When Alex Della Santina, SEAS '17 and a Spectator columnist, found time to complete her Global Core requirement, she ended up deeply disappointed by the results.
"Global Urbanism was the worst I've ever taken at this University, including all of my engineering classes I don't think it was really useful for anyone, and I'm not sure what I got out of it," Della Santina said.
Students interviewed for this story who have fulfilled the requirement by taking large lecture courses like Global Urbanism, which enrolls about 400 students, shared a similar experience. This issue presents a challenge to University President Lee Bollinger's effort to globalize Columbia given that the Global Core serves as the furthest extent to which a vast majority of undergraduates get the chance to acquire a global education.
This semester, 74 percent of students enrolled in courses within the Global Core requirement that are lecture classes, which comprise 56 percent of the courses offered this semester. This figure, however, includes Barnard students, who are not required to take Global Core classes.
Despite substantial agreement among faculty and students that mandating all courses to be taught as seminars would improve student experiences and increase engagement with the material taught, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences lacks the manpower to teach these courses.
Why Global Matters
University President Lee Bollinger has made it a central priority of his presidency to globalize the experiences of students at Columbia. To that end, Bollinger created the eight global centers, the Presidential Global Fellowship, and the President's Global Innovation Fund. During his tenure, a number of courses abroad were also created in an attempt to increase Columbia's global reach.
"The interconnectedness of the world demands greater opportunity for students to understand that global world," Bollinger said at a fireside chat last week. "For me, in my lifetime, the changes of the last decade or 15 years are quite extraordinary."
The sentiment is one that has been embraced University-wide—School of General Studies Dean Peter Awn also emphasized the growing importance of ensuring that students receive a global education.
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"I think the idea that just to be functional as adults either in business or whatever field you choose, you have no choice but to become considerably more culturally aware," Awn said. "To me, the ideal is to offer as many as opportunities to undergraduates to create multiple cultural identities, so that there's another part of the world you will feel as comfortable in as if you were in New York."
Students have also begun to understand the importance of gaining a global understanding during their time at Columbia.
"I think a big part of that is understanding that the world view that you may have grown up with or the worldview that may be prevalent in an Ivy League university in New York is not the one way of seeing the world and that your orientation is one among many," Hallie Swanson, CC '16 and a member of the Global Core committee, said. "There should be a sense of perspective."
The undergraduate global education
While efforts to globalize the experience of Columbia students have rapidly expanded during Bollinger's tenure, the number of students who have the opportunity to gain a global perspective through these programs is quite small.
Although it's growing, only roughly 3 percent of the total undergraduate population takes part in programs that have come as a result of Bollinger's increased investment in global programs each year—an indication that the president's emphasis on global engagement has not yet materially changed the undergraduate experience.
"It hasn't yet and that has been a disconnect that we all recognize," Awn said.
With only a small number of students taking advantage of the University's new initiatives and study abroad, the Global Core remains the sole academic venue for global learning for the vast majority of students. As such, the limitations of the requirement have created concern for some, like Saaket Pradhan, CC '16, who described the Global Core as "haphazardly done as a requirement."
Faculty have also expressed concern that the Global Core is not comprehensive enough to stand alone as a global education.
"It's a very limited engagement to begin with," Awn said of the extent of the requirement. "And then depending on the rigor of the course it either achieves its goals, or it's sort of, 'Yeah, I played house for a semester.'"
Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that the Global Core is supposed to be complemented with further exploration and global experiences, which are inaccessible for many students.
"The goal is to open something up, to start to build some skills, some kind of a literacy, some kind of awareness, some kind of critical faculties, some kind of logical faculties," Madeleine Dobie, associate professor of French and member of the Global Core committee, said. "But, that doesn't mean that anything that you get in any of those areas of your education is ever comprehensive. It's a start, it's an introduction. It's an invitation to more in the future."
However, with many students unable to continue down the global path, the question for many becomes whether or not the Global Core should be changed to be more rigorous and all-encompassing than it is in its current form.
As It Stands
The Global Core currently requires students to take two courses that engage with non-Western cultures and traditions, broadening student perspectives. These courses are meant to counterbalance Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization.
