News | Academics

Progress stalled on proposed replacement for Frontiers of Science

Last November, Columbia College Dean James Valentini emailed all Columbia College students about the status of a proposal for a course that could replace Frontiers of Science, and announced the intention of rolling out a pilot course by this fall.

But one year later, no progress has been made in developing the pilot course. And faculty have been reluctant to take ownership of the alternate course, called The Rough Guide to the Universe, citing concerns about the class itself and the institutional support it would receive.

And in an interview with Spectator this month, Valentini said he could not commit to establishing a new timeline for the course, casting further doubt about the pace of RGU’s development.

While the creation of the new course continues to be delayed, thousands of students will continue to take Frontiers, a class that has been criticized for failing to meet the standards of the Core since it was conceived in 2004.

Serious alterations were first considered for Frontiers—a semester-long Core course all Columbia College students must take—in 2012, after Valentini asked the Educational Policy and Planning Committee, a faculty group that coordinates academic policy for the Arts and Sciences, to review the course. This review resulted in a report, obtained and published by Spectator in 2013, that called for an overhaul of the course.

Frontiers has been criticized for not being as engaging as other Core courses and for lacking coherence, a central issue cited in the EPPC report. Frontiers faculty have pushed back against those criticisms, contending that student evaluations of the course had been consistently improving until it was announced that the EPPC was undertaking a review.

After the EPPC report was published, Valentini formed the Committee on Science in the Core to address the issues it raised. The product of this committee, the proposal for RGU, was completed in the summer of 2015 and disclosed to students in an email last year after Spectator obtained the proposal and informed Valentini it would be published.

RGU, which outlined a course more similar to the seminar courses Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, was also the subject of criticism when it was released, and faculty have not expressed the desire to work on developing it. Some faculty members cited the difficulties of working with Frontiers leadership, contending that they were so closely involved with the course and its curriculum that they were automatically reluctant to consider a replacement course.

Valentini said that, as a part of the Core Curriculum, the charge to develop RGU would have to be led by faculty members, particularly in science departments. But he also said that he will not reach out to faculty to explicitly ask them to do this until he feels that there is sufficient administrative and financial support for a pilot program.

This funding may become available through Core to Commencement, Columbia College’s fundraising campaign.

“The committee that made the recommendation for this course had faculty from many departments, and now we're in a mode of who has to substantively develop this and who has to execute it,” Valentini said. “It has to be people who can be expected to engage on a recurring basis—that's the science faculty.”

But when asked if they would be willing to further work on the course, several faculty members who had participated on CSC did not answer directly, and expressed confusion regarding the current state of RGU and if further development was even a possibility.

The significant amount of time and resources necessary to develop a course from scratch has deterred some faculty from taking initiative on RGU. Additionally, with the serious criticisms about RGU—most notably from faculty who are opposed to the elimination of the course-wide lecture and the introduction of primary texts as a pedagogical tool—faculty are reluctant to devote the required time and effort to work on a course that many do not support.

Psychology professor Donald Hood, who has lectured in Frontiers for several years and participated on CSC, said that faculty must feel personally dedicated to a course to see it through to implementation.

“Although these ideas were interesting in committee, there was nothing there that blew people away enough to say, ‘I’m going to make this same commitment that these other people have,’” Hood said.

In addition to a widespread lack of faculty buy-in across science departments, former CSC members noted that while some Frontiers faculty were open to change, others were reluctant to even consider any revision of the course. Several of the current Frontiers faculty were closely involved in the creation and development of the course, and strongly support its current iteration.

Maggie Fei / Staff Designer

Former CSC members also said that the sensitive nature of the issue has prevented further progress. After the EPPC report and the formation of CSC, Earth and Environmental Sciences professor and former co-chair of Frontiers Nicholas Christie-Blick resigned from his position.

“This whole thing was so disastrous, I simply wasn’t willing to [be chair],” Christie-Blick said when he spoke with Spectator last year. “I was totally committed to Frontiers, and I’m no longer teaching it.”

Christie-Blick said this month that he recommends that the college drop the development of RGU entirely, calling it “flawed at a fundamental level, with no possibility of resuscitation.”

“Frontiers is a wonderful course that after many years of effort works well, but is imperiled by short-sightedness on the part of the Columbia College administration,” Christie-Blick said.

But for some former members of CSC, the lack of progress on RGU is particularly disappointing after two years of weekly meetings. Despite this, none have attempted to revive its development, acknowledging the pushback from Frontiers faculty.

CSC co-chairs Dean of Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Peter de Menocal and philosophy professor Philip Kitcher, who spent two years spearheading the committee and working intensely on the development of RGU, still hope that progress will eventually be made.

“The Frontiers of Science faculty are really dedicated people, they’ve put an enormous amount of work into it,” Kitcher said. “They were not all really happy, we thought, that another committee was trying to devise something different from what they were doing. Despite our best efforts, they sometimes saw our very existence as undercutting what they were doing. This has to be worked out gently, delicately, and diplomatically.”

De Menocal echoed this sentiment, noting that there are Frontiers faculty who were supportive of a review of the course and were receptive to new ideas.

“The ability to change certainly exists within the structure that exists, and I think that’s the important thing to keep in mind,” de Menocal said. “That said, there are some people within Frontiers who are very vested in what it’s become, and don’t want to see it change.”

When asked about potential movement on RGU, both the Frontiers director, chemistry professor Ivana Hughes—who declined to comment on RGU—and Frontiers chair, astronomy professor David Helfand, cited recent developments to the existing curriculum. These include the refinement of online learning modules in Smart Sparrow, an increased social media presence intended to show students how the course materials relate to current scientific breakthroughs, and student focus groups at the end of each semester.

But these changes do not address the overarching issues first articulated in the 2013 EPPC report, and Frontiers still receives significant criticism from students. Between the hesitance on the part of faculty to engage with the issue, and Valentini’s argument that there must be sufficient institutional support in place before he can try to recruit faculty to work on RGU, it is unclear if any faculty members will continue to work on RGU.

“Knowing that there are personnel and financial issues, I am not going to ask someone right now, ‘Are you willing to do this?’” Valentini said. “Until I am confident that I can support the people, I will not ask them.”

De Menocal advocated for the necessity of an overhaul of Frontiers, emphasizing the importance of receiving a fundamental education in science.

“I think that a high quality course on the sciences, presented in a way that’s as captivating and as stimulating as any of the Core curricular offerings, is really a top priority for the University,” de Menocal said. “It’s just something that we have to have, it’s completely unacceptable that students graduating from Columbia leave here being quantitatively illiterate.” | @jjspitz1


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