Social Justice and the Curriculum: A Conversation with Provost Schuster
Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 19:04
The Chair of the SGA curriculum committee meets regularly with the Provost and the whole student Curriculum Committee meets twice a year with the Committee on Academic Priorities (CAP), made up of faculty and administrators. Recent discussions on campus about social justice and the desire to ensure that social justice is a part of every Smith student’s education led to a very productive meeting on Wednesday, April 18 between the student and faculty curriculum committees.
Meanwhile, Chair of the SGA Committee Bridget Rhinehart and Provost and Chair of CAP Marilyn Schuster have been talking about the Smith curriculum and how curricular change happens. Here is part of their conversation.
Rhinehart: What does “open curriculum” mean and how do we give shape to the Smith curriculum (or how to we draw boundaries or give direction to the open curriculum) ?
Schuster: The open curriculum at Smith means that a student’s education is shaped by the student and her academic advisers, guided by The Smith Design for Learning. The Design articulates the essential capacities that all Smith students should develop. They include skills such as critical thinking, clear writing and quantitative reasoning, but they also include “to become informed global citizens which requires engaging with communities beyond Smith, valuing tolerance and appreciating diversity, applying moral reasoning to ethical problems and understanding environmental challenges.” The Design recognizes that students learn outside of the classroom as well as in courses. The college has developed important new initiatives to support the goals of the Design, such as Liberal Arts Advising, the Centers and Concentrations.
Rhinehart: How does curricular change happen at Smith? What are some examples we could build on?
Schuster: Curricular change happens constantly because knowledge changes. Often student interests have sparked discussions that have led to significant new directions. The Study of Women and Gender at Smith started with sustained discussions between students and faculty and so did queer studies; both of those changes involved significant faculty development. Environmental science and policy and neuroscience have become important programs because of the convergence of student and faculty interests.
The “how” of curricular change has two parts: faculty development and specific proposals. Faculty development involves workshops, seminars, conferences and other means for faculty members (often with students) to learn about changing information or approaches to important intellectual and social issues. These efforts are essential to the vitality of the curriculum. Specific proposals for courses, or for new initiatives like Concentrations, are made by faculty members to CAP, but have also been made by the SGA Curriculum Committee (such as “Thinking Through Race.”) CAP reviews proposals, consults faculty members and takes the proposals to the full faculty for a vote.
Rhinehart: So a proposal for a social justice requirement would also need to go through these stages, correct? What is the timeline for significant curricular changes such as a “social justice requirement?”
Schuster: Yes, a proposal for a social justice requirement would need to go through these stages, whether the requirement were a course or a set of courses. There are already many courses in the curriculum that address the issues that I understand to be included in the umbrella term “social justice.” I intend to sponsor a series of conversations between students and faculty members in the fall to explore in small groups the best way to respond to the request made by some students for a social justice requirement leading to action in the spring semester. Incidentally, a new version of “Thinking Through Race” will return in Spring 2013 and then be offered in fall semesters on a regular basis.
Schuster: How do students understand the relationship between education and codes of conduct? By that I mean to suggest that education in a classroom setting is about exploring ideas, even unpopular ones, and learning how to analyze and understand difficult and sometimes painful issues.
Rhinehart: We are all at Smith to gain an education, and therefore education in the classroom is a central part of our lives here. A course doesn’t teach a student what to think, but how to think, how to analyze issues that have more than one solution. The code of conduct to tell us how to behave is we are to be members in good standing of the Smith community. Thus, the ways we think about the code of conduct, but more largely the world and each other, are certainly impacted by the content of our education and the ways in which we relate to one another in the classroom. I think that recent calls from students for increased social justice education in the curriculum shows recognition of this fact. Not all students may attend workshops or lectures that influence the way they treat themselves and others, but all students attend classes and that is a powerful tool.