Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies
A Distinctive Curriculum Fosters Intentional and Integrative Learning at Bard College
Bard College, a small, private school situated in New York's Hudson River Valley, has a long history of curricular innovation. Since the 1930s, the college has required that students undergo an evaluation of learning midway through their undergraduate years and complete a significant project in their senior year. More recent curricular changes have expanded the first-year seminar, redefined the categories for distribution requirements, and shifted the major away from individual departments and toward interdisciplinary programs that focus on broad areas of knowledge.
These innovations have enabled students to play an active role in shaping their education. At the same time, Bard's first-year programs, its extensive advising process, and its milestone assessments offer guidance as students make their way through progressively more challenging academic experiences. Through such core curricular structures, the college seeks to balance the ability of students to create an individualized course of study with the ability of faculty and administrators to ensure that students develop broad learning outcomes and receive a coherent, integrated liberal education.
The First Year
Undergraduate education at Bard begins in early August, three weeks before the start of the fall semester, when first-year students convene for the Workshop in Language and Thinking. This intensive workshop brings small groups of twelve students together with faculty to discuss an ambitious reading list that includes philosophy, criticism, writings on science and mathematics, poetry, and fiction.
Michele Dominy, vice president and dean of Bard College, says that the goal of the Workshop in Language and Thinking "is to enable students to take intellectual risks" at the outset of their college careers. Workshop discussions familiarize students with the expectations for college-level discourse, while parallel orientation activities held outside of the classroom offer an introduction to campus life. Most importantly, Dominy says, the workshop concludes with an analytic essay assignment—the first of many points in Bard's curriculum where faculty are able to document students' critical thinking and writing skills.
These essays are sent to first-year seminar faculty, providing a link to the second core component of Bard's curriculum. Like the Workshop on Language and Thinking, the first-year seminar—which spans both semesters of the regular academic year—uses wide-ranging readings to engage students with the ideas that undergird a liberal education. Currently centered on the theme of "What is Enlightenment: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Reason," the seminar juxtaposes classical and contemporary texts in an exploration of the Enlightenment and its legacy.
Associate Professor of English Deirdre d'Albertis, who codirects and regularly teaches in the first-year seminar program, notes that the reading list for the seminar —which features Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, Darwin, and other traditionally canonical figures, along with less canonical writers—can seem daunting to new students. But the class approaches these readings critically and situates them in historical contexts. In a firsthand account of her experiences with the seminar, d'Albertis explains that the course thus "begins not with an argument from authority—that we read 'great books' because they are 'great books'—but rather a challenge to rethink influential ideas in terms of new questions."
This rethinking of ideas lays the foundation for subsequent learning at Bard, whatever course of study a student chooses to pursue. Indeed, the seminar aims to foster capacities for critical thinking, communication, and civic engagement that serve broader purposes: "When a Bard freshman finishes the first year with an enhanced appreciation of his or her own capacity for reasoned argument," d'Albertis writes, "we have prepared that student well not only for the remaining three years at the college, but also for life as an adult after graduation."
Milestones and Capstones
As students move beyond the first year, they must connect the intellectual foundation provided by general education with their individual interests and goals. These connections are especially important at Bard, where program-based majors allow students and faculty flexibility in planning a course of study. Two key moments in Bard's curriculum— "moderation" and the senior project—provide structured occasions for drawing such connections. These moments help students be intentional about their education, says Dean Dominy, by asking them "to take stock of where they have been and what they hope to accomplish."
Students undertake moderation in the second semester of the sophomore year. A requirement for promotion to Bard's Upper College, moderation "is a moment to look toward the future with a sense of pragmatic ambition," Dominy says. Moderation focuses particularly on students' plans for study in the major. Many of the programs Bard offers—from Africana studies to Victorian studies—draw upon the content and methodologies of multiple disciplines, and moderation allows faculty to ensure that students' educational plans are coherent at the time when students declare a major.
Moderation also serves as a milestone assessment of learning. In undertaking moderation, students submit two new papers—one that looks back on the first two years to reflect on academic progress, and one that looks ahead to goals in the last two years—as well as a sample of written work or an artistic project completed for a previous course. Moderation concludes with a meeting in which a panel of three faculty members discusses the papers with the student, provides feedback on the student's work, and makes suggestions about the student's course of study.
This course of study culminates with another major moment of evaluation, the senior project. Much of the work in the last two years is directed toward this capstone project. In the third year, students take courses in their major, consult with advisers, and prepare for the project. In the fourth year, the focus is on writing or producing an original work. Finally, as in the previous milestone assessment, a committee of three faculty members meets with the student to review the completed project.
The nature of the senior project itself varies according to student interest: a project may consist of scientific research or a photographic essay, a piece of literary scholarship or a performance of an original dance composition. Whatever form it takes, the project serves as an appropriate capstone to an education that requires students to avoid "passive acceptance of a prescribed plan of study," as Michele Dominy says, and instead to reflect intentionally on where they want their education to take them—in college and beyond.