McDaniel College spices up curriculum

The Baltimore Sun

McDaniel College faculty and administrators have spent years poring over potential ingredients for a new undergraduate curriculum.

With a dash or two of the right resources, that curriculum could better prepare McDaniel students for life beyond college.

A review of the college's curriculum, fostered by a planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, inspired its latest recipe, which the faculty approved last week.

That review began with faculty conversations on how best to educate students for the 21st century, said Thomas M. Falkner, the college's provost and dean of the faculty. Those conversations, in turn, led to the creation of two new programs: sophomore interdisciplinary studies and the "junior writing experience." A fresh set of course requirements also emerged: scientific inquiry and quantitative reasoning; social, cultural and historical understanding; textual analysis and creative expression; global citizenship; and second language, including American Sign Language.

The previous curriculum didn't make much "coherent sense," said Mary Bendel-Simso, an English professor and co-chairwoman of the curriculum implementation steering committee. Instead of focusing on specific classes such as history or literature, the broader topics consider different perspectives and emphasize skills and experiences.

"As we're headed into the future, we don't have strict discipline boundaries in the way we used to have," Bendel-Simso said.

The writing program, in particular, reflects the liberal arts faculty's belief in producing "cogent and confident writers," Falkner said.

"We sort of had this sandwich," President Joan Develin Coley said, referring to current first- and senior-year requirements, which respectively consist of a seminar and a culminating "capstone experience" in a student's major.

But faculty began examining the contents of the sandwich, considering what ingredients could be added.

"What we think we have now is heaven," Coley said, a program that "will have something special and meaningful at each step of the way."

Or, as German professor Mohamed Esa put it, "Each year has a highlight, has a jewel."

Esa said he saw the sophomore seminar as "the most innovative and new thing in the curriculum."

"This is something that's unique, that doesn't belong to a single department," said Esa, who co-chaired the steering committee with Bendel-Simso.

Future classes could look at the post-Sept. 11 world in terms of history, politics and various media or take on fairy tales through the lenses of sociology, psychology, literature and art, Bendel-Simso and Esa said.

Bendel-Simso is planning a course with a chemistry professor titled "Science: Fact or Fiction," which would examine works of science fiction and how realistic they are, she said.

The idea, Esa said, is to bring in the different perspectives of professors from other disciplines.

"What I believe students lack nowadays is seeing the connections between disciplines, seeing the connections between various things," Esa said.

The interdisciplinary courses for sophomores also would give them a chance to continue exploring beyond their freshman year, Coley said. Then, as juniors who have selected their major, the added writing experience could help them develop more advanced skills within their fields.

"Writing is one of the weaknesses of a lot of students," Esa said.

Coley stressed that the junior program would not center on the English department but the student's chosen concentration. A biology major, for example, might take a class on writing in the sciences, perhaps looking at academic or popular journals and their style of delivery, she said.

Some current students expressed interest in the proposed curriculum, particularly the junior writing experience.

"No matter what profession you have, it's always important to be able to write," said junior Leslie Shirk, 22, an English major.

The writing component also appealed to French major and sophomore Mary Beth Bounds, 19, who said she would enjoy a course that allowed for more creative and customized writing within her field.

"A course which was more personalized -- that would be great," Bounds said.

The McDaniel faculty adopted an amended version of the new curriculum last week, Bendel-Simso and Esa said.

But more work lies ahead as they try to implement the changes with available resources and phase out some courses to make room. Increasing requirements also demands more staff, something that isn't feasible right now, Esa said.

Yet, ideally, when the curriculum is fully served -- no later than the entering Class of 2009, Bendel-Simso said -- it should satisfy and fortify McDaniel students for the world.

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