Article Image

Despite new incentives introduced to encourage faculty members to teach the Core Curriculum, there has not been a significant increase in faculty participation in Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization.

Despite new monetary incentives introduced to encourage junior and senior faculty members to teach the Core Curriculum, there has not been a significant increase in faculty participation in the Core classes Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization since the incentive's implementation one year ago.

Only about a quarter of Core classes are currently taught by faculty, and the majority are taught by a combination of graduate students and Core Lecturers, who are post-doctoral students selected specifically to teach in the Core. In an effort to attract more faculty members to teach in the Core, senior faculty were offered a $5,000 salary supplement for every Lit Hum or Contemporary Civilization section they taught, and a total of $15,000 if they taught for a full academic year.

Tenure-track junior faculty who returned to teach in the Core after six semesters of teaching Lit Hum or Contemporary Civilization were offered $4,000 for one semester and $12,000 for a full academic year.

Even though the increase in faculty participation was small this year, according to data in the University's directory of classes, Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum Roosevelt Montás said that he expects the numbers to increase and that "the full impact of the incentive will unfold over several years." He also noted that the amount of faculty who chose to teach a full year, rather than just one semester, did increase.

Despite these recent efforts by the administration to encourage such a change, department chairs agree that while this is a welcome gesture, it does not address the root of the issue: the size of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The lack of growth of the FAS, along with a lack of buy-in among some faculty to the curriculum itself, has contributed to a culture that focuses less on undergraduate teaching in the Core and more on fulfilling departmental obligations.

"We have a very small department and a large number of courses that we require," Deborah Steiner, chair of the classics department, said. "We're stretched extremely thin, and we just don't have the leeway [to have more faculty teach in the Core]. And I think that's where I understand the impetus behind the incentive, but short of increasing the number of faculty, I just don't see how departments like ours can accommodate it."

However, central administrators have made it clear with the implementation of the Timely Replacement Policy last spring that, while faculty who leave will be replaced, the size of the FAS will not grow in the foreseeable future. Although the policy prevents the FAS from shrinking by guaranteeing replacements for faculty departures, it also effectively sets a ceiling on faculty hires.

As a possible solution to this immediate problem, Columbia College Dean James Valentini suggested using funds from Core to Commencement, the first fundraising campaign to raise money directly for the college, "to have money to support visiting professorships," he said. "If a department has a lot of faculty participating in teaching in the Core, that means that some other courses that we also need taught might not be taught. Let's find resources to bring visiting faculty here who, in those circumstances, can then teach additional courses."

As a result of a stagnant faculty size, most faculty and administrators cited departmental obligations—both department-specific courses and administrative work—as restrictive when trying to teach in the Core. Department chairs expressed that they often feel pressured to prioritize offering courses from their own departments over designating faculty to teach in the Core.

For the English and comparative literature department, which contributes the largest number of instructors to Lit Hum of any department in the FAS, this balance can be especially challenging.

"Our own courses, we're often short," English and comparative literature department Chair Sarah Cole said. "It's often a real struggle to make sure we can offer our full rich array of courses every year."

Montás noted that this issue is even more prevalent in smaller departments.

"That just has to do with enough hands to go around, and not really something that added incentives is going to change," Montás said.

Upon returning to Columbia after a long leave serving as the director for the American Academy in Rome in 2010, classics professor Carmela Vircillo Franklin intended to teach Core classes in addition to the courses in her department. However, when she returned to the University, she was the only medievalist in the department, and had to teach courses in her subfield not only for the classics department but also for history and English majors.

"I feel squeezed by all the demands, and also I serve on committees, and I serve outside the University for foundations," Franklin said. "So in a sense, the problem with the senior faculty is that as you grow older, as you grow more senior, you have more demands, not fewer demands, on your time."

Although some students report having very good experiences with graduate students teaching in the Core, sdtudents interviewed by Spectator said that having senior faculty teach them provides a more engaging learning environment.

David Kaminsky CC '19 felt that he did not gain as much insight into the Lit Hum texts learning from his graduate student instructor.

"[My instructor] was really friendly and engaging, but he didn't seem to understand what a college class was like, the difference between teaching college and high school," Kaminsky said. "I felt he lacked the insight, humor, and comfortable teaching style that all of my older professors had in common. His class felt strained and uncomfortable, especially when he made participation mandatory in each class. And overall I just didn't especially feel everything we learned was coming from as reliable a source as with older professors."

In contrast, Nikki Scheck CC '19, who had a senior faculty member from the English and comparative literature department teach her Lit Hum class, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

"Having a tenured Lit Hum professor brought in a different aspect to my class," Scheck said. "His familiarity and experience with the text allowed him to stimulate in-depth class discussions. This really allowed our class to recognize the not-so-seamless application of the many Lit Hum books to our lives."

Valentini also acknowledged the need for more faculty participation in the Core when he spoke to Spectator last spring, emphasizing that "faculty have to have intellectual ownership [of the Core] and they have to guide it. There have to be enough faculty involved to achieve intellectual ownership and guidance of the course."

However, some faculty have declined to take ownership of the Core despite its centrality to Columbia's undergraduate education, taking issue with the courses themselves.

"Some professors are just hostile to the idea of teaching a required course of classical text and are just not into that," Montás said. "There are professors who don't like the idea of teaching courses that students are required to take. They want students to choose courses that they want to take."

Montás also noted that Core classes are "demanding in a way that other courses aren't. It takes you out of your disciplinary speciality, often out of your immediate research."

Ultimately, Montás said that there is a critical divide when it comes to how students and some faculty perceive the Core's importance in the Columbia undergraduate education.

"What I think is not as evident when you look at the University from the point of view of the undergraduates is that while the Core is so central to that conception, if you look at it from the point of view of somebody who is applying for a job at Columbia, they're applying to a department, and really the undergraduate teaching that they might or might not do, and whether that undergraduate teaching might or might not be in the Core, is actually a pretty small consideration for many faculty," Montás said.

Franklin noted that the discussion surrounding teaching classes like Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization, which are small seminar classes, reflects wider concerns regarding teaching at the University.

"We need to think, to remember that teaching is one of the primary functions—the other is research, of the faculty," Franklin said. "We should make teaching as enjoyable and productive and as successful as possible."

jessica.spitz@columbiaspectator.com | @jjspitz1

ADVERTISEMENT
Newsletter