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 Basics

Essentially, 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 Quality

Many 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.

Benjamin Esham, chair of the mathematics department, said that the mathematics program can feasibly fit into the four-course model without any course deletions or combinations. Despite this, he said that many math majors have chosen to supplement their degree with minors in economics, physics, business or other areas and that many other programs within the college require matriculates to take lower-level math classes as a co-curricular requirement. He said that while the math department can adapt to Long’s charge without major adjustment, he is concerned about whether students would enjoy the same number of academic options should the transition come to pass. “We’re really greatly concerned about the global picture,” he said.

“There is a lot of concern about the potential damage this [shift] can do,” said School of Business professor Harry Howe. “It is unquestionably the case that some programs would suffer.” He said that the School of Business has incorporated into its current model input from the Business Advisory Council and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and that redesigning the curriculum would constitute discarding years of improvements that have built upon one another.

School of Business professors also noted that many recruiters value and rely upon internship experiences for obtaining new hires and that a modified curriculum would make it challenging for students to incorporate internships into their undergraduate experience. Additionally, he said that in some cases, combining courses might actually mean that Geneseo freshmen and sophomores would be less prepared for upper-level courses than students transferring in from community colleges.

Others expressed optimism about shifting to a new model. “This opportunity … it gives us a chance to look at what we’re doing and how we might do it more effectively,” said George Briggs, chair of the biology department. He said that in his department, there is some debate over the extent to which lab experiences enhance the teaching of topics in biology, and whether every course would need one. He also voiced some concern that a reduction in elective offerings might have a negative effect on both students and faculty.

“People are looking at this as an opportunity to do some interesting things,” said Jon Gonder, dean of the School of the Arts. “I think it’s an exciting opportunity for us to think about the curriculum … I think it’ll yield some good things.” Though no SOTA programs are currently accredited, Gonder said that some programs may seek accreditation in the future and he has asked program coordinators to consider accreditation standards as they propose new curriculum models. He said that the process of changing a program also elicits useful discussion about the nature of a given program, such as whether studio art classes should be longer.

Dahl and Long said that even if the shift is made, there will be some flexibilities: Binghamton University, which Dahl described as “as accredited or more accredited than [Geneseo]” is built around a four-course model, but does offer some traditional three-credit courses and half-courses to facilitate accreditation requirements and experiences such as science labs. 

A Changed Geneseo?

Everyone agrees that reconstructing the course load would constitute one of the most sweeping, transformational changes to the college in the past several decades. The process will require a great deal of work as departments reshape curricula and faculty design new syllabi. There is disagreement, though, on the nature of the change.

“We know that a lot of very good places do it this way,” Dahl said. Some faculty have said that comparisons to other institutions who have shifted to a four-course model are not necessarily relevant since Geneseo is currently facing budgetary constraints that limit resources; many faculty lines are being held vacant indefinitely as a short-term savings measure.

“The loss of exposure to different points of view is a significant loss,” said Carlo Filice, chair of the philosophy department. He said that in taking 32 courses instead of 40, students would be exposed to fewer professors and that the broad liberal arts education that Geneseo prides itself on might be diluted.

Several department chairs indicated that in a restructured curriculum with fewer adjuncts and upper-level electives, professors might be utilized more heavily to support general education and introductory courses and would have less time to devote to their more specialized classes that are specific to a major.

Howe said that a shift would likely create a “raw deal for students” where they would ultimately walk away with a less comprehensive learning experience than is currently available.

He said he believes that Dahl and Long have the best interests of the college at heart but that they have so far not provided the straightforward answers that faculty are looking for. “Without a very candid discussion … it’s going to be difficult to get the commitment and buy-in that’s necessary to make any sort of a change,” Howe said.

“Faculty] end up at a place like Geneseo because they value the role that teaching plays,” Howe said, expressing that teachers already devote a great deal of time in making their classes engaging, thorough and challenging; therefore a new course model, all criticisms withstanding, would not necessarily yield a huge margin of improvement over an already exemplary system.

