colleague puts it: "He may study diplomatic history, but he's not that diplomatic."

So it's no surprise that in a recent article published in the faculty newsletter, the dean himself offered a frankly mixed review of the first two years of the experiment. Parts of the pilot have made the grade; others will most likely be ditched.

Undergraduate Research

An example of one part that may be tossed out is the mandatory-research requirement. Because Penn is a research university, a research project seemed to make perfect sense. Currently, some departments require students to complete such projects, but many do not. Officials here took their cues from "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities," a 1998 report by the Boyer Commission, which recommended such projects because they allow professors to serve as mentors rather than lecturers and for students to learn by inquiry rather than absorption. While it's not unusual for colleges to require a senior thesis, the more ambitious vision at Penn called for students to contribute to "the creation of new knowledge" and, in so doing, to become a more meaningful part of the intellectual life of the university.

A heady goal, to be sure. But officials added the research requirement without giving much thought to what such projects would entail, and figuring out those details has proved so troublesome that they already doubt it can ever become a requirement.

One morning last month, several professors gathered to discuss how to deal with the research requirement -- a pressing problem because the first round of pilot students will be juniors in the fall. Among the questions they asked: Can the university expect undergraduate students to do work equivalent to that done by graduate students? Will professors be willing to spend the amount of time necessary to serve as mentors for undergraduates as they complete their projects? How will these projects be approved, and who will approve them? If students turn in unsatisfactory projects, will the university permit them to graduate? And the real stumper: What if the number of projects was 6,355, the current number of students in the college of arts and sciences, rather than 400, the current number of pilot students?

There are no easy answers. "Coming up with something that every student can do raises practical problems that may not have a solution," says Larry D. Gladney, an associate professor of physics.

Pilot students themselves are fuzzy about the research requirement. "No one is sure what it is," says Zoe K. Harris, a sophomore majoring in mathematics and economics. That uncertainty is one of the drawbacks for some pilot students, and also a reason that others, such as Venise N. Battle, steered clear of the pilot entirely. "I need to know where I'm going and exactly how I'm going to get there," says Ms. Battle, a sophomore who is majoring in English and urban poetry.

Whither Science?

Another area of concern is science. As it stands, there are plenty of loopholes for students whose palms sweat at the thought of college-level chemistry. (Students in the traditional curriculum have to take a "science studies" course, but alternatives to "hard" science can satisfy that requirement, according to Penn officials.) By creating interdisciplinary programs co-taught by, for example, a science professor and a historian, the faculty members from different disciplines who volunteered to design the pilot hoped to make science more inviting by placing it in a larger context, such as globalization.

But science professors, with some exceptions, have stayed on the sidelines. That, contends Tom C. Lubensky, chairman of the physics department, is because they have been left out of the experiment. "It was set up by a committee without a lot of input from the science chairs," he says. The pilot was designed by a group of professors and administrators, and approved by a Faculty Senate vote.

What worries Mr. Lubensky and others is that the new program, while ostensibly trying to make science more appealing to science-phobic students, will actually lead to watered-down courses, that "real" science will be replaced with easier-to-swallow alternatives that offer much less rigor.

These critics are concerned that, instead of learning how to do science, students will only learn about science. "There's a feeling that the pilot is a cop-out," says Mr. Lubensky.

His argument is that students need to learn the foundations of science, which can best be learned in traditional introductory courses. The answer is not repackaging science courses, he says, but rather compelling students to sign up for what's already being offered.

But, parries Mr. Beeman, isn't some exposure to science better than none at all? "If we had unlimited time and nonscience majors committed to learning science from the ground up, that would be great," says Mr. Beeman. "But we don't."

That's not to say that all science professors have boycotted the pilot.

One of the most successful courses has been "Life in the Universe," taught by David W. Koerner, an assistant professor of physics. Students praise the course, which touches on astrophysics, earth and planetary sciences, biochemistry and evolutionary biology all in an effort to answer the question: What is the probability that extraterrestrial intelligent life exists?

But that course has been the exception. Mr. Gladney, the physics professor, is the lone science-faculty member on the committee that oversees the experiment, and while he's heard the objections of his colleagues, he isn't sure what the hubbub is about. "I know they're not enthusiastic about it, but it's hard to figure out why," he says.

Professors in the pilot program are having to reconsider the way they present their material and themselves in the classroom. Interdisciplinary team-teaching is the new model. So instead of one professor teaching, say, "Introduction to Sociology," three professors from different disciplines co-teach "Globalization and its Historical Significance." (Naturally, sociology majors would still take the intro course.)

Experiments in Teaching

Some of the combinations have gelled right away. One of the most popular offerings has been "Representations of the Holocaust," taught by Alan J. Filreis, a professor of English, and Millicent J. Marcus, a professor of romance languages. Students responded positively to the blend of material, which examined how the Holocaust has been depicted in books, films, and survivors' testimony, and the professors found that their teaching styles meshed. Everything clicked.

Others have clunked. The reasons vary, but generally fall into one of two categories: too much information or not enough integration.

Or both, in some cases. In a course taught last spring called "The Principles and Practice of Freedom," students were overwhelmed by the amount of reading and perplexed by the paucity of connections between the three different sections, taught by a historian, a philosopher, and a political scientist. "The reading list needed to go on a diet," says Ellen L. Kennedy, an associate professor of political science who taught on the team. There were nine required books for the course along with a host of supplementary readings.

A course called "Biology, Language, and Culture" suffered the same malady when it was taught last spring. "We thought students would see how [the class] was unfolding and why," says Gregory P. Urban, a professor of anthropology, who teaches the course with Alan E. Mann, also a professor of anthropology, and Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics.

