Connections Brings 21st Century Learning to Conn

After years of trials and tribulations, the college has begun the process of implementing its new Connections curriculum. The curriculum, phased to impact the classes of 2020 and beyond, will bring about changes in student and faculty experiences here at Conn for years to come. Some changes will be visible to the community, and others will go unnoticed, but all will have a profound impact on the college. While some suggest that Connections will emphasize the teaching of vocational skills at the expense of a well-rounded liberal arts education, I look forward to seeing these changes implemented. By demanding that future students create independent projects and by emphasizing the intersectionality of different majors, Connections encourages students to adopt a broad outlook of the world.  

As a high school senior, I felt unsure about whether I would be prepared to create quality work without the structure of classroom instruction. I noticed that Conn, unlike other schools, did not formally require students to complete any sort of independent work, thesis, or capstone project to graduate. One year of experience at Conn has taught me that asking students to do the rigorous independent work is a good thing. Students should be able to express how what they’ve done in college affects their worldview in their senior year.

Once fully implemented, Connections will require students to complete a “senior reflection” which they will present to the college community. While one could argue that this mandated reflection represents a move by the college to plaster “marketable skills” on its students, the act of presenting to one’s peers has an important academic value: we impart knowledge and ideas through presenting. Why should we avoid adopting curricular reforms that have academic value just because they also happen to be marketable? Whether students’ interests lie in the academy or the world beyond it, they should have the experience of putting together a serious presentation for their peers that reflects their own interests.

Another critique that has been leveled at Connections is that it will give more resources and funding to departments at the college, such as economics and international relations, that seem to give students a ready pathway toward employment after graduation. A curriculum focused on expanding employment opportunities, opponents of Connections argue, seems to align the college with the ideology of monopoly capitalism. Writing in The College Voice last spring, Zachary LaRock ’16, claimed that Connections might undermine voices that “view the university as a medium through which to leverage critiques of such institutions as neo-liberal capitalism, government corruption and other similar societal ills.”

It is true that the college is starting to run more classes that are vocationally oriented, such as accounting, but those classes are also what students want. Accounting is above its cap this semester, which is the first semester it is being offered. While I certainly believe that views in opposition to our society’s way of doing things have a place in academia, I also believe that academia must be a place for the exchange of and exposure to a broad spectrum of ideas and concepts whether loved or hated. As an example, one should have the ability to take a stance on the merits and ills of monopoly capitalism and defend the reasons for those beliefs.

I believe that education should not force a person to adopt one set of viewpoints over another, but rather expose him or her to a breadth of knowledge and ideas. In the end, I think that students will come to their own “right” conclusions about how to lead their lives.  Exposing students to a wide range of knowledge, Connections enables each student to come to conclusions independently.  Presenting their work and ideas to the school prior to their graduation, seniors give younger students an understanding of the learning process. Ultimately, the mission of the college should revolve around one word and all the trouble and enlightenment that it entails: education.

The methods Connections uses to revamp general education and introductory courses have also been questioned. The new modes of inquiry have been criticized for reducing the number of humanities courses students are required to take. The new Social and Historical inquiry requirement, for example, initially seemed to lump together the social sciences, philosophy & religion, and history, the old areas 3, 6, & 7 respectively. The college later resolved this problem by listing some courses, especially in the philosophy and religion departments, in multiple areas.

Problems have arisen and will continue to arise as Connections moves foward in its implementation, but these issues will be resolved in time. The modes of inquiry are an imperfect system, but they are only meant to exist independently of pathways for about two years. Plenty of schools do not even use a system as comprehensive as our old seven areas requirement. Wesleyan University, one of our peer institutions, has students complete three courses each in three areas, and Trinity College uses a “five fields” system similar to our new one. I think that Conn’s new system removes the rigidity that results when the college assigns each department to a general education area. For example, linguistics courses, which were listed under social studies, are now defined more broadly under the new area 2, quantitative and formal reasoning.

ConnCourses, the end product of the college’s push to develop new and revamped introductory courses that are more engaging, have also faced criticism. As LaRock writes: “Although new ConnCourses claim to foster…inquiry across disciplines, their effective implementation would require most faculty members to have training in fields beyond those in which they conduct their research. Interdisciplinarity could merely be a code word to hide the fact that ConnCourses are really just broad, general and watered down surveys of material with which students become vaguely familiar, but never fully master or critically engage.”

I think that LaRock’s suggestion that ConnCourses are more watered down then the old introductory courses is correct, but I don’t see this development as a bad thing. College professors have always been hard pressed to cram the right amount of material into a fifteen week course period. I also can’t see how faculty would be able to teach effectively without teaching material unrelated to their research areas. When I compare a professor’s syllabus to his or her biography I usually see plenty of material that seems unrelated to the professor’s research.

Plenty of students take introductory courses out of pure interest rather than as a gateway to upper- level study in a field, and others looking to major in a subject may feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the disciplinary concepts and conventions with which they immediately come face-to-face. Revamped introductory courses should try to work from where students are rather than where they need to be at the end of the course, getting them from point A to point B instead of just teaching point B.

The push to make ConnCourses interdisciplinary also has benefits since students will have the opportunity to express concepts in ways familiar to them rather than according to the conventions of a discipline that they are struggling to learn. Increasingly I have wondered why it is necessary for disciplines to be separated from each other, especially since many of these distinctions did not come into existence until the late nineteenth century. Why should we fight now to keep fields separated when for most of the time since Plato founded his academy such barriers did not exist? If a book like The Communist Manifesto is a perfectly appropriate text for an anthropology, economics, government, philosophy, or sociology course, would completely different issues come up if I took all five of those classes? There would be some similarities in the perspectives each discipline takes on the book. Professors who teach and grade interdisciplinary courses and work should gain a heightened awareness of what their colleagues in other departments are doing, which will in turn affect their own research and work for the College.