Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Getting Beyond the Menu: Faculty Lead General Education Innovations at William and Mary

November
2015

When faculty and administrators at the College of William and Mary began drafting a new strategic plan in 2013, they set forth an ambitious goal for the university: to be the best liberal arts university in the country. One of the first and most important steps toward that goal was a complete re-envisioning of the university’s general education program, which hadn’t been updated since 1993. The resulting curriculum is “radical, in the best possible way,” says Lu Ann Homza, dean for education policy at William and Mary, in that it “repositions general education to be the central focus of our liberal arts education instead of being pushed to the side and thought of as something to get out of the way.”

The new College Curriculum is designed to span the full four years of undergraduate education at William and Mary and, like a growing number of programs at colleges and universities around the country, it eschews the traditional “menu” of disciplinary requirements. Instead, the course sequence helps students develop crucial skills and understand the ways of thinking employed by different disciplines, culminating in a capstone experience in the final year. Just as significant as these changes to the curriculum is the way in which it has been implemented under the leadership of a cohort of faculty fellows in the newly created Center for Liberal Arts. These fellows developed some of the new courses at the center of the curriculum and are using that experience to help their colleagues revise and develop similar courses.

“The fellows have taken on some of that responsibility for thinking about how we’re going to bring certain pieces of the curriculum online,” says Gene Tracy, one of the faculty fellows and acting director of the Center for Liberal Arts. “Not in terms of securing resources, but in making sure that faculty are empowered to do this in the most exciting way.”

Making General Education the Center

Implementation of the new curriculum began this academic year; the COLL 400 capstone experience, taken in the final year, is still being developed. In the first year, students take two seminars, COLL 100 and COLL 150. In the COLL 100 courses, students focus on exploring big ideas and developing nonwritten communication skills “in the areas of visual, quantitative, oral, digital, and/or multimedia expression.” COLL 150 courses, in contrast, are writing-intensive courses grounded in specific disciplines.

Starting in the second year, students take four COLL 200 courses, including at least one course from each of three “knowledge domains”—the Natural World and Quantitative Reasoning; Culture, Society, and the Individual; and Arts, Letters, and Values. While each COLL 200 course is anchored in a particular domain, the courses also “look outward” to at least one of the other domains. “For example,” Homza says, “a course on bioterrorism may be grounded in biology and so fall into the Natural World and Quantitative Reasoning domain, but it also looks out to the social sciences and even the arts and humanities to understand how fears are spread through the media.”

The COLL 300 requirement, usually taken in the junior year, places students in contact with people from other places and cultures in ways that challenge their understanding of the world and their place in it. “We want disorientation, in a positive sense,” Homza says. Students can fulfill the requirement through study abroad or programs at some of the university’s remote sites, but there are also plenty of on-campus options for students who cannot travel for financial reasons or because of family or military commitments. “We try to bring the world and other cultures to campus” through a visiting lecture series, she says—three per semester, each addressing a different theme and featuring sessions in which visiting lecturers interact with students and faculty in different ways related to those themes. These lecturers are not traditional academics, Homza stresses. “We want people with life experience who will speak in a first-person voice about cross-cultural and international issues.”

Faculty Leadership

The general education curriculum at William and Mary was last revised in 1993, before the university admitted large numbers of students who’d participated in Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. The growth of these programs during the intervening time has led to first-year students arriving with an average of fifteen college credits. This meant that the most privileged students in particular often avoided taking much of their general education at the university. If the liberal arts were to be a central part of a William and Mary education, then students needed to complete their general education at the college, not before they arrived.

“We appreciate high schools offering general education credits, but we think we do it better,” Homza says. General education courses can no longer be satisfied by AP or IB credit, although students can count many of those credits toward their majors and as electives. But in addition to changing the structure of general education so that students can’t “get it out of the way,” the university also had to effect a cultural shift so that faculty and staff, too, understood general education to be equal and complementary to the major rather than a prerequisite.

