By: Benjamin Koslowe  | 

Core Curriculum Rethought: Yeshiva College Announces Changes to Required Courses

The Yeshiva College Core program has officially been revised. Voted upon by the Yeshiva College faculty just two weeks ago, the changes affect both the Jewish Studies requirements and the general college requirements. There are three major changes, as well as a few other re-evaluations and adjustments.

The first major change regards the number of required Bible courses for Yeshiva College students. As Dean Fred Sugarman informed by email last December, the Bible department “eliminated the fourth BIB requirement going forward.” All YC students will now be required to take an introductory course (“Text, Context, and Tradition”) as a prerequisite, as well as two other courses. One of these Bible requirements will be a Nevi’im or Ketuvim course, focusing on a biblical text from the Prophets or Writings. The other required Bible course will have wide range of classes to choose from, with topics including, but not limited to, Pentateuch, archaeology, and the history of interpretation. This third Bible requirement can also be satisfied with a Nevi’im or Ketuvim course. All of these Bible courses will be two credits each.

The second major change is a new synthesis between the Core courses and earning a minor. Considered a “revitalization of minors” by the faculty vote, the new option allows for YC students to double-count up to two Core courses toward a minor degree. Minors will include those that are already offered by Yeshiva College, but students will also have the option to shape their own creative minors. New minors will go on the books as ones that other students can use in the future. Minors will each consist of at least five courses.

The third major change is the replacement of First-Year Seminar requirement with a “writing-intensive” course requirement. To be designated as “WI” courses, these courses will be found across many departments. Whereas Yeshiva College students used to take First-Year Writing and First-Year Seminar in their first year, both of which were writing-intensive in different ways, the breakdown now will be between First-Year Writing during freshman year and an official WI course at any point during college. The Director of Writing will distribute WI course guidelines. Starting next semester, students can expect to see three-credit courses in various departments (including Jewish Studies departments) labeled as “WI.” As the title suggests, these classes will have an added focus on written assignments, essays, research projects, and the like. Students who have already taken First-Year Seminar will be considered to have fulfilled the WI requirement.

The General Core requirements will remain the same. The six sections – Contemporary World Cultures (COWC), Cultures Over Time (CUOT), Experimental & Quantitative Methods (EXQM), Human Behavior & Social Institutions (HBSI), Interpreting the Creative (INTC), and Natural World (NAWO) – will persist. Yeshiva College students will continue to be required to select one course from each of these six sections at some point in their undergraduate careers. AP credits will not count toward fulfilling these Core requirements. Like before, Core courses will continue to be cross-listed at the discretion of departments. Core courses themselves may be allowed to count toward majors, but students will not be allowed to double count the same course toward both a Core requirement and a major.

EXQM will have specific EXQM Core courses, but there will also be designated courses in other departments that will satisfy the student learning objectives, based on the general learning goals, for an EXQM course. These designated courses will be approved by a faculty committee that includes both social and natural scientists.

The EXQM exemption will remain in effect. Currently, students who take one year of college mathematics and one year of college experimental science are excused from taking EXQM. Like the rest of the Core requirements, the natural sciences requirement for the EXQM exemption will not be exemptible with AP credit.

The language exemption will remain in effect as well. Elementary French or Spanish II can count as COWC, Intermediate French or Spanish I can count as CUOT, and Intermediate French or Spanish II can count as INTC.

Last week, Dr. Joanne Jacobson, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, met with several student leaders to discuss these recent academic changes. She emphasized how the student perspective was very important throughout the entire decision process, and how this perspective will continue influencing the Core.

One of the biggest concerns raised by students at this meeting (as well as before the meeting) was regarding the NAWO requirement. Indeed, the list of revisions states that NAWO “will be revised by the faculty in the natural sciences to address students’ comments and concerns.” Those in charge of NAWO, Dean Jacobson explained, are aware that students in NAWO courses range from having next to no science background to having already taken several advanced courses and labs. The science departments know about the concerns, and it is for this reason that NAWO tries to focus on issues that are not addressed in the standard science course.

