By Sean Callahan
Saint Vincent College finished final revisions of a new core curriculum over the summer of 2020. Dr. Jason King, professor of theology and Director of Core, hopes that the new core will result in a more rewarding learning experience for future students. The curriculum had gone nearly untouched for more than 20 years, something that King, does not want to see happen again.
“There was never any mechanism to refine the core over time. A process we added for this is an assessment and feedback loop,” King said. “This will refine the core over time.”
He explained that the new core structure will not affect any current students, who will continue with the old core. Incoming freshman will begin utilizing the new structure.
King said that disciplines from the old core, such as theology, science and foreign languages could apply to the new core under specific categories, called “Student Learning Outcomes” (SLOs). This creates less of a focus on departments and more on individual faculty and areas of learning. There are only three universally required courses are in SLO 4: the Listening Seminar taken by freshman, the Learning Seminar taken by sophomores and juniors and the Loving Seminar taken by seniors. These will be taken throughout a student’s typical four years at SVC, and are meant to integrate their major with the core. Students may choose their preferred courses in other SLO sections.
Dr. Doreen Blandino, professor of modern and classical languages, said that she is concerned about the removal of department-specific requirements, especially for small departments at SVC with few students who are majors, like philosophy and theology.
“I’m worried about the longevity of our department. We offer six different languages. This is a point of pride, because such robust offerings are not typical at a college of our size. It’s helped us recruit students,” Blandino said.
Blandino said scheduling in the old core has been easy because of the core foreign language requirement. Now she feels the new core leaves the future uncertain in terms of which languages and the number of sections to offer.
Fr. Brian Boosel, O.S.B, assistant professor of history and director of the honors program, said the honors program wanted to help Blandino determine what languages students are interested in to help anticipate class offerings. So Boosel had the honors students answer a survey. As of Mar. 17, 40 honors students had responded. Half of the respondents expressed plans to take a foreign language, including less-popular ones such as Chinese, Italian and Latin, in fall of 2021. All except one respondent took a foreign language in high school.
“We want to gather information and bring this gift of foreign languages with us along this journey, as we’re building new courses and a new curriculum,” Boosel said.
King acknowledged the worries small department instructors like Blandino have. But he is confident that the new core structure will not result in lower enrollment for small departments, referring to the feedback loop system and the fact that several classes must be taken in each SLO category.
“If everybody in one SLO is taking history classes and nothing else, that’s a problem,” King said. “That would show up on our assessment, and we would go back and fix that by adjusting the class offerings.”
Blandino, despite her reservations about the core, said she does see positive aspects in it, even for her own department. She feels the flexibility of the SLOs could be beneficial because it allows all departments, including foreign languages, to propose courses for the core.
“One would assume students have enrolled in particular classes because they have an interest in learning about the subject. The hope would be that students are more engaged with the material and there would be a more positive learning environment,” Blandino said.
In addition, Blandino appreciates the seminars and stronger focus on writing, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with other instructors on future courses. She already has some planned.
“Tom Octave and I are going to team up and teach a course called ‘French Duet: Music and Language of France,’ for spring 2022, if approved,” Blandino said.
Blandino added that her department was proposing courses appealing to other majors, including Spanish for business or health professions, to better serve students pursuing careers in which a grasp of the Spanish language could be helpful.
Likewise, Boosel praised the new core’s creativity and flexibility it created for students, as well as its strong focus on writing. He said that the honors program is beginning to embrace the new core curriculum.
“In a couple of years, we’d like to offer a class in the philosophy and history of friendship, taught in French,” Boosel said.
However, he explained that prior semesters of intermediate French would be important for students, both for communication and the culture they will explore in this potential new course.
Blandino said that her department plans to further adjust to the new core structure by offering intermediate foreign language courses at lower tier SLOs, while placing two upper-level courses at a higher tier. But she is worried most students may not attempt a foreign language, since course requirements will no longer be department-based. She recounted stories of former and current students who claimed they would not have taken foreign language classes if they had not been required to take them.
“There is value in students customizing their core, but will they choose courses judiciously, and make the most of their liberal arts education? My fear is that students may not explore and challenge themselves and will take what they excel in or what they perceive to be easy,” Blandino said. “If students aren’t made to take it, the question becomes: are we going to be able maintain the foreign language minor for those who want to add value to their degrees?” Blandino said.
King is aware of this concern. Other departments have similar ones about their programs. However, King is confident that SVC has many great professors who will adapt to the changes of the core with time.
“All departments have to ensure that what they are offering in the core is focused on the SLOs. This often requires adapting what was previously taught to the demands of the new core,” he said.