Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

October 23, 2016   |   Ithaca, NY


Point/Counterpoint: Debating the Integrative Core Curriculum

Two professors from the School of Humanities and Sciences provide opposing opinions on the structure of the Integrative Core Curriculum.

ICC incorporates intention and relevancy into courses

By Luke Keller

In the fall semester of 2013, students began fulfilling their general education requirements through Integrative Core Curriculum (ICC). Prior to this, the method for choosing courses to meet the general education requirement was different in each of the five schools at IC.

I’ve been teaching at IC for 13 years, so I knew the old system and watched the new system develop over a roughly two-year period leading up to the 2013 change. I like the ICC better than the previous system on three levels: as a teacher, as an academic advisor, and as a curriculum developer. College faculty play all three roles: of course we teach and advise students as they complete courses in the context of a specific degree program, but we also occasionally design new courses and revise existing courses.

As a teacher I appreciate the ICC structure, which invites an intentional approach to the state-mandated general education requirement that is the same for all schools and degree programs. One of the purposes for aligning our general education courses with the ICC Themes and the four liberal arts perspectives is to allow us to intentionally make the courses more obviously relevant especially to students not majoring in our own academic area. For example, I know that most of my students taking physics and astronomy are not interested in being scientists, but I try to teach not just an introduction to my chosen field of physics, but how science works and how it affects our culture and society. Non-scientists benefit from knowing how natural science works and affects our lives. I imagine similar approaches in ICC courses in the humanities, social sciences, and creative arts. The ICC structure invites this kind of dialog across the curriculum.

As an academic advisor I find the ICC easy to understand and explain to students: after the Ithaca Seminar, take 12 credits in your theme (most often this is four 3-credit courses) with at least one course taught from each of the four perspectives. At this point we’re halfway to the New York State requirement of 30 credits of liberal arts courses for a bachelor’s degree. The remaining credits consist of a 12-credit complementary liberal arts (CLA) suite that is specific to the school or program. In my school (H&S) the student designs the CLA according to her or his interests, or courses taken towards a minor or second major, or courses in a foreign language. [I must admit that I’m not a fan of the CLA in general. I would prefer a much less structured system for those 12 credits.] Along the way students need to meet the designation requirements of Quantitative Literacy, Diversity, and Writing Intensive work and those can be attached to any of the courses in the student’s general education plan or major.

As a curriculum developer I find that the learning outcome focussed structure of the ICC helps me organize the design of new courses so that I can make them more relevant to my general education students. I find that the themes also help focus my design: though they are intentionally broad, the themes imply certain applications or discussions for the material covered in our courses. This allows me to raise important questions with my students, “What other ways of learning are you exploring in other courses in your theme and in your major? How are these related (if at all) with the scientific approach to learning that we are using in this course?”

In all three of my roles with respect to the ICC also I like the fact that the ICC, though required for all of us, has a built-in mechanism for change if our student learning assessment efforts (or logistical problems) show us that the program is not working as intended. That process is on-going, and I have high confidence that it will continue to improve the general education experience for students and faculty.

Luke Keller is a professor of physics and astronomy. Email him at [email protected]

ICC limits student choice with constrained offerings

By Michael Trotti

As we approach the fourth year of the ICC, we will begin to have the evidence to assess what changes are needed. I suggest we discuss the following four challenges as we consider how to improve the ICC experience.

The central challenge with the themes/perspectives portion of the ICC is student choice. On paper, it is an innovative program with interesting choices. In practice, it is less: a curriculum that is difficult to provide and that limits student authority over their courses.

Students make a large-scale decision — which theme? — very early in their careers when they are more inclined to make choices based on a class than a theme: “What’s a theme?” “What is the meaning of this choice I’m making?” After making that choice, many ICC-themed courses they are interested in cannot count toward their requirements, for the courses are assigned to other themes.

In essence, professors have made most of the choices, deciding which courses should connect to which theme and therefore to which other courses. After a constrained choice between 6 themes, students then face an extremely limited set of choices — in some themes/perspectives, absurdly limited — between courses within that theme.

Is severely constraining student choice of benefit to student learning? Students are smart, creative, and should have the opportunity and responsibility to create their curriculum in general education by following their own passions — they may come up with any number of connections professors simply did not consider. The fix is easy: ease the requirement of having all four perspectives courses conform to one theme. Having two (or three) of their four perspective courses tied to a theme would allow students to explore more creatively the range of courses we offer, while still nudging students to consciously integrate the work in those themed courses.

The central challenge with the Complementary Liberal Arts (CLA) portion of the ICC is that many of the programs in the professional schools have merely shifted required courses for their majors to be their CLAs. These courses have “liberal arts” designations, but it is difficult to see courses specified for a major as general education. At the very least, can we not agree that a course that is not open to the whole campus should not be considered appropriate to a general education program?

The central challenge with the administration of the ICC is that we need leadership on general education, and we have set up a system where that leadership (Committee for College-wide Requirements) is divorced from the portion of the institution with the expertise on general education. The School of Humanities and Sciences is where the liberal arts happen; general education is a mission we embrace. If we had an all-college music requirement, would we administer it outside of the School of Music? Let us use the expertise we have on campus: for general education, that is the School of H&S.

And what are we leaving out so far? It is now possible for a student to go through any number of IC programs without ever taking a course giving them a non-U.S. view of the world; it is equally possible for students to leave IC without taking a course that shows how much human societies change over time.

The diversity and writing intensive overlays are excellent (bravo!), but why are we not nudging every student — somewhere, anywhere in a student’s four years at IC — to take a course with a global perspective and a course with a historical perspective? More students were guided to take such courses in our old gen ed programs than under the ICC; surely we can do better. After all, students are entering a very globalized society that is changing at historically fast rates.

These four issues should be among those we discuss as we try to improve the ICC to serve our students still better.

Michael Trotti is a professor and chair of the Department of History. Email him at [email protected]