Breadth and the Curriculum

I killed a sacred cow today. At our department meeting, I convinced colleagues that it was time to abandon our breadth requirement for senior seminars for taking at least one in our two ‘streams’ of North American and European history.

(Background note: we’re dropping from three full-course or 18 credits of senior seminar to two full-course or twelve credits. A few years back, we required 5 full-course or 30 credit equivalents, so today’s cut was a mere doddle.)

When we’d required five or three senior seminars, it was easy to make a case for having at least one of them in each stream. But now that history specialists in the 60 credit program will only have two seminars (and majors in the 42 credit program only one seminar!), it’s absurd to fetishize breadth of curriculum when you don’t have the faculty resources to mount enough courses. Additionally, our binary sense of depth, divided between the two geographic areas, overlooks the growing possibilities of transnational and thematic histories. Now we can offer senior seminars that stretch across the Atlantic or tackle themes that straddle centuries as well as continents.

I’m hoping that eliminating the breadth requirement for senior seminars might also improve the classroom experience. I’ve always been unhappy with the sad reality that some students enrol in my seminar because they’re required to take one in my stream. It’s bad enough when they’re there because the other timeslots don’t work for them. It’s worse when they feel ‘forced’ by the requirement. We all appreciate the glow that comes when students have the prerequisites and interest to succeed in our seminars: with the old breadth requirement, I could never enforce the prerequisites. Now? I hope to be able to ensure that students who come to my course have the background or are willing to swot up on their own time! (I’m sure I’ll still have a few students who are disengaged or disinterested. That’s a sad reality. But maybe fewer than we’ve regularly seen?)

Moreso, does breadth belong at the senior level? I feel that breadth is a value we need to build into the curriculum at the lower levels. We should introduce students to the variety of history (and not just geographic variety, but thematic and methodological) in their first, second and, possibly, even third year courses. But by the time they’re seniors, our students often have a compelling interest that’s driving them to one field or another. For a student who’s doing the research project for six credits, do we make them take their one senior seminar credit in a field outside of their research interest? I wouldn’t recommend it!

So I’m glad that we spent some time rebalancing the curriculum with this change. We’ll be advocating to drop the breadth requirement from the senior seminars as we reduce the credits required at that level. At the same time, we’re increasing the breadth requirement for second and third year level courses where it will do more good. Now if we can only get the faculty renewal to offer enough courses. . . .

But that’s another subject altogether!

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2 responses to “Breadth and the Curriculum

  1. I’m actually sad to hear that the requirement is going down to two 4th year seminars. At the time I wished that I could have taken more of them. Though, I did take one in 3rd year and two in 4th year, so I was not as stressed to complete all that work over one year. I can’t imagine what it used to be like to take five seminars in a year!

  2. J Liedl

    It is a bit of a bittersweet moment. I would love to give our students three senior seminars. The one up-side of these changes is that for motivated students, there might still be room in the classes to take a seminar and have it count in place of some of the 2nd/3rd year electives.

    When we had the five seminar requirement (well, four seminars and the research project), many students took at least one seminar in their third year. With these changes, we’re hoping to have more students take 2nd year surveys and focused courses at the 3rd year level before they have to dive into the seminars!