Extended Commentary: Curricular Conversations: Make Your Program the Best it Can Be.

The heart of our activity as faculty is developing and delivering the curriculum. That is what got us excited about our line of work in the first place and what sustains us as life-long learners. We have spent our professional lives learning what our discipline was trying to get us to see about the world and giving us the tools to do that. We want to transmit what we have learned to our students and our curriculum is the vehicle to do that. For that reason, it is important to periodically step back and think about what we are doing and why. Too often we get lost in the minutia of our daily activities and forget the big picture. To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, we need to be able to see the forest among the trees. (1)

My experience as an external reviewer (of over fifty-five academic program reviews) tells me that it is a rare department that has an intentional and clearly articulated curriculum. Departments may develop curricula based on the conventional wisdom of their discipline, perhaps informed by their experiences as students in undergraduate and graduate programs, or perhaps with the assistance of guidelines provided by their professional associations. More often, the curriculum is a mash-up of core courses and electives, some of which seem only loosely related to what students should know about the discipline. Catalogs often have courses listed that have not been taught in years.

Some of the reasons for these issues are structural: colleges and universities create groups, usually departments, where the leader, typically a chair or program director, rotates periodically. Sometimes these units are organized by discipline(s), but sometimes, the guiding principle is convenience. In either case, a forward-thinking chair with a goal for curricular development and/or revision has a limited amount of time in which to accomplish this goal before it is someone else's turn. In addition, the chair has little to no power to enact their model for the curriculum unless their colleagues are on board. (I can remember one department where the faculty were truly collegial and worked well together. One out of fifty-five is not a great batting average. For the other fifty-four departments, a visit by an external reviewer can be helpful.)

That makes it particularly awkward when a colleague proposes a new course that they are really excited to teach. Of course, there is paperwork to complete, and it is always appropriate to check in with other colleagues, but do departments sit down as a group and ask the question: "how does this fit into the larger curriculum?" I would be willing to bet that most often the answer is no.

Most often, the reason these conversations do not take place is inertia. We are constantly being asked to do more with less, and I regularly hear colleagues turn down requests for service or committee work, even if it is in the best interests of their students, because they say they cannot do "one more thing." So having planned and deliberate conversations about the curriculum might seem unnecessary, if not also burdensome. The cliche: "If it ain't broke..." come to mind. This is also a common response when it comes to assessment (more on this later).

I would argue that it does not have to be broke to spend time making it better. If we can agree that we want to deliver the best possible curricular experience for our students (not always possible, but we will be optimistic for now), then it behooves us to spend a little bit of time shaping the curriculum to maximize the student experience. The mechanics for how to do this are simple; holding regular department meetings on a regular schedule is a good start. One huge benefit to initiating these regular conversations is that it prepares the department for their periodic program review. Since it is a rare department that takes a pro-active approach to curriculum review, it is often the shadow of an upcoming academic program review that motivates a department into action.

The Academic Program Review

The process of conducting an academic program review can be a constructive and positive experience. (2) If the department is currently, or can commit to holding regular conversations on the curriculum, the foundation has been created for a successful academic program review. The academic program review can be the impetus for faculty to talk about their curriculum and to redirect or refocus the curriculum to meet the larger goals.

Too often, program review is something that departments and even institutions forget about until the time approaches for the next accreditation visit. This fosters a sense that accreditation is divorced from the larger goal--of ensuring a quality educational experience for students--and that the activities are meaningless top-down directives that need to be checked off instead of part of an organic process. In the meantime, several years have been lost when conversations on the curriculum could have been taking place.

My experience performing program reviews, largely as a representative of the American Sociological Association's Program Reviewers and Consultants group (3) leads me to believe that continuing or initiating the on-going conversations described earlier will make the onset of a program review seem less like a major event and preparation for it less hectic. For many departments, these are conversations that they might already be having and all that is needed is to document them and make them more systematic. Some departments may need to think about initiating these conversations. The forces that drive these conversations are usually quite similar across institutions within disciplines and often across disciplines as well. (4)

While hiring external reviewers and consultants who can perform site visits as external reviewers and facilitate workshops is always a good idea, this paper is designed to provide the reader with step-by-step instructions for how to do some, if not many of the things that institutions require as part of their periodic assessment and curricular review programs. Of course, one size never fits all, so this paper can only provide a template that will likely require customization to meet the institutional context.

These instructions describe conversations that the department should be having on a regular basis. Often, getting faculty to take the time to sit down and have these conversations is the only obstacle standing in the way of providing students with the best possible curriculum. Occasionally, interpersonal dynamics make having these conversations more challenging. (5) Fortunately, only in rare cases is bringing in a facilitator necessary so that participants can focus on the content.

If you need more evidence that conversations about curriculum can have benefits, this endnote provides several sources to read that provide examples of sociology departments that have documented their experiences with curriculum development and revision and their outcomes. (6) Some of their experiences might either resonate with the process in your department, and/or might be helpful in charting your department's next steps.

To make it easier to extract the action items, I have written this paper to look somewhat like one of my reports, complete with "recommendations." They are summarized in Appendix A. Begin at the End: Curricular Student Learning Objectives

By now, most faculty are conversant with curricular student learning objectives (SLOs). (7) These are the skills facility hope students will have mastered by the time they have completed their degree. For most sociology programs, there are generally three, pretty universal SLOs.

(When it comes to curriculum, most of my examples in this paper will come from my home discipline. Most of my comments can be generalized to other social sciences besides just sociology, although I will confess that I know much less about other disciplines beyond my own.) They might go something like this:

By the end of this curriculum, students will be able to:

  1. Understand and be able to use the sociological perspective.

  2. Understand some of the basic concepts and theories in sociology and be able to apply them to everyday life.

  3. Understand the scientific process, how sociologists collect and analyze data.

    You may have others and yours may be better than these. SLOs for other disciplines will also be a little different. Note that they are always written in the format of: "students will be able to..." That makes them different than course objectives that look like "In this course, we will cover Marx, Durkheim, and Weber..." (8)

    If your department has curricular SLOs, it is a good idea to review them periodically to make sure they are consistent with what the curriculum offers as faculty come and go and courses are added, deleted, and changed. If your department does not have curricular SLOs, develop them now. You cannot do the rest of this work without them. Plus, you will make the administrators and assessment people on your campus happy. Having clearly articulated curricular SLOs, while a requirement of most accrediting agencies, is also one of the first steps that the American Sociological Association's documents on curriculum development (9) and assessment (10) recommend. While curricular SLOs should be your own, there are some nice examples in Lowery. (11) At a more micro-level, individual courses should also have SLOs. Some courses, such as the introductory course and the capstone course, should have SLOs that will look similar if not identical to the curricular SLOs.

    What Is Your Mission?

    Very few faculty are trained in writing Mission Statements. When I first started teaching, my institution's Mission Statement was just there, probably crafted by folks in the Communications Office. I did not see how a Mission Statement was relevant to me. I was wrong. Mission Statements, at least departmental Mission Statements, need to reflect the goals of its members. That means...

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