Faculty Express Skepticism Regarding Courseload Shift

Though no binding decisions have been made about the proposed shift to a four-course model, a recent charge sent by Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Long to all academic faculty has ignited heightened discussion from faculty within all departments.

The Oct. 6 e-mail written by Long called for all departments to "propose in concept how they would make such a shift [to a four-course model]."

"By the end of this academic year, we will have a proposal for moving forward with this major structural change," the letter reads.

At an Oct. 19 College Senate meeting, Long affirmed that her charge to departments did not represent a mandate or an indication that a decision had been made. "This is not a done deal," she said. "It is a good idea. It might be a better idea for department A than department B, and that is why we need a faculty discussion."

Long's proposal of structurally changing the college's curriculum so that students would take four versus five courses per semester was one of the Six Big Ideas that were announced in May 2009. A task force chaired by Richard Finkelstein, former chair of the English department, and sociology professor Anne Eisenberg researched the potential merits and challenges of making such a change in fall 2009. They also visited The College of New Jersey, a public institution which implemented a four-course model in fall 2004.

The final report of that task force indicated that moving to a four-course model would "facilitate both pedagogical innovation within the traditionally structured classroom and the development of a new means for delivering instruction." The report, however, acknowledged that "some doubt and suspicion" exists and that "continued clarity, transparency (particularly with regard to budgetary challenges), frequent communications and incentives are necessary if the administration wants change to move forward."

Over the summer, faculty from the psychology, English, math and geological sciences departments developed and presented Long with potential models for reconfiguring their curricula.

The expressed views of faculty on the idea of making such a shift are many and varied; a letter recently began circulating through faculty circles that responds skeptically to several of the assertions made in the Oct. 6 letter and challenges Long and President Christopher Dahl to more directly address criticisms and ambiguities that surround and complicate the issue.

Rethinking the Course Load: The BasicsEssentially, shifting to a four-course model would entail redesigning all departmental and general education programs so that students would take four courses per semester, or 32 courses over eight semesters. The current model assigns three Carnegie units or "credit hours" to most classes, and students are expected to take an average of 15 credits per semester, which equates to roughly 40 courses by graduation.

A goal of the four-course model is to expand the scope of courses so that students are able to have more in-depth exposure to course content. This would not necessarily equate to more classroom time as professors could potentially expand courses by covering more material, investigating further applications of course content, encouraging original research, adding student presentation opportunities, adding more extensive project work or implementing a variety of other syllabus modifications.

In theory, the model enhances the educational experience for students by giving them the opportunity to become more engaged in the material of each course. It also has the potential to decrease faculty workload by decreasing the number of courses each instructor is asked to teach, and to ultimately allow for financial savings by reducing overall salary expense.

Though Dahl and Long have publicly lauded the potential benefits that Geneseo could enjoy if a transition is made, some within the faculty have expressed concern that the alleged benefits of the shift are unrealistic for Geneseo, and that its repercussions on the quality of education that Geneseo provides could be severe.

Maintaining Program QualityMany members of the faculty indicated that students are the primary stakeholders where major adjustments to the curriculum are concerned and that maintaining program quality both at the departmental level and for the institution as a whole is a chief concern. Some said that rearranging a program so that students can complete all general education and department requirements in 32 courses might require removal of existing courses or the undesirable combination of two existing courses into a single expanded course.

"Such a move will offer different opportunities and challenges to each department," Long said.

For Geneseo's pre-professional programs, accreditation by national agencies and compliance with state licensure requirements provide value to students coming through the programs. The schools of business and education are currently accredited by national organizations, as are the communicative disorders and sciences and chemistry programs. Accrediting organizations frequently require that students take specific courses, which reduces the departments' flexibility in redesigning curricula.

Though not all academic programs are accredited, most seek to provide graduates with a set of skills that will allow them to pursue a variety of options upon graduation.

"Our students have been very successful in graduate schools," said Scott Giorgis, chair of the geological sciences department. "We don't want to mess with that." Giorgis said that approximately 70 percent of graduates from the geological sciences program pursue graduate studies and that many graduate programs require incoming students to have competencies in areas besides geological sciences.

David Geiger, chair of the chemistry department, said that there are many quality four-course chemistry programs across the country that successfully receive accreditation and that "there's no doubt" his department can do the same should the transition come to pass. He added, however, that students might have a more difficult time completing general education courses and courses unrelated to their major since a revised chemistry program would require students to take about 15 of 32 courses in the chemistry program alone.