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Seattle University


Getting to the Core

Written by Mike Thee
May 17, 2011

You may have noticed that there’s been a lot of news related to the Core Curriculum lately. Earlier this month, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved the recommendation for a new University Core Curriculum. The new model emerged out of a 17-month process led by the University Core Revision Committee. In announcing the trustees’ approval, Provost Isiaah Crawford acknowledged the work of the committee, and particularly Nalini Iyer of the Department of English, Vicky Minderhout of the College of Science and Engineering and Greg Prussia of the Albers School of Business and Economics. 

The new Core consists of 60 credits and is organized into four modules: module 1: Engaging Academic Inquiry (30 credits); module 2: Engaging the Self and Others (15 credits); module 3: Engaging the World (15 credits); module 4: Reflection (3 credits in the major). 

Another key development related to the Core came last month when it was announced that Jeff Philpott was reappointed director of the program. “Dr. Philpott brings to this position expertise in best practices in curriculum development and pedagogy in general education as well as significant experience with the details and operations of the Core,” Provost Crawford said in announcing the reappointment. This is Philpott’s third three-year term as director.  He recently sat down with The Commons to talk about the new Core. 

The Commons:  Can you briefly take us through the evolution of the new Core? 

Jeff Philpott: This began some time ago.  Several of the strategic planning committees that Father Steve (Sundborg, S.J.) put together in 2007-2008 recommended that the Core be examined. In that same year, Father Steve addressed the faculty at the Provost’s Convocation and called for the creation of “a new Core for the new student of the new world.” The following year, Provost Crawford arrived and started developing the Academic Strategic Action Plan, and met with a lot of faculty and staff as part of that process.  Revising the Core became a key element in that plan. So, the University Core Revision Committee was created in the fall of 2009 and worked for a year and a half to put together this proposal, again meeting with students, faculty and staff from all the different colleges. 

The issues that prompted the revision weren’t so much the weaknesses of the current Core—although, from my perspective, there are some—but instead after 25 years (with our current Core), it was clear we were a different university, our students were different, our world was different, the academic disciplines in the Core had evolved, and this was an opportunity to reshape it from the ground up. 

The Commons:  How will the new Core be different from the current Core? 

Jeff Philpott: The new Core is different in several ways. One, it’s smaller. The current Core is 75 credits and 15 courses; the new Core is 60 credits and 12 courses. One of the things we heard from the professional schools is that a smaller Core would help their students complete their requirements for their majors and hopefully still have some electives. 

Secondly, one of the things we heard from both faculty and students is that they wanted the Core to have a global focus, and so the new module 3 is very much focused on global problems, and all students will get at least three courses offering a chance to explore the relationships between their studies and global issues. 

Third, it’s an outcomes-based Core. Instead of primarily being based on taking a series of disciplines, the new Core is built on a set of goals that were developed first in the process. What are the qualities that we want our graduating students to have? What knowledge do we want them to have, what skills do we want them to have acquired, what values do we want them to have developed, what habits of mind do we want them to have acquired? And so we developed those first, in consultation with faculty, staff and students, and then we went back and designed a curriculum to try to deliver this. So in many cases, where the Core would require a course in a particular discipline, the new Core doesn’t require a specific discipline, but instead a range of disciplines could be involved in a particular course, as long as all of those courses are designed to achieve those same learning objectives. 

The Commons: I’ve heard it mentioned that the new Core will be more thematically focused. Can you talk a bit about that? 

Jeff Philpott: Part of our goal with that is to put together a curriculum in which we have a faculty member who’s teaching a course that she or he is really passionate about, populated with students who have chosen to be in that course because they’re interested in that specific topic. We think that is going to produce better learning as students feel a greater sense of ownership in selecting their courses. We also think it will be more interesting for faculty because they’ll be able to develop some really creative and exciting courses to reflect their own interest and research. 

It still is a very much a Jesuit, Catholic Core. All students will take theology courses. All students will still study philosophy and ethics. All students will get a broad background in Humanities and liberal arts. 

One other change is that we’ve added a second science course. The current Core only had a single science course, and one of the things that we heard from a lot of people was that that just wasn’t adequate to prepare people for the world we live in.  

The Commons: How would you describe the significance of the new Core? 

Jeff Philpott: My hope is that the Core becomes a visible, signature program for the university. From my perspective—and admittedly I’m biased as Core director—the Core is the central educational experience of our undergraduates, and it’s an important part of our identity and educational mission. I’d like to see us use this opportunity, in implementing the Core, to make the Core more visible, both to our students as well as the public at-large. It is, in many ways, a cutting-edge Core. It uses some best practices based in research. I think this is a Core that will get noticed by other universities. It will get noticed by parents of students as something distinctive about a Seattle University education. 

It’s also a discussion that doesn’t happen very often. Our current Core has been in place for 25 years, and it has been a good Core for those 25 years. This has been an opportunity for us to rethink that program in major ways: what are the essential features of an SU undergraduate education and how do we reinvigorate and highlight those so that our students are really getting that kind of experience. 

