In 1987, George Michael topped the charts, spandex and big hair ruled the fashion scene, and a new curriculum shaped the academic life of students in the College of Arts and Sciences.
By the new millennium, Penn’s general curriculum appeared to be one of the few things to survive the ’80s. All of that changed this spring, though, when College faculty members approved a new educational plan that will take effect with next year’s freshman class—and that will presumably leave the current curriculum in the Eighties Graveyard somewhere between acid-washed jeans and zebra-striped scrunchies.
While the current curriculum calls for a total of 10 courses in seven fields of knowledge, known as sectors, the new curriculum requires only one course in each of seven sectors. A global cultural-analysis requirement has also been added, with the goal of making students “aware of another culture and [giving them] some tools for scholarly thought about a culture different from that in which the University of Pennsylvania is situated,” according to Academic Affairs Director Kent Peterman. In addition, he says, students must keep and share with their advisers an online “academic blog,” in which they record “where they’re going intellectually” from before they arrive on campus until the time they declare a major.
But these curricular changes didn’t happen overnight. Along the way there were numerous meetings, three faculty forums, and even an entirely experimental curriculum [“This is Only a Test,” January/February 2001]. Beginning in 2000, the pilot curriculum—which features only four required areas of study and emphasizes interdisciplinary courses—became an option for a small group of students entering Penn. However, last spring the pilot-evaluation committee concluded that the program actually made little difference in students’ academic experience. Compared to their peers enrolled in the general curriculum, students in the pilot program had similar majors and GPAs, studied abroad at the same rate, and took many of the same electives, says College Dean Dennis DeTurck G’78 Gr’80.
The new curriculum’s requirements include a total of seven courses in seven sectors of knowledge: Society, History and Tradition, Arts and Letters, Living World, and Physical World, and the newly created Humanities and Social Science, and Natural Science and Mathematics. In addition to the new cultural-analysis requirement, students must still fulfill the writing, language, quantitative-data analysis, and formal reasoning and analysis requirements.
DeTurck predicts a reduction of one or two mandatory courses for most students as a result of these changes, adding that the new curriculum should be easier for students to navigate and understand.
But not all faculty members are enthusiastic about the plan. “The new curriculum is only very modestly different from the old curriculum, so I don’t anticipate that it’s going to have a huge impact on students’ lives,” says Dr. Paul Allison, a sociology professor and chair of the pilot-evaluation committee.
At the most recent faculty forum, he actively opposed the cultural-analysis requirement because it “wasn’t very well thought out.”
Allison also says he wishes the plan left more room for electives. “Originally they started out with that goal, but then more and more things got added.”
But while DeTurck admits that the academic agenda has more requirements than he’d hoped it would, he also says that these required courses are “very helpful” to students who do not come to Penn with a major in mind—and even to those who do. “They haven’t really seen the variety of things that are available at a place like this, so they really need to explore, and they need some guidance as they do that exploration. It’s also good to have at least a little bit of a roadmap.”
Among the details to be worked out are which courses will fulfill each sector. In addition, plans for the academic blog need to be developed more thoroughly.
“There is no sense that this is over,” DeTurck says.
—Molly Petrilla C’06