William & Mary

Behind the scenes of the COLL curriculum

Center for the Liberal Arts paves the way for new general education curriculum

More than a year ago, Center for the Liberal Arts Fellows Gene Tracy and Nick Popper gave a group of William & Mary faculty members a simple questionnaire: Name your favorite class from your undergraduate days, three things you remember from it, what you would teach if you could teach anything and three things you want students to remember decades from now.

 “There was just this buzz in the room, these great ideas,” Tracy recounted. He and Popper were trying to evoke the excitement that had motivated the professors to teach in the first place. 

The physics department chair already knew his answer. As an undergraduate, Tracy’s favorite class was Speculative Philosophy in Science Fiction.

“We would talk about certain philosophical problems, like free will, how to organize human societies, whether machines can think,” he said. “We would read the original philosophical writings – Wittgenstein, Plato and so on – and then read science fiction. I already loved science fiction, but this instilled in me a love of philosophy.”

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The new general education curriculum (COLL curriculum), rolling out in August, calls on faculty to inspire future William & Mary students as they themselves were inspired. General education requirements comprise about a quarter of the 120 credits needed for an undergraduate degree and are taken alongside electives and the classes required for majors. For more than a year, the Center for Liberal Arts Fellows have been working closely with faculty behind the scenes to develop the new COLL curriculum.

“Since Provost [Michael] Halleran authorized the creation of the Center for the Liberal Arts, it has become an engine of creativity for the new general education curriculum,” said Lu Ann Homza, dean for educational policy. “The Fellows have been tireless in helping departments, programs and individual faculty think about new COLL courses and finding the pedagogical resources they need to put those new classes into practice. Their collaborative, diligent and thoughtful efforts have been crucial to the successful launch of COLL in fall 2015.”

Tackling big questions

The first cohort of Fellows – Deborah Morse, Popper, John Riofrio and Tracy – began its work in January 2014, with a second cohort – Carey Bagdassarian, Bruce Campbell, Georgia Irby and Paul Mapp – appointed in September. Tracy brought a long-term perspective to the center; he was among the faculty who last revised the curriculum, in 1993.

hear more: Gene Tracy on new vs. old curriculum

“A year ago at this time, I was having late-night anxiety that we’re not going to have enough COLL 100s,” Tracy said. “Those have to be ready freshman year and they have to be small classes, so we need a lot of them.”

But the concept of COLL 100 courses, centering on “big ideas” or “great questions,” so resonated with faculty that today, William & Mary has more than it needs and is looking to convert some of them into COLL 150s, first-year seminars.

In the beginning, though, many faculty members were reluctant to describe their course ideas as “great.” For example, Tracy recalled one professor wanting to teach a class about “the book,” including its invention and history to the modern day, but wasn’t sure if it was a great enough idea.

“We were like, are you kidding? That’s a huge great idea!” he said. “So that’s why we started to think about it as ‘great questions.’ If you have a short list of questions you’re going to revisit throughout the semester, they are probably great questions. If it’s something you’re going to answer in the first week, it’s not a great question.”

What the Fellows didn’t want was faculty simply relabeling existing courses as COLL courses. “That would have been very easy, and very unfortunate,” Tracy said.

Even courses that already had a COLL bent, such as Hispanic Studies Professor Riofrio’s Critiquing the American Dream, needed overhauling. “It’s a big thing,” he said. “Teaching a new course under these parameters, it does set you free, and it totally is an opportunity. And it’s a ton of work.”

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Associate Professor of American History Paul Mapp got meta with his COLL 100 course, The Idea of Liberal Arts Education. The idea arose from a graduate education class, in which he weekly presented short philosophical readings illuminating some issue of education.

“These little philosophical readings, which I thought of as sort of add-ons, completely took over the course,” he said. “I realized there was a much more interesting course within the one I was teaching that was really about the idea of liberal arts education.”

Mapp said the course readings reach back 2,500 years to Socrates and continue up to 21st-century scholars, with special modules, such as the one that examines World War II leaders Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower. He’s also working on a COLL 200 course on the American Revolution.

