The Fine and Liberal Arts & the Sufficiency Project

OVERVIEW:

The overall goal of Commission A2 was to study ways to enhance the role of the Humanities and Arts at WPI. The Commission specifically considered: broadening student opportunities to begin coursework in Humanities and Arts; enhancing student abilities in both written and oral communications; revisions to WPI’s degree requirement in Humanities and Arts. 

During Terms C ’05 and D ’05, the Commission met on an (almost) weekly basis. Our initial discussions were wide ranging and exploratory. Out of these discussions emerged five predominant themes, three of which we explore at length via sub-committee reports and two of which we make note but, for reasons indicated in the body of this report, do not pursue in detail.

The five issues which emerged from the Commission’s general discussions were:

  1. Ways in which students begin their studies in the Humanities and Arts
    Students who arrive at WPI with a passion for an area in the Humanities and Arts are well served by the present curriculum. The student who comes to WPI with a strong background and is firmly committed to the study of music, for example, has a clearly defined way to pursue and develop his or her interests. However, many students come to college with a less clearly defined set of interests in the Humanities and Arts. The Commission discussed ways in which the intellectual growth and development of such students can best be advanced. We considered a required core course in the Humanities, or a set of such courses, focusing on “great writers,” for example. While a required core course could help undecided students to focus their interests, a requirement imposed on all might not serve well for our more clearly focused and determined students whom we surely do not want to dissuade from their commitments. An interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary introductory course seemed a better approach. Four HU&A faculty members (one of whom is also a member of this Commission) developed a multi-disciplinary experimental course in order to offer students broader exposure to a wide area of the modes of expression and learning in the Humanities and Arts. After the course is offered, these faculty members will evaluate the success of this approach and make recommendations for possible future curricular development to serve the needs of beginning students.
  2. Developing good writers and strong communicators
    From the beginning of our work it was clear that we should consider the improvement of our students’ ability to express themselves both in written and oral communications. The Commission believes that the ability to communicate well and clearly is one of the essential hallmarks of a university education. As such, the development and fostering of good writers and clear communicators is a function that must extend to every academic department and to every year of a student’s undergraduate education. Four members of the Commission served as a subcommittee to recommend ways in which WPI might best undertake the crucial task of improving student writing and communication.

    Recommendations include:
    1. Design and adoption of a writing requirement for all (undergraduate) students. Some specific characteristics of such a requirement, as in practice at some of our peer institutions, are specified.
    2. Identification of faculty members in various departments and disciplines who would be interested in designing and teaching writing-intensive courses. Appropriate financial support for such faculty should be provided.
    3. Adoption of a specific timetable for design and implementation, with full implementation in Fall, 2008.
  3. Revision of the Sufficiency Requirement
    Since the institution of the “WPI Plan,” the Sufficiency requirement has assured that students would have a sustained and significant engagement with the Humanities and Arts and, through that engagement, would come to value literature, arts, languages, drama, history, philosophy, and music as essential elements to a fully human life. For over 30 years this requirement has helped students to better understand themselves, their world, and the sophisticated nature of the human condition. As WPI becomes a more diverse institution, some revision to the Humanities & Arts requirement seems in order. A sub-committee of three members of the Commission suggest four changes which both preserve the strengths of the “Sufficiency” in exposing students to humanistic modes of thought and adapt to the needs of a changing institution.

    Four changes are recommended:
    1. Replace the unitary “Sufficiency Requirement” with two separate requirements, one in Humanities and Arts; one in Science and Mathematics
    2. Establish Inquiry Seminars and Practicums as vehicles for students to complete their Humanities and Arts requirement.  These seminars and practicums would, for most students, replace the individually advised Sufficiency Project.
    3. Revise the advice given to students regarding course selection so as to permit (and encourage) a broader exposure to more areas within the Humanities and Arts.
    4. Eliminate the term “Sufficiency” to describe programs of study in the Humanities and Arts.
  4. Building bridges between the Humanities and Arts and the Social Sciences
    Even though the main focus of Commission A2’s mission was on the Humanities and Arts, as the general discussions of the Commission proceeded, it became clear that there are some natural affinities between certain areas of the Humanities and Arts and certain areas of the Social Sciences. While the Social Sciences and the Humanities and Arts each have different perspectives, methodologies, and disciplinary approaches, there are ample and obvious areas of crossover where some of the humanistic areas of learning are more akin to the social sciences than to the traditional humanities. Likewise, although some of the Social Sciences are quantitative and akin to science in modes of investigation, there are areas of the Social Sciences that lend themselves to close cooperation with certain areas of the humanities. In terms of topics of study, research methodologies, problem definition and resolution and pedagogical approach, there are areas where the Humanities and Arts and the Social Sciences could benefit from closer cooperation with one another. That cooperation could result in research collaboration, joint curriculum development and perhaps interesting team-taught courses. However, for whatever reasons (on which we decline to speculate) there
    has been little communication, collaboration, or interest in joint ventures between the two academic departments or their faculties. No amount of work in a six month period by this or any other commission could overcome the barriers posed by many years of isolation. It should be the task of the department heads of Humanities and Arts and Social Science and Policy Studies to investigate and initiate ways to explore greater cooperation between the two faculties. Such will surely be a gradual process, but the potential for future curricular cooperation and development is something that should not be ignored.
  5. Possible Bachelor of Arts Programs in (some areas of) the Humanities and Arts and/or Science and Engineering
    One of the most tempting ways to “enhance the role of the Humanities and Arts at WPI” would be to offer B.A. degree programs in those niche areas of the Humanities where WPI’s strength in science and engineering could be combined with its strength in the Humanities and Arts. In the general meetings of Commission A2, the potential for innovative B.A. programs received a great deal of discussion and consideration. Arguments in favor of such programs were persuasive and articulate. In the end, however, the Commission chose not to pursue this line of thought for two reasons: firstly, our time and numbers were limited but, more importantly, we became aware that a committee chaired by Professor Lance Schachterle was already exploring the possibility of offering B.A. programs. We have seen the report produced by this committee (Profs. Schachterle, Durgin, Lucht, Quinn, Tryggvason, and Vaz). They have undertaken a thorough consideration of this matter. It would seem needlessly duplicative for us to replicate what they have already done.

 

 
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