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Home » Amos Bronson Alcott Centre for Educational Research » Why Robert Burns was Right About Best-Laid Plans, or What’s Wrong with the Curriculum the Way It Is?

Why Robert Burns was Right About Best-Laid Plans, or What’s Wrong with the Curriculum the Way It Is?

by Frank Heppner (an honors professor at The University of Rhode Island)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In 1987, I received a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) for a project entitled “Rational Curricular Review for College Departments.”  Perhaps the most important finding from this project was that “Rational Curricular Review” is an oxymoron.  When the project was over and it was time to submit the final report, I was confronted with the problem that almost nothing had gone the way it was planned.  Since I was tenured, and in the possession of certain pieces of information kept in a strong box in a distant country that almost guaranteed my continued employment, I decided I had little to lose by telling the following, very-nearly true story; let it serve as a warning for other departments considering “rational curricular review.”

What follows is an only slightly altered version of my report to FIPSE. As the condemned man said as the noose was being adjusted, “Well, I’m certainly never going to do that again!”

This project was a crashing failure, and a stunning success.  Almost none of its original objectives were attained.  However, one of its incidental sub-projects has already turned out to have a national audience, and will almost certainly have a far-reaching national impact.  (Self-puffery is an integral part of every final report. It is, in fact, required by Sec. 14.11.02 of the Federal Code.)

The original premise of the proposal was that college curriculum development can be thought of as a rational process; therefore, there ought to be a rational, databased, and systematic way of going about it, free of politics and emotional concerns.  I asked for support to develop such a process of rational curriculum development and then use it to help my department (the Department of Critical Thought at the University of Rhode Island) develop a carefully reasoned, data-based curriculum. As it turned out, this was an extraordinarily naive premise.

Because the story of why our department took the path it did might well serve as a cautionary tale for other college departments considering curricular change, that tale will be told.  Because I must continue to live and work with my colleagues, and have no desire to change my route home every evening, certain events, characters and circumstances must be changed, but the essence of things will emerge.  Some aspects of our situation are probably unique, but I suspect that many elements that contributed to our peculiar scenario are generalizable.

Since most people never get beyond the first pages of a government report, I’ll interrupt the narrative flow right here to warn:

Departments!  If you are thinking about changing your curriculum – think twice!

We spent over 1,000 person-hours in wrangling, bickering, forming and breaking alliances, negotiating, swapping, then propagating and spreading rumors.  Very few of those hours were spent on data-generated development of curriculum.  The preliminary signs are that our new curriculum is no better than our old one, perhaps even a tad worse.

Our story begins a few years back, when we acquired a new chairman after having had a single chairman for about a dozen years.  As part of the New Era, the chair decided to form a committee to see if a new curriculum was needed.  There was no particular feeling that there was anything drastically wrong with the old curriculum, but the New Broom wanted the curriculum on the table, along with the committee structure and other housekeeping functions of the department.

The chairman had walked into a department that was factionalized, as are many college departments.  In our case, there were two loose groups rather neatly bisecting the department, accompanied by a few renegades and mavericks who were essentially unclassifiable.  To be equally unflattering to both factions, I shall call them the Moles and the Slugs.  Fortunately, personal relationships between the Moles and the Slugs were generally neutral to good; there were no bitter, non-speaking enemies.  The Moles and Slugs were mildly and vaguely contemptuous of each other from a professional standpoint, each feeling that the other group was less productive and less relevant.  Had the Moles and Slugs been working on collaborative projects, this might have resulted in a healthy team competition, but the only thing both the Moles and Slugs had in common was their distaste for non-Moles, and non-Slugs, respectively.  Neither the department as a whole, nor the Moles and Slugs, ever had had much luck in doing anything collectively.  Ayn Rand would have loved our department.

Although the department chairman was a Mole, he appointed a Slug to be chair of the new curriculum committee, normally a wise political move in an equal-factioned department.  The other members of the committee were mostly Slugs, with a few token Moles.

