Task Force Prepares Recommendations on Distribution Requirements

After nearly three years of research and brainstorming, the Task Force on Review of All-College Distribution Requirements (DRTF) is nearing the end of its project and will likely bring a proposal for a revision of the College’s general education requirements to be voted on by the faculty by the end of the current academic year. The DRTF, which is composed of faculty from the Office of the Provost and professors across several disciplines, has been conducting its research by comparing the College’s general education requirements to those of peer institutions and by consulting with faculty and students in order to develop a view on what students should take away from their liberal arts education.

The College’s current general education requirements exist in an effort to realize the “Colby Plan,” which is defined in the 2019-2020 Colby College Catalogue as “a series of 10 educational precepts that reflect the principal elements of a liberal education and serve as a guide for making reflective course choices, for measuring educational growth, and for planning for education beyond college.” The precepts include learning to think critically, becoming knowledgeable about both American and foreign cultures and becoming familiar with art and literature. The full list of precepts is available on page three of the Catalogue.

The DRTF is working to develop “Core Capacities” to replace the existing precepts, according to notes from a DRTF retreat that took place on Sept. 28, 2018. The DRTF is also creating a plan to replace the current distribution area requirement with “Modes of Inquiry.” The faculty voted to approve the “Modes of Inquiry” plan this past spring. DRTF aims to produce a more concrete recommendation regarding what each of the Core Capacities and Modes of Inquiry will be by the end of the fall semester.

“The difference [between the current area requirements and the Modes of Inquiry] are basically that these [current] areas are basically defined as content areas. The Modes of Inquiry would be more defined as ways, or modes, that you interrogate knowledge and develop new knowledge,” Professor of Biology, Associate Provost and Dean of Faculty Russel Johnson, who is a member of the DRTF, said in an interview with the Echo. “Right now, if a course just taught you a whole bunch of information about chemistry, but it didn’t really have anything about how chemists work, or how you test evidence in chemistry, or develop new ideas in chemistry, it would count for this old requirement, but it wouldn’t count for this scientific mode of inquiry requirement.”

Johnson acknowledged that it is important to understand related content in order to learn how a discipline works, but said the DRTF is “trying to put the focus more on how new knowledge is generated, and how you understand knowledge, and the content kind of comes as necessary with that, as opposed to this old way of defining things where the content knowledge is the primary thing and everything comes under that.”

Some of the College’s peer institutions, including Bates College and the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke University, already have Modes of Inquiry requirements. At Bates, these requirements are new for the 2019-2020 academic year. Bates has five Modes of Inquiry that students are required to fulfill before graduation, while Duke requires two courses in each of their four Modes of Inquiry in addition to two courses in each of their five “Areas of Knowledge.” It is unclear at this point how similar or different the College’s Modes of Inquiry requirements may be from its peer institutions.

The DRTF is also likely to recommend a seminar course required for all first-year students, in addition to the current first-year writing course, that “will explore the general philosophy of a liberal arts education, how the core capacities (and other requirements) serve to ensure a liberal arts education, and how core values of [diversity, equity and inclusion] are essential to the liberal arts mission,” according to the notes from the fall 2018 retreat.

The DRTF is also reviewing the language requirement, but it is not yet apparent what changes, if any, it will recommend to the faculty. In the notes from the fall 2018 retreat, it was written that “It was not formally decided that the three-semester language requirement should be retained as currently formulated. However, our conversations have always led in that direction.” 

In a more recent interview with the Echo, Assistant Professor of Economics and task-force member Robert Lester discussed this point.

“My sense for that is that there is pretty strong support for a language requirement of some sort. Whether it’s the exact form or not, I don’t know what that will look like,” Lester said.

Johnson wrote in an email to the Echo that “it may be a bit premature to speculate on what the task force will ultimately recommend about the language requirement. However, given the strong (and increasing) emphasis on global education that we have at Colby, I very much doubt that the task force would recommend (or that the faculty would support) an elimination of the language requirement.”

Lester emphasized the helpfulness of receiving feedback from students as the DRTF continues its work.

“We’re going to start our meetings for this year soon, so it’s good to keep getting feedback, especially at this point,” he said.

Last year, the DRTF had meetings with the Student Government Association (SGA) in an effort to gather more student feedback. Sam Leppo ’21, who is currently a class of 2021 co-president and was a senator at the time of last year’s meetings, said that the proposed changes were well received by SGA.

“They seemed like they had been pretty thorough,” Leppo said of the members of the DRTF.

Johnson and Lester both indicated that the task force will continue to work with SGA during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Johnson said that the DRTF hopes to bring a proposal to the faculty by the end of the fall semester and hold a vote on it by the end of the academic year. If approved, it would likely take another year or two to implement.

“If we had a new set of requirements, it would be a fair bit of work at the beginning to review what existing classes we would decide would meet the new requirements, what modifications would departments need to do to some of the existing courses so that they would meet the new requirements, and then what brand new courses might be needed,” Johnson said.

Only students that begin enrollment at the College after changes are implemented would be required to meet any new requirements, so all current students would be unaffected by the proposed changes.

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