The new breakdown for Jewish Studies requirements falls into six categories. The first is Hebrew language education, which consists of a sequence of two or three courses, to be titled “JHEB.” The introductory Bible course will be titled “JTCT” (“Text, Context, Tradition”), the Nevi’im/Ketuvim section will be titled “JNAK,” and the third Bible section will be titled “JTNK.” Jewish History remains at two courses, with one “JHSS” survey course (“Jewish History Survey”), and one “JHST” in-depth course of a particular geographic area and/or time period, or the study of the historical trajectory of a particular Jewish cultural phenomenon (“Jewish History”). The Jewish History requirements are three credits each.

Dean Jacobson, as well as Professor Shalom Holtz, Chair of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies, expressed enthusiasm about the Jewish requirements now being part of the overall package. “What’s new about the Jewish Studies requirement,” explained Professor Holtz, “is that we are thinking in terms of categories like the Core.” Dean Jacobson explained that “although the number of required Jewish Studies courses has not substantively changed, I feel that the integration of Jewish Studies into the common Core approach is a welcome step forward into an integrated Yeshiva College curriculum.” Professor Holtz noted that “the courses will remain titled HEB, JHI, and BIB [in the course catalogue] like always. But the new requirements will also be in the notes.”

Professor Holtz related that the Bible department feels that “we are able to achieve the same curricular goals with one less course. We agree as a department that we can. Last year we faced certain pressures, and we agreed to reduce and reconsider. We were encouraged to cut down required courses.” He added further that “the consensus was that we don’t want to burden students with more Bible three-credit classes, which are offered only after 3:00 for most YC students. This means that we couldn’t rejigger three Bible courses that are three credits. We remained with the Bible slots as they are, two credits each.”

When asked about the quantity of Bible courses going forward, he answered that “there will probably be fewer courses because of the smaller demand. I expect to find Bible Jewish Studies faculty in a number of places other than Jewish Studies courses.”

Although most intimately involved with Jewish Studies, Professor Holtz had much to say about the Core revisions as a whole. “We see ourselves as contributing to the broader Core program,” told Holtz. He feels that this is true for the Hebrew, Jewish History, and Bible departments. “The Hebrew courses,” said Holtz, “represent some of the most serious curricular thinking about what we should be teaching. They are most tailored to the needs of the individual incoming student. We feel very strongly that the Hebrew program thought this through much more thoroughly than we had until now.”

When discussing Jewish Studies and Bible, Professor Holtz explained how these Jewish requirements and general Core requirements go hand in hand. “We’re not just taking one course in historical methods,” described Professor Holtz, “but actually three. You have one through Cultures Over Time, and two through the Jewish History courses. Similarly, there is literary analysis of works of literature/art with Interpreting the Creative on the general Core side, and you also have Bibles on the other side. We see that as added value.” This sentiment is expressed on the official list of revisions, which explicitly states that “Jewish Studies faculty will be encouraged to teach INTC, CUOT and COWC courses where appropriate.”

Professor Holtz hopes as well for such a crossover with the new Writing Intensive courses. “One of the more exciting things for the Jewish Studies,” noted the professor, “is that we expect to take a lion’s share of the WI classes. I’d like to see the majority of Yeshiva College students take the WI requirement through Jewish Studies, so that we can say that one of the things that makes Yeshiva College unique is that students learn how to write in a Jewish Studies class.”

Dean Jacobson expressed about the revitalized Core that “I’m also hoping that there be less isolation about the Core in general. It shouldn’t just be a set of boxes that you tick before going on to ‘real college.’ Rather, you should be able to take a class like ‘Books on Books/Films on Films’ and put together a minor that you didn’t realize you were interested in. Or perhaps a health minor based on taking the ‘Medical Sociology’ course. Likewise for Jewish studies.” Professor Holtz related similarly that “the thinking here is for us to constantly be thinking about not ticking off boxes. We are thinking about you, the student, as a product at the end of college. No matter what your major is, thinking about the overall impact of this Core curriculum on you and how it transforms you.”

