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Developing a New Core Curriculum

For more than 90 years, a St. Joseph’s College education has been characterized by extensive preparation in a major program of study complemented by a core curriculum of courses in the liberal arts and sciences. That core provided exposure to all areas of human knowledge and culture as to broaden students’ perspectives and prepare them to deal with a complex, diverse and ever-changing world.

Since the early 1970s, the College’s general education program has remained virtually unchanged, but the core still prepared thousands of graduates to develop their full potential and encouraged them to acquire a spirit of inquiry and a joy in learning. After 40 years, the faculty and administration realized that it was time to reassess that core curriculum to ensure that it served today’s students as it served the generations before them. The new core was unveiled for the fall 2011 semester, the result of four years of dedication, patience and thorough research.

A Curriculum Committee was formed in fall 2007 to provide guidance and oversight in the development and review of courses, programs and academic policies. At about the same time, a self-study, done as part of Middle States accreditation, recommended a review and possible revision of the College’s general education requirements. One of the first jobs was to initiate this review process, ensuring that a new core would continue to develop the mission and goals of the College, meet students’ needs, and provide a strong academic and value-oriented education rooted in the College’s liberal arts tradition.

To prepare, several faculty teams attended conferences focused on current trends in general education and met with representatives of other colleges to discuss programs that their institutions had developed. The committee also created faculty surveys and ran focus groups to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the old core, to assess a number of different curriculum models used in other colleges and to assist in developing an appropriate direction for the core revision. Many faculty agreed that while the old core had certainly provided students with the breadth and balance essential to a liberal education, students did not always see the connections among individual academic disciplines, between the liberal arts and their career preparation, or between the academic world and the global society they would be entering.

In spring 2009, committee members met for a daylong retreat to develop several general education models for faculty consideration. After several months of review and discussion, one model was chosen. Committee members, with the help of more than 40 additional faculty on six subcommittees, worked out the details of the new core areas, writing descriptors and outcomes for each category. During this past academic year, the faculty overwhelmingly approved the implementation of the new core.

The new core retains a course distribution similar to the old core. However, rather than grouping courses into disciplinary areas such as humanities, mathematics and science, and the social sciences, the new core comprises five thematic areas: quest for meaning; human expression; self and society; global awareness; and the mathematical, physical and natural world. Each area may contain courses from a variety of fields, stressing how academic disciplines inform, support and connect to each other. As new courses are developed for the thematic areas, they will likely be more interdisciplinary in nature.

A new feature of the core is the inclusion of five integrated learning areas, which are designed to build intellectual skills and abilities (writing intensive and technology integrated); to enhance the connections among and between the various academic disciplines and cocurricular life (learning communities, and service and experiential learning); and to foster an environment of openness to the exploration and understanding of diverse ideas, traditions and cultures (diversity integrated). The experiences in the integrated learning areas can be fulfilled by courses in the thematic area or the major itself. In some cases, it can even be satisfied by cocurricular activities.

With the start of this academic year, incoming freshmen will be the first to experience the new core. This is an exciting time as we embark on this new plan for general education that stresses connections linking the academic disciplines to each other and to the world beyond college. SJC will also continue to focus on its goal of offering curricula that foster the knowledge and intellectual skills associated with the liberally educated person, a goal that has motivated and inspired our faculty since the College’s founding in 1916.

Dr. Hanophy is a professor of biology and Curriculum Committee chair.

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