Take charge of your course requirements

Michael Morton

As the fall semester begins, one academic area where students struggle for ownership is the University’s 42-hour core curriculum. A common requirement for all students, the core curriculum features the first-year signature course as well as coursework in English composition, literature, American and Texas government, history, social and behavioral sciences, mathematics, natural sciences and technology and visual and performing arts.

Students view these courses as simply boxes to check off on their degree plans. As the University’s Commission of 125 — a group of citizens chartered with formulating a vision for how UT Austin can best serve Texas and the world for next 25 years — stated in 2004, these courses “resemble little more than a vast a la carte menu.”

While significant and innovative steps such as the creation of signature courses and the development of the School of Undergraduate Studies have been taken to strengthen the University’s core curriculum, for many students the courses encompassed in the 42-hour core curriculum still resemble that of a Cheesecake Factory menu with little connection from course to course.

This lack of cohesion in the core curriculum prevents students from taking ownership of their core classes and seeing them as an enriching part of their academic experience rather than a hurdle they must hurry up and jump over in order to continue on the path to a degree.

No matter what major students choose or field they enter, the subjects addressed in the core curriculum can help provide a well-rounded education. However, this can only be accomplished if students actually view these courses as beneficial and are able to make the core curriculum work for them by finding unique academic pathways.

In order for these pathways to exist, students must take steps toward ownership of their education by providing feedback about their experiences with the core curriculum.

Students can provide such feedback through a short survey, initially sent a few weeks ago to 8,000 randomly selected sophomores, juniors, and seniors. By simply completing the survey, students can help improve the university’s core curriculum and provide data to ultimately lay the groundwork for a more effective core with which students can find their own academic pathways.

Despite great strides and improvements, the University’s core curriculum remains an area in dire need of strengthening if it is to fulfill its core purpose and truly allow students to see it for its benefit rather than the “vast a la carte menu” described by the Commission of 125. The University’s 2005 Task Force on Curricular Reform — a group led by now President Powers, then dean of the School of Law, designed to evaluate UT Austin’s core curriculum and make recommendations for improvement — reiterated the Commission’s finding that “course-selection decisions are frequently driven by class availability, convenience and whim.”

Students now have a chance to have their voices heard and help positively reform the 42-hours, which affect every student’s degree plan. Students now have a chance to take ownership of it.

— Morton is the president of the Senate of College Councils