A mildly bemusing job ad that came across the wire today:
The Department of Government and Sociology invites applications as Course Redesign Coordinator. This is a non-tenure track, limited term, faculty position with the rank of Lecturer. The term is for a period of two years subject to re-approval and budget in year two. The successful applicant will lead a pilot study to redesign the introductory course in Political Science which is a required course in the university’s core curriculum. The position is responsible for producing an initial design for offering the course to larger sections while remaining consistent with the university’s public liberal arts mission; teaching one large (150 minimum) section of POLS 1150, Politics and Society, each semester; collecting and analyzing comparative data on student satisfaction and performance in larger course settings; supervising a graduate assistant and undergraduate student mentors ; preparing recommendation s for final redesign and implementation; conducting a required Freshman Seminar for departmental majors.
To review: this institution prides itself on its “public liberal arts mission” and excellent classroom instruction. So it is going to hire a non-tenure-eligible faculty member (who may not even have a doctorate) to come in to figure out some way to cram 150 students into an introductory course without any loss of quality. And once they’ve done this favor for the existing faculty, since they aren’t on the tenure track, they will be summarily kicked to the curb.
Somehow I do not expect this experiment to end in a rousing success.
Timothy Burke, in a post I’ve been meaning to link and comment on for over a week, makes an interesting point about curricula: just because something isn’t in the requirements for a degree or major doesn’t mean it won’t be de facto required because of other structural features of the curriculum. I think this is valid in relatively small departments/colleges, or where the offerings are otherwise constrained for odd reasons—both SLU and Duke offer a relative paucity of American politics courses, for vastly different reasons; the offerings in my field at SLU are probably in practice slimmer than they were at Millsaps!
That said, there are some issues to be confronted. I think much of the disappearance of required courses can be laid at the feet of faculty members; many of us—myself included—would rather not teach a gen ed or disciplinary survey like Introduction to American Politics, favoring either a “fun” course or something that coincides more closely with our research interests (or both). And I think it’s fair to say that our evaluations are better in non-mandatory classes, “fun” or not—the mean evals in my Congress course in the spring were probably a full point better than in my other two classes, despite Congress being a significantly harder course—which I think reflects student preferences for more focused and narrow classes on “sexy” topics and creates further incentives for faculty to dismiss the core. Unfortunately, the end result is that you can easily end up with seniors who are trying to wrestle with the big questions but don’t have the basics down—one infamous example was a political science major who, on a senior capstone exam, apparently had no conception of what the United Nations was.
And while I broadly agree that in a liberal arts curriculum (which is what undergraduate political science programs aspire to be part of, whether we’re at a community college, a state university, Berkeley, or Williams College) the mastery of skills is probably more important over the long run the mastery of knowledge, I think we’re shortchanging our students if they escape our curricula without understanding the basics concepts and debates in their major and minor fields.