Campus & Community

‘Gen Ed’ connects students to outside world

long read

As Harvard College ramps up for the official launch of the new Program in General Education — better known as “Gen Ed” — in September 2009, undergraduates are matriculating in the first round of courses related to the new curriculum. Six courses are being offered in the Gen Ed curriculum this fall, with nine others on deck for the spring semester.

The Gen Ed curriculum, approved 18 months ago by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) as the culmination of the multiyear Harvard College Curricular Review, aims to connect students’ classes with their lives outside the classroom — both now and decades into the future. It replaces the 30-year-old Core Curriculum, which focused on “ways of knowing.”

“We hope faculty will take Gen Ed’s launch as an opportunity to experiment pedagogically in ways that cut across traditional departmental lines,” says Stephanie Kenen, associate dean for undergraduate education in the College, who is spearheading implementation of the new Gen Ed.

“We’re off to a nice start, with more than 50 courses already approved for Gen Ed credit a year in advance of the new curriculum’s formal launch,” adds Jay M. Harris, chair of the Standing Committee on General Education and dean of undergraduate education in the College. “We hope to spend this year encouraging students and faculty to become familiar with and embrace the opportunities presented by Gen Ed.”

To date, the Standing Committee on General Education has approved more than 50 faculty proposals for Gen Ed courses. Some are reconfigured Core or departmental courses, while others are brand new. Chaired by Harris, the Gen Ed committee also includes College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, nine other faculty members from a wide range of disciplines, and three undergraduates.

“The committee provides a system of ‘peer review’ for proposed Gen Ed courses,” Kenen says. The courses approved so far represent about 30 percent of the total the College hopes to eventually offer.

Per the legislation approved by the FAS faculty in May 2007, Gen Ed courses aim explicitly to prepare students for civic engagement; to teach students to understand themselves as products of, and participants in, traditions of art, ideas, and values; to enable students to respond critically and constructively to change; and to develop students’ understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they say and do.

Under the Core, students took courses in seven of 11 categories, depending on their concentrations, while Gen Ed requires undergraduates to complete one course in each of eight areas: Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding, Culture and Belief, Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning, Ethical Reasoning, Science of Living Systems, Science of the Physical Universe, Societies of the World, and the United States in the World.

Starting with the Class of 2013 — next fall’s entering freshmen — students will be required to complete the Gen Ed curriculum. Upperclassmen will have the choice of graduating under the Core or under Gen Ed. To ease the transition, all courses approved for Gen Ed credit will also count toward completion of the Core.

A glimpse into this fall’s six new Gen Ed courses follows.

Culture and Belief 17: ‘Institutional Violence and Public Spectacle: The Case of the Roman Games’

Beast fights. Mock naval battles. Gladiatorial combat. In ancient Rome, violence was a primary feature of public entertainment. But studying the Roman games isn’t just about guts and gore. Kathleen Coleman, professor of Latin, has found that violence in ancient Rome provides an excellent framework for discussions about cultural practices, value systems, and historical interpretation.

Coleman teaches “Institutional Violence and Public Spectacle: The Case of the Roman Games.” The course seeks to identify and question the social, political, and economic factors that contributed to the popularity of violent spectacles in Rome.

“The students probe the preconceptions that enabled the Romans to deploy institutionalized violence as entertainment,” Coleman says. Focusing on four forms of spectacle — gladiatorial combat, beast-fights and staged hunts, aquatic displays, and the exposure of criminals to wild animals — Coleman and her students attempt to understand how violent entertainment shaped Roman society. Primary sources such as inscriptions, coins, mosaics, and literary texts are employed.

Though Roman culture flourished 2,000 years ago, Coleman finds plenty of relevance for today.

“It is important to study ancient Rome, because studying a culture from the past puts into perspective challenges common to the human condition, as well as circumstances particular to an individual culture in its time and place,” says Coleman. “It should afford an instructive comparison with the way we deal with similar issues in our own day.”

Coleman also asks her students to consider the practices and attitudes that shape our own culture, in comparison with the values of ancient Rome.

“I encourage them to contrast our modern value-system, which — at least nominally — condemns institutionalized violence, with the pride that the Romans took in the games,” she says.

Culture and Belief 16: ‘Performance, Tradition and Cultural Studies: An Introduction to Folklore and Mythology’

“How many of you had parents who X-rayed your Halloween candy to ensure it was safe for eating?” A chuckle arose from the classroom as Stephen Mitchell, professor of Scandinavian and folklore, eyed his students. A few tentative hands went up.

“Surprisingly, it’s not that unusual of a cultural practice,” Mitchell continued. “Halloween has long been associated with panics and scares. In the 1970s, for example, there was widespread concern about criminals who would do evil things to children, like hide razor blades in their Halloween candy.”

Mitchell’s discussion of Halloween lore was intended to do more than send shivers down students’ spines. In his class “Performance, Tradition and Cultural Studies: An Introduction to Folklore and Mythology,” Mitchell evaluates popular culture to convey how folklore shapes daily life as well as national, regional, and ethnic identities. Halloween fears, for example, provided Mitchell and his students the opportunity to consider what role the holiday plays in the life of American communities.

In addition to American holidays, Mitchell and his students discuss myths, legends, epics, beliefs, rituals, and festivals. They draw on material from a range of sources such as South Slavic oral epics, American occupational lore, Northern European ballads, Cajun Mardi Gras, and African witchcraft.

Mitchell hopes his course will encourage students to “appreciate the diverse and significant nature of expressive culture.”