The committee’s initial deliberations revolved around what changes were needed to have a more “Modern” (read Slug-like) curriculum.  This was a clever approach for the committee chair, because to then argue for more Mole courses was to argue for retrogression and living in the past.

The original committee debate was almost entirely based on rhetoric.  The committee gathered little if any data, conducted no surveys among students or alumni, consulted with no curriculum experts.  The committee had found out what attorneys long ago discovered: facts only serve to confuse juries, and ideally are to be dispensed with altogether.

Significant numbers of both the Moles and Slugs argued that data-gathering was not even necessary; as experts in Critical Thought we were in a better position than anyone to know what was required for students to be contemporary in “Thinking” today.  The fact that we had no idea where our students went after graduation, how well they did (with the exception of the well-known success stories, which we paraded in our recruiting literature), or what they, employers, or graduate students thought of our curriculum was considered irrelevant, if the object was to develop a strong curriculum in “Modern Thinking.”

The deliberations of this committee proceeded at a sloth-like pace.  That is, until the Evil Legislators did their infamous audit.  A committee of the Rhode Island state legislature commissioned an audit of the teaching loads at the University. Surprise!  They discovered that teaching loads at the University were less than those at the Community College.  The legislature, in its outrage, then said, “You people down there are going to have to shape up!”  In a rare display of administrative courage, the University then tugged its forelock, and said “Yes, Boss. Right away, Sir!”

The upshot was a new series of regulations that stated minimum teaching expectations for each faculty member (not a minimum departmental average) and minimum class sizes for each level of class.  Thus, if you had fewer than eight students in your graduate course, you were more than welcome to teach it, and thank you very much, but it couldn’t be counted as part of your teaching expectation.  Instantly, the old departmental stabilities disappeared, where those who liked to teach big classes and were good at it tended to teach relatively more, and research-oriented people, who were best allowed never to come within 50 yards of a classroom, taught relatively less.

Overnight, the whole curriculum question gained a new perspective.  Instructors who taught four or five low-enrollment courses a year found that due to minimum class-size regulations, they now had no official teaching load, according to the books.  The kindly front office let it be known that departments that did not have themselves fully loaded up, according to the new regulations, could kiss sabbatical or retirement replacements goodbye.  Both the Moles and Slugs could see that students had to be gotten into classes pronto, and that those “golden” classes meeting the new enrollment standard had to be distributed amongst the faculty, or the department would very quickly become an ex-department.

Many departments quickly discovered a loophole in the system.  Quite properly, the teaching of a large class was considered to be more time-demanding than a small one, so any class with more than 100 students was counted as two courses.  Outfits like the Department of Truth and Beauty, which had many very large courses (300-500 students) usually taught by people who had some expertise and liking for large classes, instantly divided them into “sections” of slightly more than 100 students each, and assigned them to people who previously had taught only upper-division or graduate courses.  In this way, by receiving double credit, the course-deflcient prof could satisfy the regulations.

The effect on teaching quality can be imagined.  Professors whose monotone could be used by the Bureau of Standards suddenly had not six advanced graduate students but 125 gum-popping freshmen.  Some professors were quick to exploit the system, dropping two or three low-enrollment upper-division courses and swapping them for one section of a big course.

In our department, the impact of the regulations was not felt equally by the Moles and the Slugs.  For a variety of reasons, Slug courses tended to have low enrollments.  Under the old curriculum, Slugs might well have become an endangered species.

Naturally, this topic was never discussed in an open meeting, nor was anything put on paper (making this chronicler’s task much more difficult).  It was crass to even hint at a suggestion that curriculum could be driven by a need to increase the body count.  Backstage, and off the record, it was Topic No. 1.

It was against this backdrop that I brashly suggested we could all save ourselves time and trouble by approaching curriculum development in a logical fashion – after all, we were all Critical Thinkers – and maybe FIPSE could help us by giving us the resources to develop a truly logical, data-based curriculum.  (It should be evident right here that my grasp of the nuances of department politics was not then one of my strong points.)

