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.