Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Otterbein College

Integrative Studies at Otterbein: Reinvigorating a Signature Program for a Global Century


Students at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, were taking integrative courses long before integrative learning became fashionable. The liberal arts institution of about 3,000 students began requiring an integrative general education core in 1969, when many colleges were relaxing or reducing core requirements and focusing on breadth of knowledge in individual disciplines. Otterbein's core courses have long been integrated around the theme of human nature, and students are required to take integrative studies (IS) courses throughout their Otterbein career, not just in the first two years. The program has been popular across the college, and in graduation exit interviews and alumni surveys, students report that they appreciate the integrative learning experience and recognize its benefits even more after graduation than they had as students.

Reexamining a College Standard

Otterbein faculty and administrators didn't want to rest on their laurels, however. In the mid-2000s, after more than thirty years of integrative general education at Otterbein, administrators began discussing what was working and what wasn't, says Amy Jessen-Marshall, Otterbein's dean of college programs. "We began talking about 'mission drift,'" she says. "We still saw the need for a common question at the center of courses, but we began to suspect that students weren't always 'getting it.'"  So as part of Otterbein's 2007 strategic plan, the college began focusing on reinvigorating and strengthening the integrative studies program, with special emphasis on making the program more global. "We wanted to change the focus of the IS program from identity focused to global focused," Jessen-Marshall explains. The integrative studies "Core Team," headed by chair Sarah Fatherly, an associate professor of history, started with the goal of having Otterbein graduates be comfortable functioning in a diverse, interconnected world, and worked backward from that goal to develop new integrative studies guidelines.

In the new IS program, slated to begin in fall 2011 when the college makes the switch from a quarter to a semester calendar, students will still explore questions of human nature—particularly in a first-year writing requirement called an Identity Project—but the overall integrative studies core will be focused on making connections between the disciplines and the wider world. After a first-year seminar that will introduce students to the concept of integrative learning, they will take one IS course in each of four areas during the sophomore and/or junior years: Interconnections (social sciences/history); Reflection and Responsibility (religion, philosophy, and service learning); Natural Foundations (sciences); and Creativity and Culture (arts and writing). Each of these IS courses will focus on teaching students to think globally and beyond disciplinary boundaries. "In the history course I teach that will fulfill the Interconnections requirement, I'll be thinking about how the outcomes I want students to gain will differ from the history I teach in a 'straight' history course," Fatherly explains. "I need to think how, for example, a nursing student can learn to think about how history informs contemporary practices and culture."

In the junior or senior year, students will take an interdisciplinary "dyad"—a pair of closely linked courses from different disciplinary areas focusing on a specific topic. Some dyads are being developed from existing courses, while others will comprise entirely new course offerings. Examples of planned dyads include Alternate Worlds, which includes Exobiology from the physics department and The Literature of Science Fiction from the English department; and an Embodying Gender dyad, including Gender and Biology from the life sciences department and Sculpting Gender from the art department.

Building Collegewide Support

The process for formalizing the new planned IS curriculum was complex, particularly because curricular changes need the approval of Otterbein's full College Senate, which includes many students as well as faculty and administrators. "Students would have a heavy vote, so it was important to us that they understand the proposed changes to IS," Jessen-Marshall says.

Building on previous work on mapping learning outcomes that the college had done in 2005 as part of AAC&U's Shared Futures project, the Core Team began designing the new IS curriculum around the goal of globalized education, which the college had described in its 2007 strategic plan. The Core Team  attended AAC&U's July 2009 Engaging Departments Institute to work on developing its plan further, and after the institute, team members talked to colleagues, administrators, and students to help "sell" the plan. The proposed changes to the plan were approved by the full Otterbein College Senate in fall 2009, paving the way for the actual intensive work of developing and revising courses.

It was important to Jessen-Marshall and Fatherly to maintain the character of the IS program that had, for so long, helped define Otterbein.  Their challenge was to get faculty members on board with the curricular redesign—even those whose IS courses had been largely successful for many years. They put out a call for proposals for faculty members to redesign an existing IS course or create a new one, and a grant from the McGregor Fund, which supports Ohio and Michigan educational initiatives, funded a two-day retreat this summer for these curricular "early adopters" to meet with experts and develop their course plans.

Melissa Lusher, an assistant professor of theater, was one of the course development grant winners. She taught an IS theater course, Theater and Human Nature, for six years. "I'd found that theater is really well-suited to the study of human nature, because theater holds up the mirror and tells us about the human condition," she says. "Theater is also a truly interdisciplinary form of art—you need to know psychology, history, sociology, and communication to understand a play and bring it to life." But after six years of teaching the same course, Lusher was excited to explore how theater could help students understand a globally interconnected world. "I think we can learn a lot about the world by examining different countries' theater," she says. "In the new course, we will look at plays from around the world and examine how theater is used as a vehicle for social change, and to reflect the issues that are important to a particular society." The course will also have a global-to-local focus, where student will examine an issue of importance to the Columbus, Ohio, community—like homelessness or water quality—and create an original piece of theater that addresses the issue.  

Planning Global Integration

Paul Laughlin, a professor of religion, is working with Jeremy Smith, a professor of English, to develop an East-West dyad. Laughlin is a longtime instructor of an IS course called Human Nature and World Religions, which was originally titled Non-Western Culture, Fatherly says. "Fifteen years ago, that course was extremely Western-centric. Paul made it more global, and now he's working with Jeremy to develop a dyad in which there is an Eastern culture course and a Western culture course, and students will take both and really focus on the connections."

Those connections are the centerpiece of the new IS curriculum, which includes five goals: to inspire intellectual curiosity about the world; to assist students in cultivating intercultural knowledge; to promote active and critical reflection on the human self and its place in the world; to challenge students to critically examine ethical responsibilities; and to encourage purposeful public engagement and social responsibility.  "We specifically tried to not use disciplinary language when writing the outcomes," Fatherly explains. "We also tried not to write conventional skill- or knowledge-based outcomes—we want our integrative studies curriculum to prepare students to be successful on the other side of college." To measure whether students are indeed gaining these outcomes, an e-portfolio system will also be launched in fall 2011, starting with students in the first-year IS seminars. The portfolios will include reflective essays about the connections between courses, as well as work samples.

The 2010–11 academic year will be a chance for faculty members to refine their IS course plans and develop the materials they'll use when the new program begins in fall 2011. And it will also be a time to continue reflecting on how to respect Otterbein's history. "The new program is not necessarily more integrated, but it's more intentionally integrated," Fatherly says. "In the late 1960s, this small college in Ohio said, 'We need to do integrative general education.' That's kind of amazing when you think about it. We want to continue doing what we do well, but in a way that's clearer and more explicit for students and faculty."

Otterbein College