The chairman approved the proposal – but how could he refuse, when the administration was putting tremendous pressure on departments to generate more grant proposals?  The dean was delighted – a FIPSE grant is a high prestige item in many quarters.  The Slug who headed the curriculum committee couldn’t very well object to a possibility of help with her work.

I suspect now that the situation was very much like the plot of the old Mel Brooks movie, “The Producers,” where Zero Mostel vastly oversells subscriptions to a new musical, knowing that when it flops he’ll reap a huge profit from the oversubscription.  Imagine his horror when the musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” turns out to be a raging success, and all the subscribers start demanding their share of the profits.  Imagine the quiet horror on my campus, then, when the FIPSE proposal, against comfortably impossible odds, was actually approved.

The department’s problem was that by the time the FIPSE curriculum proposal was approved, the Slug-dominated curriculum committee had already blocked out a new curriculum that would be “Modern” (hence unassailable).  Not coincidentally, that new curriculum would go a long way toward eliminating the Slugs’ low enrollment problems by requiring more Slug courses.  The Moles rumbled and grumbled about this, but the Slugs’ enrollment gain in this case would not really come at the expense of the Moles.  So most of the Moles’ objections, then, were departmental rather than personal – the new curriculum is too inflexible, it’s unattractive to uncommitted freshmen, students won’t be able to handle the first-semester core course without a survey course first, etc.

The department chairman’s problem was that he already had a sitting curriculum committee, and now had a fat curriculum grant whose project director was not even on that selfsame committee; the danger was that FIPSE-supported work would start generating hard data that might force a conclusion different from the one already comfortably established by rhetoric and politics.  Clearly, the department chairman could not displace the existing committee chairman: the Slugs would get really slimy.

He did probably the only thing possible.  He created a new committee, a FIPSE committee, which would have an advisory function to the curriculum committee.  As Lord Chesterfield said, “Advice is seldom welcome, and those who want it the most always like it the least.”  Naturally, as project director, I would chair the FIPSE committee.  Since I was a Mole, this was about like hiring Daniel Ellsberg to be National Security Adviser to Lyndon Johnson.

Unfortunately, and probably unavoidably, the FIPSE committee came to be perceived as a Mole plot to undermine the new curriculum.  Despite the fact that the FIPSE committee had some outspoken Slugs in its makeup, its “Advice” came to be interpreted as “Criticism” by the curriculum committee.

It quickly became obvious that the FIPSE committee’s good information would be graciously received, only to then vanish into the ether.  For example, at the outset of the grant period, at great expense, we brought in one of the leading gurus of college curriculum development and sponsored a weekend retreat at the University’s conference center.  All who attended agreed that it was a marvelous, enormously profitable experience.  Rather pointedly, the chair of the curriculum committee had other pressing obligations, as did all but one of its other members.

Although our guru had suggested that it was not a good idea to try to patch up a curriculum, but rather to start from scratch once it was decided what you wanted to do with the curriculum, the FIPSE committee decided that it would be nice to ask the question, “What, if anything, is wrong with the old curriculum?”

It quickly became evident that our products, the Critical Thinking majors, were by and large doing very well for themselves.  Those going to graduate school reported back that their undergraduate preparation served them well; test scores were good for the pre-professionals; our grads seemed to compete well in the employment market.  To be sure, there were retrospective complaints about individual teachers, but very few systemic complaints about the Critical Thinking curriculum.  There were, however, many vitriolic comments about a sequence of required courses taught outside the department: we’ll call them Grindingly Difficult I and Grindingly Difficult II.  Both were killer courses, and, in the case of Grindingly II, the flunk rate was over 50 percent – and this was for sophomore and junior students.

By interviewing students who had initially declared themselves to be Critical Thinking majors and then changed, we found that Grindingly II was having a pernicious effect on our enrollments.  Students were changing their majors to avoid the necessity of Grindingly II.  Where were they going?  To the Department of Casual Thought.

