University News

Grants target curricular growth

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2012


From first-year seminars to hands-on upper level courses, an extensive curricular development grant system instituted by the dean of the College’s office encourages faculty and students to develop courses in underrepresented areas. The grants, which have a ceiling of $4,000 this year, have been offered for several years in order to promote the growth of the curriculum.

To mark the Year of China, which the University is sponsoring this year, the dean of the College is offering a curricular grant for first-year seminar development with preference given to proposed courses that relate to China, according to the dean’s website.

The Year of China initiative has been run through the Office of International Affairs with the goal of facilitating connections in China. 

“China is absolutely top-priority in terms of teaching and research,” said Matthew Gutmann P’14, vice president for international affairs. Mutual understanding between the United States and China is absolutely essential, he added.

Kathleen McSharry, associate dean of the College for curriculum and writing, said faculty can use the grants for anything from summer salary support to purchasing course materials and hiring undergraduates.

The variety of first-year seminars offered is a particular “priority for the College,” McSharry said. Eighty-one percent of freshmen have taken a first-year seminar, said Katherine Bergeron, dean of the College.

The first-year seminar program has a “salutary effect” on the curriculum as a whole, Bergeron said. It generates creative thinking and stimulates the hiring of new faculty. Professors have even been known to create graduate seminars as the result of positive reception for their first-year seminars.

As a result, curricular development awards particularly target the development of new first-year seminars, Bergeron said.

Peter Andreas, professor of political science and international studies, said he had never before taught a first-year seminar, but heard that the College was seeking to increase the number of these seminars. He recently received  a curricular development grant for his class on drug war politics, which will be offered in spring 2013.

“To be honest, I was going to do the course anyway,” Andreas said.


Writing designation

In addition to first-year seminars, the dean’s office has also supported writing-designated courses through curricular development awards. The WRIT course designation, which was instituted in fall 2010, stemmed from Bergeron’s desire to formalize the writing curriculum. 

McSharry said she believed Bergeron’s efforts  landed Brown on this year’s U.S. News and World Report list of colleges that make writing a priority.

Though the University has informally had a writing proficiency requirement since the 1870s, it was not until the open curriculum in 1969 that this was implemented as part of a larger set of initiatives to improve written communication at Brown.

Around 200 courses already existed that filled the WRIT requirement when it was implemented in 2010, Bergeron said.

The curricular development grants allocated to writing-designated courses target departments such as biology that are not normally focused on writing, McSharry said.

Writing is synonymous with logic and clarity of thought, and it is therefore essential to any study, said Jan Tullis, professor of geological sciences.

Faculty members too often assign fairly major writing assignments without providing essential feedback, Tullis said.

The writing requirement is particularly aimed at “developing students’ ability to work on their writing, especially in their concentration,” Bergeron said.

This is not to say the grants give the dean’s office a huge hand in how an individual course is developed. Bergeron said she is involved in “housekeeping” in order to maximize a program’s opportunities.

The formation of a new course is still an intrinsically voluntary process, where the dean of the College shapes course development instead of directing it. The grants are merely another method to encourage expansion in an area that still needs development and consolidation.

McSharry said WRIT and FYS courses are not the only ones that get developmental support.


Beyond the dean’s office

Bergeron said there are multiple resources that faculty can take advantage of when developing a new course. The Office of International Affairs, Creative Arts Council, Humanities Initiative and Swearer Center for Public Service all promote curricular expansion through grants.

Curricular development grants led to the Swearer Center’s Engaged Scholars initiative, which now involves 21 faculty members across a range of disciplines.

The program is “committed to the idea of curricular integration in community-based work,” said Kerri Heffernan, director of faculty engagement and the Royce Fellowship.

The Swearer Center’s grants provide up to $4,000 for course development and up to $10,000 for research, according to the dean of the College’s website. The large majority of these grants are used to hire teaching assistants and undergraduates for teaching and research purposes.

“There’s no censorship or direction,” said Phil Brown, professor of sociology and environmental sciences, of the way curricular development grants are administered. “The best grants give you what you want to do.”

He added that the grant often permits collaboration between faculty members. 

Many federal grants focus too much on reporting, he said. The bureaucracy takes time and energy that could be better spent on work.

“One of the nice things about Brown is there’s a lot of give and take and a lot of enthusiasm,” Gutmann said.

The Office of International Affairs offers a grant of up to $4,000 for faculty developing or revising a curriculum designed to “bring an internationalized perspective to the subject,” according to their website.

Receiving a curricular development grant does not necessarily lead directly to funding of a course
, said Chira DelSesto, assistant director of the Creative Arts Council. Some simply do not pan out. Nevertheless, “these grants give faculty the freedom and opportunity to experiment,” she said.

The first grant was given out approximately two years ago. The Creative Arts Council does not demand much input on the development of the course, DelSesto said, but instead just asks for a narrative about development and the expected teaching strategy.

Curricular development grants across this range of offices are given out every year, Bergeron said. Though there is not a huge amount of funding, it is available from an increasing range of sources. McSharry said it is rare that the dean’s office cannot support a request.

“We want to feed the curriculum,” Bergeron said.

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