“Something like [a four-course model] could be very attractive” to students, said Linda House, chair of the communicative disorders and sciences department. She said that while the college is rightly proud of its current accomplishments and standings, such an innovative shift could “target [Geneseo] into the future.” She said that she is supportive of the provost’s initiative and that her department will be able to develop an effective curriculum under the parameters of the proposed model. 

Financial Considerations

According to Long’s letter, “The curricular shift was first proposed in the belief that it would offer budgetary savings while improving our teaching and learning environment.”

Broadly speaking, the shift could save money by reducing the use of adjunct lecturers and ultimately creating program structures that demand a reduced number of faculty. Recent communications from and inquiries of the administration have yielded a confusing message at times. Long and Dahl acknowledge that the original source of the idea was rooted in a need for budgetary innovation, but their public statements supporting of the four-course model have emphasized more heavily the alleged pedagogical benefits of the transition and the advantages intrinsic to evolution in higher education.

“Personally, if we can teach people better with less faculty, I think that’s great,” Briggs said.

“The fiscal reality means that we have to change something,” said Ganie DeHart, chair of the psychology department. “Let’s be constructive and not forge ahead and lop off bits [of existing programs.] Our current financial crisis is severe enough that we have to rethink things on a fundamental level.”

Though Gonder said that rethinking curricula will be an “exciting opportunity” for School of the Arts programs, he said that budget should not drive curriculum; ideally it should be the other way around. He said that when full-time faculty retire, departments must consider whether to effectively replace that individual and his areas of expertise to retain the curriculum as it stands or to “go in a different direction” and make personnel and budgetary decisions accordingly.

“Defending the status quo is not an option,” Giorgis said, noting that the college simply does not have enough money to keep teaching the same number of courses that it does now.

The Rethinking the Course Load task force said in its final report that the Provost’s Office had at that time put forth a savings estimate of $250,000 based on the adjunct pay rate and the reduced number of seats that would be needed if students take fewer courses. More recently, Long said that she is unable to prepare specific breakdowns of where cost reductions might be found since those analyses would depend on the specific proposals outlined by the departments themselves. 

Reaching a Decision

Some of the anxiety surrounding the issue has focused on the balance between faculty and administrators in guiding discussions and ultimately reaching a decision. “Faculty don’t like to be told what to do,” Briggs said, explaining that by the nature of their profession, faculty value greatly their autonomy in designing and implementing courses.

Howe said that traditional models of higher education give faculty control over curriculum decisions and administrators control over budgetary matters, and the decision-making process becomes complicated when budget and curriculum decisions are intertwined.

“The purpose of educational institutions is to carry a constant discourse among the faculty about the curriculum and how to do it best,” Dahl said. He emphasized that the administration cannot and will not move forward with any curriculum adjustments without the consent of the faculty. “If we could we wouldn’t, if we wanted to we couldn’t,” he said.

Long acknowledged the difficulty that faculty might face in attempting to “decouple the structure and the learning.” Dahl said that the idea of credit-hours is a “fiction” and that the point of the transition is not to change the way credits are apportioned but rather to grow and develop a more holistic approach to education.

The provost has already started the process of meeting with individual departments. She said that she is looking to lead a “generative conversation” and that skeptical good faith from faculty is welcome and helpful in considering the multitude of questions that are likely to arise. She said that accreditation requirements, general education parameters and the need for cognate courses will all be taken into consideration in developing a proposal.

Long also responded to concerns about the seeming impracticability of increasing students’ learning experiences and decreasing faculty workloads whilst decreasing expenses by saying that Geneseo does not operate under a closed system where inputs and outputs must equal some sort of constant equilibrium. She clarified that the faculty workload would be “reshaped” and not necessarily reduced, and that a re-imagined curriculum could explore degrees of effectiveness that are difficult to see without undertaking a significant effort to develop a new model.

According to the Oct. 6 letter, “curricular proposals will work through the existing faculty governance review system.”

Until then, Long and Dahl see good reason to move forward with the process. Dahl said that holding an “advisory vote” in the College Senate on whether to move forward with the discussion would be inappropriate because of the difficulty in articulating exactly what the voted-upon proposal would be.

“We welcome the conversation and the debate and we’re interested in all the questions,” Long said.