Establishing a Community College Great Books Program: An Administrative Perspective
Don Barshis, Ph.D., former Executive Dean of Instruction at Wilbur Wright College
Academic administrators play various roles when working with faculty engaged in curriculum development or course revision. These roles range from logistics support and budget overseer to coach and cheerleader. In between, academic administrators, especially those in direct contact with faculty, serve as sounding boards and critics, assessment resources, and occasional design collaborators to ensure that new curricula will receive the various levels of approval and support required throughout the institution for a successful launch.
Of course, there can be obstacles to assisting faculty in starting new programs. These can be formidable: for example, when faculty propose poorly conceived or controversial curricula. The problems can be less daunting as well: administrators may have little knowledge of the new program and may simply require a crash course in the curriculum to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Ultimately, it helps for the administrators involved to feel strongly about the value of the proposed curriculum to the students and faculty of their colleges in order to provide the needed assistance to get the program going.
Most of these administrative issues surfaced during the formative years of Wright College’s Great Books Curriculum, which was founded in 1997 when Professor Bruce Gans of Wright’s English Department brought his proposal to create a Great Books track among the various paths to the associate’s degree to the Office of the Executive Dean of Instruction, which I then headed. Professor Gans’s ardent defense of the worth of his curriculum model won my support in this initial meeting, and we began our outreach to other key players in the curriculum approval process at the college. Through considerable discussion and team-building with other faculty, early engagement of Wright’s senior administrators, and trial-and-error actions within the program approval bureaucracy of Wright and the City Colleges of Chicago district, the faculty-administration team has developed Wright’s program into a national model for other institutions interested in revitalizing their curricula with the Great Books. This collaborative effort in no small way can be attributed to the jointly held belief of the faculty and administration that the Great Books Curriculum would improve the academic experience and development of Wright’s students, strengthen the general education component in Wright’s associate degree track, and provide the faculty with a more rewarding teaching experience.
Hindsight and careful analysis have identified six operational principles employed at Wright that might help others wishing to incorporate a Great Books track into their general education or baccalaureate transfer curricula. The six principles we followed in starting Wright’s program are discussed in the remainder of this essay. They are (1) determining and articulating the need for a Great Books Curriculum; (2) designing a user-friendly program that addresses the needs of the students, faculty, and logistical support staff at the college; (3) providing incentives for both students and faculty to participate in the program; (4) securing institutional support at every level; (5) expanding the curricular emphasis of the program to include programmatic features; and (6) conducting rigorous assessment to improve the program. These organizing principles interconnect, and the processes used to realize them overlap throughout the program’s development. A review of the evolution of Wright’s program will demonstrate these relationships and prove useful to those interested in comparing Wright’s model in its own unique bureaucracy to the process of starting a new curriculum in one’s own institutional structure.
The first question posed in our initial faculty meeting to discuss Professor Gans’s ideas about developing a Great Books Curriculum at Wright was: "Do we need a specialized curriculum track that emphasizes the Great Books and, if so, why?" Various Wright faculty who indicated their interest in teaching a Great Books-focused version of their typical course load responded positively to the question, emphasizing their own love of the texts that might be used and their belief that Wright students, the majority of whom are minorities, would receive a more challenging and satisfying educational experience. Most of the questions they asked centered on logistical issues: how could we transform existing courses into Great Books variants, and how could we convince students to enroll? One woman faculty member from the English Department questioned the propriety of resurrecting a "male-dominant, Eurocentric reading list" at a time when multiculturalism and topical readings had assumed dominance in textbook design and classroom practice across higher education. Both questions as well as the concern about restrictiveness in a Great Books Curriculum produced a healthy discussion about ways to create a student-friendly program design that also allowed faculty the freedom to introduce additional readings that might provide counterpoint to the Great Books texts used in the course. The faculty all agreed that use of the Great Books would address a problem we had all recognized in our general education program - the increasing fragmentation of the curriculum and the loss of connections across the various courses making up the general education program. This shared concern led to a further modification of the program to better connect the courses, which we will discuss shortly.
The idea of the "50 percent rule" emerged from our early discussion: for a Wright course to be considered a Great Books course for purposes of advertising and program inclusion, at least 50 percent of the readings used in the course had to be taken from the Great Books master list of authors and texts compiled by Encyclopaedia Britannica and widely used in Great Books programs throughout the country. Faculty could add contemporary authors to their reading lists to support, critique, or counter ideas taken from the Great Books texts that comprised at least half the required reading in the course. A number of the courses in Wright’s catalog were already considered to be Great Books courses when the "50 percent rule" on readings was applied: Introduction to Shakespeare, the period courses in English and American literature, Humanities I, and Introduction to Philosophy. Thus, very little alteration was required to transform these courses into Great Books versions. Other courses, most notably the two courses in the college writing requirement (English 101 and 102), would require greater modification for entry into the Great Books Curriculum. Key members of the college’s bureaucracy on curriculum approval were enlisted to help with much of the course revision in anticipation of later discussions in committee.
