Administrators Rush to Finalize Clusters
The College will soon finalize proposals for the new course cluster program, kicking off this fall at the Peter B. Lewis Gateway Center’s “StudiOC.” As the March 10 proposal deadline approaches for interested faculty members, students remain unaware which departments or course combinations will be available in the next course catalog released March 27.
The course cluster program is intended to cover themes that extend beyond any one department or course. In the clusters, faculty members from different departments will collaborate to address subjects more holistically with a cross-disciplinary, multi-course class structure. While some aspects of the new program have been formulated, several kinks still need smoothing.
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Tim Elgren said one development is that course clusters may include first-year seminar courses. He explained that the College might have a divided cluster with, for instance, one of three courses of a cluster reserved exclusively for first-years, while the other courses would remain open to all students.
“There will be a mix of first-year seminars and other courses, so the courses that will be available to students [during this coming] registration period will be limited to those that are not first-year seminars,” he added.
Associate Dean of the Curriculum David Kamitsuka, who is leading the project, further explained how students would meet throughout the semester with the other courses in their cluster, calling it a learning community.
“Students will apply to participate in a learning community and must enroll in at least two of the courses in that cluster,” Kamitsuka wrote in an email to the Review. “Faculty participating in a learning community will be expected to meet together with students at intervals throughout the semester for activities or assignments designed by the faculty team. Learning communities should be targeted to first-year students or second- to fifth-year students.”
Aside from housing the course cluster program, Elgren added that StudiOC will contain the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, which is designed to connect faculty members with each other to overcome general teaching challenges and is currently located on the A-level of Mudd library.
According to Elgren, the program’s funding has been finalized. Although the administration acquired a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation before this school year began, they more recently acquired a $500,000 bequest — from whom, Elgren did not specify — and $150,000 from the Greater Lakes College Association for using the clusters to promote and engage in international networking, since one of the aims of the cluster program is to utilize classroom video conferencing to forge connections between Oberlin and other institutions.
However, there is still a lot of last-minute work to be done in the final weeks before course selection. When asked why finalizing details about the program have taken longer than expected, Elgren listed several factors to explain the delays on concrete announcements on courses or faculty involvement.
“Waiting to secure the last of those funds and then really putting in the administrative structures to support [the clusters], having faculty and the folk involved in the [cluster planning committee] step up … populating that committee and creating a charge and an application process,” Elgren said, listing the processes that have needed to occur thus far. “All those things really look like the business end of how you mount one of these initiatives.”
College sophomore and Educational Plans and Policies Committee Student Representative Meg Parker expressed concerns about the rushed planning that needs to occur before the course catalogue deadline.
“I’m a little worried about how we’re going to be able to present course clusters to the student body,” Parker said. “But we still have a few more weeks to work out some kinks.”
She added that greater transparency between the administration and the student body would be useful in helping students understand the clusters. To Parker, the lack of details on the clusters at this point is problematic.
“I think if we move closer towards the course administration, having a little more clarity for students on what course clusters look like and what they’re going to be doing is relevant,” she said. “I might advocate in favor of that, but I also understand that providing students with information that isn’t completely solidified is also a bad option and will lead to more confusion.”
As a member of the EPPC — an advisory committee of students and faculty that reviews, approves and critiques College departments, programs and major requirements — Parker also said that there are mixed reviews about the clusters’ overall efficacy. She added that since many students already take courses within various departments of interest, an official cluster program might be redundant. Still, she said that it might be useful for students who want a more structured way of finding multidisciplinary avenues for their course load.
Faculty members are either not engaged in course cluster planning or are still having preliminary discussions about holding cluster programs in the future.
“[The Politics department] has been way too busy to begin to think about this,” Marc Blecher, Professor and Chair of the Politics department, wrote in an email to the Review.
Other faculty members are optimistic about the opportunities that the cluster program can offer.
“I’m not sure if any History faculty plan to apply to be part of a course cluster,” Renee Romano, Professor and Chair of the History department, wrote in an email to the Review. “From my perspective, it’s an innovative model that will encourage cross-disciplinary learning and collaboration and it offers a great opportunity for both students and for faculty to think together about big issues across disciplinary lines.”
While Blecher and Romano did not hear about their departments engaging with the cluster program, Environmental Studies Assistant Professor Chie Sakakibara and Russian and East European Studies faculty member Ian MacMillen said they have discussed the possibility of running a cluster course.
“MacMillen and I are talking about a potential cluster for StudiOC, but at this point, we haven’t even worked on a proposal yet,” Sakakibara wrote in an email to the Review. “In other words, at this point, we cannot provide any further information.”
While faculty planning for the course clusters is still in the works, Elgren said that StudiOC will be ready for move-in in May and that the administration is aiming for five cluster programs by registration this April.