This was achieved in large part by including as many faculty and staff as possible in the development and implementation of the new curriculum. The curriculum initially was designed by a committee of thirty faculty members, staff, and undergraduate students, who spent two years researching and discussing best practices in general education before proposing what became the College Curriculum in 2013. During those discussions, faculty members proposed the idea of a Center for Liberal Arts (CLA) staffed by fellows who would not only help to launch the new curriculum but would serve an ongoing advisory role to faculty teaching in general education and work toward “the continual organizing and infusing of content, integration, creativity, and innovation into the undergraduate curriculum,” according to the charter for the center. The dean’s office soon formalized the CLA, providing funding for the first cohort of faculty fellows.

The emphasis on “advisory role” is an important one, Tracy says. “The analogy I use, which isn’t perfect, is coaches and referees.” The university already had a longstanding educational policy committee, an elected body of faculty who approved which courses would satisfy general education requirements, among other duties. “They might not view themselves as just referees, but when it came to determining what satisfied gen ed requirements, that’s the role they were in,” Tracy says. “What we didn’t have was coaches” to advise and assist faculty as they worked to develop and teach courses aligned with the general education requirements.

The CLA faculty fellows fulfill this coaching role. Faculty members apply for the positions, which come with a stipend and last for two-year terms. While the faculty fellows do work with the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to prepare and revise the guidelines for general education courses, their bigger role is to help faculty develop new general education courses, and in the process to find ways to incorporate their research and scholarship into their teaching, as well as new pedagogical strategies and uses of technology. Another way to think of is the CLA is as “a think tank for the general education curriculum,” Homza says.

Collaboration and mutual support among faculty members is crucial for any educational change initiative to take hold. AAC&U’s Faculty Collaboratives project is working to build networks that connect faculty across institutions, systems, and states; to support faculty participation in national initiatives; and to share best practices that lead to increased student success. The CLA fellows at William and Mary connect with their faculty colleagues in a number of different settings, from brown-bag lunch sessions to multiday workshops between semesters. The CLA also has funded departmental retreats to discuss the new curriculum and brainstorm ideas. CLA fellows attend the retreats to assist “and also just listen to the dialogue around the curriculum in the departments,” Tracy says. “They would bring that back to the center and it would feed into our work.” The CLA also hosts “Coffee with a Fellow” sessions, akin to office hours at a campus coffee shop, where faculty can drop by for informal chats about curriculum development.

A Learning Community for Faculty

Faculty fellows also commit to designing and teaching at least one new general education course of their own, and to doing so “with your colleagues,” Tracy says. “When you try out new things, you do it openly and transparently, sharing with your colleagues what works or doesn’t.” Tracy developed a COLL 100 course titled Cosmology and the History of Wonder, and he has shared with his colleagues his struggles to develop effective strategies for teaching the nonwritten communication skills COLL 100 courses emphasize.

A physicist by training, Tracy had already gone through a similar process in learning how to help students improve their writing skills when he taught an earlier iteration of first-year seminars. “It took me several go-arounds to figure out how to give effective feedback, but I found good readings and exercises eventually. I’m doing the same thing now my new course—figuring out how to teach presentation skills, or podcasting, or other communication skills. I’m gradually learning what exercises actually work, what feedback to give—and I’m bringing in people who are much more professional than me to learn from.”

Learning from each other has been crucial to implementing the new curriculum, in part because it has energized the faculty by giving them the opportunity to discuss with each other the subjects they are passionate about, Tracy says. In workshops on developing COLL 100 classes, faculty were asked to “think back to the time you were in college: what courses do you remember the most?” Tracy says. “We’d ask, ‘If you could teach that kind of course now, what would it be?’ We start with the passion and the excitement; we pull on that thread and see where it leads.”

These sessions are successful “because we’re talking about things of intellectual interest, not just the immediate tasks of a committee meeting,” Tracy says. “Those tasks are part of governing the university, of course, but we have little time and space carved out for meaningful intellectual conversations with each other about our work. I think the faculty are very hungry for it, and if we’ve managed to succeed so far, it’s because the faculty really wanted this.”

 

The College of William and Mary is one of eight institutions participating in a LEAP Challenge project, funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, to develop curricular pathways that lead to meaningful capstone experiences and projects for all students. Read more about the project at AAC&U’s website, or read about the new College Curriculum at William and Mary’s website. You can also find more information about the Faculty Collaboratives project and resources on general education from AAC&U.

Institution: 
College of William and Mary