11 Apr 2018

Let's talk about...

Submitted by Chip Nataro, Lafayette College

It's natural.

It's chemical.

It's logical.

I want your stories about curricular discussions. I’ve been at Lafayette for nearly 20 years (wait, that can’t be right can it?) and in that time we have never really had any significant discussions about our entire curriculum. There are lots of reasons why. Mostly, it is a lot of work. I have even fought some of our attempts because I did not think we were doing it for the right reason at that time. But recently something happened that really got me thinking that we need to have this conversation.

First a little background. I envision my department a little like playing a game of Settlers of Catan. We are on an island and we trade things, but ultimately we each seek supremacy for our own group. Part of that entails never really talking with the other groups about what is covered in their courses. On some levels I appreciate the academic freedom. But it also makes me wonder how much of what I cover is unnecessary redundancy and how much of what I don’t cover is essential and yet never part of any course.

While I have been toying around with ideas about this for a little while, it was just recently that I really got a good glimpse of what we could accomplish. As part of our pre-tenure process, senior faculty sit in on the classes of junior faculty (because why would you even think about doing the reverse of that). I was sitting in on the Analytical II (Instrumental) course of my junior colleague and she was teaching about IR spectroscopy, in particular, Attenuated Total Reflectance (ATR). She was talking about how the cell could be constructed from diamond and doing a very nice job of having the students asking about the technique. I really wanted to jump in and ask the students something but I didn’t feel it was appropriate at that moment (In hindsight, I think this was the right decision based on how I approached the conversation, it may have seemed like I was hijacking the class). But at the end of class I caught one of my research students and my colleague and we had a very interesting conversation that went something like this…

Me: So student, when you think of doing IR in say orgo, what do you use to hold your sample?

Student: Salt plates?

Me: Good. And why do we use salt plates?

Student: Ummmm, because salt is ionic.

Me: Ok, why is that important?

Student: Because covalent bonds absorb infrared radiation.

Me: Good. So, how can we be using diamond as the cell in ATR?

From there it took a little bit of leading to get my student to the answer but she eventually got there. And then my colleague jumped in and said something along the lines of “wow, I never would have thought of making that connection.” We then had a really great discussion. We agreed that it was just because I come at problems from a very different perspective than she did and how neat it was to make that connection. It was perhaps one of the deepest conversations I have had with a colleague at Lafayette about course material. It has certainly motivated me to push more to make this happen. It isn’t going to be easy. I expect blood, sweat, and tears. But ultimately, I feel it will be worth it.

Do you have any great stories about departmental curricular discussions? I (and likely the rest of this wonderful community) would sure like to hear about them. You can reply to this BITeS post or if you are particularly passionate about this topic, contact me and we can talk about you writing a BITeS post.



At the risk of being asked to write at BiTeS post, I'll tell you that we have two "retreat" days with the chemistry faculty each summer.  One of them is for business: annual report, assessment report, scheduling plans, etc.  The other, started three years ago, is for curricular alignment discussions.  We spend one full day per year tackling some chemistry curricular issue all together(ish) in the same room. 

The first year, we used the "Anchoring Concepts" from the ACS Exams Institute to compare notes on what we are teaching in general chemistry.  We also discussed how and which general chemistry ideas are important in post-gen chem courses.  The second year, we talked about writing across our curriculum, especially in the laboratory.  This year, the topic is "doing science stuff."  We're still working on exactly what that means, but we will probably talk about scaffolding science skills like data analysis and interpretation, experimental design, and instrumentation use. 

These conversations are "hosted' by three of us who have been here 5-9 years. We buy ourselves lunch using program funds.  We sometimes have a little homework in preparation, and we record and distribute notes from our discussions.

Importantly, there is no attempt to be proscriptive in any of these discussions.  There are no ultimatums handed down.  For example, we realized that we were doing a crappy job of discussing solids in general chemistry, but no one was required to fix it.  Rather, we autonomously tried to address this gap for the good of our students.  In the writing discussion, it was helpful to learn that students were learning to tabulate spectra in the experimental sections of their organic lab reports. Now, I can hold students accountable in inorganic for what they should have learned.  However, both the organic chemists and I (The Inorganic Chemist) retain our autonomy to do what is best for our students. 

Compared to Chip's description, my program has a very different culture.  There are 10 or 11 chemists (depending on how and when you count), which is is very large program at my College.  If Lafayette is Settlers of Catan, then Centre is Pandemic. We have our specialties, but realize that we have the same goal. 

Developing this culture was not the work of a day.  I argue that it came from some very intentional hiring and mentoring of younger colleagues by mid-career colleages starting about 10 years ago.  This mentoring wasn't part of a "program" but rather from a desire to help the younger colleagues achieve the very high standards for teaching at our College.  It also came from an altruistic desire on the part of the older colleages to give the younger what the older lacked. 

We are learning how to speak to one another with respect. We are learning how to fight constructively and cleanly about ideas and not about people or resources.

I know that I'm lucky.