The Gettysburg Curriculum: A New Era Begins

by Jim Hale

Members of the Class of 2008 made history this past fall, becoming the first Gettysburgians to tackle a new curriculum that Provost Dan DeNicola described as "the most significant changes in our bachelor's degrees in nearly forty years."

The Gettysburg Curriculum's aim, DeNicola said, is "a powerfully transformative educational experience that prepares our graduates to flourish in this complex twenty-first century world." Incorporating that world's technology, the strongly interdisciplinary curriculum requires each student to maintain an online Learning Portfolio throughout his or her four years at Gettysburg. Portfolios are to include examples of coursework as well as "reflective prefaces" discussing the examples and where each fits in the student's overall educational experience.

Also, each major now includes a carefully crafted senior "capstone" experience - such as independent research, student teaching, a seminar, or an artistic project - that reveals and deepens connections encompassing the entire major.

Course requirements are distributed among four goals, which President Katherine Haley Will highlighted in her Inaugural Address: "Our students are accomplished in the classroom, but they are also strikingly well-rounded, interested in so many things. Involved. Our new curriculum calls them to engage in multiple inquiries, integrative thinking, effective communication, and local and global citizenship."

Multiple Inquiries
The Multiple Inquiries requirements are intended to foster wide-ranging analytical frameworks applicable to texts spanning the breadth of human inquiry and expression.
"Suppose, for example, someone were studying photography. Think how much is gained when one can understand photography not only from, say, an aesthetic point of view, but also from philosophical, historical, sociological, chemical, economic, psychological and other perspectives," DeNicola said. "We expect students to learn a variety of approaches, to apply them aptly, and to understand their value and their limitations."

Requirements include one course in the arts, one in the humanities, one in the social sciences, and two in the natural sciences. One of the latter must include lab work.

Each course is designed to introduce the discipline's characteristic modes of inquiry, expression and analysis. "For instance, introductory biology courses will teach students the use of the scientific method and the various steps of biological research, analytical skills such as descriptive statistics, and a foundational set of laboratory skills," Vice Provost Teresa Amott said. "In the process, students will write a scientific paper that will represent exemplary work in biology and be posted to their portfolios," she said. Such postings will be required for each Multiple Inquiries course.

Integrative Thinking
The curriculum's Integrative Thinking component aims to develop critical-thinking skills and open-minded consideration of varying methodologies, perspectives, and presuppositions. "It is not enough to have compartmentalized knowledge," DeNicola said. "Integrative thinking is required to create solutions, to develop new ideas, to exert leadership."

Requirements include either two interdisciplinary courses or a "cluster" of two courses in different disciplines. The latter must be linked by a "synthetic experience," such as a service-learning project designed to address issues raised in both courses or a major paper written for the second course but incorporating learning from the first. Students can design their own cluster and synthetic experience, or faculty members from different disciplines can collaborate to design a cluster and synthetic experience.

Integrative Thinking requirements also include a course in quantitative, inductive, or deductive reasoning and the senior capstone experience. Again, portfolio postings are required.

Effective Communication
The Effective Communication segment includes proficiency in writing, reading, speaking, using electronic media, and engaging in artistic expression. "Today we are all drowning in information. An effective education must now teach students how to evaluate information, to marshal relevant evidence persuasively, to communicate effectively - in person, in writing, and in technologically enhanced ways," DeNicola said.

Options for the first-year writing requirement have been expanded to include opportunities such as designated First-Year Seminars, Introduction to College Writing, or a first-year course within a discipline that emphasizes its discourse conventions. " Psychologists, for instance, communicate research findings through papers written in a particular style. That style differs from the style used by mathematicians," Amott said. Beyond the first-year experience, each department or program will develop a plan for teaching the communication conventions in the major.

Local and Global Citizenship
Local and Global Citizenship requirements fall into three categories.

  • The Cultural Diversity requirement includes a non-Western course and a course in domestic or conceptual diversity.
  • One course on the interaction of Science, Technology, and Society is required.
  • Also, four foreign language courses are required, though the final course can be replaced by a faculty-approved alternative experience that demonstrates intermediate-level language competence.

