Surprised By Conversation: A Reflection on Core Renewal at Boston College

By Brian D. Robinette

Ten years ago I wrote an article for Conversations entitled, “Beyond the Core Wars: Intellectual Charity and Knowledge as Ecstasy.” At the time I was a newly tenured professor at Saint Louis University and relatively fresh to the challenging conversations around the core curriculum at Jesuit institutions. The article was occasioned in part by Pope Benedict XVI’s message to Catholic educators, which he delivered during his April 2008 visit to the United States. Calling all educators to resist a primarily calculative and utilitarian approach to learning — a tendency as strong now as ever — the pope sketched out a bracing vision of higher education animated by wonderment and awe, by a self-transcending eros that is responsive to beauty, affectivity, justice, and the aspiration for human wholeness. In a word, intellectual ecstasy.

Click on the image above to see all our articles written on the Core Wars in 2008.

Click on the image above to see all our articles written on the Core Wars in 2008.

Such a call was not a merely rhetorical exercise, however elevated it may have seemed, and neither did it favor some disciplines over others, say, those in the humanities over the sciences. Rather, it was an all inclusive, dynamic, and quietly urgent summons to interdisciplinary collaboration and conversation across all boundaries; for when fully awakened, argued the pope, the impulse for truth pushes us well outside of ourselves, outside of our disciplinary silos and intellectual habits, and towards one another in dialogical relation. As my beloved colleague Fr. Michael Himes likes to put it, a university is “a rigorous and sustained conversation about the great questions of human existence among the widest possible circle of the best possible conversation partners.”

Much of what I wrote ten years ago strikes me as relevant as ever. But having participated in numerous conversations around the core since then, and at two different Jesuit institutions, I have come to identify one of the conditions that significantly impede the possibility of meaningful conversation around the core, and thus the prospects of interdisciplinary collaboration in its renewal: the feeling of scarcity. By this I mean the impending, and often inarticulate, sense that something precious is about to be lost, with little hope for recovery or creative reinvention. Scarcity is not necessarily a bad thing, and many conditions of scarcity can generate remarkable creativity and collaboration with others. People are often at their most resourceful when pressed up against challenging constraints. For better or worse, some forms of scarcity are inevitable given the intense pressures many institutions of higher learning now face, including budget crunches, teetering enrollment numbers, demographic shifts, growing bureaucracy, and the constant push for academic productivity. Add to this the declining support for the humanities and the increasing curricular demands for students preparing for more technical professions. Little wonder that our fists clinch and imaginations shrink when relentlessly subjected to pressures like these. Having internalized a sense of scarcity, and ever anxious to retain our precious piece of the core, the scope of our conversations grows narrower and narrower, and our willingness to risk interdisciplinary collaboration diminishes.

It is understandable that under such circumstances some colleges and universities have opted for a learning-outcomes approach to core renewal.Rather than defining core requirements primarily along disciplinary and thus departmental lines, a learning-outcomes approach organizes the core around an array of skills- and content-related goals that can be met in multiple ways. While granting that some skills- and content-related goals are directly tied to specific disciplines, and thus to specific academic departments, a learning-outcomes approach shifts the overall emphasis to a profile of goals that together constitute the core curriculum experience. This shift potentially relieves some of the pressures of a discipline-based distribution of requirements by giving departments a broader range of opportunities to contribute to these goals. This approach may encourage greater interdisciplinary cooperation and innovation among academic departments. Well-crafted learning goals can establish zones of contact for diverse disciplines to fill out together. On the other hand, a skills- and content-related approach may only intensify the sense of scarcity among faculty who contend that it undermines the expertise, rigor, and specificity that constitute each discipline. Rather than freeing up space for interdisciplinary engagement, the integrity of disciplines is potentially undermined, and academic departments are threatened, as they must vie against one another in order to justify their share of the core.

