Duke profs voicing skepticism about revised undergrad curriculum

A faculty vote is supposed to occur next month, but a preliminary discussion last week left it less than obvious that professors at Duke University are ready to support a proposed revision of the school’s undergraduate curriculum.

Nearly a third of the members of Trinity College’s Arts & Sciences Council signaled opposition to the proposal. Several said that while they’re personally supportive of the change, they have to honor instructions from colleagues in their home departments to vote against it, at least in its current form.

The objections range from procedural ones -- Trinity’s leaders are initially seeking a no-amendments, up-or-down vote of the draft -- to substantive ones about whether the curriculum is prescriptive enough.

The council’s interim chairwoman, biology professor Sherryl Broverman, urged members to think of the upcoming vote “as a referendum on the core issue, which is do you want an open curriculum, or do you want a curriculum where there [are] more requirements and mandates for student intellectual pursuit.”

Should the vote go against the draft, she added, the door would open for the council to consider amendments or to reject the proposal entirely and trigger the formation of another committee to try its hand at drafting a revision of Trinity’s existing curriculum.

The present curriculum -- the basic set of course requirements for Duke undergraduates -- has been in place since 2004. Its core asks each would-be graduate to take at least two courses each in five areas: arts and literature, civilizations, the natural sciences, quantitative studies and the social sciences.

Accounts indicate that the proposed revision has a somewhat looser structure.

It would ask new students to take three “thematic” courses by the end of their first year looking at the humanities, the natural sciences and the social sciences. In their second year, they’d have to cover additional “foundation” work via courses on writing, a second language and quantitative techniques.

The basic criticism of the existing curriculum is that at course-registration time, it encourages a ticket-punching mentality among students while also limiting their ability to dabble in material outside the main line of their program.

The revision’s now three years in the making, and Broverman acknowledged the possibility the work on it might not be at its end.

Depending on how the debate unfolds, “we have the fluidity from the administration to have this go through the first [Arts & Sciences Council] meeting in the fall if we need to do so, because we really want this faculty voice,” she said.

But the request for an initial up-or-down vote, which comes from the council’s executive committee, is controversial by itself.

One council member, classical studies professor Jose Gonzalez, argued it violated the group’s Roberts Rules of Order-based bylaws. Another, sociology professor Mark Chaves, said the no-amendments idea is “what vexed them the most” when his department colleagues instructed him to vote no on the proposed revision.

He added that the components of the proposal are “separable,” and the demand for an up-or-down vote “is not a helpful way to frame this.”

There were plenty of substantive objections too, the clearest coming from the Duke English Department in a letter read by its council delegate, professor Julianne Werlin.

Werlin said she and her colleagues “do not agree with the curriculum’s reduction of requirements,” or with the likely consequent need for advisers “who are not themselves teachers or scholars” to help students weigh their course choices.

Requirements, she added, “are an indication of what we collectively value and what we believe our students should know.” Without them, Duke risks having “a curriculum that defaults to the strongest pressures of the market, the pre-professional mentality and the intervention of parents.”

From the figurative other side of the academic aisle, statistical science professor Robert Wolpert said his departmental colleagues are comfortable with the traditional notions of prerequisites and requirements, with advanced courses building on what students learn in intermediate and introductory ones.

They believe “it’s hard to do STEM stuff, and the proposal will make it harder and lead to less success for Duke in the sciences and undergraduate education,” he said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg