Core Course: A Death in the Curriculum

Author: Ed Cohen

Hell, as depicted in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem the Inferno, is a multilevel maze-like place. It’s not easily navigated without expert direction. Which is probably why Dante has a guide, the Roman poet Virgil, conduct him through the underworld.

In a similar way, the 19 sophomores enrolled in Section 22 of the College of Arts and Letters Core course this past winter didn’t have to glean the dense layers of meaning in the landmark Italian work alone. Their guide: a woman with a calm, knowing demeanor and a Ph.D. in American literature.

On a snowy January afternoon Ruthann Johansen, longtime Core instructor and the associate director of the Core program, sits at one end of a group of beige Formica-top tables trying to coax insights from the mostly hesitant 19- and 20-year-olds seated around the perimeter. From time to time she dispenses clues about the poem’s metaphors to get the discussion going. Those wild animals Dante finds blocking his path, after losing his way, at the start of the poem? They aren’t just a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf; they’re embodiments of lust, pride and greed. Which means they aren’t merely blocking his way back up a hill. They’re impeding his ability to lead a righteous life. Dante literally has to go through Hell because he can’t get past his sins or blindness. Don’t we all.

That’s one of the ideas behind Core, using great works to get students thinking about the big issues in life. The year-long, seminar-style course has been a requirement for sophomores enrolled in the Arts and Letters college for 25 years, ever since it succeeded a required great-books seminar launched in the 1950s. But that long tradition is about to end.

Core is being replaced next fall by the College Seminar, actually an assortment of course choices. Unlike Core, in which every class worked from the same syllabus and, ideally, students remained together with the same professor the entire year (the only such course in the University), the College Seminar will last a single semester. Instructors will build their own courses around their academic specialties, such as English, history, philosophy, theater, psychology, foreign language or music. Every section will still be expected to explore the breadth of the liberal arts (social sciences, humanities and fine arts) in some fashion. But it will no longer be the uniform experience some envisioned linking A&L graduates across generations.

The demise of Core comes after several years of sometimes emotional debate among students, faculty and administrators in the Arts and Letters college. By all accounts it ended up being a group decision. But the meaning of Core’s discontinuation has sparked the kind of divergent interpretation usually reserved for works like the Inferno.

Some see eliminating the course as abandoning the ideal of preparing students for a life of the mind, a case of dumping pure intellectual inquiry in favor of career preparation. One veteran faculty member called the change “an unmitigated disaster.” That charge will likely resonate those with A&L alumni who look back on Core as a life-changing intellectual awakening.

Others believe Core’s demise reflects negatively on the University having placed a greater emphasis on research and scholarship. They think faculty recruited more on the basis of their prowess in those activities are unwilling or unable to teach an old-fashioned general-education course like Core because it means stepping outside their narrow area of expertise.

On the other side are those delighted to see Core pass into history. These include many students of recent years who have been less than satisfied with the experience.

In the view of some administrators, practicalities doomed the program. They say there simply weren’t enough qualified instructors to lead the dozens of small seminars required to accommodate all A&L sophomores and still staff all the introductory and advanced courses in each department. Some also thought Core did students a disservice by having faculty leading discussions of important works who weren’t experts on the material.

There is one point on which critics and supporters of the change seem to agree: The quality of instruction in Core had become inconsistent. Surveys and interviews suggest that, in recent years especially, about equal numbers of students loved Core as hated it. The difference usually came down to who was teaching their section.

“In general, I did not enjoy Core,” says junior Marie-Christine Luijckx, majoring in economics and psychology. “The different sections of the class were inconsistent. . . . Some teachers required more homework, others graded harder, and in the end it just came down to if you were lucky or not.”

Arts and Letters Dean Mark Roche says a stable and experienced corps of Core instructors helped the course flourish from its creation in 1979 until the early 1990s.

At that point the college decided to reduce faculty teaching loads to encourage more research and scholarship. Before then, professors had been required to teach three courses fall semester and three in the spring, or “3 and 3” in academic parlance. The college began a shift to a “2 and 2” workload to bring Notre Dame closer in line with peer research institutions. The all-year commitment of Core went from constituting one-third of a participating faculty member’s teaching load to half of it.

In the years that followed the size of the A&L faculty grew but not enough to offset the lightened teaching loads. The labor squeeze worsened in the mid-‘90s when the University’s Academic Council resolved that all students, regardless of major, be required to take at least three seminars (small-group classes heavy on reading and discussion). The Arts and Letters college teaches almost all such courses.

