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Imagining a New Curriculum

Published June 26, 2017 in News

By: John Carfagno, Director of Communications


While successfully educating generations of UVA students, the Arts & Sciences general education curriculum has remained nearly unchanged for more than four decades. For several years, a committee of College faculty has been exploring new concepts and potential new academic requirements for undergraduate students.

Following a successful faculty vote last spring, the fruits of their labor will be unveiled this fall.

“Dean Ian Baucom asked us to reimagine what a world-class, imaginative, and 21st-century undergraduate education could look like,” says Chad Wellmon, the associate professor of Germanic languages and literatures who chaired the General Education Committee. “He gave us the freedom to have a blue-sky approach—to think big and focus on what the best academic student experience could possibly be.”

The start of what will be a three-year roll-out of the proposed reforms began this past spring, when incoming students had the opportunity to request placement in the new curriculum pilot.


To bring the new curriculum to life, the Dean’s Office appointed a diverse group of faculty members from anthropology, art history, biology, English, German, history, media studies, psychology, and religious studies to serve as College Fellows. Supported by philanthropy as well as funding from the Dean’s Office, the new College Fellows were charged with designing the Engagements, the first-year courses intended to serve as the crown jewels of the new curriculum.

Students in the new curriculum will take a series of four, two-credit Engagements courses during their first year. Each interdisciplinary course is seven weeks long, enabling students to take two per semester. 

“The Engagements courses are a newly designed first-year experience for our students and, in my opinion, they represent the most exciting and transformative component of the new curriculum,” says Sarah Betzer, associate professor of art history and co-director of the College Fellows program. 

The proposed Engagements courses cover four distinct themes:

  • Engaging Aesthetics: Courses featuring a critical exploration of the nature of art and artistry, as well as the moral and ethical capacities of the arts;
  • Empirical and Scientific Engagement: Courses empowering students to think as scientists, to evaluate and make decisions based on scientific evidence, to develop a framework for discerning types of knowledge, evaluate claims that are based on data, and articulate the limitations of using empirical approaches to describe complex phenomena;
  • Engaging Differences: Courses examining the differences that can challenge our abilities to understand one another, while also serving as occasions for deeper knowledge as students explore the ways in which people are—and are perceived to be—different;
  • Ethical Engagement: Courses offering opportunities to reflect upon and deliberate about our lives as ethical agents, preparing students to grapple with the contingent and historically rooted character of ethical action.  

Among the new courses to be introduced in the fall of 2017 is an Empirical and Scientific Engagement class taught by College Fellow Deborah Roach, an evolutionary biologist. In her new course, first-year students will study the empirical approaches used to understand patterns of human variation in appearance, physiology, and athletic performance. 

Another new course, to be co-taught by College Fellows Lisa Woolfork (English) and Laura Goldblatt (post-doctoral fellow, English), will cover two of the Engagements—Engaging Aesthetics, and Engaging Differences—as it examines songs, books, films, and other cultural artifacts and what they reveal about our cultures.  

“These courses introduce students to fundamental habits of mind and intellectual sensibilities that slice through work in many allied disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences,” Betzer says. 

In addition to the Engagements, the new curriculum introduces a series of new Literacies requirements. Grounded in the study of world languages, the Literacies also will include Rhetoric for the 21st Century courses featuring oral and digital presentation assignments, as well as courses enabling students to apply computational and mathematical skills to interpret and solve problems with data analysis.

The Disciplines—a range of courses selected by students from departmental offerings throughout the College—will serve as the third component of the new curriculum. Moving away from the familiar liberal arts categories of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, students will be required to earn three credits in each of seven Disciplines:

  • Artistic, Interpretive & Philosophical Inquiry;
  • The Chemical, Mathematical, & Physical Universe;
  • Cultures & Societies of the World;
  • Historical Perspectives;
  • Living Systems;
  • Science & Society;
  • Social & Economic Systems.


The College Fellows shared their curricular reform blueprint in January with a group of academic leaders from around the country at the College-sponsored UVA Summit on Liberal Arts & Sciences Education for the 21st Century. Representatives from Barnard College, the College of William & Mary, Duke University, Harvard University, and Stanford University applauded the College’s pilot curriculum, particularly the Engagements.

“I love the creativity of the UVA Engagements courses and the planning for general education proposed by the Fellows because they offer substance and cross-disciplinary perspectives that students are unlikely to find in regular departmental courses,” said Kate Conley, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at the College of William & Mary. “These courses offer new opportunities for learning for the students that should open their minds to unexpected possibilities as they plan their college careers.”

Another feature of the curricular reform efforts in the College drawing wider attention is the “doubling down” on the College’s writing requirement. Incoming students no longer will be able to place out of the College’s first of two writing requirement courses. Students instead may “test up, not out” into a higher-level Rhetoric for the 21st Century Literacies course, depending on their placement scores. 

In May, the College began offering incoming first-year students the opportunity to “opt-in” to the new curriculum this fall. As many as 600 of the approximately 3,000 incoming students will join the pilot this fall, serving as the inaugural class for a new curriculum that could be installed in full effect for all incoming students as early as the 2019-20 academic year. 

Until then, UVA’s peer institutions in the global higher-education community are eagerly watching, and taking notes.

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