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Developing Curricula at Lawrence

In the first edition of Cartwright’s Committee on Curriculum, I discussed why it’s important to pay attention to the differences between degrees at Lawrence. Last week, I looked at the requirements behind those degrees. But today, I move toward a deeper question: What are the objectives that drive Lawrence’s curriculum today?

I’ll start with an example. For the past two years, the campus buzzed with news of a new academic program at Lawrence in film production. Later, the university announced a major gift from the Hurvis Charitable Foundation to initiate the Hurvis Film Center. And this year, the program opened with new, creative classes like Screenwriting, Storyboarding and Documentary Filmmaking.

How did this new academic program begin? To answer this question, let’s go to this week’s guest Committee Member, the Lawrence University Strategic Plan for 2010-2020. Every ten years or so, Lawrence builds a strategy for improving the university for the next decade. And as a community, we build this Strategic Plan, with contributions from faculty, students and staff. Seniors might remember that in 2010, at least one professor visited each residence hall to collect student feedback for this new university strategy. Compiling the Strategic Plan is an intentionally collaborative process steeped in tradition and built on relative inclusivity.

If you take a look at the Strategic Plan for 2010-2020, you’ll notice there are six main sections: 1) Enhance the Transformative Nature of Our Liberal Arts Education; 2) Create a Stronger Campus Community; 3) Prepare Students for Life after Lawrence; 4) Invest in and Promote Sustainability; 5) Improve Facilities and Technology; and 6) Strengthen our Financial Position.

Nearly every section relates to curriculum, because top-notch strategy like Lawrence University’s Strategic Plan attempt to connect university culture directly to the classroom experience. For instance, take a look at Point #2 in the section, “Improve Facilities and Technology.”

It reads, “Renovate Downer [Commons] to create a Student Inter-Arts Commons and a Welcome and Engagement Center. Move the Development Office to Wilson House.”

Obviously, much of this plan came true this Fall. Downer Commons became the Hurvis Center, with an amazing space for Admissions, facilities for alumni engagement and a friendly office for career services. But what’s different is the curricular aspect of this point. In place of a commons for Inter-Arts programs, Lawrence created a film center, dedicated to specialized film-making like the Civic Life Project and other documentary films.

To many, the difference between Inter-Arts and Film Production may not be significant. After all, Inter-Arts often uses film, so the two must be the same, right? Ask any student who has taken “Inter-Arts: New Media Projects,” a course by Julie Lindemann, John Shimon and Burcu Bakioglu, and they’ll tell you definitively that Inter-Arts is much more than film-making.

Inter-Arts is about drawing from diverse fields as broad as the humanities, natural sciences and fine arts, to produce creative works with meaning. It’s a truly interdisciplinary area that allows students to explore broadly and to create deeply.

In contrast, film production is a specific mode of art. Yes, films draw on many subjects, and often involve research from different fields, but the practice and pedagogy of film is specialized discipline, as evident by the upsurge in never-before-seen film classes offered by the new program this Fall.

Here, I must ask: How did we decide as a campus that adding a new discipline to our curriculum was a better choice than investing in an innovative, interdisciplinary program? The students in Inter-Arts last Spring learned from five professors—from art, from music, from religious studies and from new media. This year, film students will learn most from experienced film professionals.

The difference between Inter-Arts and Film is a difference between the liberal arts and a disciplinary education. Whether it is prompted by a large alumni donor or a national shift it higher education, time and again Lawrence will face the choice between building an intentionally liberal arts curriculum and investing in focused career-track programs. The liberal arts at Lawrence were built on intentional community-level strategy. As we build programs in the future, let’s remain dedicated to that same consistent intentionality.