Herman Holt, chair and professor of Chemistry, in the classroom with students.
Questioning the Answers
Integrative curriculum challenges students to think differently
Instead of coasting toward graduation during her final semester, UNC Asheville alumna Samantha Little spent spring 2010 juggling an undergraduate research project, campus leadership duties and a full academic schedule that required an internship, volunteer work and peer mentoring.
The Management major remembers the late nights and early morning alarms, but calls the university's demanding and varied curriculum crucial preparation for her career.
"It has definitely paid off," says Little, 23, now a marketing assistant with Asheville developer Biltmore Farms. "There was not a class I took that was a waste of time. And I learned it was important to be involved in your community."
Little's perspective is echoed by other students and faculty, who call the university's Integrative Liberal Studies Program rigorous, rewarding and key preparation for future endeavors. And with a process under way that will lead to the university's reaccreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the university is planning further enhancements to the undergraduate academic experience.
"The hallmark of the core curriculum is its integrative nature," says Lisa Friedenberg, Psychology professor and director of academic assessment, who has been at UNC Asheville since 1977. Instead of distinct major and general education elements, the university's liberal studies approach intertwines the two. Topical cluster, writing and quantitative course requirements demand wide-ranging class work, but many requirements may also be satisfied within a major.
"Part of an integrative education is understanding the relationship between your field and other fields," Friedenberg says. "We live in a world in which information changes rapidly and disciplinary boundaries are fluid, so if all you know is a small amount of information defined by your major, you are at a disadvantage in the workplace."
The Integrative Liberal Studies curriculum includes the bookend requirements of an introductory colloquium designed to spark interdisciplinary intellectual inquiry and a senior capstone seminar. "The capstone requirement offers students a chance to bring their education together as they study the contemporary human condition, concepts of global citizenship, and the range of challenges facing our global society," says Edward Katz, associate provost and dean of University Programs.
The benefits of this liberal studies approach aren't always immediately apparent to students wondering why they're enrolled in art history or natural science classes while planning to major in another subject.
"Anytime you require people to go outside their comfort zone of what they've chosen to study, their lives become different," Friedenberg says. "Oftentimes people don't realize what the benefits of a particular experience are right up front."
Recent graduate Rachel Whaley, who plans to work in print or web design before applying to graduate school, agrees. A double major in Spanish and New Media, Whaley satisfied UNC Asheville's topical cluster requirement with classes in psychology, new media design and the physics of sound.
"Anytime you require people to go outside their comfort zone of what they've chosen to study, their lives become different."
"The liberal arts experience is about teaching your mind to make cross-disciplinary connections and understanding the same content from multiple perspectives," she says. "Most students do not appreciate the liberal arts experience the first year or two because they see it as having to take classes that are unnecessary. However, in the third and fourth year, many students have the epiphany that their classes are all interconnected and their minds begin to make to make the cross-disciplinary connections."
The Collegiate Learning Assessment, a nationally administered essay-based exam that tests critical-thinking and analytical skills, indicates the strength of UNC Asheville's liberal studies curriculum. Seniors who took the test during the 2007–08 academic year scored "above" or "well above" expected performance levels (based on SAT scores) on all five graded portions, and their overall score was in the 95th percentile. Senior scores from the most recent administration of the
test at UNC Asheville will be released this fall.
Alongside the core curriculum, departmental offerings also add undergraduate research, service learning, and internships to many student schedules.
As part of her academic experience, 2011 graduate Taliaferro Pollock, a Mass Communication major, interned at Asheville ABC-TV affiliate WLOS. An Alabama native who transferred from a large state university campus, Pollock noted that UNC Asheville's smaller size fosters community and creativity. "Everything was much more accessible," says Pollock, who is headed to Los Angeles to work as a production assistant with an entertainment firm. "You can create personal relationships with people. I feel I never would have gotten this experience elsewhere."
Planning is under way for additional community engagement by UNC Asheville students in future semesters. As part of its ongoing reaccreditation review, the university is preparing a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) calling for courses designed to sharpen critical-thinking skills with experiences beyond the classroom.
A QEP is mandated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as part of its once-a-decade reaccreditation process.
The plan calls for courses that provide students with opportunities to improve their critical thinking skills by inquiring about a topic that intrigues them, applying what they learned by designing and implementing a project, connecting with individuals outside their discipline to share what they've learned, and reflecting on the experience via a written or oral report, says Mary Lynn Manns, an associate professor in the Department of Management and Accountancy, and campus QEP director.
The ability to connect one's discipline to other disciplines is central to the liberal arts education. "Professors involved in the QEP will help students uncover and articulate multiple perspectives through the connections they make and will, in turn, help students improve their critical thinking skills," she said.
Courses that give students opportunities to be immersed in rigorous inquiry and then make connections to examine other perspectives and test their assumptions will reinforce UNC Asheville's curriculum strengths, Manns notes.
"You can't just know your narrow focus, whether it's management, literature, biology or something else," she says.
"You need to connect outside your discipline while striving to understand the views of others."
Along with QEP discussions, the university also has created a task force to examine UNC Asheville's academic programs in light of the state's current budget climate. "Our aim will be to continue to offer outstanding and sustainable educational experiences that are in line with our fiscal reality," Associate Provost Katz said.
Reflecting on her student years at UNC Asheville, former student Little says she continually draws on her academic experience, whether drafting press releases or recalling Humanities classes during office conversations.
"It gave me a toolset—it was very well rounded," she says about the university's liberal arts requirements. "Everything comes full circle at UNC Asheville."