The Curriculum overhaul: ominous cloud or shining hope?

By: Connor Cummiskey

Over the last couple semesters, Ripon College has been going through some dramatic changes. The curriculum, the classes the college offers, is in the midst of review and the path forward is unclear to most.

“Last year we basically did a lot of the background groundwork that we now have a much better insight into the institution, and a much better idea of what we do well and things we could do better or differently,” said Mark Kainz, chair of the educational policy committee and one of the leaders of the 2014-2015 curriculum review committee.

The strain on everyone from the changes so far has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many students and faculty.

“Nobody was very happy to see particular programs reduced or cut,” Kainz said. “[However,] the curriculum changes were the kind of changes that could make the college more sustainable, and have the least effect on current and future students and on faculty and staff here.”

First, returning students can take a breath of relief – their previously declared majors and minors should be fine.

“On terms of currently enrolled students, If you are an advanced student I am confident you will be able to complete your course of study as (or very close to) you anticipated,” Kainz said.

There is also a new vice president and dean of faculty, Ed Wingenbach. He started at the beginning of July. He is closely tied to the liberal arts tradition.

“My personal background is in small liberal arts colleges. I went to Lake Forest College – a fellow ACM school,” Wingenbach said. “That really shaped my sense of what I wanted to do with my life.”

The former University of Redlands professor and associate provost hopes to assist in making the curriculum changes go as smoothly as possible.

“One of my core skill sets is that I am very good at helping groups of people work through conflict to reach agreement or consensus about the direction we should go,” Wingenbach said.

While it is unclear what form the curriculum changes will take at the end of it all, there are a few broad goals in mind.

“The idea is to have our curriculum sustainable, to have our curriculum meet the needs of students who will be graduating in the 21 century, to have our students have the tools and knowledge and ways of thinking that will help them succeed in whatever they do once they graduate,” Kainz said.

However, the school has to balance that goal with what resources it has available.

“We have to design a curriculum that can be delivered by the size of the faculty we can sustain,” Wingenbach said.

The dean explained over the phone that it was not only the size, but also the skills each faculty member has that have to be taken into account as well.

That being said, there are a few major obstacles between here and a sustainable curriculum for the 21 century. The major one being that classic problem at a small liberal arts school, everybody is too busy.

“The faculty at Ripon work extraordinarily hard – teaching their classes, mentoring students, advising, doing their scholarships and we are going to be asking them to do another fairly large project on top of what they are already doing,” Wingenbach said.

Wingenbach does have a plan, of sorts.

“I am going to ask the faculty during the fall to meet regularly as a full faculty, to discuss how to restructure our curriculum,” Wingenbach said. “Which includes not just general education and requirements but also the way we think about majors, the way we think about the organization of the faculty and all of those things need to be on the table.”

The faculty are not the only part of the equation, even if they are bearing much of the load. Students that feel left out in the cold by the changes going on around (and seemingly without) them, there is some positive news.

“Me and I think other faculty over the fall would be eager to hear from current students, about the kind of ideas they think would be compelling and attractive that we could offer at Ripon, given the faculty expertise and programs that we have in place.” Wingenbach said.

The story so far.

There appears to be quite a bit of change coming to Ripon, but some of it is already here. Below is a list of all the changes to minors and majors, as well as a description of each of the new minors.

According to an email from the Office of the President of Ripon College the majors and minors that are no longer available to declare (at least for now) are:

•Anthropology major/minor (suspended, proposal for new course(s) of study forthcoming)

•Computer Science major/minor (suspended, proposal for new course(s) of study forthcoming)

•French major/minor (suspended, proposal for new course(s) of study forthcoming)

•German (eliminated)

•Latin (eliminated)

•Museum Studies minor (suspended, proposal for new course(s)

Ancient Renaissance and Medieval studies minor

“The new minor builds on the expertise of quite a number of faculty members (about a dozen faculty members are offering courses as part of this minor),” Professor of History and Chair of the Department Diane Mockridge said. “In fact, the minor developed quite naturally as faculty members discussed topics they teach in common, and realized that overlap could be highlighted in our curriculum. Ripon College offers a traditional liberal arts education, and the subjects offered in this minor very much supports that mission.”

