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Tuning the Core: History, Assessment, and the St. John's University Core Curriculum

Elaine Carey, Tracey Anne Cooper, Elizabeth Herbin-Triant, Philip Misevich, and Alejandro Quintana, April 2013

Like many universities, St. John's University (STJ) has a core curriculum, which attempts to teach a set of core competencies, serves as the basis of every student's major, and is central to the mission of the university. At STJ, that mission includes a focus on global awareness, which the history department addresses through the core course, HIS1000C, Emergence of a Global Society.

For the first time in 12 years, the University Core Curriculum Committee agreed to revisit the core, with an assessment of all core classes, to review how well the courses addressed the core competencies. After attending the first meeting of the AHA Tuning project in June 2012, the two STJ faculty participants realized that our department was already "Tuning" our degree programs through ongoing conversations about competencies, goals, and outcomes.

For example, the department had changed and enhanced our major with the introduction of a new sophomore seminar, expanded internship opportunities, improved coordination and communication, new graduate programs, and enhanced outreach to alumni. We realized, however, that we had not revisited our core course. This course is very important to our department: because few students enter college intending to major in history, it is the best way to introduce a larger group of students to our discipline and skills. When we inspire students in our HIS1000C classes, we gain majors, minors, and dual majors.

In our initial assessment, we realized that our goals for many sections of the core were not being implemented, in part because we had not clearly defined these goals or adequately communicated them beyond the departmental meetings of full-time professors. Hence, the pressing need to tune the core class became evident. Like many history departments with a core curriculum, core classes are primarily taught by adjuncts. Despite the large number of adjuncts, the entire faculty is committed to teaching the core class (or the US history survey sequence), but we must also offer classes for the major. Routinely about half of the 17 members of the department are teaching one or more core classes per semester, and approximately 17 adjuncts teach one to three core classes a semester.

As a collegial department, we had, of course, always reached out to history adjuncts and teaching faculty in other departments. They are still a very important part of the Tuning process. In 2008, the then-department chair worked with the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) coordinator to form the World History Teaching Group. The participants—full-time faculty, adjuncts, faculty from the Institute of Core Studies, librarians, Writing Center faculty—got together to discuss pedagogy, writing, textbooks, assignments, and resources. The emphasis of this group was essentially on the pedagogical development of the individual professor and her or his core classes: a broad-based revision of the syllabus for the entirety of the HIS1000C sections was not undertaken. One striking outcome from the meeting of this group was an appreciation of the variety of styles, approaches, and assignments that were already being successfully employed, and a commitment to encourage, not stifle, innovative teaching methods.

Following the spring 2012 assessment of syllabi, we realized that in order to improve our core class across the board, we needed to tweak HIS1000C by creating a detailed master syllabus that would serve as a guideline for all those who taught in the core. Elaine Carey and Tracey Anne Cooper worked with the provost's office in creating a first draft of a syllabus so incoming adjuncts could have a sample. Fall 2012 proved to be an excellent year to undertake this shift, as the department hired a number of new adjuncts.

With a draft syllabus in hand, a committee comprised of the five of us who routinely teach HIS1000C got together and started the Tuning process with this foundation course as the starting point. Using the STJ Core Competencies and the Tuning Core Competencies as guidelines, we discussed the key competencies defined for the history major, and how these applied to the core class.

Taking advantage of an unexpected block of time, three members of the committee got together during the campus closure in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to create an assessment rubric that could be used in the core. Behind the development of the rubric were two guiding principles: that all HIS1000C classes should require students to produce at least 15 pages of high-stakes and low-stakes writing during the course and that one of these assignments should be substantial enough to be assessed against the rubric.

It was not easy to capture everything important about the course in a one-page rubric that adjuncts and faculty could easily use. But after hours of discussion and subsequent editing, the rubric and a more developed statement of goals and objectives for each item on the rubric were produced in tandem: the design and wording for one influencing the tweaking of the other.

Once the rubric was completed, Carey asked Philip Misevich and Alejandro Quintana to create sample writing and in-class assignments that could serve as examples with an emphasis on low-stakes writing as a means to foster learning. These included a variety of short, quick written assignments, such as flash questions, impromptu reflections and analysis, and even group assignments, which assist in fostering dialogue, debate, and discussion. We wanted to encourage adjuncts to use this model, rather than feel they had to assign several larger papers. The committee members had found this approach to be very effective, and we appreciated the fact that many adjuncts were teaching, at times, as many as six to nine courses at four to five colleges and campuses.

The assistant chair also began a focused assessment of the teaching and classroom experience. He sat in on every class taught by an adjunct, gave them written feedback, and then met with them informally. Our goal in doing a personal evaluation of every adjunct and teaching fellow was to give them constructive feedback about their teaching.

More importantly, we want to foster a professional relationship with our adjuncts to recognize their essential contributions to our department. Many have experience in WAC programs, assessment, and innovative teaching methods. We have had a number of adjuncts land tenure-track jobs, and we hope that this happens more often. By assessing them, the chair and assistant chair are in a far better position to write informed letters of recommendation that stress their contributions. This assessment also resulted in three promotions of adjuncts as allowed through the university's collective bargaining agreement.

With the rubric, goals and objectives, and the sample writing assignments in place, the committee revised the master syllabus, and presented it to the department for discussion and a vote. It was unanimously approved, and then distributed to all faculty teaching HIS1000C. The Tuning process for the core, thus, is ongoing, and we are now in the beginning stages of using our experience as a basis for the future process of tuning of our degree programs.

By Tuning a core class, our efforts will ensure greater cohesion between faculty, adjuncts, and graduate teaching fellows. Tuning has helped us coordinate our goals to build skills and knowledge important to history and transferable to other disciplines—which themselves have rich historical pasts, relevance to our discipline, and implications for our students' futures.

The authors are all members of the Department of History at St. John's University. Elaine Carey is a faculty participant in the Tuning project, and the AHA's vice president, Teaching Division.