It is not my aim here to offer an overarching judgment about the merits of a learning-outcomes approach, but I would like to highlight some of the distinctive features of the core renewal process underway at my current institution, Boston College, in light of the above pressures. One way to characterize this approach is in terms of a “third way” that fully embraces the distinction of disciplines while placing interdisciplinary collaboration directly in the hands of faculty. Without modifying the overall footprint of the core or redistributing the departmental allotment of required courses, this approach proceeds more organically, and at an initially smaller scale, by inviting faculty to participate in core renewal by identifying another faculty member with whom they might like to collaborate.

Faculty can choose one of two formats for their collaboration. The first is a six-credit, team-taught “complex problems” course. Organized around a problem of significant complexity (for example, climate change, war, racial violence, and so forth), faculty bring their respective disciplines to bear upon a common set of challenges that demand innovative thinking and unprecedented cooperation. Some examples include “Science and Technology in American Society” taught by faculty in history and biology, or “From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo: Violence and Representation in the African Diaspora” taught by faculty in romance languages and literatures and sociology, or “Global Implications of Climate Change” taught by faculty in sociology and environmental sciences. Consisting of a combination of lectures and labs, as well as several evening sessions dedicated to reflection and integration, these courses allow students to fulfill two core requirements in a highly interdisciplinary, goal-oriented manner.

The second format available to faculty is a pair of three-credit courses linked by a question of fundamental significance. Rather than team-taught, these “enduring questions” courses retain greater independence while nevertheless establishing strong thematic connections across disciplinary lines. With a cap of 19 students (compared to 76 for “complex problems” courses), “enduring questions” courses move along more intimate lines that unpack such questions as “What does it mean to be human?” or “What is the good life?” or “How might we engender empathy?” or “How do we face illness, disability, and death?” Some recent examples include the following pairs: “Your Brain on Theatre: On Stage and Off” (biology) and “This is Your Brain on Theatre: Neuroscience and the Actor” (theatre); “Being Human: The Philosophical Problem of Nature and Mathematical Knowledge” (philosophy) and “Understanding Mathematics: Its Philosophical Origins, Evolution, and Humanity” (mathematics); “Spiritual Exercises: Engagement, Empathy, Ethics” (theology) and “Aesthetic Exercises: Engagement, Empathy, Ethics” (music/fine arts).

The impact of these courses on faculty and students has been overwhelmingly positive. Based upon extensive assessment and ongoing consultation among faculty, students, and staff, the core renewal efforts have significantly enhanced the overall experience of the core, leading more and more departments and programs to consider ways to contribute more fully. By starting with smaller-scale, faculty-led experimentations – all of which have been supported through teaching workshops, networking opportunities, modest faculty incentives, and promotion among students – the core renewal process, now in its fourth year of implementation, has established deep roots in the university and is continuing to expand its scale. While there are still many challenges to work out as the core renewal process moves into its second major phase of implementation – challenges such as staffing, expanding course selection, constraints of classroom and lab space, assessment of long-standing academic programs, and so forth – the initial success of its first, more experimental phase has significantly modulated the sense of scarcity that typically aggravates these issues. They are felt more like the pressures of growth than of dearth.

As a faculty member who has taught in the new core at Boston College and participated in numerous formal conversations around its assessment and expansion, I am surprised by how a sense of collaborative innovation has pervaded the entire effort. More than any other initiative I can think of, involvement in the core renewal has pushed me outside of my disciplinary-departmental framework and greatly expanded my circle of conversation partners. But more than this, because this form of core renewal is deeply rooted in faculty collaboration and because such collaboration entails a host of creative risks and unanticipated outcomes among all those involved, students are far more likely to experience the excitement of interdisciplinary learning. Drawn into a sustained conversation with their professors, students are not left to their own devices for integrating their core curriculum studies, as is often the case, but are shown how by faculty who themselves are engaged in rigorous and sustained conversation. I can think of few learning outcomes as important as this.

Brian D. Robinette is associate professor of theology at Boston College.