“I hope that they are able to recognize and analyze the ways in which traditional modes of speech, narration, thought, and behavior play important roles in everyday life,” he says.

Science of Living Systems 11: ‘Molecules of Life’

“I find it incredibly inspiring,” says David R. Liu, professor of chemistry and chemical biology and Harvard College Professor, “that some of our brightest future policymakers, practitioners of the arts, historians, economists, and social scientists might learn lessons in this course that they will apply to their lives during and after college.”

Liu and Jon Clardy, professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, co-teach “Molecules of Life,” covering topics of broad interest to their 83 students from a wide range of concentrations.

For example, in describing DNA, they discuss the historical context of the genetic template’s discovery, the social implications of genetic diagnostics and genetically modified foods, and the ethical dilemmas raised by increasingly accessible genomic analysis. Lectures teach the molecular basis of a few key drugs, but also describe drug development and the complex factors underlying drug pricing, and offer case studies where students discuss regulatory approval of drugs with a variety of benefits and drawbacks.

The course also includes weekly hands-on activities, designed by preceptor Brian Tse, in which students perform simple experiments, participate in role-playing exercises, and debate the societal implications of the science described in lectures. In a recent activity, students analyzed their own DNA sequences to explain why only some of the students could taste a certain chemical.

“I’ve been teaching for almost 40 years, and it’s the course that has brought me the most pleasure as well as requir[ed] the most work,” Clardy says. “It’s quite liberating to teach a course that has no successor, in that there’s nothing that has to be taught because the following course will assume that the students know it.”

Culture and Belief 11: ‘Medicine and the Body in East Asia and Europe’

He might be the best spokesman Steve Jobs has never met. Shigehisa Kuriyama, Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History, has no affiliation with Apple, but he makes ample use of the company’s technology in his popular course “Medicine and the Body in East Asia and Europe.” Using iMovie (an Apple filmmaking tool) and podcasts (digital media files broadcast on the Internet), Kuriyama brings to life the history of medicine in two divergent cultural traditions.

“Medicine and the Body in East Asia and Europe” explores the distinctions between Eastern and Western medicine, as well as between traditional and modern practices. Kuriyama focuses on the body itself to illuminate variations within East Asian and European medicine traditions. He also discusses the ways in which historical conceptions of the body shape current medical practices.

All of Kuriyama’s lectures are supplemented with iMovies or elaborate Keynote presentations, entertaining but informative tools that have his students raving. In place of response papers, Kuriyama asks his students to comment on the readings by submitting a weekly audiocast, movie clip, or Keynote presentation. For the final research project, students can choose between a paper, audiocast, iMovie, or other electronic presentation.

“One of the great advantages of this new format is that it allows students, through repeated trials, to refine and polish their mastery of media as tools of intellectual exploration and expression,” Kuriyama says. “It also gives them an opportunity to teach each other (and me), as the weekly sharing of compositions allows everyone to learn from the interesting techniques and effects invented by others.”

Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 15: ‘Elements of Rhetoric’

Why study rhetoric? For James Engell, Gurney Professor of English Literature and professor of comparative literature, the answer is clear.

“Rhetoric is absolutely fundamental to the study of language, composition, criticism, and public speaking,” says Engell. “Rhetoric is a foundational discipline and a set of skills indispensable to law, politics, academia, and public policy.”

These practical applications inform Engell’s course “Elements of Rhetoric.” The syllabus, which focuses on both theory and practice, is designed to help students develop critical thinking skills as well as improve their writing and speaking abilities. Engell also hopes the course will encourage students to be comfortable negotiating issues of ethics.

“In learning how to persuade and in analyzing how others persuade, we inevitably make ethical judgments and ask ethical questions of ourselves and of others,” he says.

Engell draws on a range of American writing to evaluate rhetorical strategies, modes of analysis, and theories of rhetoric. The course follows American writing from 1765 to the present day, and includes such famous texts as the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s “A House Divided” speech, and Susan B. Anthony’s extended testimony on women’s rights before a Senate committee in 1887. Students also watch a weekly film that features a famous orator, such as Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy.

Engell notes that the students’ “open questions and enthusiasm, the different experiences they bring, and their different expectations” has made the course enjoyable thus far.

Ethical Reasoning 12: ‘Political Justice and Political Trials’

Historical courtroom drama provides great raw material for classroom dialogue.

“I often ask for votes on conviction or acquittal,” says Charles Maier, Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History. “It forces students to concentrate their mind and commit themselves on the issues at stake. I’m always surprised by how many are prepared to execute Louis XVI.”

Maier encourages students to examine the nature and implications of political trials in which defendants are prosecuted for alleged abuses of power, violations of rights, or a discredited ideology, and not just ordinary criminal acts. The course raises questions regarding the moral, political, and legal stakes of these trials, with the overarching theme of judgment of an individual or group based on accepted political ideas or activity.

“I see the course as an exercise in applied ethical reasoning,” says Maier. “The moral issues recur throughout the centuries, but every test of them is dripping, so to speak, with a particular history.”

Maier covers trials from antiquity to the French Revolution, the Soviet purges, Nuremburg, the Cold War, and the aftermath of contemporary atrocities. Readings include trial argumentation and transcripts, and students consider the courtroom narrative within the framework of the historical narrative.

“This course has driven me to consider law and politics in light of the surrounding contextual details,” says Victoria Phan ’09. “Judgments about not only cases, but events can and probably should be taken in light of these contextual details, as through this course, I have seen how a present environment can totally change the perspective on and judgment on a certain case.”