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A holistic review of the Liberal Arts Core

Published: Thursday, April 7, 2011

Updated: Thursday, April 7, 2011 13:04

More than two decades after being adopted, the University of Northern Iowa's Liberal Arts Core (LAC) is being reviewed by a committee consisting of faculty, administrators and a student representative. The Liberal Arts Core Review Steering Committee (LAC-RSC) was put together in 2009 by the former provost to assess the success of the LAC.  

The committee reviews a  different category of the LAC every year, which means that each category is reviewed every seven years, as there are seven categories.  

"Our goal is to change the LAC where and if necessary. What and how much we will be changing is still up in the air," said Susan Hill, co-chair of the LAC-RSC. "Some of the questions we're addressing are, is (the LAC) still effective? Is it doing what we want it to do?"

Hill went on to further explain why a review of the LAC is needed. She commented that each program has specific goals for students to reach by graduation, and courses are supposed to help students achieve these goals.  The LAC as a whole does not have such goals or methods of achieving them and the LAC-RSC is proposing how to get there.

"It's prudent to periodically review the LAC and assess what's working well," said Ana Kogl, an associate professor of political science and the representative on the committee for the College of Social and Behavorial Sciences.  "There is a general consensus among the

committee to develop critical thinking skills, enhance writing skills and to introduce students to international perspectives and diversity questions."

Kogl also pointed out that not everyone on the committee always agrees.  

"We don't have a hive mind and we're absolutely not trying to take over the campus," Kogl said.

"I think it's important to review the program because the structure is older than the students it serves. Even if nothing is changed, it is imperative to review the program as a whole," said Jake Rudy, the student representative on the LAC-RSC.  

Kogl described the methods the committee is using to assess the LAC. Data taken from Student Outcome Assesments is one way, but she also mentioned that some areas have no data. This makes it difficult to assess various aspects. Along with the data already amassed, the committee is also taking student and faculty perceptions into account.  

"Ultimately, our primary concern is to have an LAC that gives students an excellent education. Student learning is the overriding, overreaching concern of this committee," Kogl said. "There is no politicking; everyone has an open mind and puts student learning first."

She went on to explain what she views as the problem with reviewing the LAC and how some faculty members are reacting.

"No one wants to be told what to teach, which is really reasonable. We don't want to have to do that, but on the other hand, a holistic perspective is helpful to determine what is best for students," Kogl continued.

Hill added that the committee is just developing potential models for the LAC, none of which are intended to be wholesale representatives of the changes; the current models in circulation are designed to create discussion about what is wanted by faculty and students. She also stressed that no decisions have been made, and that the LAC-RSC has no hand in making the decisions.

Rudy reminded students that this is an incredibly important process, and that it's going to take a lot of work from everyone on campus. He also encouraged students to keep their frustration in check and ask their professors to participate in the discussions about the potential revision of the LAC.

Scientific literacy versus scientific disciplines

Hill commented that one particularly contentious topic brought to light by the review of the LAC is the idea of a scientific literacy course in the science category of the LAC. One of the models provided by the LAC-RSC suggests replacing one current science course with a course teaching the understanding of science and how it works.  

"Is being in a science class and doing science the way we do it now the best way to teach people how science functions and affects the world?" Hill asked. "Do specific courses help you read and understand articles on science? Do they help you assess how you think about science?"

Hill went on to explain how some scientists say that actually practicing science is different than teaching people about science and how it works. She also added that the LAC-RSC is not looking to take science out of the LAC, but only to modify it with the scientific literacy course. She stressed once again that no decision has been made.

Kogl believes that what is happening in the sciences, and really in all of the colleges, is that the faculty, herself included, individually tend to focus on their rather narrow view on what is important to be taught.

"What is appropriate to teach in LAC courses is not always the area of study for which I research," Kogl said. "In a comprehensive university, such as UNI, we need to take a much broader view on teaching. I think that is, in part, what is going on with the sciences."

Kogl also says that the committee is not trying to get rid of science courses.

"By no means do we want to dumb down the sciences. We all understand the importance of science to education," explained Kogl. "Our job as a university is to teach scientific ways of learning as opposed to superstition."

The LAC-RSC brought their developed models to the College of Natural Sciences faculty senate to discuss what the science faculty thought of the proposals regarding scientific literacy and the models themselves.

The CNS Faculty Senate raised several questions regarding the changes. A common observation among the science faculty was that there seemed to be no proposals to increase the amount of science in the LAC, but just to decrease or maintain it.  

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