The requirement is supposed to expose students to cultural backgrounds and perspectives different from the ones taught through the literature and philosophy of the rest of the core. Their purpose is to broaden students' horizons and provide an alternative to the Western canon taught in the rest of the core.
The idea behind the Global Core is also to get students to engage with the primary texts of those regions they are studying.
"We do think that it's important to have some formal aspect within what we believe an educated Columbia College student should have," Patricia Grieve, professor of Latin American and Iberian cultures and chair of the Global Core committee, said. "Materials that are from other parts of the world that may include things from the United States and or Europe but really are part of the world itself."
Grieve also highlighted the committee's push for the inclusion of more primary texts in Global Core classes.
"What's important about that is you're hearing voices from the places themselves," Grieve said. "We did not want courses in which Western academics are opining on the peoples in question."
The focus on primary texts is a common thread in all Global Core classes. The idea is to root students' understanding of a region or culture in the traditions, beliefs, and literature of the people themselves.
In overseeing the requirement, Grieve, the only chair of the Global Core committee to date, hoped to borrow elements of Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization, working to achieve "parity," while creating a distinct set of courses.
However, since the Global Core is allotted two semesters within the Core, whether students can acquire a comprehensive global education after just two classes is another concern at hand.
"If someone were to say, 'You know what, there's no obstacle, let's make Global Core four courses,' I wouldn't be opposed to it," Grieve said. "Would two courses be sufficient if one had no exposure whatsoever to globality, however one wants to define that? No, two courses wouldn't be sufficient."
However, according to Grieve, doubling the number of Global Core classes students are required to take would be unfeasible.
"Nobody would welcome the notion that now instead of two courses that you have to take you're going to take four courses. The curriculum just can't bear that kind of increase," Grieve said.
Converting to Seminars
Some faculty and students have noted that increasing the percentage of seminar courses offered in the requirement is more feasible than increasing the number of courses students are required to take.
"I wouldn't want to suggest that lecture courses with a rigorous discussion section could not be extremely valuable A seminar is meant to put more of a responsibility on the students for participating in every class," Grieve said. "You can convey a lot more information in a lecture that you simply want to give to the students, but you can have people sending emails, you can have people dozing off ... for some people, lecture classes, they're getting everything they can out of it. But for a seminar you have to be actively doing."
All Global Core lecture courses include required discussion sections, ensuring that some form of discussion takes place despite the lecture format. Though in a discussion section, students are being taught by TAs rather than professors or fellows. Moreover, students could find themselves being taught entirely by graduate students teaching outside of their fields, due to inadequate distribution of TAs within departments.
"But I would like, if I am to lecture 120 students in my Islam Society [course], to have at least four or five teaching assistants, so we can arrange for discussion sections," Hamid Dabashi, professor of MESAAS, said. "I'm not against lectures. I'm for equal allocation of resources."
Grieve also noted that a seminar can be more effective in teaching material to students.
"We know when you have the opportunity to at least formulate your own ideas and listen to your peers' ideas and to react to those ideas, you remember them much more than having one person tell you things that you have to take in" Grieve said.
Students interviewed also endorsed the merits of participating in more rigorous seminar based courses and expressed enthusiasm at the idea of replacing Global Core lectures with seminars.
"I think seminars are really one of the highlights of being at Columbia, having a relationship with your professors and getting to be in touch with some of the greatest minds in the world," Elizabeth Heyman, GS '16 and GSSC president, said.
In addition, some students called for even stronger parity with Lit Hum or Contemporary Civilization, looking for the creation of a "unified seminar," a course with a central curriculum that all students would take.
"I think that the University and the Center for the Core should put some more effort into formulating a class similar to Lit Hum or CC that could really encompass literature and texts from around the world and not just have our narrow focus on Western civilization," Pradhan said.
Franco Maddalena, CC '17, agreed.
"I feel like maybe a [model like] CC that encompasses texts from different areas of the world, that would be a better way perhaps to make this attempt at diversifying our educational understanding," Maddalena said.
However, many faculty believe that creating a unified seminar that would briefly expose students to Core texts from a variety of cultures would ultimately be to the requirement's detriment.
