Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rethinking an academic department

Times are awful everywhere in the humanities, we keep reading. Anyone who has ever been part of a newspaper story recognizes the often-large gap between life and the journalistic version thereof, of course, but still: university budgets are under pressure, and everyone's got an idea about how to do more with less.

But hey, maybe the current structure isn't always the best one, you know? After all, every academic structure is really an agglomeration of traditions that in a best-case scenario seemed like good ideas at the time. This suggests that a clean, formal, professional review of curricular offerings might be both a great idea and doomed, but let's worry about that another day. For now, I'm saying simply that there's rarely (never?) a good reason to think that one lives in the best of all possible worlds.

Like many other departments around here, our English department is reviewing its curriculum, largely at the direction of the Provost's office. We like what we've built, mostly: an extremely successful Honours program, a small but potent Professional Writing minor, very good grad students, talented colleagues, that sort of thing. But if we had to build it all over again, would we choose to offer the same slate of courses that we do now, with the same class sizes?

I'm really looking forward to whatever report or recommendations the department's ad hoc review committee comes up with. Presumably one of the options will be only to tweak things a bit, and that's fine, but mostly I'm curious about what else we'll have to think about. I've got zero inside information, but so many possibilities!

If I ruled the world, and had the time to research it, I'd suggest something like this:
  • similar first-year classes to what we have now, since it's tough to find successful composition courses or program hooks any larger than 30 or so;
  • largely elective second-year courses, larger rather than smaller (150 students?);
  • 300-level area courses, like intense but medium enrolment versions of our current second-year offerings that connect to several current upper-level offerings (maybe 60 or 80 students); and
  • 400-level focused courses, very like our current upper-level offerings but with smaller class sizes and with some form of prereq enrolment (such as a minimum grade in the relevant area course).
Presumably someone's out there to tell me why it's a stupid idea, yes? I'm just saying that we've got a great opportunity to dig out from under the agglutinate, so I'm optimistic that the review committee is finding the time to dream big.

Update: To be clear, yes, I do think this is part of the university's covert restructuring that I'm on record as wanting to resist in most of the ways that I can. Restructuring should happen with deep, careful consultation, and we haven't really seen that here. In this kind of case, though, I'm okay with the opportunity to reimagine what we do.

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