Casual Thought was a relict department in another college that had been losing students for years and was fighting for survival.  It discovered that it could offer a relatively easy degree in Casual Thought as an alternate to pre-professional Critical Thinking students frightened off by Grindingly II.  A kind of academic Gresham’s Law was starting to operate, where students moved away from the more difficult, worthwhile degree to a less-demanding, low-prestige degree where they could earn a higher grade point.  Clearly, Grindingly II was hurting us, and hurting badly, as the overall number of Thinking students, both locally and nationally, declined.  Even without the new minimum-enrollment directives, Grindingly II needed a long, hard look.

Unfortunately, discussions about the wisdom of continuing to require Grindingly II – it was killing our program – quickly mutated to the general, eternal debate over whether Rigor truly equals Godliness.  Sadly, we were unable to resolve this question for the benefit of future generations of academics.

As the curriculum committee inexorably marched toward a New Curriculum, the FIPSE committee was busily trying to determine first, what a good curriculum was, second, what a curriculum was supposed to do, and third, how to go about getting a curriculum to do what you wanted it to do.  Toward these ends, the FIPSE committee thought it might be useful to see what other Critical Thinking departments had for curricula.  Maybe we could see if there were any particularly innovative ones, from which we could steal ideas.  We hired a couple of grad students to set up a data base for us, then sent out hundreds of letters to different schools, asking their department chairs to share their curricula with us.

This effort, which was started mostly as a kind of afterthought, a “what if” sort of thing, developed into something that became the most worthwhile part of the whole project.  We discovered that there is what amounts to a “standard” curriculum among Critical Thinking departments in the United States.  There are tiny numbers of “innovative” curricula in Thinking, primarily found in smaller schools.  There are no clear-cut patterns of difference between the curricula of highly rated and low-rated schools, although high-ranked schools tend to have greater Difficult Thought requirements.

When it became clear that studies aimed specifically at assisting our department to have a data-based curriculum were going to be politely received, then vanish without a trace, the FIPSE committee cut back on many activities that had been outlined in the original proposal.  It seemed pointless to visit schools with innovative curricula when a) those schools were so different from ours that their solutions simply couldn’t work in our case, and b) the curriculum committee was already locked into a particular set of answers.  So we are turning money back to FIPSE, for which we apologize.  (Evidently it is considered as sinful as sodomizing wallabys to spend less than the full sum of a federal grant.)

Every good story has a little twist at the end, and so does this one.  After all was said and done, our department adopted a New Curriculum; the first students are taking the first course in the new core curriculum as this is being written.  It is much too early to tell, but first-year students are flunking the first course in the new curriculum at about the rate they did in the old freshman survey course.  Since the only logically derivable difficulty of the old curriculum was that some parts of it were too tough, and students were being driven away, the New Curriculum is not off to a stellar beginning.

The wonderful thing, however, is that, for us, it doesn’t really matter!  Thinking at the University of Rhode Island is currently being reorganized and scrambled.  In two years or so, there will be brand new departments, Critical Thinking will vanish, and WE WILL GET TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN!

As my colleagues here face this grim prospect (I, regretfully, am planning field research on Bora-Bora when the new curriculum committee is formed), what lessons might colleagues elsewhere learn from our experience?

(1) Forming a new curriculum is wildly expensive in terms of faculty effort.  Be prepared, and double your worst-case estimate for the amount of time involved.
(2) The collective intelligence of a department can be less – much less – than the average intelligence of its members.
(3) When the balloon finally goes up, logic, reasoning, and rationality have relatively little to do with curriculum design.  Power, turf, and survival are vastly more significant.
(4) Good, motivated teachers in well-equipped classrooms, and a supportive administration, are far more important to a good education than any particular curriculum design.
(5) Logic is no match for rhetoric.
(6) If there are factions in a department, setting up a new curriculum is likely to magnify the differences and create wonderful new opportunities for bad blood.
(7) When it comes down to survival, there is no such thing as an altruistic department.
(8) As the great Greek philosopher Thales once said, “What is difficult?  To know one’s self.  What is easy?  To advise others.”

My conclusion after all this?  I look no further than to the old Yankee observation: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This article was first published in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, May/June 1991.