Deborah Morse, an English professor, has already piloted Victorian Animal Dreams, a course based on her 2007 book of the same name that uses literature to explore how society thinks about animals socially, scientifically and philosophically. Students responded enthusiastically, she said, and “wrote the best set of exams I’ve read since I’ve been here, and I’ve been teaching here since 1988. I’ve never seen exams like this.”

She believes the breadth of the class allowed students – forced them, really – to synthesize what they were learning to make their own connections.

New collaborations

Aside from piloting courses themselves, the Fellows daily hosted “Coffee with a Center for the Liberal Arts Fellow,” akin to office hours. Each Fellow devoted at least an hour a week in a local coffee shop, making themselves available to faculty members wanting to talk about the COLL curriculum.

And they did. “A lot,” Riofrio said.

At first, faculty came to catch up on the new general education requirements. Later, professors wanted to discuss syllabi for courses they were developing.

The Fellows also worked with department retreats and were pulled into department meetings. They hosted lunchtime brown-bag sessions on different aspects of the new curriculum and developed a resources website that captures and shares faculty innovations.

And all the while, W&M faculty was also developing the other COLL offerings.

COLL 200 asks faculty to root their course in one of the knowledge domains and to look out to a second one. This type of cross-disciplinary study has been a strength of William & Mary for a long time. But because of the center and the new curriculum, faculty who had never before met are collaborating on projects. That’s happened for Morse, who is now working with an ethnomusicologist, an anthropologist and an art history professor on different courses.

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COLL 400s are capstone courses, and COLL 300s engage the world beyond campus, sending students abroad and exploring ways to bring the world here.

“The spirit behind COLL 300 is giving students that transformative internationalized perspective, while remaining on campus,” Riofrio said. “One of the proposed models is to have a flexible colloquium kind of course that incorporates special lectures and other events by visiting experts.”

The Fellows informally piloted part of this idea in the spring, when the Center for the Liberal Arts partnered with the anthropology department to invite to campus Arlene Dávila, New York University professor of anthropology and American studies, to deliver “El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America” as the Vinson Sutlive Lecture.

Riofrio contacted faculty he knew were interested in Dávila’s work or whose courses aligned with her themes. The Fellows provided background about Dávila and her scholarship, plus a list of recommended readings and where to access them online. About half a dozen professors agreed to add Dávila directly to their syllabi or to incorporate her work through discussions of neoliberalism.

Revolutionizing liberal arts education

In their weekly meetings throughout the past academic year, the CLA Fellows also devoted at least half of their agenda to talking about innovation in liberal arts education.

“Right now the Center for the Liberal Arts is basically in the pockets of the people walking around with it,” Riofrio said. “The idea is to be a place where faculty can go to be inspired and challenged, where they can bring syllabi and say, ‘What can I do to make this better?’ And when someone has a new model for faculty-student teaching, they can come and present it at the Center for Liberal Arts, so everybody can be nourished by these ideas.”

Already the center and the new curriculum are invigorating faculty enthusiasm, Riofrio recently told the Board of Visitors.

“[The Center for the Liberal Arts] interweaves dynamism so powerfully that even if I’m talking about COLL courses, that energy ends up affecting the way I teach all of my courses … It ends up changing how you teach and how you see yourself connected to the larger community.”

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More faculty members experience that every year, as new cohorts join the fledgling center. In May, an all-day retreat welcomed new Fellows – Associate Theatre Professor Matthew Allar, English Professor Paula Blank and Associate Psychology Professor Catherine Forestell. New Fellow and Associate Government Professor Christine Nemacheck was not able to attend.

Tracy noted that rolling out COLL in August is just the start of an effort at William & Mary to revolutionize liberal arts education.

“We know that everything we are doing is kind of a precedent, so we are very conscious of trying to do things in a way that clearly reflects that we're here to support faculty creativity around the new curriculum,” he said, “all the while knowing that what we're really hopeful for is that the center, within a few years, will have established itself as an ongoing focal point of faculty creativity around general education. We have great ambitions for what the center can do and what it can become. It’s all aimed at helping faculty do a great job teaching students, and in the end it all benefits students.” 

COLL videos produced by W&M University Advancement.