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Fall 2000
Vol. 63, No. 1

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Forget About
'What's Your Major?'
What's Your Cluster?

Inspired by the new Rochester Curriculum, Rochester students are rethinking what it means to really study a subject--and are leaving with an education that they built themselves.

By Scott Hauser

Chris Wallis '01 found a hole in his curriculum a few years ago.

A religion major interested in learning more about the religious traditions of subcontinental Asia, Wallis realized that to be accomplished in his field he would have to know Sanskrit.

But when he looked through the course catalog, he might as well have been reading the Bhagavad Gita.

Considered one of the great dead languages of humanity--up there with ancient Greek and Aramaic--Sanskrit was long dead at Rochester, too.

So Wallis did what any enterprising student unhappy with the status quo would do--he launched a protest. To be specific, he got more than 100 classmates to sign a petition demanding that Sanskrit be offered.

"As the ancient religious language of both Buddhism and Hinduism, Sanskrit forms the basis of these traditions, and it's indispensable to anyone seriously studying them," Wallis says. "Those of us who study the philosophical and religious traditions of India and Asia, and who are interested in further study, were eager to have the opportunity to learn the language."

Students demanding to study a dead language? It's enough to warm the cockles of any dean's heart.

But it absolutely delights William Scott Green, dean of the College. As the driving force behind the recently adopted Rochester Curriculum, Green likes to cite the Sanskrit protest as an example of how students are rethinking what it means to really study a subject.

And it shows, he says, how students are willing to take an active role in planning and creating their academic programs if they are empowered to do so--something Green had in mind in working with the faculty committee that designed the curriculum.

"I tell parents that if I had mandated that students take Sanskrit, I couldn't have dragged them into class," Green says.

Launched four years ago, the Rochester Curriculum is creating a unique niche for itself in higher education. Required courses are out, replaced by a new concept that encourages undergraduates to become deeply involved in each of the three areas of learning: the arts and humanities; social sciences; and math, sciences, and engineering. The elegantly simple mechanism: A student selects a major in one of the three areas and chooses a "cluster" of three related courses in each of the other two.

Thus a biology major completes the work required by the Department of Biology, but also chooses three courses for a cluster in the humanities and three courses for a cluster in the social sciences. Similarly, an English major completes the departmental requirements and also selects a cluster in the natural sciences and another in the social sciences.

The choice is wide: The College offers more than 50 majors and has approved some 250 clusters developed by the various departments. In addition (aside from a lone writing-course requirement), undergraduates are left free to fill in the remaining half of their academic program with whatever electives they wish to explore.

An online search engine helps students plan their programs with ease, and further help is available through an advising system that assists them in identifying and following their individual interests.

The Rochester model is deliberately poised to hold its own spot on the spectrum of approaches to undergraduate education at colleges and universities across the country.

At one end is the "core curriculum" that generally prescribes a fixed set of courses that nearly all students must take before they are allowed to specialize in their major or sign up for electives.

At the other end is the "free elective model," adopted by a number of institutions following the turbulent '60s, that makes no prescriptions at all.

Somewhere in the middle is the "distribution requirement" approach that, as its name implies, requires students to sample the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences through necessarily superficial introductory courses distributed throughout these fields. A foreign language requirement often is included as well.

The new Rochester Curriculum succeeded a distribution-requirement model in place for the past 25 years that, Green says, had outlived its vigor.

Its replacement draws on the College's home in a major research university and models itself on the way faculty-scholars approach their work, Green says. Scholars follow their interests because they want to know about a subject, not because someone is telling them that's what they have to do.

"Research is the quintessence of learning through freedom, and we try not to restrict the freedom of students to study what they are interested in," Green says. "We try to channel it and structure it, but we want to build on the enthusiasm of students.

"Researchers learn from the heart, and that's what we want our students to do."

Bruce Ricart, for one, enjoys the autonomy of being able to design much of his own program.

"If a class is not going to light up your light bulb," says this senior chemistry major who is pursuing clusters in Spanish and economics, "then you're just going to see it as one more course you have to get through."

Emily Bones '01 is another who says she has enjoyed the flexibility of the curriculum--especially the opportunity to investigate areas she might not otherwise have known about.

"Everybody comes to college thinking, 'Oh, I want to be a doctor.' Not many people come in and say, 'Oh, I want to be an anthropologist,' because not many people have been exposed to what an anthropologist does," she says.

"But you come here and you have all these options open to you and you realize there are a lot of different topics that you never even knew existed."

Kate O'Sullivan '00 is a Take Five Scholar, participating in a program that offers selected undergraduates a tuition-free fifth year. O'Sullivan, who majored in history, arrived at Rochester planning to concentrate in biology--"like everyone else," she wryly notes--but realized she didn't enjoy it as much as she thought she would.

She found herself gravitating toward the history department, partly to fulfill a cluster.

"By my sophomore year, I knew that's what I wanted to do."

