Big Idea #4: Rethinking the course load

Members of the "Rethinking the course load" task force are exploring the possibility of joining other liberal arts colleges across country in adopting a course load of four classes per semester.

"The goal for students in choosing this system is that we [the faculty] can increase the depth and breadth of individual courses," said Richard Finkelstein, co-chair of the task force. "For example, in an English course, you can reasonably expect students to write a 15- to 20-page paper or assign Moby Dick rather than a series of smaller novels. You can expect to learn more through a rationally thought through course load."

"From an educational standpoint, and in the current budget climate, we need to explore the idea of moving to a four-course schedule for students," said President Christopher Dahl in his official charge to the task force. "At a liberal arts college that believes in transformational learning for the whole person, measuring courses on the basis of seat time makes very little sense."

Currently, Geneseo students usually take an average of five courses per semester; each assigned three credit hours under a system known as Carnegie units. Many acclaimed universities and colleges, however - including members of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges and neighboring SUNY Binghamton - have a long-standing policy of a four-course schedule.

Finkelstein, however, emphasized that four courses does not necessarily translate into four credit hours - an important distinction that is often lost in this discussion.

"In most private colleges, there are just 'courses.' No one ever even hears of credits," Finkelstein said. "It is also important to note that four courses does not necessarily mean there will be more time spent in the classroom. But, it would mean that the depth of the courses is further developed. What we would call this system, however, is still up for grabs."

Finkelstein also noted that if this system is adopted, there will be no cutting of faculty members. The workload of faculty, however, may change slightly at the start of the transition.

According to the task force's August report, "Potential challenges include at least a temporary increase in faculty workload during the period in which the curriculum and individual courses would be redesigned. Many also believe that the workload would stay at an elevated level because individual lectures would have to cover more material."

Finkelstein said that there are many challenges to making this proposal a reality, as major and core education requirements would have to be largely reconfigured. College administrators and faculty would also have to determine how to accept transfer credits from institutions still using Carnegie units. Therefore, even if the force's research is accepted and approved by college administrators, the transition would not occur for several years.

Since publishing its August report, the task force has been using Keene State College, SUNY Binghamton, the College of New Jersey and the University of Maine at Farmington as models to help predict the budgetary impacts of a switch. The task force is also working with Provost Carol Long to modify the existing data to make it relevant to Geneseo.

Finkelstein said he anticipates that if the transition were to occur, it would have minor initial costs such as those associated with the revision of the College Bulletin and majors. The potential savings accumulated over time, though, are unclear at this point.

"To some extent, the potential for savings is obvious: If students move from taking an average of five courses to an average of four courses, the demand for course seats would be reduced by 20 percent and, in theory at least, over the long term, the college could realize this savings in its instructional costs," co-chairs Finkelstein and Anne Eisenberg, associate professor of sociology, wrote.

To clarify facts about the force's mission and receive feedback from the campus community, the task force held an open forum on Oct. 28. Additional forums may be held in the beginning of November.