With general consensus on the value of adding a Great Books track to the general education requirement at Wright, we needed to make the Great Books Curriculum as user-friendly as possible to all involved in its implementation - students, faculty, and support staff. The "50 percent rule" addressed the course content issue for students and faculty, but what defined the actual program the students would complete, and what rewards awaited them beyond the most important outcome: a more challenging and satisfying educational experience? Again, we turned to our faculty for help in a freewheeling discussion about program logistics. Satisfactory completion (C grade or better) of four courses (about a third of the twelve-course general education requirement at the college) was deemed a significant number of courses to constitute program completion at Wright. The founding faculty-administrative team set out the hypothesis that this level of exposure to the Great Books in core courses should produce more analytical and critical reading skills, more effective academic argumentation, a higher level of cultural literacy, and improved critical thinking among students completing the curriculum. These anticipated outcomes became the focus for later assessment efforts at Wright, the results of which can be found elsewhere on this web site. The achievement results also served to promote the program in the various advertising materials devised by program staff to recruit new students each semester.
Once the curriculum completion decision had been taken, the administration needed to work through a documentation process with the registrar’s staff to assure that the Great Books versions of courses would have their own unique designation in the course schedule and that student transcripts would reflect both successful completion of each Great Books course and completion of the program when the fourth course had been finished. When these difficulties were ironed out, the Wright Great Books Curriculum was prepared to advertise the "reward" each student who completed the curriculum would receive upon graduation or transfer - designation on one’s transcript that the student has successfully completed the Great Books Curriculum. Professional staff from the dean’s office assisted both program faculty and managers as well as registrar’s staff in processing and cross-checking student completion data for accuracy, thus lessening the burden on any one group and promoting ownership of the program across the college. That ownership was strengthened by administrative support for the program faculty and administrative leadership when they brought the program before the college program approval bureaucracy (the Academic Affairs Committee and the local college Faculty Council) and received a strong endorsement of the program by each. This endorsement led to additional statements and commitments of support by the rest of the college’s senior administration, and subsequent accolades from the district administration. While none of the other City Colleges of Chicago initially adopted the Great Books Curriculum (two now have versions of the program), the district embraced the idea of Great Books study to the extent of recently producing its own educational television program broadcast on a local Chicago PBS station, hosting a Great Books Town Hall meeting where local district students and professors discussed a range of Great Books texts.
Further incentives for both students and faculty to participate in the curriculum took the form of activities that helped transform the set of courses called the Great Books Curriculum into a full-fledged program. These activities included field trips to local plays and cultural events in Chicago, and especially lectures and plays comprising the annual Chicago Humanities Festival, with the college defraying most of the ticket costs. Local faculty and student symposia on texts studied during the term became annual events for the program, and the students even published their own scholarly journal, with the college again defraying most of the costs with a grant from the college newspaper budget. The director of the Great Books Curriculum was successful in securing initial grant money to foster camaraderie among the faculty by hosting an annual dinner at a local restaurant that featured a presentation by one of the faculty on an agreed-upon reading (a Plautus play or a Hawthorne story, for example). Faculty photos and biographies were featured in a permanent display about the Great Books Curriculum on the entry wall of the college library. These “extras” to the pleasures of the courses themselves brought more faculty and students to the program and helped institutionalize it at Wright within a few short semesters of its launching in 1997. The strong core of faculty who signed on to teach in the program also produced further innovations in the program’s design, leading to the creation of a semester-long theme each term that further unified the curriculum and prompted some team-teaching experiments, joint writing assignments, and ongoing discussions of effective pedagogy for promoting argumentation and critical thinking.
What remained for the staff to implement was an ongoing assessment program that addressed the Great Books Curriculum’s hypothesis about student outcomes and provided the college with evidence that its support of the program was justified by improvements in student performance and increases in their personal growth and satisfaction with their learning experiences. The program director’s attainment of a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) provided the impetus for this needed self-study. Again, the administration worked with the program staff and faculty to identify assessment consultants from local universities, devise a specialized assessment plan, and, later, participate in a college-wide assessment of the general education program through ACT’s CAAP assessment.
While Wright College has its own unique institutional identity, the story of its administrative support for Professor Gans’s curricular idea nearly ten years ago has value for others seeking information on the process and pitfalls of trying to launch a new program. The common element in our effort at Wright to make the Great Books Curriculum work is the realization by the program leadership that it needed to seek support from as many people as possible at the college by engaging them in the program’s development process. No one person can feel that he or she is best positioned to make all the decisions on the program; program evolution is a collaborative process. When all are encouraged to participate, the results are lasting.