She ended up with a minor in Italian, which fulfilled her humanities cluster, after spending a semester studying abroad as part of the College's program in Arezzo, Italy. Her science cluster is in chemistry.

She says reactions to the cluster approach depend on the individual.

"Clusters offer a lot of freedom, and that's good," she says. "Although it's true that sometimes life is easier if somebody just says, 'You have to take this math class or that English class.' "

Like O'Sullivan, Shino Shimoji '01 arrived interested in studying biology, but for her that interest has not changed.

"I always liked science, so I figured I would become a scientist," she says.

She chose music as her humanities cluster because she's played violin much of her life. She selected Russian history as a social science cluster because, well, "it sounded interesting."

Shimoji appreciates the balance being struck by the new curriculum.

"The clusters force you to study course areas in depth rather than just taking broad intro courses," Shimoji says. "But, at the same time, if you do want that kind of broad spectrum, you can't get it here.

"You get the depth, but you don't always get the width."

Green agrees that the Rochester Curriculum isn't for everyone. He also points out that the knowledge explosion of recent years means that it's no longer possible to "teach all the subjects that students could legitimately need to know."

A look backward makes the point. For most of Rochester's 150 years, the old icebreaker of "What's your major?" wasn't a very complicated question. Indeed, for most of the first half-century, there was no way to really ask the question.

The "Second Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Rochester, 1851-52" included two "courses" for students to take. They could either follow the Classical Course or the Scientific Course, each divided into a three-term school year.

There were no electives until the senior year, when students in the Classical Course could choose between "Differential and Integral Calculus" and "Zoology and Physiology" in the first term, and among "Descriptive Geometry: Drawing and Perspective," "Physiology," and "German" in the second.

By 1900, the Philosophical Course was added. But the choice of electives would have seemed like required drudgery to most students today. In the sophomore year, students could choose from such auditorium-filling electives as "Biology 3, Practical Biology"; "Biology 4, General Botany"; "English 3: Critical Readings in English Literature"; "French 4: Advanced French"; "German 3, Scientific Readings"; "Greek 4, Dramatists"; "Mathematics 8, Calculus"; or "Mechanical Drawing and Shop Work 2."

By the middle of the century, the Philosophical Course had evolved into the better-known bachelor of arts degree, and the other courses led to the bachelor of science (which included nursing, optics, business administration, and education).

By 1975, a system of distribution requirements was in place, requiring students to complete 128 hours of credit. That included fulfilling the work in a major, proficiency in a foreign language, a writing requirement, and two courses each in two nonmajor distribution groups, including humanities, social sciences, and natural science.

Since the early 1970s, Rochester's most popular undergraduate majors have not varied much. Give or take a change in the order over the decades, the favorites are biology and other biological sciences, psychology, economics, and political science.

For students like Bill Iler '75, who majored in psychology, the requirement that he take courses he wasn't interested in was less than appealing.

"I thought they were a pain in the ass," he says.

But now, as director of sales promotion and communications for Philip Morris, his former 18-year-old's perspective has been tempered.

The social fallout of the Vietnam War era, coupled with a young person's natural tendency to seek freedom, caused friction, he says.

"It's an individual struggle," Iler says. "There's the newfound freedom--you're out of your home for the first time--but you're also in a new institution with a whole new set of rules."

He credits the College's academic and social support system with keeping him focused on earning a degree.

Suzanne O'Brien, associate dean of the College, says one of the goals of the new curriculum is to avoid the problem of students taking courses they don't care about but feel they have to sit through anyhow.

"As an advisor, one thing that I hoped would go away were the students who used to come in and say that they wanted to get their foreign language requirement or their natural science requirement 'out of the way,' so that they could move on to the classes that interested them," O'Brien says.

She says the cluster system is so flexible that students invariably find something they want to know more about. And that, she reiterates, is the way you really learn.

About that foreign language requirement--it's gone. Under the new curriculum, students can certainly study a foreign language and culture as a cluster, if they are interested in doing so. But their graduation doesn't depend on it.

Barry Friedman '73, a political science and psychology major who grew up in Brooklyn, almost sighs with relief and wistfulness at such news.

As a student he took French, and says he should have realized he was in trouble when he found out there was no French translation for "Barry."

"I dreaded the days when I had to go to that class, and I dreaded being called on," he says now as director of training and development at Harris Interactive. "But at the end of the day," he admits, he doesn't mind that he had to take the course. The main point, he says, is that "if you come out as a well-rounded individual who is just a chapter ahead of everybody else, then you've succeeded in getting an education."

Spoken like a dean.

"The Rochester Curriculum repays autonomy and it repays self-motivation, and it nurtures all those things," says Green. "It's good for students who know what they want to do, and it's good for students who have a range of interests.

"Our students leave with an education that they built themselves."

Scott Hauser is associate editor of Rochester Review.

This story also includes reporting by Colleen Coulter, a doctoral student in the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

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