News / April 14, 2020

New course approval process explored

The journey of a new course to the Knox College catalog begins with an individual professor’s research interests. 

For Chair of History Cate Denial, an idea often begins with considering what will resonate with present day concerns.

“So my History of Birth Control and Reproduction class, for example, was really because I saw people fighting about birth control and abortion and adoption. I thought that people could use some historical perspective on that,” Denial said.

Within her department, Denial said ideas for classes generally begin with informal discussion, which eventually leads to considering what needs a course would fill and specific concerns such as how many books a class might use.

After the idea for a course has been developed by a professor and their department, it moves on to consideration by Knox’s Curriculum Implementation Committee. Committee Chair and Associate Professor of Art Mark Holmes estimated that the committee receives 10-20 proposals for new courses a term and 30-50 a year. 

“In that proposal, you have to make it super clear to someone who’s not an expert in the field why you’re going to do things a certain way,” Denial said.

Holmes described the process for new courses as a thorough assessment that includes how the course meets learning goals, what role a course will play with a department’s curriculum and the expertise of the professor set to teach the course.

While Holmes said the rejection of a proposed course was very rare, there is generally some back and forth discussion between committee members and the new course’s professor, and if the implementation of a new course could be delayed if the committee has concerns about it.

“By the time a proposal reaches us, it usually reflects some discussion within the department. It’s not somebody’s hare-brained idea,” Holmes said. “(…) The committee tends to err on the side of assuming faculty members know what they’re talking about.”

Concerns that could cause a delay include the committee not being satisfied with the level of detail in how a course will meet learning goals or wanting a more concrete sense of a course’s structures, problems that Holmes said are generally resolved simply by asking the professor for more information. 

The committee includes four professors, who Holmes stated are generally meant to represent different academic areas, though in some cases the committee looks outside itself for expertise or at similar programs at other schools if there are questions about the legitimacy of a proposed course.

“[In February] there were a number of proposals that came though that I had to trust that these are legitimate things that represent a field” Holmes said. “But as an art professor I know nothing about data science, and so I rely on other people on the committee.

Holmes said the committee also takes into consideration if a proposed course makes sense within the aims of a liberal arts college, though the school also looks for ways to expand opportunities for students.

“So if somebody proposes a course in, I don’t know, auto repair — we’ll say it’s not what we do,” he said. 

Along with the four professors, the committee includes the school’s Registrar who holds a non voting spot on the committee, a voting member appointed by the Dean to represent them and a voting student representative. Holmes described having a student representative as valuable for getting a sense of how interested the student body might show be a course.

While proposals such as an entire new major would begin with the Curriculum Implementation Committee before eventually requiring full faculty approval, new courses require simply the vote of the committee to be approved.

The committee also will at times look at making sure the college catalogue is not overfilled with courses that are essentially no longer taught, which Holmes described as an issue of ensuring transparency about the school’s offerings to students. However, Holmes noted it is generally up to a department to suggest a course be removed from the catalogue.  

While the committee’s role in the process is done once a class has been approved, for the professor, this might be when the hardest part begins according to Denial.

“[When teaching a new course] not only do you have to come up with all the readings or all the classroom activities to figure out how much time everything is going to take, but as you’re teaching it, you’re hopefully figuring out what works and what doesn’t,” she said.

Carlos Flores-Gaytan, Co-News Editor
Co-News Editor

Tags:  Cate Denial curriculum

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