The College of Arts & Letters: Knowledge, Nature and Culture

4/8/2011

When the class of 2015 begins their undergraduate career at Stevens Institute of Technology this September, they will be the first to experience one of the most ground-shifting academic overhauls in the University’s history.

Showing that it is more than an engineering school, Stevens recently announced that its College of Arts and Letters (CAL) would roll out a new curriculum, one that will be mandatory and transform the core education for all students.  

“There were students graduating without ever taking philosophy classes, or literature or history courses because there were so many ways around fulfilling credits,” said Lisa M. Dolling, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. “Basic requirements had not changed in forty years. This is going to be huge.”

When they begin their undergraduate education, all incoming freshmen will be required to take a writing and communication course as well as one that covers all the humanistic disciplines offered by CAL, summarized by the themes of “knowledge, nature and culture.”

Dolling said the courses were born from the overwhelming feeling by faculty that the University – while excelling at engineering and science courses – should expand the focus to include other fundamental educational needs.

For students to succeed in life after college, they must be well rounded, said Dolling. That means having a solid writing background and the ability to convey a message through the written word. This is especially important to Stevens graduates who often take on high profile and demanding jobs in the technical sector or with government agencies responsible for security and advancement.

To that end, CAL 103, Writing and Communications Colloquium, is tailored for the Stevens student. This includes technical writing, business proposals and reports, scientific reports, expository writing, promotional documents and advertising, as well as PowerPoint skills and team presentations.

“Effective writing and speaking will be crucial in the careers of all your students,” wrote Dr. John P. McCaskey of Stanford University who reviewed the CAL proposal before it was formally announced.

In describing the other required course, CAL 105, Colloquium: Knowledge, Nature, Culture, the committee declared that it will “give the students an opportunity to reflect on their own opinions and ideas in such a way where they learn to take themselves and their ideas seriously in deciding what is right or wrong.” This course will involve studying, discussing and debating seminal works in history, literature, philosophy and the social sciences. There is a fine art component as well, with the ultimate goal being to appreciate and respect a wide diversity of opinions and points of view.

The excitement within CAL is unmistakable. After countless meetings and receiving feedback from all areas of academia, Dolling is confident that the new curriculum is going to add to Stevens’ reputation as The Innovation University.

“This may set the standard for the core curriculum for an engineering university,” she said.

Dolling is not alone in her enthusiasm. Renowned biologist Robert Pollack, Ph.D., Director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion and former Dean of Columbia University wrote a letter of support calling the syllabus “novel and impressive.”

He said it was “very well articulated, and the listed teaching faculty are precisely the diverse group who can bring freedom of inquiry to the text and through the text to the student, for life-long benefit.” Pollack even agreed to be a guest lecturer when the students are learning about the work of Rachel Carson.

McCaskey of Stanford echoed those comments as well. “A rigorous survey of primary texts across the humanist disciplines will be a great foundation for the rest of their undergraduate years and a great reward in the rest of their lives,” he wrote. “Congratulations on the two-pronged approach. An outstanding strategy!”

More than just the educational importance, Dolling sees the new courses as a wonderful opportunity for the freshman class to bond. Since they will all be taking the same courses and reading the same texts, it will allow for conversation among students outside of the classroom and a broadening of social circles.

“In doing so they gain an appreciation for academic discourse and its relevance in everyday life,” she said.

Another first is that full-time faculty at Stevens, not adjunct professors or others who have limited time on campus, will teach the courses. Dolling says this will help forge the bond between the CAL faculty and the students.

As the students progress through their undergraduate career at Stevens they will continue on  to take additional CAL courses, with the difference now of having the broad foundation that enables them to choose the rest of their courses more judiciously and deliberately.

The idea to overhaul the curriculum started shortly after Dolling was named dean of the college in 2009. There was a concern, she noted, that many graduating students were doing so without ever studying the disciplines that remain central to a broad-based education and therefore not having enough of an opportunity to engage in thoughtful reflection about the human condition. Students were also missing valuable opportunities to delve deeper into these fields by picking up a minor or double major.

Now, by introducing the entire freshman class to the College of Arts and Letters’ offerings, Dolling does not try to hide the fact that she wants students to consider CAL when declaring both their majors and minors.

She said that during her years at Stevens it was common to have seniors approach her saying they would have added a minor in one of the CAL programs “if only they had been introduced to the discipline sooner.”

“We foresee the number of double majors and minors growing exponentially,” said Dolling.

Another exciting development in the College of Arts of Letters is its new Master of Arts degree in Technology, Policy, and Ethics. This M.A. — the first in the history of Stevens — brings together faculty from across the University to address the pressing need to “cultivate ethical leadership in an age of rapid technological innovation.”

“Along with the new curriculum, this new program will be among CAL’s most significant and lasting contributions to Stevens,” said Dolling. “When I attend alumni events I am overwhelmed by how often Stevens graduates wax poetic about their humanity courses, recognizing how important they were in contributing to their success. We are continuing that tradition for the 21st century, but it just cannot be as a sidebar anymore. It has to be front and center.”