Connecticut College rethinks general education with new approach to curriculum
New London — For about 40 years, many Connecticut College students selected their courses like those at most universities, taking classes outside their majors mostly at random in an attempt to complete a mandatory general education checklist.
It's what Dean of the College Jefferson Singer calls the "checkbox problem."
"They're checking off the boxes to fulfill the requirements without any great thought as to why they're taking those courses or how they relate to each other," he explained.
But come the fall semester — and with it the Class of 2020 — Singer and other officials are hoping "Connections," the college's first newly designed curriculum in 40 years, will change that.
In short, the new curriculum asks students to choose an interdisciplinary "pathway," such as social justice and sustainability, in addition to their major by their sophomore year.
Then, with guidance from an individualized team of faculty, staff and peer advisers, the students would work to choose courses, internships or study-away opportunities and, eventually, senior projects that reflect the pathway they chose.
To prepare students to make those connections, Singer said, the curriculum also boasts new "ConnCourses" — revised courses that still introduce each major but now also help students see how that major is connected to other disciplines.
Because workers increasingly have to incorporate aspects of multiple fields into their jobs while working with people whose backgrounds are different from their own, the changes couldn't come at a better time, Conn College President Katherine Bergeron said.
"It's so clear that this new generation of students really needs a new kind of education," Bergeron said, adding that the need for characteristics such as curiosity, creativity, tolerance and empathy is "greater than ever before."
"We need students who will have more of these capacities and therefore more courage to address the complex issues that divide us," she said.
Weston Stephens, a sophomore and U.S. history major, said he almost wishes he was two years younger so he could be part of the new curriculum.
Still, Stephens said he's been able, with his adviser's help, to exemplify how Connections will work by deliberately choosing courses and projects that relate to his interest in peace and conflict.
Recently, he said, he used the pathway mindset to pick a topic for a map project in his geographic information systems class.
He could've randomly chosen census or other widely available data to use for the project, he explained, but instead dug up old texts and maps about a World War I battle that interested him.
Armed with that research, he's working to create and analyze a new, more comprehensive map.
"Anyone can do a major and go along with that," Stephens said. "But this, it really involves you with your classes and makes you think in a very different way."
Singer, who said he went through dozens of university websites while working on the development of Connections, said he hasn't seen anything quite like it elsewhere.
"There simply is not another curriculum that has the same degree of integration across four years," Singer said. "Many have elements of it and do those beautifully, but the ambitiousness of our curriculum is that we put the pieces together into a coherent whole."
Conn College, Bergeron and Singer noted, has been doing something similar to the Connections curriculum for some of its students for about 20 years.
By choosing to work with one of the college's four applicable centers for interdisciplinary scholarship, students have been able to earn certificates in areas including international studies, the environment, arts/technology and public policy/community action to complement their majors.
The issue, Singer said, is that the centers have been highly selective, catering to only about 320 of the college's more than 1,900 undergraduate students at any given time.
"We had an integrated program that was reaching 80 students (per class) that we knew was better than what was being offered to everyone else," Singer said. "We had to figure out a way to bring that experience to every student."
Despite having an outline in place, Singer said it took faculty, staff and students almost four years to hammer out the details, and there is still work to be done.
Because some faculty will see an increased workload in terms of advisees and others will need to adapt to their redesigned courses, officials have pursued a "substantial" grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help train faculty to teach more effectively.
Singer said the application will be reviewed in June.
In addition to helping students "master the art of complex problem solving," Bergeron said she expects the curriculum to increase students' involvement in New London, whether they're taking new community-based courses or working in local schools and nonprofits to complete internships and other projects.
"The notion that we live in a global society is something we can experience in our community because of the diversity of perspectives that exists in New London," Bergeron said.
"There are some wonderful opportunities, especially with the pathway curriculum and the magnet school concept in New London, to develop some things together," she said.