They didn't. So the professors retooled the course and taught it again this spring.

Some of the changes have worked, but the response from students remains lukewarm. In a recent class, while the professors discussed cultural taboos, four students napped, several chatted nonstop, and a young woman in a blue tank top labored to complete that day's New York Times crossword puzzle.

Two of those talking in the back of the room were Charles Glass and Stefanie Gabel, both freshmen. Mr. Glass plans to be a dentist and loves his Spanish classes. He describes the pilot courses, however, as "the boring ones." He adds, "I had a professor last semester ask me how I thought the course was going, and I said it was great, because what else are you going to say? But, man, it was not so great."

The course he is referring to is called "Good Government" and, in Mr. Glass's words, "It sucked." That opinion is not unanimous. While Mr. Glass felt it was disjointed and dull, another student, Carly R. Greenberg, also a freshman, found having three teachers in the classroom stimulating. "They expected more, and I grew more," she says.

Paul R. Goldin, an associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, co-taught the course, and admits that "a lot of things didn't work as well as we had hoped." Many of the end-of-the-semester evaluations from students were negative. "We underestimated how much of a challenge it is to bring three people together to teach a course," says Mr. Goldin.

Both Mr. Glass and Ms. Gabel see pilot courses as obstacles to be endured, rather than experiences to be relished. "This isn't about guinea pigs in some higher-education experiment. This is about not having as many requirements as before, that's all," says Ms. Gabel. She adds, suddenly self-conscious: "Oh no, are we going to make Penn look bad?"

Well, maybe a little bit. But that's part of the risk the university is taking. Mr. Urban says that after last year's evaluations, many modifications were made, including the addition of a weekly discussion section with a teaching assistant and an extensive Web site. Still, engaging students hasn't been easy. "Some of them have this idea that someone is going to give them 'the Truth,'" says Mr. Urban. "If we're able to place the problem of discernment on them, that would be a major accomplishment."

Bringing It All Together

Ms. Leskes, the curriculum-reform expert, says that team-teaching, particularly when it involves professors from different disciplines, is either terrific or abysmal -- middle ground is rare. The key, she says, is integration. "You have to bring the students along," she says. "It's not just a matter of walking in and duking it out [with the other teacher] in the classroom."

Which is what happened in a course called "Representing Medieval Florence," taught this spring by Stephen J. Campbell, an assistant art-history professor, along with a music professor and a professor of romance languages. Mr. Campbell says when he and his colleagues began debating a point, a large portion of the class -- he estimates one-third -- tuned out and read the newspaper or talked among themselves. "It's like they don't know you can see them, like we're on TV," he says.

But Mr. Campbell, like nearly all the professors in the program, enjoyed team-teaching, particularly in a freshman-level course. He says introductory courses can often be dull for professors, but team-teaching keeps them on their toes. "It really recharged my batteries," he says.

And while that's great, Mr. Beeman says, it has to work for students, too. "In some classes, we erred on the side of intellectual openness, which is good fun for the faculty, but unnerving for students," he says.

In other courses, conflict between professors was embraced by the class. In "Representations of the Holocaust," students loved the interplay between the teachers, Mr. Filreis and Ms. Marcus.

While a lot of people talk about the death of the lecture, Mr. Filreis is one of the few who have really killed it. His colleagues often refer to his style as "Oprah-like," a description he doesn't like, but admits is close to the truth. The English professor walks into the classroom with one point written on a piece of paper that he wants students to get. How they get to that point doesn't matter to him. And if they don't get that point, he has another one written on a piece of paper in his back pocket ("I put it there so I don't get confused"). Students do the talking, and when he responds, he tries never to speak for more than a minute.

His co-teacher, Ms. Marcus, also has an interactive teaching style, although she has not entirely forsaken the lecture. "The key is making the connections explicit," she says.

Ms. Kennedy, the associate professor of political science, concurs. She co-taught the freedom course in the fall, but this semester is teaching, with the political scientist Anne Norton, "War, Violence and Political Vision," a course partially inspired by September 11. While the freedom course was bogged down by a surfeit of texts, this time around, she says, a better balance has been achieved.

In a recent class, the topic is the execution of King Charles I. Ms. Kennedy mentions a defense of regicide that was written by John Milton and called the author of Paradise Lost "a political hack."

"I take exception to that!" interjects Ms. Norton.

"I knew you would," Ms. Kennedy responds.

This back and forth, rather than putting students to sleep, seems to energize them. Hands shoot up. "What's great is that they talk to each other in this class," says Ms. Kennedy. "That's my benchmark that students are engaged, when one responds to another before the professor can answer."

Whether Penn can string together enough such success stories to justify the experiment remains to be seen. Mr. Beeman thinks that the college will change its undergraduate curriculum in the next several years, but he isn't sure to what degree it will be based on the pilot. First he wants to know if pilot students take more math and science courses, if they forge stronger bonds with their professors, and, most importantly, if they learn to think and write in more sophisticated ways.

As he explains that there is still a long road ahead, the huge Bernese Mountain dog he brings to work with him wakes up briefly, then returns to its nap, apparently unimpressed. "He hears me argue about this stuff all the time," Mr. Beeman says.

A CURRICULAR EXPERIMENT Venise N. Battle, a sophomore in the traditional program: "I wanted to go with what was proven, what I knew would work." Carly R. Greenberg, a freshman in the pilot program: "The pilot courses are interdisciplinary by nature, and I think that's great because the world doesn't operate according to subject." The University of Pennsylvania is testing a pilot curriculum, built around interdisciplinary courses, while also maintaining its old requirements, so that the two programs can be compared. Undergraduates in the pilot program have more freedom than students in the traditional curriculum, but more is asked of them.