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The New College Curriculum: Notes from the Field

 

Written by Sarah Betzer, Associate Professor of Art, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

 

The New College Curriculum is live! I have had the privilege of working together for the past 18 months with the group of faculty charged with launching the new curriculum, and we have long anticipated the moment that at last arrived only a matter of weeks ago. In late August, the rubber hit the road, and the theoretical became real: the class of 2021 arrived, and with them, the new curriculum was launched. I’ll back up a bit for those of you who haven’t been tracking these developments with the avidity I have.

This story began – or at least a new chapter opened – in May, 2016, when the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences held a historic vote, overwhelmingly approving a pilot of the first general education reform in the college in over forty years. The product of five years of committee work and robust faculty imagination, deliberation and debate, the new College Curriculum was launched this fall semester, 2017 with an entering cohort of roughly 600 students (all of whom opted in to the new curriculum). While the new curriculum entails a number of important changes (among them: doubling down on writing by allowing students to test up, not out, of two required writing courses, and inaugurating a requirement in Quantification, Computation, and Data Analysis), arguably its most exciting and transformative aspect is the Engagements, a series of four two-credit, seven-week long courses to be taken in our students’ first two semesters at UVA. Engagements courses aim to introduce students to four fundamental intellectual sensibilities that slice through work in many allied disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences: Engaging Aesthetics, Engaging Difference, Empirical and Scientific Engagement, and Ethical Engagement.

At the heart of the Engagements curriculum are the College of Arts and Sciences faculty who constitute the College Fellows, the interdisciplinary cohort of faculty who teach design and teach these brand-new Engagements courses. The inaugural cohort was selected in a competitive process last August, and have just launched their courses this semester. The second cohort’s courses will begin in Spring, 2018. The College Fellows are a tremendous group of scholar-teachers, from Biology and History, Anthropology and Psychology, Astronomy and Political Science, Religious Studies and Media Studies, Art History, English, German, and beyond.

The Engagements were born from the animating question and goal: how could we work from our students’ first days on grounds to welcome them not only to a rich extracurricular community, but also, and fundamentally, to an intellectual community? And so a primary focus of the College Fellows work has been to think together about how to give shape and structure to this aspect of our brief.  Aside from our work in individual courses, how could we design our ambition of a shared experience for almost 600 students? The results of our work on this front includes opening and closing Convocations, an innovative new design for Engagement discussion sections, shared summer reading (Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality), and a final project entitled “Engaging Democracy” in which Engagements students take up one of the University’s founding documents, the Rockfish Gap Report.

When the Fellows were at work on the architecture of this “shared” design, we couldn’t have imagined how vitally important it would feel to come together during the first week of classes for an Opening Convocation. That night, College Fellows faculty spoke to the assembled New College Curriculum students in the Amphitheatre about the events of August 11 and 12, considering what happened, what these events mean to us, how what we are doing – at the University and in the Engagements – matters more than ever, and how Engagements courses will be taking on these events and issues over the coming year. The evening culminated in a hot mic for students to reflect on what they are expecting from their faculty, the University, and their fellow students. It was a powerful, moving evening, and in some not unimportant way, we owe the possibility for such a gathering to the architecture of the new College curriculum, which for the first time brings faculty from across the College together to reflect upon and speak to the key components of general education and its importance for our lives in the University, and in the world.

The final piece of the shared experience design has been the creation of an Engagements Lecture Series that complements and runs parallel to the Engagements courses. We are delighted to be hosting a slate of terrific speakers during 2017-18. This year’s series was kicked off in superb style by Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures and UVA alum, who spoke at the Paramount on September 11. Among the upcoming lectures are New York-based artist Mark Dion (on October 23) and Danielle Allen (at the Paramount on February 1). Please join us if you are in the area!

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