What Life Taught Me about Curriculum Reform
I get asked all of the time how I ended up at AAC&U. How, as a sociologist, I wound my way through a traditional tenure-track faculty path to end up at a higher education association. If I have time, I unpack the journey. If time is short, I just say I got lucky. Not because being a faculty member was in any way awful. I still think it’s one of the best jobs out there. I got lucky because I get to do something I love every day—something I never would have envisioned as I toiled through graduate school. But if I take a step back, I see that my “luck” also came from an openness to discovery. And that openness, well, that came from someplace else.
Because of what I do every day for AAC&U, I often reflect on who I was as a first-generation student. By the age of nine, I was raised exclusively by my single mother, who worked full days and into the evening, often at two jobs, and who was herself the daughter of a Mexican immigrant. My mother had the unwavering idea that both of her children would get what she never had—a college education.
Because of that commitment, my mother didn’t care what my brother and I studied in college; she just cared that we went and that we finished. Her mantra, the refrain I most associate with my childhood, was “No one can take your degree away from you.” I realize now the gift she gave me was the freedom to follow my passion in pursuing a college degree. I could study what interested me. No judgment, no worries about a future job. In her mind, the degree equaled employment and, thus, security. And, without knowing anything about the statistical evidence, she was pretty much on point. The degree does matter. Sure, some majors make more out of the gate, but over a lifetime the degree itself matters far more than not having one. And that includes liberal arts majors.
My mother’s philosophy makes me wonder why we don’t build curricula more focused on allowing students to pursue their own questions through open inquiry and exploration. We do let students choose their majors. But when it comes to general education, the curricula are often built entirely on disciplinary requirements that prioritize content knowledge without giving equal weight to the real-life questions that drive the creation of knowledge in the first place.
How do disciplines answer big questions about global societies and problems? How do disciplines complement each other in developing solutions? How do disciplines allow us to see the world differently to achieve greater levels of empathy and perspective-taking? When grappling with these questions, students will most likely ask their own questions about the lives around them, including their own. Instead of asking these questions, we obscure inquiry with generic course titles that are often written to reflect a faculty member’s area of expertise rather than the applicability of that expertise in the real-world or to students’ lives.
At AAC&U, we are constantly working with institutions—big and small, two-year and four-year—on general education reform. In conversations around general education design, I routinely encounter faculty (or faculty speaking on behalf of colleagues) who are concerned that a general education model centered on learning outcomes will eliminate the distribution requirements that fill their classrooms. In their eyes, these requirements are the grounds for their employment and, to some degree, the survival of their discipline. They assume that without requiring students to take English or philosophy or art history, for example, students simply won’t take these courses.
These assumptions astonish me, in part because they lack evidence and also because they undervalue students’ curiosity and desire to seek meaning. Maybe I question this assumption because, left to my own devices, I opted to become an English major. Or maybe it’s because one of the most popular courses at Yale is on happiness, or maybe it’s because when I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, one of the most popular undergraduate courses was on the Holocaust. The Holocaust! But why wouldn’t students pick courses that sound interesting, regardless of the specific discipline? What if, instead of assigning disciplinary requirements, we gave students the option to choose among various courses grouped around a learning outcome or a central question? This question is actually testable, but only if we offer the option to students.
By rooting curricula in outcomes (e.g., critical thinking, written communication, or civic engagement), we have the opportunity to emphasize to students that what matters most for their success are the questions they want to ask, using skills they developed through exploration of disciplinary content. To achieve this emphasis first requires identifying relevant outcomes. Not just goals but assessable learning outcomes. Second, those old course titles need to be scrapped. As a sociologist, I’d be fine never calling another course “Introduction to Sociology.” How about the bravado and intrigue of “How Sociology Will Change Your Life”? I’m partially kidding, but I’m also excited about what faculty can come up with when challenged to write course titles for students rather than for ourselves. And, third, assumptions about what students are and aren’t interested in need to be tested.
My disciplinary training is a fundamental lens through which I view my work at AAC&U. Sociological theories, methodologies, and scholarship routinely inform how I approach assessment, organizational change, and issues of equity. But my belief in students’ curiosity, in their desire to seek meaning in big questions and to find their passion, is owed to my own journey. And after talking with countless colleagues over the years, I’m convinced that maybe the best things we can do for curriculum reform are to tell our own story of discovery from time to time and remind ourselves that we were once students, too.
 Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths, Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2014, https://www.mass.edu/foradmin/trustees/documents/HowLiberalArtsandSciencesMajorFareinEmployment.pdf.