"One of the beauties of the Global Core for me is that it gives opportunities to completely depart from traditional models and run with your imagination and do something very creative in education," Valentina Izmirlieva, chair of the department of Slavic languages, said. "If we aim at building up a shared multi-section unified Global Core course, we are back to traditional models, and it seems to go against the grain of the very idea of the Global Core to me."
In addition, the prospect of selecting which global texts to focus on for a single seminar would spark internal discord over which regional texts were most essential.
"I just don't see how we could possibly quantify and qualify from everything the world has to offer from millenniums ago to the present, Grieve said. "I don't see how we could identify something that all students must take in 13 or 14 weeks."
Ultimately, faculty agreed that the potential scope of a successful Global Core would be too large for a unified seminar model to be effective.
"We were never going to be able to create a single course—we were never going to get everyone to agree on what a single course would look like—about parts of the world that all students should take," Grieve said.
Although the unified seminar has been rejected as a potential model, both faculty and students are in favor of adopting more discussion-based seminars that delve deeply into specific cultures or themes.
"I don't think that [current Global Core courses] are very good substitutes for a real Core course" Wm. Theodore de Bary, professor of East Asian languages and culture, said. "I would say they're a bad alternative. The thing would have to be to add more seminar-style courses that deal with a particular theme from [the classics of] the east and west."
The increase in number of seminars required to carry out a seminar-intensive model effectively, however, is currently not feasible given the size of the faculty that teach undergraduates, but it is not entirely impossible. There are approximately 1600 undergraduates per class in Columbia College and General Studies. If 1600 seats were open to each year in Global Core seminars, limited to 22 students each, that would require that 73 seminars would be taught each semester—a substantial increase from the roughly 15-20 seminars a semester that are currently taught. However, last semester there were 61 faculty members and graduate students teaching either lecture or seminar sections within the Global Core.
That estimate also fails to account for the Barnard faculty that would no longer teach the Global Core if Barnard students were excluded from taking those classes. It also does not account for the significant portion of SEAS students who opt into the Global Core over other humanities Core alternatives.
However, the current staff and resources within FAS renders a shift from predominantly large lecture courses to a Core comprised completely of seminar-based courses largely unfeasible. Additional hires would most easily facilitate a shift to seminars.
"There are financial and fiscal realities too. So MESAAS [Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies] for example, or the history department, is not going to be able to create 25 separate seminars all treating the same topic in the Middle East, so there's a reality that some of the courses on the list are large lecture courses but with the caveat that they must have discussion sections, and what we expect from the discussion sections is that primary materials are discussed."
Faculty also expressed the concern that if the Global Core shifted to a seminar-based model, given the current strain to find instructors for Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization, reliance on graduate students to teach the classes would increase.
"Given that situation, if we were to say, 'Ok well, we'll take the Global Core and convert all the lecture courses into smaller discussion-based courses,' the big question is ,'Who would teach those?'" David Lurie, professor in East Asian languages and cultures and a member of the Global Core committee, said.
"Practically speaking, given the man and womanpower we have in terms of faculty and the teaching demands that are already in place, I don't see how [seminars] could happen," he said. "One way it would happen would there would be a lot of graduate students and adjunct faculty who would be teaching those sections, which I don't think is what would be envisioned by the kind of reform that you're talking about necessarily."
One proposed solution to this issue is to expand the Society of Fellows in the Heyman Center for the Humanities that teach Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization to include a class of postdoctoral fellows to staff Global Core seminars. Championed by de Bary, the society would equip postdoctoral fellows to create textually-based courses centered around themes explored in the literature of the east and west. He would also create a training program to help faculty adapt courses to create more textually based Global Core seminars around each professor's area of expertise.
"It's the only way we can solve the problem. No way you can do it without a training program," de Bary said.
However, even with the help of an expanded society of fellows, the Global Core faculty would be far from being able to accommodate 80 courses per semester. That would require each faculty member teaching a lecture within the Global Core to immediately convert their course to a seminar, which would be nearly impossible. Even if that were accomplished, the number of courses offered would need to more than double in order to fit enough students into seminar classes each semester.
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that a move to seminars will happen unless the size of the FAS increases.
"The result I think is that your experience with the Global Core is pretty much inherently going to be a large lecture class where you may or may not do the reading, and one of your goals in looking at whether or not you take this class or another class is, 'Is it easy?'" Swanson said.