“Minors are an optional part of the degree,” explained Dean Jacobson when discussing the new option to double-count two Core courses toward a minor. “I see this as a win-win. Students can start with the Core and build interests from there.” Professor Holtz as well feels that this new policy “makes imminent sense. If something sparks your interest, why not give you credit for what you’ve done already?” He added that “we imagine that the minor will encourage students to take Core classes, hopefully without cannibalizing departmental classes. This is why only two Cores will count toward the minor.”

One change that Professor Holtz highlighted was that the Jewish History department will create mid-level courses that can fill the requirement. “We found that students were annoyed by having to sit through introductory courses twice,” described Holtz, “taking a survey course with the same types of people even though you took one survey course already. So we are creating several courses that will presume having taken the survey. We hope to attract majors and non-majors to those courses. They will offer credits to the major, and they will offer Core credit. This will be subsumed by the new JHST. In this class we will talk about something more specialized. It will be somewhere in between a course for majors and a course with general education. It is ‘general education and a half.’ The major change in terms of offerings is going to take place in Jewish History.”

At the meeting with students, Dean Jacobson related how some of the faculty responsible for the revisions voted to require students to take only five out of six of the Core requirements. One motivation was to allow students to opt out of a Core that they may feel is redundant given their major or focus. The ultimate resolution was to maintain the requirement that YC students take all six of the general Core requirements. As Dean Jacobson explained, the “faculty clearly preferred to retain the commitment of the original Core to a broadly shared, common ‘Core’ across the curriculum.”

Another area of concern was the elimination of First-Year Seminar. “From the start of the 2008 YC curriculum review,” told Jacobson, “the area of greatest consensus among faculty was the importance of writing skills to a good college education—and everything that follows college. I regret that we were unable to sustain the First-Year Seminar that initially followed First-Year Writing, but a second writing-intensive course can help to sustain that commitment.” She explained that First-Year Seminar was cut because “we lost funding for the full-time lecturers in the Department of English who were teaching most of those courses, and we did not want to hire a revolving set of part-time instructors in their place for this key Core course.”

Professor Holtz expressed similar hesitations. “I really liked the First-Year Seminar as being part of shaping the first year experience. I think it’s important, especially at a place like ours, to have a formal acknowledgement on the part of the college of managing the transition to college. Now we have just First-Year Writing, which is occupied with writing more than anything else. With First-Year Seminar there was room for more things.” He envisions for the freshman experience going forward that “you’ll still have Bible 1000 for most people. We hope that they’ll take it in their first year. People should also think about taking a Jewish History course when they come in. All of those things are what shape the first year experience.”

But the overall sense from those behind the Core revisions is one of optimism and excitement. Dean Jacobson described several times to the student leaders that the revisions allowed for original thinking and connections on the one hand, while also strengthening the system that is already in place. Core program policies will be administered by an elected Core Committee of four members from four different divisions, and Dean Jacobson will be responsible for coordinating each term’s Core course offerings.

Jewish Studies are working on improvements as well. “We are encouraging the Jewish Studies faculty,” remarked the department chair, “to look through their syllabi and make sure that they are tailoring them to specific points. In Bible, teachers should be focusing on text and on reading. Faculty should be asking themselves if they are reading with the students and if they are experiencing the text. With the general Tanach course, students should be getting some sort of taste of what modern Biblical academic study is about, and so on.”

“On all fronts this is not a terribly new thing,” reckoned Professor Holtz. “For those who are familiar with the Core, we did not undo it completely. The Core is still there. The Core is still alive and well, if somewhat trimmed. My take on it is that we are meeting the reality of a shrunken faculty. We don’t have the staffing to do everything. Rather than cutting corners, we are finding economies and meeting the reality. The work that we did this past year has been meeting the reality of all this.”