New F&M Curriculum Builds Critical Skills in Sequence, Across Disciplines

  • Professor of Sociology Katherine McClelland, shown here teaching, served on a committee to develop a revised curriculum for incoming students at Franklin & Marshall College. McClelland is developing a seminar that will examine public education in the United States today. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

First-year students arriving at Franklin & Marshall College this fall will blaze a new path to developing critical thinking skills across disciplines, as the College launches a revised curriculum.

The result of its latest periodic review of the learning agenda on campus, the College has created a sequential course structure to allow students to build foundational skills through the lens of a variety of specialized subjects. The core courses, called Connections 1 and Connections 2 seminars, build on the principles of first-year seminars and "Foundations" courses that have been in place since 1998 and will be phased out starting in the fall.

To allow students to pursue study of specific topics while concurrently developing skills that are essential to college learning and achievement, professors such as Chair of the Music Department Matthew Butterfield, who served on the Curricular Review Steering Committee, are creating or modifying a range of courses. Butterfield's new Connections 1 seminar, titled "The 'I' of Music," will examine questions such as: How does music help us to articulate a sense of self? What kind of story does our music tell us about who we are and where we come from?  

"The course is designed to open students up a little bit to some of their assumptions about music and to help them understand how aesthetic qualities are related to various forms of identity, including class, race, and gender," Butterfield said.

"The new curriculum is a transformation of the Foundations model, not an overhaul. It takes what's best about Foundations and first-year seminars and unifies them into a more coherent curricular narrative. Connections 1 seminars introduce students to the liberal arts as a way of thinking."

F&M reassesses and refines the curriculum every few years, said Carmen Tisnado, associate dean of the faculty and a professor of Spanish. During the most recent deliberations in 2011, however, a number of faculty members proposed more substantial changes, prompting a comprehensive review.

"We decided to reexamine not only the Foundations component of the curriculum, but also the general education curriculum overall. We gathered ideas and then presented models that faculty discussed and debated. In the end, the model that was approved by a vast majority of the faculty in April 2013 was the Connections curriculum," Tisnado said, noting that the changes formally were adopted in January.

Under the new structure, incoming students must take Connections 1 and Connections 2 in order and complete them by the end of their sophomore year. Connections seminars also will have fewer students than Foundations seminars, with a cap of 16 students rather than 25.

"We are being very intentional with sequencing all of the skills our students need for their academic life," Tisnado added. "The main idea of Connections is the word itself. Students not only will establish connections about how ideas from different disciplines relate to one another, but also link the skills practiced in these different areas.

"Students can choose to study different topics in each of the courses, but they are building certain common skills in reading, writing, information literacy, research and public speaking. In the first stage, for example, students will learn to become good, close readers. In the second stage, we will encourage them to find their own resources and do independent research that builds on close reading."

Associate Professor of Chemistry Edward Fenlon is modifying what will become a Connections 2 seminar, tentatively called "The Pill and Viagra." Students will explore the ethical, moral, religious, economic, and societal implications of how science intersects with sexual reproduction.

"As the name suggests, these seminars build connections between different disciplines, in this case between marketing and ethics, religion and chemistry," he said. "You can take any complex issue, and to really understand it, you have to look at it from a lot of different perspectives. This new structure will give students a certain level of skills in library research, effective argument, advanced writing, and public speaking."

Professor of Sociology Katherine McClelland, who served with Fenlon on the Connections program committee last summer, has developed a Connections 2 seminar that will examine public education in the United States today. In addition to advanced writing, reading and research, students will complete a community-based learning component, specifically, tutoring public school students in the Lancaster community.

"Working in the classroom gives students a different perspective on schools, while at the same time providing a service to the community," McClelland said. “Community-based learning enables us to draw connections of a different sort than we can in a traditional classroom setting." McClelland said.

To prepare for the transition, the College's Faculty Center has been offering workshops for professors teaching courses under the new structure, Tisnado said. Students also will be trained at the Writing Center to assist their peers in developing skills that are essential to the Connections seminars.

"While we always have had a focus on building these critical thinking and learning skills, this new curriculum will allow students to be more aware of the skills they are developing," Tisnado said. "That kind of awareness will lead to a more reflective way in which they start and pursue their studies. We are really looking forward to starting this curriculum next semester."

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