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Change of Course

College experiments with major curriculum reform

Dan Addison

For the past five years, faculty members in UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences have discussed potential changes to the undergraduate curriculum. “We felt that our students shared, more than anything else, an extracurricular life, and that the intellectual project of the College had receded from the center,” says Chad Wellmon, an associate professor of German.

When Ian Baucom arrived in 2014 as dean of the College, he asked Wellmon to chair a faculty committee to propose possible curriculum reform. The committee worked for two years, first holding student town halls and faculty and departmental meetings and then refining their curriculum proposal numerous times based on feedback.

In May, the faculty voted 83 percent in favor of a three-year pilot program, marking the first major undergraduate curriculum change at UVA in more than 40 years.

The new curriculum has four main components: engagements, literacies, disciplines and the major, which won’t change from what exists. Engagements will focus on the first-year experience, enrolling students in courses designed to give them a broader intellectual framework: aesthetic engagement; empirical and scientific engagement; engaging difference; and ethical engagement. These courses will be taught by college fellows, a rotating group of Arts & Sciences faculty members from across academic programs.

For literacies, students will focus on fluency in three areas: world languages; rhetoric for the 21st century; and quantification, computation and data analysis—“skills essential to a 21st-century education,” Wellmon says. 

With disciplines, students will take courses in seven categories: artistic, interpretive and philosophical inquiry; the chemical and physical universe; cultures and societies of the world; historical perspectives; living systems; social and economic systems; and science and society.

The curriculum pilot program will begin with 500 students from the entering class next fall and then, if deemed successful by a subsequent faculty vote, come into full effect in the 2019-2020 academic year.