Math, philosophy, and biology faculty critique

The Core Curriculum Review Committee issued its final report for faculty consideration on August 31, 2016, which will go into effect in the fall of 2018 if approved. The Rover contacted thirteen professors across different departments and is grateful for the responses of  Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Mathematics Sonja Mapes, Professor of Philosophy David O’Connor, and Professor of Biology Kenneth E. Filchak.

Goal of Increased Flexibility

Filchak: The effort to address our curriculum was a very good idea, specifically giving students more latitude in constructing their curriculum as a goal. Too often, too many university-required classes lock students in and give them little freedom to change majors and things like that.

O’Connor: Under the heading of “flexibility,” there is a change that I think can have some very good positive effects. I would say that within the structure we really haveas opposed to the one the document would aspire to haveyou would want our curriculum to allow motivated groups of faculty and students who really do want to pursue this more integrated sense of intellectual life, you would like the structures to enable that. One of the most powerful ways that can be enabled, for example, is in minors that in themselves can conceive of intellectual work in this integrated ways … I think that a curriculum that gives students more opportunities to do that kind of work has an advantage over some of the constraints that students now face to free up enough of their schedule, to focus it in some of those ways.

Elimination of AP Credit for Fulfilling Core Requirements

O’Connor: I’m wondering if there’s not a bit of a tension between two of the productive changes, both of which I like: the AP credit and the greater flexibility. I think that the elimination of all AP credit is a positive good, because anything you can test out of by work you did when you were 16 can’t be important enough to include in a college core curriculum. I wonder if there’s some competition, though, between the way the flexibility has been achieved and the elimination of AP credit, because now more students will have to take the core courses that are required, so even if we require fewer courses, it’s not clear to me that overall students will take fewer core courses.

Decrease in Math and Science Requirements

Filchak:  A lot of hard work and effort was put into this report, and it seems that the grand total was having students take one less math and science class. The classes those reflect are so important, and it’s a disappointing decision in my mind. If the university also chose to eliminate philosophy or theology classes as well, then I think this dropping of one math and science course would be justifiable, because then it would be everyone giving a little for the goal of more freedom. But it didn’t do that.

Mapes: It seems to me the biggest change is the change in the math-science requirement, and I am disappointed to see that it actually is going through. I think that in today’s day and age, this is not the time to be cutting back on math and science. It is upsetting to me to see that that’s the only change that we made. If we had made other changes to the curriculum, it would have looked like we’re saying, “Okay, we want to lessen the load.” Because this was the only really major change, then really what we’re saying is, “We’re only going to make it so you have to take less STEM fields.” That, to me, sends the wrong message to students. It says this stuff is not important, when, in fact, it’s increasingly important. So I am disappointed to see that this is the only real big change that got made.

Proposing More Integrated Courses

Mapes: In some sense, the new core will be good for us. The math department has been trying to offer more interesting courses that fulfil the university requirement with things like Math in Sport and the class that the architecture students take. We’re offering a USEM now. Last semester, it was in cryptography. This semester we’re doing groups and symmetries. I’m hoping that over the next few years we’ll be able to offer a lot more interesting, terminal, one-credit classes. I think there’s a lot of excitement in the department to do that.

O’Connor: Here’s my basic principle: You cannot make the students more liberally educated than the faculty. As the report clearly sees and understands, there’s a tension between the integration characteristic of a liberal arts education and a fragmentation of pursuits of knowledge within academic disciplines and departments. The report is, if not optimistic, at least hopeful that that tension can be creatively managed in the intellectual lives of the students over their four years at Notre Dame, but at the end of the report, in the section on Investments and Support, the document makes an empty gesture toward the underlying fact that becoming the kind of person who can teach those integrating courses is no part of the professional identity of faculty members. I think that having a curriculum that allows for more of the non-professional volunteer work of motivated faculty who want to address the aspirations of students who do want an integrating liberal education is a good sign, but I think it’s very important to realize that’s going to be primarily a non-professional activity for the faculty. It will be a much smaller operation than what you would like if it were really going to define the educational mission of Notre Dame. We’re counting on there being a sufficient number of faculty motivated by non-professional interests to develop these kinds of courses and fulfil those aspirations. I think that’s all unreal. Until we change the standards for tenure and promotion, we haven’t in fact changed the curriculum.

Reba Luffy is a senior majoring in honors mathematics and theology and living in Howard Hall. She recently decided that she is going to learn to play the cello. Contact her at