Sacred Heart University is at the midpoint of developing a centerpiece for its Core Curriculum called “The Human Journey.” The faculty development project — made possible by an $80,000 grant awarded in 2008 from the Davis Educational Foundation of Falmouth, Maine —will integrate interdisciplinary classroom modules into core courses beginning this coming fall semester.
The Common Core weaves liberal learning with values and ethics. The Human Journey’s five foundational courses in the arts and sciences are unified by a focus on four central questions: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live a life of meaning and purpose? What does it mean to understand and appreciate the natural world? And what does it mean to forge a more just society for the common good?
During the 2008 to ’09 academic year, 10 SHU professors met on six Saturdays and for a three-day seminar in May to map out six modules to be used in core classrooms this fall. Two faculty members came from English, two from History, two from Social Sciences, two from Natural Sciences, and two from Religious Studies and Philosophy. Their meetings involved discussions on texts, ideas, issues and problems while focusing on curricular materials that will integrate the arts and sciences, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and the four core questions.
The 10 instructors will meet again in August to work out final plans for implementing the initiative.
A group of 10 additional professors will take over spearheading the second half of the project for the upcoming academic year, with the previous participants available for feedback and mentoring.
According to Jennifer McLaughlin, one of the instructors involved and the director of Women’s Studies in SHU’s department of History, each module will fill a week’s worth of course time, and will include readings, content and discussion with the students.
Each module examines a topic from the viewpoint of multiple disciplines. For example, a module titled “The American Eden” will investigate the relationship between humans and the environment throughout U.S. history. “I’ve chosen a chapter from a book by an environmental historian who writes about the ecology of New England,” McLaughlin says. “Dr. [Jennie-Rebecca] Falcetta in the English department has chosen some poems that have to do with how poets think about and write about the natural world. We’re also going to talk about theology — the idea of what the responsibilities of humans are in regard to the natural world. We’ll get the perspective from historians about how people’s attitudes toward the environment have changed over time. And then we’ll get to the science part of it, which explains how people have changed their environment.”
McLaughlin explains that through the module, students will be taught to study a complex issue from varied viewpoints in order to develop a more realistic global understanding. “It’s not just me saying, ‘These texts are historical texts, so let’s think about them historically,’ ” she says. “There is so much more to an issue. There are texts from history, there are texts from literature, there are texts from biology. All of those different ideas are going to be presented to the students so they can see how these questions about what it means to be human are questions that have been tackled from so many different perspectives. And sometimes the perspectives work together, and sometimes they bring us new questions, and either way it’s interesting and educational to see how different disciplines tackle the same ideas.”
The initial 10 professors will pilot the modules in their own courses in the fall, and will then regroup to discuss the successes and shortcomings of the program. The modules will then be made available to all professors teaching core courses, and then later to professors teaching elective-core courses.
Dr. Falcetta, who also participated in the pilot group, notes that learning to think in an interdisciplinary fashion is crucial to intellectual development. “Approaching an idea from just one discipline is going to give you only part of the story,” she says. “I want the students to get a sense of that concept and then start putting it into practice in their own studies. They might be finance majors, but they can see how finance can’t answer all their questions, and psychology majors will see that literature has a lot to say about human behavior. They’ll learn to walk around an issue and see it from these multiple perspectives, which is really the hallmark of an educated person.”
Falcetta says that in a world in which the master’s degree is becoming the new bachelor’s, interdisciplinary thinking is increasingly important. “All of the issues in our society need different bodies of knowledge to solve them,” she says. “Just having a degree isn’t going to matter as much as how well-rounded you are, and how well you can think in terms of making connections and resolving problems.”
Dr. Michelle Loris, who headed development of the program, agrees that the Core Curriculum’s strategy is imperative to educating the contemporary college student. “Much of the research about higher education today points to the need for a multidisciplinary, integrative approach to teaching and learning,” she says. “Developing in our students the ability to make, recognize and evaluate connections among disparate disciplines is what multidisciplinary integrative teaching and learning is all about. But fostering this in students necessitates faculty who have been trained in read, think and teach in ways that promote such learning in their classrooms.”
Thus the grant. And thus the rigorous, yearlong preparation to develop the pilot modules. The effort, McLaughlin notes, has already paid off.
“It’s definitely been a great opportunity to work with people in other departments, because we all get kind of compartmentalized and focused on our department — and that’s important, to be focused on our majors,” McLaughlin says. “But the nice thing about this is you get to throw ideas around with people from different disciplines, and you get to think in a different way and share ideas with colleagues.”
The parallel is not lost on McLaughlin. She and the other nine professors reaped the same benefit in planning that the students will attain in participating. “We are all excited about the collaboration,” she says, “and I’m hoping we’ll be able to share that enthusiasm with our students.”
Dr. Loris is herself an example of the cross-disciplinary approach to education. She holds doctorates in English and in psychology, and she teaches both literature and psychology.
The University’s innovative curriculum, which was nine years in the making, has earned national recognition for its education in moral values. This values-centered approach to higher education earned the University a place among 23 institutions of higher education chosen by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The schools belong to a national consortium called “Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility.”
Trustees of the Davis Foundation characterized SHU’s new curriculum as both complex and ambitious, with “talented faculty and administrators who are up to the challenge.”
The Davis Educational Foundation, established as a public charitable foundation in 1985, supports the undergraduate programs of public and private, regionally accredited, baccalaureate-degree granting colleges and universities throughout New England. Elisabeth K. Davis and Stanton W. Davis co-founded the foundation after Mr. Davis’s retirement as chairman of Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc.
The foundation has provided over $75.8 million in grants to more than 139 institutions. The grants fund projects that improve the curriculum, the learning environment, assessment of undergraduate learning outcomes, and faculty development.