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Plans to Renew Amherst's Curriculum

As I noted in my letter, the Amherst faculty has already begun the process of curricular renewal to ensure the best and most coherent education possible for our students, for example by agreeing to set College-wide priorities to help shape the curriculum for years to come. The faculty has also recommended that all Amherst students fulfill a writing requirement and is exploring ways to enhance the curriculum in areas such as quantitative analysis, science for non-majors, the arts, foreign languages, global comprehension and interdisciplinary studies.

Here are some of the comments and suggestions alumni have shared on the proposed curricular renewal, below...

The New Emphasis on College-wide Priorities

The Amherst faculty has endorsed the Committee on Academic Priorities’ recommendation that the future allocation of faculty positions be made in accordance with an agreed-upon set of College-wide priorities. The current set of such priorities includes plans to enhance the curriculum through increased emphasis on writing and quantitative analysis across the disciplines, in the practice of the arts, in fostering global comprehension, in expanding opportunities for experiential learning, and in strengthening interdisciplinary studies at Amherst. Most alumni who have written to me agree that these are valuable goals to pursue:

“During my time at Amherst, I dreamed…that the College would one day be more receptive to a more cutting-edge, nuanced learning environment. Through your initiatives, I think that this day will soon be reached.” — Alumna, Class of 2004

“No one can argue with better writing…[and]…I think some ability in quantitative analysis has become essential for high-level functioning in our increasingly complex, empirically focused, data-flooded world. Third…I think it’s absolutely essential to require some science for non-majors…I am appalled at the number of students matriculating in law schools who seem to think that even the most minimum background in science would be irrelevant…” — Alumnus, Class of 1985

However, the brevity of my letter did not allow me to explain how the process of allocating new faculty positions will work in sufficient detail, as some comments and questions from alumni have shown.

“I don’t see a need for Amherst to guide itself unnecessarily towards professionalism or globalism when its hallmark and the source of its singularity has been a strong commitment to a liberal arts education…Perhaps [writing and quantitative analysis] are worthwhile skills to elevate within departmental curricula, but not at the denigration of more ‘traditional’ or ‘disciplinary’ subjects… Giving short shrift to the faculty needs of disciplinary departments—handicapping their ability to deliver these lessons—seems an unfair exchange for the pursuit of some perceived relevancy, which I strongly feel the College already amply provides.” — Alumnus, Class of 2003

The allocation of faculty positions in accordance with College-wide priorities will not undermine or weaken departments. Rather, it will allow them to expand their offerings by adding new specialties within their disciplines while also ensuring that all departments are working to strengthen the curriculum as a whole. We envision a system through which a department desiring to add a specialist will contract with the Dean of the Faculty to provide courses that meet College-wide priorities in return for the new position. This obligation will not fall to the new hire (unless appropriate), but rather will be a collective responsibility of department members. For example, the Biology department might agree to teach a course in science writing and an additional biology course for non-majors in return for a position to hire a new genomicist. In this way, the department’s, the College’s and—most importantly—our students’ needs are all met.

The Writing Requirement vs. the Open Curriculum

Most alumni who have responded to my letter have expressed support for the proposed writing requirement that will help all students to enhance their writing and critical thinking skills during their time at Amherst. Others have asked for more detail about how the requirement will be implemented. In coming months, the Committee on Educational Policy, in consultation with a faculty-led working group on writing and the College’s Writing Center, will be formulating an implementation proposal to bring before the faculty for deliberation and a vote.

“Legislating proficiency in writing seems just right for an institution that so proudly proclaims its graduates will light the world, for words are the pure fire behind that light.” — Alumnus, Class of 1960

“I like the notion of offering/requiring a course to improve student writing. Amherst taught me how to write. A few C+ papers first semester forced the issue. A formal class dedicated to writing improvement would be extraordinary.” — Alumnus, Class of 1998

Several have also noted that this requirement—the first to be implemented in nearly 30 years—raises challenging questions about the tension between allowing students the freedom to range widely through the open curriculum while impressing upon them the concomitant responsibility to pursue a broad educational foundation in the best traditions of the liberal arts.

“Although the complete and utter freedom of the [open] curriculum was quite nice, I agree that requiring some kind of minimum distribution (writing and quantitative competency) makes sense…I would encourage you to keep as much freedom as possible for the student, making course selection more of an ongoing dialogue between student and advisor rather than ‘requirements’ to be enforced.” — Alumnus, Class of 1995

“I can appreciate that the College is attempting to walk a fine line between curricular freedom and prescription…for me the almost anarchic curricular freedom we enjoyed during my time at Amherst (1997-2001) was…the determining factor when I chose Amherst…The freedom to argue your case with your advisor, and take everything and anything—that was what made Amherst significantly different from, and to my mind better than, every other high-tier school in the nation.” -- Alumnus, Class of 2001

“I for one favor some emphasis on writing as I find much to be desired in what I see as output from college graduates…I do think that more required courses do undercut one of two major points of differentiation of Amherst from its peer group…the Five College consortium…[and]…the open curriculum, [which] is being eaten away. — Alumnus, Class of 1959 and Parent ’01

The Value of Interdisciplinarity

Amherst graduates in a wide range of professions have found that the ability to bring different disciplinary approaches to bear on a problem has served them well in their careers.