Curriculum sparks innovation
" The faculty is doing a terrific job of developing new courses inspired by the new curriculum," said Amott, who pointed to three examples:

  • In their course, The Birth of a Deadly "Boy": The History of the Atomic Bombings of Japan, history Prof. Dina Lowy and physics Prof. Sharon Stephenson plan to examine the science behind atomic weaponry and the military and political decisions leading to the dropping of the devices called "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The course would satisfy the Local and Global Citizenship segment's Science, Technology, and Society requirement.
  • Service learning and cross-cultural experiences in Argentina will be the centerpiece of Prof. Alicia Rolón's Spanish 207 course. An intensive summer language course will be coupled with a one-week project at a poor rural school in Tilcara, an area with a large Indian population, and a three-week project at an orphanage in the city of Marco Juárez, where students will live with local families. "Students' exposure to the cultural, social and geographical diversity of a Latin American country will enhance their linguistic and cultural competencies," Rolón said. Students will be able to take the course in lieu of the traditional Spanish 202.
  • Prof. Susan Russell's World Theatre course will reach beyond the traditional European and North American canon to include works from the African, Asian, Indian, Caribbean, and other traditions, and focus on issues of globalism, post-colonialism, and inter-cultural collaboration. The course could satisfy either the Multiple Inquires humanities requirement or the Local and Global Citizenship Cultural Diversity requirement.

Many other innovative courses are in the approval process. The faculty voted to adopt the overall structure of the new curriculum in March 2003, following two years of work by a subcommittee of the faculty's Academic Policy and Program Committee.

Credit system updated
The new curriculum also refines the College's course-credit system to reflect twenty-first century realities and opportunities.

" Courses have become much more intensive experiences than they used to be. They're spilling out of the boundaries of the traditional three-hour time-slot," Amott said. Out-of-classroom experiences such as twenty-four-hour online discussion forums, intensive service-learning projects, and viewing films require an unprecedented amount of students' time. In addition, there is simply more for students to learn as knowledge continues to increase in every discipline. For example, Amott said, "an introductory biology class now has to cover material that used to be taught in advanced courses."

With so much going on in each class, Amott said it makes sense to require thirty-two credits for graduation, as do three-quarters of Gettysburg's peers in the nation's top fifty liberal arts colleges. The old thirty-five-credit requirement - a relic from the days of the inter-semester January Term, which became unworkable and was terminated in the late 1980s - forced students to take a fifth class as part of their normal load during some of their semesters. By contrast, the new curriculum's eight four-course semesters will provide students with more time to engage in out-of-classroom experiences. "It will allow students to get more out of the courses they take," Amott said, and will in fact permit the faculty to make classes more demanding. No longer will professors need to consider how the workload will affect the students who are taking five courses that semester rather than four.

Moreover, required labs will no longer be counted as fractional credits. That change "levels the playing field" by recognizing that science courses are not the only ones that require extensive work outside the classroom, Amott said. Similarly, credit will no longer be given for participation in musical ensembles, though students will be able to take a for-credit course focusing on the connections that link their ensemble experiences.

Revealing such connections, which weave a student's entire Gettysburg experience into a meaningful whole, is the goal at the heart of the new curriculum. "We ask students to be self-reflective, to write and think in ways that express a growing self-awareness about the progress and impact of their education," DeNicola said. "And we ask students to make connections in what they are learning, to see relevant implications across courses, to achieve an education that is more than a transcript of self-contained courses."

Learning Portfolios
Students' electronic Learning Portfolios are much more than a scrapbook. "Their real purpose is to develop reflection as a habit of mind, a habit of making meaning out of experience," said GailAnn Rickert, dean of academic advising.

In their portfolios, students are required to post exemplary coursework, essays reflecting on that work, and key documents such as letters explaining to their advisors why they chose their particular major. But postings are not limited to the requirements or to the written word. In the "gallery" section of their portfolios, students can post and contextualize a broad range of evidence of the meaning they have found in their Gettysburg experience -drawings, music, voices, videos - essentially anything that can be translated into digital 1's and 0's.

Preserving and organizing important work and meaningful memories will help students to see their education as a coherent story and to present that story effectively to others. That is the goal of the portfolios, Rickert said. "An ¿A' in a course tells you that learning took place, but it doesn't tell you much about that learning," she said. "We want students to start making connections between classes instead of seeing things as discrete little boxes. The classroom wall is porous now."

Students will be able to use their portfolios as the basis of resumes tailored to specific audiences, perhaps when applying for a position as a residence hall assistant or, later, admission to graduate school. And the College will be able to use the portfolios to identify trends and evaluate programs, Rickert said.

Additional positive contributions to campus life and the educational experience will reveal themselves as students make more use of the portfolio, Rickert said. "It really is an evolving animal."