Two pilot classes are being offered in spring 2023 as part of a broader initiative by the College of Arts and Sciences to restructuring the AXLE curriculum. Professor Paul Stobb’s “Being Human, Becoming a Citizen” and Professor Michael Bess’s “Science, Technology, Values” courses will serve as blueprints for potential future general courses for all first-year A&S students.
Students in the College Scholars Program had the opportunity to enroll in these classes this semester, which were designated as Honors Seminars. Thirteen students enrolled in Stob’s course and twelve in Bess’s. There are freshmen in both. According to their syllabi, the two classes confront students with life’s biggest questions, such as “the meaning of existence and human flourishing” and “the relationship between engineering and ethics.”
According to Professor Sarah Igo, A&S Dean of Strategic Initiatives and Chair of the Curriculum Project Steering Committee, A&S plans to offer 20 sections of the required total hours to A&S’s incoming freshmen in the fall of 2023. She added that the new curriculum , which includes general classes and other new requirements, could be fully implemented as early as fall 2024 if the proposal passes a faculty vote this spring. She also noted that the ability to “buy in” to this new curriculum for upperclassmen in A&S is currently “unsettled” due to administrative complications.
Igo said the A&S Dean’s Office has pledged to support additional recruitment if needed to staff the new courses. Igo also noted the strong interest of faculty in teaching the proposed core.
Igo said the general classes taught by professors from various departments at A&S will introduce freshmen to the depth and breadth of a liberal arts education and provide unique opportunities for shared conversation, questioning and debate across the entire first-year cohort. Compared to Vanderbilt Visions, another social experience for first-year students, the general classes will be more intellectual, according to Igo.
“Our hope is that students, through these first-year courses, will delve into the biggest questions we face as thinkers and scholars,” Igo said. “This is an attempt to broaden the options for students as they begin their careers at A&S, and perhaps slow down the rush to choose a particular major or path.” She added, “Having common readings and topics will allow us to plan collaborative curricula—art exhibitions, play readings, guest speakers—that address these same themes.”
Bess, who had a similar experience from a regular class when he was a student at Reed College, echoed Igo’s statement.
“It was an intellectual awakening,” Bess said. “You could run into anyone on campus and conversations would start because we were all struggling with the same issues.”
Igo said the two courses seemed like the right amount for the curriculum committee, rather than being a burden.
“It’s our responsibility as A&S to create a bit of structure that gives students a map of the intellectual world of the university, but doesn’t restrict them from taking whatever classes they want,” Igo said.
Sophomore August Boettcher said he believes the general classes will allow students to identify the meaning and value of a college education after talking with Bess about the pilot classes for his HIST 3000W class project.
“It won’t be a burden because the classes allow students to explore what they want to do with a college education,” Boettcher said. “Even for students who know exactly what they want, it’s interesting to have two courses for everyone to take on campus.”
Course content and structure
Survey results obtained by The Hustler from the Curriculum Committee show that 86 percent of students in the pilot classes indicated that “the majority of first-year students would benefit from the course,” and 63 % indicated that it “carried their class discussions into settings outside the classroom.”
“I definitely think the class would benefit freshmen,” said freshman Aneesh Bachu, who is in Science, Technology, Values. “Reading, researching, and discussing concepts in the readings have made me a more well-rounded person in areas I would not have explored otherwise.”
Stobb said the courses’ diverse readings in terms of the era, culture and identity of the authors serve as a “springboard” for discussion of larger themes and questions. Both Bess and Stob acknowledged the trade-offs in choosing book excerpts over whole books—such as Nicomachean Ethics, Tao Te Ching and The souls of black people — but highlighted the wider perspectives that can be included through this method.
Senior Jacob Smith, a student in Bess’s class, expressed appreciation for Bess’s readings and teaching style.
“Professor Bess has done a good job of including diverse voices,” Smith said. “The readings have always been thought-provoking.”
Junior Taio Fasan, also a student in Bess’ class, shared topics she felt should be added to the curriculum.
“The class could include more voices, especially more contemporary voices,” Fasan said. “Scholars who deal specifically with race, gender, and nationality would also be a good addition.”
Stob acknowledged Fassan’s concern, saying the framework for those classes will change regularly based on student and faculty evaluations.
“We’re always going to ask students and faculty: What are we missing?” Stobb said. “The curriculum we developed for this general course will never be completed.”
Other proposed changes to AXLE
In addition to general courses, the committee suggests that all first-year students under the new curriculum take two interdisciplinary or “integrative” core electives in areas such as “art and justice” and “numbers and narrative.”
“These electives will showcase exciting topics that help students explore and understand different ways of thinking across all of our disciplines,” Igo said.
The rest of the general education requirements will be organized by “capacities” that the committee believes students should develop, such as ethical commitment and complex systems thinking. Classes will be able to satisfy more than one of these categories at the same time, unlike the current AXLE system.
“We want these core classes to help students really reflect on their education, integrate what they’re learning in different types of courses, and try out different academic paths,” Igo said. “We do not believe it is desirable for students to perceive the liberal arts requirement as a checklist that is separate from the rest of their education or interests.”
Igo said these measures will reduce the number of hours A&S students spend in their liberal arts core from 42-45 hours to 30-36 hours.
“That’s a pretty big gain in terms of flexibility,” Igo said. “We hope that the proposed reforms will contribute to a much more dynamic and intentional way to explore the curriculum during the first years of study at Vanderbilt.”
Chandler Quayle, a junior on the student advisory group to the Curriculum Committee, praised Igo’s efforts to listen to students’ opinions.
“Dr Sarah Igoe is absolutely fantastic. She accepts student concerns, faculty concerns [and] administrator’s concern and create this amazing curriculum,” said Quaile.The A&S Curriculum Futures Committee has been meeting regularly since January 2022 with students, including the VSG Academic Affairs Committee, the A&S Student Advisory Board and an ad hoc Student Curriculum Advisory Committee. Igo said further details about student information sessions for questions and suggestions can be found on A&S website.