“My research…[focuses on] the ecology, evolution and social consequences of emerging infectious diseases. I credit my education at Amherst with allowing me to see the benefits of unified approaches that span diverse disciplines.” — Alumnus, Class of 1990

“I applaud your determination to bring the disciplines closer through common requirements and interdisciplinary programs. As a dean of arts and sciences for eight years…I struggled to make the disciplines stronger while providing incentives for them to work together. It is a long and sometimes thankless task, but a worthy one.” — Alumnus, Class of 1955

“The integration of teaching from various disciplines was very valuable for my Freshman year at Amherst (1949-50). It has made all the difference in the rest of my college, medical school, and later, theology school education.” — Alumnus, Class of 1953

“I am one of the alumni proud to have been shaped by the New Curriculum. Chief among its advantages was the faculty’s interdepartmental collaboration, which modeled a sense of community and mutual respect that is at the root of a liberal society and a pre-condition for ethical culture and conduct—and thus generative for forming ‘accountable leaders.’”— Alumnus, Class of 1966

Five College Collaboration

Several alumni have suggested that Amherst could make better use of the resources of the other institutions in the Pioneer Valley to add depth or breadth to our curriculum:

“Five College participation enables a person to get some perspective on the opportunities and true excellence at Amherst, and to broaden inquiry on a lot of levels. Some manner of encouragement of this dimensional opportunity is deserved on a college-wide basis.” — Alumnus, Class of 1973

“I was frustrated while at Amherst that we did not have more classes about Latin America. However, I found such courses at the Five Colleges…Amherst may be too small to have courses for [every region of the world], and yet a “The World” department would be too broad to be wholly worthwhile. As a result it may be best to take into account the strengths of the nearby colleges….The Five College Latin American Studies Certificate is a good example of intercollegiate cooperation. Perhaps more [such] programs could be added…” — Alumnus, Class of 2004E

The Five College consortium is a tremendous asset to participating institutions and we are always collectively looking for ways to make that collaboration even more effective for our students and faculty. That said, it is important that an Amherst education should remain just that—talented students brought together to learn from outstanding faculty and from each other in a close-knit community. I expect that the faculty and the Committee on Educational Policy face challenging deliberations in the months and years ahead as we work to strike the right balance between expanding Amherst’s curriculum in some areas while making the fullest possible use of the courses and specialties available at neighboring institutions.

The Use of Technology in Teaching

“Our world is in revolution, engaging, connecting, and sharing like never before. Technology is delivering unimaginable possibilities. How will technology shape current and future engagements?” — Alumnus, Class of 1975

I wonder if the campus dialogue might include discussion of how to address techno-communicating…there’s a real [generational] divide. I wonder if the faculty and students are addressing it.” — Alumnus, Class of 1969

These alumni raise excellent points about the possibilities—both positive and negative—that the rapid advance of technology offers higher education. Amherst has both much progress to report and much still to learn in this arena. We are continually exploring ways to use new technologies to enhance teaching and learning at the College while sustaining the immediacy of student-faculty interaction that is the hallmark of the Amherst education.

For example, today’s Amherst students can extend classroom debates using online discussion forums, and they are able to communicate with their teachers more frequently than ever before using e-mail. And faculty such as Professor Wako Tawa are using “asynchronous learning” technologies to enable students in introductory Japanese language classes to work at their own pace and receive more tailored instruction from instructors during class time, who are able to spend more time evaluating each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

There is no question that such advances, when thoughtfully employed, can enrich the education we provide immeasurably. The College has recently reorganized and strengthened its Academic Technology Services team to help Amherst continue to make progress in this area in coming years.

Student Teaching Evaluations

Several alumni who serve as faculty members at colleges and universities across the country caution us about the potential abuses of student teaching evaluations when they are linked to faculty performance reviews:

“In my first tenure-track position, a faculty-wide average of numerical evaluations was determined…and…an untenured person was at risk if her or his own evaluations fell below this average, even by a few hundredths of a point…this example suggests how student evaluations can be misunderstood and misused.” — Alumnus, Class of 1967

“My experiences at Harvard and the University of Illinois have taught me that student evaluations of courses, if they are used for faculty evaluation, tend to degrade the quality of education…The quality of an Amherst education rests on the freedom of the Amherst faculty to teach what they believe, and to push students to think beyond their normal limits. Undergrads (even Amherst undergrads) are not qualified to judge the effectiveness of their courses until after they have graduated and have gained a broader perspective on their education and on the world…I strongly believe that the comments of students should be viewed only as suggestions for the instructor, and should not be used as part of the formal faculty evaluation process.” — Alumnus, Class of 1990

“I have always found course evaluations by students to be somewhat of a farce…The only positive reason I can think of for them is to help the instructor improve his teaching of the course…I would hate to hear about a worthy candidate being denied tenure because of some insubstantial remarks by disgruntled students.” — Alumnus, Class of 1952

We are cognizant of the dangers of using formulaic, multiple-choice course evaluation systems such as those employed at some larger colleges and universities, and it is important to note that Amherst uses evaluations that require students to articulate in writing their suggestions for improving a course. Student evaluations have been included as part of the tenure review process at Amherst for some years, but only as filtered through the experienced eyes of senior colleagues, and with the addition of retrospective evaluative essays written by alumni.

Amherst is committed to the ideal of education as a dialogue between students and faculty, and in that spirit it seems important to us to solicit students’ views on the courses they take. That said, the faculty have yet to decide how a more widespread process of requesting such feedback will be implemented, and have already made clear that student evaluations of tenured faculty will be shared only with the appropriate instructor with the aim of improving pedagogy.