The Commons:  You said you believe the new Core will get noticed. Can you elaborate on that—what aspects of the Core will attract attention? 

Jeff Philpott: Several things, at least two things, in particular. In module one of the new Core, there are a set of inquiry seminars that, instead of being traditional intro survey courses in various disciplines (as students often experience in their freshman years at universities) will be courses that are built around questions or problems important in the discipline, so that students won’t simply learn about the discipline, but will also learn about an important question in that discipline and how scholars go about answering those kinds of questions. We’re trying to help them learn different ways of knowing the world in those courses. I think that’s really special and unique. And secondly, module 3 of the Core, with its focus on global engagement, is a really distinctive feature of the Core. One thing I hope people notice hasn’t changed is the emphasis on theology and philosophy that is so central to Jesuit education and has a prominent place in module 2. 

The Commons:  When will the new Core be fully implemented and what’s involved with that? 

Jeff Philpott: 2012-2013 is the plan right now; that might slip to 2013-2014. There’s a lot that needs to be done. Many faculty members will need to redevelop courses. The Provost’s Office has provided money to support those efforts, to offer workshops for faculty members, to help them understand the requirements of the Core, to develop a sense of ownership of those requirements, and to support them in developing new courses. We think that will be an exciting opportunity for the faculty members, but it’s also a lot of work. This probably means developing 100-200 new courses across the university. And then secondly, all of our admissions materials, our advising materials, the Registrar’s systems, the details of how students transfer from community colleges, all of that needs to be examined and revised in light of the new Core. There’s a lot of work to do. 

The Commons:  How does the timeline for the revision and implementation of our new Core compare with the process at other schools? 

Jeff Philpott:  I know some universities that have been discussing Core revisions for seven years and haven’t gotten to where we’re at. I know other universities that have done it in a year. We took a year and a half to develop the outline of the new Core. For some people, it was too fast; for others, it was about right. I think the implementation will likely take us a year and a half to get it right. And it’s important to get it right. We don’t want to put a Core in place that isn’t ready for our students, and that faculty aren’t ready and supported to teach. 

The Commons:  How many courses will need to be overhauled or created anew? 

Jeff Philpott:  A lot of them. It won’t require a complete overhaul of all of them. Many of the courses that are already offered in departments like English, history, philosophy, Fine Arts, theology and some of the social sciences will very easily transfer over with some minor tweaking. The natural sciences courses will probably require more work, in part because we are doubling the number of those courses in the new Core, and these new courses won’t be the traditional introduction to a field, the survey courses. So that’s a place where some more faculty positions are likely to be needed and faculty members are going to need to spend some time thinking about developing courses that are thematic, as opposed to introductory courses. Some people in that college are really excited about that and are already doing that in courses they’re teaching now. For example, Sue Jackels developed a course in the chemistry of food and nutrition several years ago, and a course like that would be a wonderful module 1 course in the new Core. General Science developed a new course on renewable energy—that would be a wonderful module 3 course in the new Core. But I think science is where we’re going to have to work to develop the most new courses, primarily because we’re doubling the number of courses that will be offered. 

The Commons: How many faculty are affected? 

Jeff Philpott:  Right now about 225 professors teach in the Core every year across 24 different departments in five different colleges and schools. So the short answer is a lot.  

The Commons:  What are your thoughts on being reappointed director of the Core Curriculum? 

Jeff Philpott:  I’m very excited about being reappointed. When I first took this position, I started attending conferences and reading about issues on curriculum and particularly Core curriculum design, and became very interested in some of the models and research out there for helping students learn and grow. To be the Core director at the time when we’re both discussing a new Core and then implementing a new Core that builds on some of those models is an engaging challenge for me. I also know the process has been both difficult and exciting for many people. Change is never easy. We have many faculty members who have invested a great deal in the courses that they teach and are incredibly loyal advocates for the current Core, and many people are sorry to see that change, and I understand that. So, at times, it’s been a difficult process, and I appreciate where people are coming from when they raise those concerns. Part of my goal as I move forward with the implementation process is to reach out to all of the faculty members on Seattle University’s campus, especially those who teach in the Core, and to get them involved in the details of developing these courses and a curriculum that remains true to our Jesuit character, that frees up faculty members to teach in ways that are exciting to them and that educates our students well. I’m sure it will be a challenge at times, but I’m looking forward to it. 

The Commons:  Anything else? 

Jeff Philpott:  Implementing a new Core is really an all-hands-on-deck kind of activity. While the faculty have primary ownership of the curriculum, staff members of all sorts, administrators, students, they’re all important in this effort. They’ve been involved in developing it this far, and they need to be involved as we move forward. Certainly our advisors, administrative assistants in departments, people in Student Development and admissions all have something to contribute. Everybody who works with students has a stake in the education of our students, so I’m open to including a wide variety of voices in this process and creating a strong sense of collective ownership in this program. This really should be a flagship program for the university that we all understand and can all be proud of.