The minor is highly interdisciplinary and uses that to achieve a more in-depth study of some the the most mysterious alcoves of our history.

“Unlike studying modern society, the civilizations studied in this minor (ancient, medieval, and Renaissance) have not left a huge amount of evidence for us to examine and interpret,” Mockridge said. “So to get a complete picture of the Middle Ages, one needs to study more than just the ‘history’ of the time — one has to examine the art, literature, philosophy, theology, music, etc. too. Examining a time period from multiple disciplinary points of view is a more accurate way of figuring out what life was really like then. I think it is more fun as well, and enables students to relate more to the time period. We plan on not only examining these time periods through these different disciplinary lenses, but also to use these disciplines to make these time periods come to life through some extra-curricular activities (calligraphy, dancing, possible trebuchet-launching…).”

American Studies minor

“The American Studies minor is devoted to making the invisible visible,” Assistant Professor of English Mary Unger said. “Students will study American culture, the institutions that structure it, and the history of how we got to where we are.  In the process, students will acquire and practice the skills of interdisciplinary thinking, effective writing, critical analysis, research and information management, media literacy, as well as intellectual creativity and curiosity.”

Interested students should also note its applicability in the real world, life after college.

“The American Studies minor prepares students for life after college in two ways,” Unger said. “The American Studies minor situates students to enter all sorts of careers, from advertising and activism to law, education, city planning, publishing, and more. In so doing, the American Studies minor also prepares students for life after college by making you a more aware member of American society.  If you can better understand the culture in which you live, you will be better able to navigate it when you leave Ripon. You will be a [more] savvy citizen of this dynamic, complex world.  Indeed, you will be what the college’s mission statement describes as a ‘productive, socially responsible’ citizen.  By making you more aware of your surroundings the minor, in the end, also makes you more aware of you.”

The minor is another highly interdisciplinary educational track. It is out of necessity, considering the immensity of the subject matter.

“In order to understand something as complex as an entire culture, you must be able to use various methodological approaches,” Unger said. “Doing so allows for a deeper and richer analysis.  For example, if you’re going to analyse how the racial politics of the 1960s and ‘70s affect current events such as Ferguson, Charleston, etc., you absolutely have to have an understanding of American history, a sociological understanding of institutionalized racism, a political science understanding of disenfranchisement, and an understanding of various methods of protest (literature, art, music, etc.).  Race relations–or any aspect of American culture–don’t exist in isolation, so by employing multiple lenses to examine an issue or problem, you will create a clearer picture.”

Applied Communication minor

“This is meant to supplement a traditional liberal education by providing an option for people to do something that is explicitly experiential,” Associate Professor of Communication and Chair of the Department Steve Martin said.

Ripon is renown for its communication major, but for students who do not want to take on the full commitment, there is a communication minor. The major, however, is more theory focused than the applied minor.

Interested students should be prepared to face a lot of public speaking, which can be daunting for students unused to being in front of a crowd.

“All the classes are very standing up in front of people based, doing an in-depth group project or putting together a campaign of some kind,” Martin said

Criminal Justice minor

“The minor in Criminal Justice provides an interdisciplinary perspective on deviance, crime, and the criminal justice system,” Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department Jacqueline Clark said. “The minor enables students to understand how deviance and crime are defined and interpreted, identify the parts of the criminal justice system and their respective roles, develop a theoretical understanding of deviance and crime, and investigate ethical issues related to the criminal justice system.”

The minor also has a practical side, giving students a chance to peek into their fields of interest.

“Students will be able to develop applied knowledge of the CJ System through internships with law enforcement agencies and other organizations associated with the CJ System,” Clark said

photo courtesy of Ric Damm
photo courtesy of Ric Damm