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Report finds need for curricular reforms

September 14, 2018

Although Bowdoin has navigated a changing higher education landscape well, it has room to improve upon issues such as course flexibility and the teaching of quantitative literacy, according to a report released by President Clayton Rose in a campus-wide email on September 6.

The “Report of the President’s Working Group on Knowledge, Skills, and Creative Dispositions” was the result of a group of faculty, staff, students and trustees who collected input from more than 800 members of the Bowdoin community this past spring.

The committee had been tasked with answering a question posed by Rose the previous fall: “What Knowledge, Skills and Creative Dispositions (KSCD) should every student who graduates from Bowdoin ten years from now possess?”

The report framed this central question in the context of a “profound transformation” in higher education, citing the endowment tax, controversies about freedom of speech and political correctness and debates on the value of STEM fields and humanities as several of the challenges facing Bowdoin and colleges across the United States.

While it generally praised the College’s efforts to navigate these issues in recent years, the report also offered a set of “strategic enhancements” for the next decade.

“Maybe the biggest takeaway, at a high altitude is the affirmation of the core liberal arts education that we provide,” said Rose. “At the same time, really pushing hard that there are changes that will enhance what we do here.”

Among the issues raised by the report was quantitative literacy. In an alumni survey, only 60 percent of respondents said that their Bowdoin education had a positive effect on their ability to use quantitative tools.

Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Chuck Dorn, who chaired the committee, noted that teaching quantitative literacy is a challenge faced by many liberal arts colleges. He added that, given the College’s long history of teaching reading and writing, it’s nearly impossible to graduate from Bowdoin without learning those skills. It is easier for students to avoid quantitative classes in math and science.

As a solution, the report proposed a second-year seminar focused on quantitative literacy as well as expansion of the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative, which was first launched in 2013.

The report also critiqued the College’s system of course offerings, calling it “very restrictive.” Enrollment caps and strict prerequisites create hurdles for faculty, the authors found, particularly in the context of interdepartmental collaboration.

Nonetheless, both Rose and Dean for Academic Affairs Elizabeth McCormack cautioned against the expectation of immediate changes.

“We want to be careful that we don’t get too far down the road, that we actually know we’re on a path and a journey here to explore and try things, and that we’ll work our way to an end state over time, but we’re not imagining an end state today,” Rose said.

McCormack has, however, begun conversation with the Curriculum Implementation Committee in regards to the report.

“We’re going to be experimenting and finding something that’s workable,” she said.

Other academic recommendations included expanded opportunities for faculty innovation, interdisciplinary capstone projects for seniors and practical knowledge workshops. Proficiency in personal finance and public speaking were among the “knowledge and skills” that students who met with the committee said they hoped to acquire before graduation.

In his note to the community accompanying the report, Rose highlighted five categories of work based on their recommendations: integrated thinking, including a deeper commitment to interdisciplinary collaborations; digital and computation literacy; ethical judgment, which the report cited as a common concern among community members; the “sophomore experience,” in which Rose highlighted the role of College Houses in addition to academic spheres; and teaching and practicing sustained discourse, which Rose identified in his Convocation address in August as necessary for “our understanding of the remarkable and varied backgrounds and identities we each bring to Bowdoin.”

Rose also offered praise for the 16-person committee that completed the report, saying that he would consider convening the same type of group in the future for “issues that are deeply strategic and long-term in nature.”

“They did a great report,” said Rose. “Now we have some work to do.”

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