The Department Curriculum

The big picture

Individual new courses

The big picture

Central to the identity of a department is its curriculum: the courses that are offered, for both non-majors and majors, and the structure of the requirements for the major and minor(s) in the department. This is an area where the big picture is very important, and where the big picture is easily lost. Some things to consider:

  • What are the goals of the department's curriculum-for majors, minors, non-majors?
  • Are these goals well-supported through the current offerings of the department?
  • Is the major serving well those students who will not be going to graduate school in your discipline, as well as those who are?
  • How up-to-date is your collective knowledge about what is currently considered by graduate schools to be the most important preparation for graduate training?
  • How up-to-date is your collective knowledge about the preparation students need for other pathways? 

The more the department is in the habit of thinking about these issues, the stronger the sense of department identity will be. Talking about the curriculum can help build collegiality, can help newer members of the department feel invested in the mission of the department, and can help you articulate departmental goals and achievements, both internally and externally. Consider including students in some of these discussions; knowing their perspectives can helpfully inform consideration of central curricular issues, and students will certainly appreciate being included.

If you haven't routinely been discussing the large curricular issues, here are some occasions that can serve as a stimulus to such discussion:

  • one or more colleagues will be retiring soon
  • one or more new colleagues have recently been hired
  • there have been significant new developments in your field, which raise both curricular and staffing issues
  • the department is experiencing a significant change in enrollments or in number of majors (either declining or expanding)
  • students are expressing considerable interest in areas not currently covered by the department
  • strong majors have not been getting into graduate school
  • new faculty legislation has created opportunities for curricular revision
  • the department hasn't considered the curriculum as a whole for ten years or more

Consider talking about the curriculum in the context of a departmental review. (See above for more on departmental reviews and self-studies.) Whether or not you do a review, the occasional half-day or day-long departmental retreat off-campus can be useful as dedicated time for the department to talk together. You are likely to accomplish as much in a one-day meeting as you have all year in sporadic, short, department meetings. A retreat can be especially useful to jump-start a large-scale discussion, or to wrap one up. Through the Office of Academic Affairs, you can apply for funding of such a retreat.

Note that changes made to departmental and interdepartmental majors and minors should be submitted to the Sub-committee on Academic Programs and must be approved by the Faculty. Often, the chair of Programs is willing to read a draft  and to suggest revisions.

Individual new courses

The initiative for a new course can come from a variety of sources:

  • a faculty member wants to do something new
  • students have expressed interest in a new offering
  • the department is looking to connect with college needs (e.g., courses that will fulfill a graduation requirement like writing courses).

Note that if you are at all unsure about the permanency of a new course, you can propose it the first time as a topics course with a subsequent proposal as a regular offering if you decide to go that route. A topics course may be offered twice, then it must be proposed by the department as a regularized course to be repeated.

Because the initiative most often comes from an individual faculty member, it's possible for the curriculum to develop in an unplanned manner through the addition of a number of individually originated proposals. When talking with a faculty member about a new course, make explicit the need to balance individual interests with departmental needs. In some departments all new courses are discussed by the department as a whole; in other departments, the conversation is more likely to be between the individual proposing the course and the chair.  Wherever the conversation occurs, the goal is to balance the importance of having faculty teaching what they want to be teaching with the needs of the department and its students. The more recently you've talked about the "big issues" (first list above), the easier it will be to strike this balance. Remind faculty that funds are available through the Office of Academic Affairs for new course development, which may be especially important when planning an off-campus course.

All new course proposals need approval by the Committee on Academic Affairs. In addition, this committee must review all proposed course changes (as well as changes in majors and minors) except:

  • changes in frequency of course offerings
  • prerequisite additions, substitutions, and/or deletions of  prerequisites within the department or program
  • changes in only the course description or only the course title when such changes do not constitute a substantial change in the content of the course
  • changes in course numbers that do not result in changes in the level of the offerings

If the change to an existing course description represents a substantial change in the course content, the department must submit it as a new course proposal.