Cartwright’s Committee on Curriculum: Hail to the curriculum tradition

Cartwright JamieA Lawrence staff member recently told me while critiquing this column that the views I have expressed on the “Committee” are limited because my Lawrence experience will last only four years. This is valid. Students’ views of Lawrence are unavoidably short-sighted, and thus, nearly all the articles written in The Lawrentian are limited this way. However, the staff member wasn’t pointing out this obvious fact about what happens when students publish their ideas. Instead, he was reminding me that curriculum, like our institution, is not an object of status upon which change can be applied or not; it’s a process that grows and transforms with the people who define it.

Every registrar, every academic dean, every department, every committee from 1847 to today has helped build what we perceive to be the curricula at Lawrence, and many people argue that Lawrence’s curriculum is least defined by explicit rules such as the GERs and departmental requirements. Instead, curriculum can be best described by less tangible pillars of learning like a residential education, student-led experimentation, open office doors, pedagogical exploration and funding for experiential learning.

Whether you understand the entire history of Lawrence’s existence or you’ve only been here nine weeks, this combination of formal curriculum and broader campus policies offers a broader platform for understanding curriculum. However, few of us celebrate the historical process that carried these Lawrence traditions forth for our present-day experience.

When I came to Lawrence, I intended to major in both Classics and Anthropology. More specifically, as I looked at the Classics major, I wanted to choose the track called Classical Linguistics—a mixed course of study including 70% required courses in Classics and 30% linguistics courses. For me, it fit my dream of one day working with and deciphering unreadable and ancient texts like Crete’s Linear A script.

As I took my first Greek classes and talked with my professors about my plans, the Classics faculty explained that Classical Linguistics was a track of the major started by a previous faculty member, and not an area they tend to encourage. They assured me that I could technically choose the Classical Linguistics path, but that I might not experience the full strength of the department. In retrospect, my experience in Classical Linguistics is a small example of the historicity of curriculum at Lawrence. Although the curriculum of Classics had changed in the years before I enrolled at Lawrence, I felt most connected to a previous time’s curricular development.

This kind of experience happens to students at Lawrence all the time. In the next few years, students of Chinese will find that their experience of the Chinese curriculum will likely be different from those who are graduating today. However, we can’t expect that the way we teach Chinese at Lawrence will not underpin its teaching in the future. Few curricular changes are overhauls, and I believe that continuity and connectedness is a landmark quality of Lawrence’s education.

In the past, Lawrence, like many other liberal arts colleges, embraced the notion of common curricular experiences across all departments. Today, we see present-day understandings of this concept in Freshman Studies, as well as the Senior Experience. But the most historically bound area of common curriculum is the Convocation Series. Older faculty often note that Convocations used to be an exciting part of Lawrence’s curricular life. Today, students’ interactions with these lectures tend to be fleeting and anything but shared.

In the Convocation, I believe the student body feels what the Classics faculty expressed to me about Classical Linguistics. It’s a leftover from a previous time that might be useful, but certainly isn’t the strength of the university. As with Classical Linguistics, I would love to connect more deeply with the Convocation series and restore it to the ideal of a shared curricular experience across campus. The issues surrounding why Convocations may or may not become important to students’ learning at Lawrence are complex and multi-faceted, but by recognizing the tradition of some of these Lawrence institutions, we may find unique ways of carrying our curriculum into the future.