The faculty of the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences voted on May 3 to pilot the first significant, comprehensive changes to the College’s undergraduate student curriculum in more than 40 years.
The new curriculum model to be piloted has three distinct components designed to better prepare students for a rapidly transforming world. It covers the breadth of the liberal arts in a way that emphasizes open inquiry and reflection, shared intellectual experiences and synthesis and connection across disciplines and fields of knowledge.
“In voting to pilot this new general education curriculum, the College is recommitting itself to the liberal arts in the 21st century,” said Chad Wellmon, an associate professor of German who chaired the General Education Committee that led the curricular reform process. “This historic step will strengthen our ability to provide UVA students an education that connects the knowledge and purpose of the liberal arts with lifelong commitments to citizenship, vocation and the love of learning.”
The new curriculum proposal passed by an 83 percent majority vote, with 210 in favor and 41 opposed. Specifically, the faculty voted to implement a three-year development phase of the new curriculum, beginning with a cohort drawn from among the College’s entering class of 2017-18. (Currently enrolled students will proceed with the existing curriculum.)
Upon receiving annual reports assessing the curriculum pilot, the faculty will subsequently vote to confirm, extend or cease the pilot study. Affirmation of the pilot in April 2018 would put the new curriculum into full effect as early as the 2019-20 academic year. If the faculty elect to extend the pilot for an additional year, a final vote would be taken on whether to implement the curriculum for all students entering the College in the 2020-21 academic year.
“The faculty General Education Committee delivered a bold, meaningful and purposeful proposal for the undergraduate curriculum,” said Ian Baucom, Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences. “As a leading public research university, UVA is dedicated to advancing knowledge and developing citizen leaders for an increasingly complex world that is in constant flux. The new curriculum model will help us build on the historical strengths of our liberal arts and sciences education to better equip our students – to flourish in their chosen careers and to flourish as active, reflective, articulate and contributing members of civic communities.”
The “Engagements,” the first component of courses in the new curriculum, are designed to help students develop intellectual sensibilities that are generally deployed across all realms of inquiry. Uniquely tailored to the first year of study, the Engagements examine four distinct ways for students to garner knowledge: Aesthetic Engagement; Empirical and Scientific Engagement; Engaging Difference and Ethical Engagement. The Engagement courses aim to introduce students to an intellectual framework that will guide them in the acquisition and discovery of knowledge from the moment they arrive on Grounds.
Wednesday’s vote also sparks the creation of the “College Fellows” – a new, rotating cohort of Arts & Sciences faculty members drawn from across academic programs and charged with designing and teaching the Engagement courses.
“Creating a body of College Fellows drawn from faculty across the arts and sciences is one of the most compelling aspects of the plan,” said Kelsey Johnson, associate professor of astronomy and a General Education Committee member. “The Engagement courses the College Fellows will develop are poised to offer a unique and appealing first-year experience for students, creating the opportunity for curricular touchstones that will guide them in the exploration of their major as well as their broader lives beyond their time at UVA.”
For the “Literacies,” the second component of the new curriculum, students will take courses designed to provide fluency in three areas: World Languages; Rhetoric for the 21st Century; and Quantification, Computation and Data Analysis. In addition to taking a world language, students will take a first-year writing course that includes written, as well as oral and digital assignments, and they will develop quantitative literacy in both theory and application to help them navigate a rapidly transforming global community increasingly awash in numbers and data.
The “Disciplines,” the third component of the new curriculum, introduces students to coursework exploring a wide range of perspectives, grounded in disciplinary thinking, as defined under seven revised categories: Artistic, Interpretive and Philosophical Inquiry; the Chemical and Physical Universe; Cultures and Societies of the World; Historical Perspectives; Living Systems; Social and Economic Systems; and Science and Society.
This recent effort to revise the College’s undergraduate curriculum dates back to the spring of 2011, when an ad-hoc group of Arts & Sciences faculty came together to study the current curriculum and imagine ways to reshape it to better prepare students for the future.
Upon his arrival at UVA in the summer of 2014, Baucom encouraged the General Education Committee to resume its work and pursue a new and innovative 21st century curriculum through a deep level of consultation with the faculty. A series of public forums open to faculty and students were held in the past year to provide updates on the proposed curriculum, answer questions and gather feedback.
“Our colleagues across the College have been, and continue to be, deeply engaged in the curriculum effort,” Wellmon said. “Their wisdom and frank critique challenged us to offer an ambitious, principled and scalable proposal that is, above all, deeply committed to educating our students.”
With more than 50 undergraduate majors and concentrations and more than two dozen graduate programs, the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences spans the liberal arts and incorporates the natural sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences while serving as the academic home on Grounds to more than 10,000 undergraduate students, more than 1,300 graduate students and over 700 faculty members.