Illustration by Gracia Lam
After three years of research, review, and refinement, as well as lengthy discussions about the College’s mission and goals, this fall Barnard implemented a forward-looking new curriculum known as Foundations. Innovative, rigorous, and flexible, Foundations provides breadth and depth of study, while offering a diverse and ambitious curriculum. It emphasizes international and global learning as well as the importance of quantitative and empirical reasoning. Students are expected to study the local—the College’s connection with New York City—and the historical, and to think hard about difference. Barnard also becomes one of the first liberal arts colleges with a technology requirement.
“Foundations encourages you to challenge yourself, to be independent, and to try something new,” says Sara Heiny ’17, an English major who is now president of the Student Government Association. Heiny served in a variety of roles in the curriculum review, known as the Academic Curricular Review (ACR).
Many members of the community contributed to the project, with 44 faculty members as well as administrators, trustees, and alumnae taking part. The curricular review studied how peer institutions around the country, from Amherst to Columbia to Stanford, had organized their curricula, and reflected on what would fit best with the College’s mission. More than 200 students offered ideas at six open sessions organized by the Office of the Provost with Heiny and Amanda Elyssa Ruiz ’17, a molecular biology major who served as the Student Government Association representative for academic affairs as well as a student representative for the review. During the open sessions, students discussed what they liked about their current curriculum and the proposals for the new one.
“It took a village,” says Provost and Dean of the Faculty Linda Bell. “The process was faculty-driven, with subcommittees tasked with finding information in different areas we knew would be key.”
Foundations builds on the many strengths of the outgoing curriculum, known as the “Nine Ways of Knowing,” which had been in place since 1999. “More than 15 years later, we have to ask how the world has changed and what new and changing expectations our graduates face in a more interconnected world,” says Reshmi Mukherjee, a professor of physics and astronomy who chaired the departmental curriculum and majors subcommittee.
Breadth, Depth, and Critical Thinking
Classes entering this fall will be the first to benefit. “We want every student to have the opportunity to explore her dreams within a chosen discipline, and at the same time we recognize as an institution that we have a mandate to give students the opportunity to explore widely across the curriculum in order to balance the need for depth in the major and interdisciplinary breadth,” says Bell.
Foundations offers greater flexibility than its predecessor, with fewer mandated general education requirements and the ability to “double-count” a single class toward two requirements. For example, the course “General Chemistry” will count toward a major requirement for a chemistry student and also satisfy the distribution requirement in science. Fulfilling general education requirements will not exceed 25 to 30 percent of a student’s coursework. And the general education requirements are defined so that a wider range of classes will satisfy them. Students have more freedom to define their path of study as well as the opportunity to delve into a subject in greater depth or to investigate a new field.
“Barnard students will be exposed to broad and new areas of academic explorations,” says Mukherjee. “This will encourage them to do advanced work in new directions and give them the skills to enter the world beyond college.”
Foundations also emphasizes teaching students how to gather knowledge and think critically and decisively. “Students needn’t learn how to know—they need to learn how to think,” says Bell. “We flipped the paradigm so that it’s about thinking critically.” In an age of fast-paced change and connectivity, expertise can become outdated quickly. Says Bell: “Having the skills to interpret and move throughout this dynamically changing world is what really matters for a Barnard education.”
A Forerunner in Technology
In what has been hailed as a pioneering move, Barnard is one of the first liberal arts colleges to mandate a course in technology. “It’s important for students to understand how technology is integrated in many fields today and to be able to think critically about technology’s implications for the future,” says Janet Jakobsen, chair of the new technologies subcommittee and professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.
Students also felt passionately that a technology course should be a requirement, says Ruiz. Several meetings were held with students to understand how their interest in technology had been sparked. For Ebonie Smith ’07, an Africana studies major, a passion for music prompted her to seek out an education in technology, enabling her to produce music in her dorm room. Today, she makes frequent use of those skills as a music producer at Atlantic Records.
“Barnard has been visionary about the ways in which digital technologies, particularly digital education for women, can be integrated into a liberal arts education,” Jakobsen says.
While students may elect a course in computer programming or geographic information systems to fulfill the requirement, there is a broad range of other options. Students can try their hand at fiction filmmaking, get an introduction to digital music, or study the technical skills used in sustainable development research.
Six Modes of Thinking
Central to the new General Education requirements are the Modes of Thinking: Thinking Locally—New York City, Thinking Through Global Inquiry, Thinking about Social Difference, Thinking with Historical Perspective, Thinking Quantitatively and Empirically, and Thinking Technologically and Digitally. Every student will take one course in each of the six modes.
Students expressed an interest in studying other cultures in greater depth and in learning how to engage with people whose lives differ from theirs. The mode Thinking Locally, which is distinct to Barnard and its campus in the heart of New York, includes courses that grow out of the new “Barnard Teaches” initiative, which brings together Barnard faculty and experts at city institutions to develop classes together. The initiative receives funding from the Mellon Foundation.
Thinking Locally encourages students to explore “a city of intersections among people with different histories, experiences, imaginations,” says Yvette Christiansë, a professor of English and Africana studies who chaired the global and international curriculum and programs subcommittee. The six modes build on “what faculty have been doing for decades and on what students have indicated is necessary to their preparation for the future,” she says.
While students will take a course in each of the six modes, they may double-count a course toward both a distributional and a modes requirement, or toward a majors and a modes requirement. To keep up with the rapidly changing landscape, the modes of thinking requirements will be re-evaluated and updated every five years.
The curriculum continues the distributional requirements related to empirical reasoning and history, literature, and lab science. In an effort to be more flexible and equitable, the foreign language requirement has been changed so that all students must take two semesters. In the past, some students were able to opt out of the foreign language requirement by applying credits earned in high school from AP classes or by placing out of some or all of the courses with a Barnard exam.
“The committee thought that no high school course is equivalent to a college course, and if we think a skill or background is important enough to include as a general education requirement, then we should require all students to take the course at the college level,” says Laura Kay, who chaired the general education subcommittee and is a professor of physics and astronomy.
First- and Final-Year Programs
Foundations’ general education requirements are bookended by the First-Year Experience and the Senior Experience.
The First-Year Seminar, introduced in 1984, is a semester-long course that provides an intimate setting for students to discuss and analyze texts. The course will continue to be taught by faculty across the disciplines. First-Year Writing, which replaces First-Year English, aims “to develop strong critical reading and academic writing skills that will be explicitly useful across the disciplines,” says Wendy Schor-Haim, the director of First-Year Writing.
As in previous years, first-year students must take a course in Physical Education.
During senior year, students will complete an ambitious capstone project in their major field of study, as they have long done. The projects range from a written thesis to lab research to the production of a play, dance piece, or creative work. Barnard departments will recognize senior projects with a ceremony, celebration, or display. Seniors also will be encouraged to archive their work in the library and to publish an abstract.
Empowering Future Leaders
The College believes that the revised curriculum addresses the realities faced by graduates in an increasingly interconnected world where those who succeed need a multi-layered understanding and appreciation of difference. Foundations bolsters Barnard’s mission to empower women with a challenging and broad course of study so that graduates emerge emboldened, transformed, and prepared to lead. These characteristics are the hallmark of what has made Barnard the choice for exceptional women for more than 125 years.