Because the resolution carried no allocation of additional funds, it amounted to an unfunded mandate. The most economical way for the college to meet that mandate was to hire part-timers. As a result, by the mid-’90s, fewer than one-fifth of Core course sections were being taught by regular teaching and research faculty.

Roche didn’t think the college’s cornerstone course should be almost the exclusive domain of outsiders, so he began requiring regular faculty to teach more sections. This year 60 percent of Core instructors came from the regular teaching and research faculty (75 percent if you include special professional faculty—mostly in the fine and performing arts).

But not all came willingly.

Lacking enough volunteers, Roche and his staff have had to place a “tax” on departments. Each chair of a department is told how many professors the department must provide to teach Core based on the department’s size and course loads.

Why the paucity of volunteers? Roche says faculty appointed to chair academic departments in recent years have been laudably ambitious in wanting to develop new, more intellectually engaging courses in their disciplines. But they can’t offer many of these if their faculty are tied up teaching Core. Also, faculty members estimate it takes them three times as long to prepare to teach Core than a course in their home discipline.

Junior faculty, especially, have tended to shy away from Core. They know that the added prep time will eat into the hours they need to conduct research and scholarship. Output in these areas counts significantly toward tenure decisions. They also know that students aren’t likely to give them high marks for their performance leading a Core seminar. That’s because these younger faculty members often don’t have much experience teaching in their own fields, let alone something foreign like Core. As with research productivity, teacher/course evaluations by students count significantly in promotion decisions.

Another reason faculty have been reluctant to teach Core is lack of control. Even in introductory courses, individual professors enjoy some freedom over how to cover the prescribed material. Not with Core. Each year a committee from the college would decide which texts would be read and how many class sessions would be devoted to exploring the course’s four themes of nature, society, self and God.

“We just couldn’t please everybody,” Johansen says of the text selections.

In the days of the original, great-books-style Core course (called Collegiate Seminar, sure to be confused with the next generation College Seminar), the curriculum focused on great works of the Western canon, material by such luminaries as Plato, Augustine and Shakespeare. Because of increased sensitivity about inclusiveness and a desire to make the course more relevant to modern students, the reading list evolved to include works from Eastern cultures and, later, more contemporary works. A staple in recent years was There Are No Children Here, about youth growing up in Chicago’s housing projects. The author, journalist Alex Kotlowitz, is now a visiting professor at Notre Dame.

Robert Norton, chair of the Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures, says the shift away from the classics “gave rise to the quip that Core was no longer the class of great books but pretty good books.”

“The whole body of texts had lost its distinctive stamp, so even the content had sort of become muddled and obscured.” the department chair says. “It was increasingly difficult to get faculty to teach a course that increasingly fewer people believed in.”

Or that they felt qualified to teach.

Universities like Notre Dame that are aiming to boost their academic standing typically try to do so through an increased emphasis on research and scholarship by faculty. One way to do this is to hire professors who already enjoy reputations as star performers by virtue of their research and scholarly activity.

But such recruits are often experts in specialized areas— not broad fields like European history but subcategories like medieval French history. Core demanded its instructors be competent enough to lead discussions of a universe of topics. During the past year, for instance, these included evolution, Hinduism, brain injury, ecology and poverty. And not just books. The course covered plays, artworks, films.

Many faculty say they didn’t mind extending themselves into realms beyond their comfort zone, but they disagreed with venturing outside their areas of competency.

Wendy Arons, an assistant professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre, specializes in 18th century German theater, although she also has experience directing contemporary drama. She readily acknowledges being more of a specialist than many professors who taught the liberal arts at Notre Dame in decades past.

She has taught Core twice. Both times they were experimental versions of the course—one on the Making of the Modern Material World, the other focusing on gender. But the traditional Core format is not foreign to her. She says she took a course like it as an undergraduate at Yale, "and it was one of the most valuable courses I ever took.

“But the reason it was valuable was because I had experts teaching it.”

She says she and other newer faculty believe the material in Core should have been left to the experts.

“If a student is only going to read Thucydides (a Greek historian, considered the greatest of antiquity) once in their lives it shouldn’t be with me. . . . I’m not one who thinks a foundation in the Western canon is a bad thing. I just think there’s good way to teach it and bad way to teach it. And the best way would not be me teaching it.”

Norton, the department chair, says even Core’s supporters would admit that its instructors were sometimes no better prepared to discuss the material than their students.

“It was a classic example of the blind leading the blind, and that didn’t seem like a very responsible way of going about the teaching mission of the University.”