In his inauguration speech, newly installed University of Alberta President, Dr. David Turpin, made a very direct pledge to enhance the role of the university as a partner in “leading change in Alberta,” stating that the university’s future efforts will focus on “new and innovative ways to mobilize our excellence in research and teaching to help municipal, provincial, national and international governments.” The discussion paper that accompanies Turpin’s installation points to the challenges that accompany these goals, and they are, of course, well known within academia: increasing demands for “relevance” and knowledge mobilization, growing and growingly diverse student populations, and (although the discussion paper doesn’t quite frame it this way) the infusion of corporate values and corporate practices such that traditional governance models are waning in influence (Chan & Fisher, 2008; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004).
All faculties experience their own permutations of change pressures under these conditions, but the case may be made that the pressures for disciplines in the Arts and Humanities are particularly harrowing. The causes for this are many fold, and debatable, but the results are clear: declining enrollments continue to threaten many specialized research programs, particularly in the Humanities. Present efforts to re-envision or “renew” the BA in our own faculty are in part a response to this concern, but may also be considered as part of a broader imperative of a curricular change project to think about what disciplines are, and how they ought to fit together in a fundamentally altered political economy of higher education.
In their study of 25 institutions in five countries, Blackmore & Kandiko (2012) argue that despite the significance of change pressures, curriculum has “receive surprisingly little attention in research on higher education” (p. 3). When and where it is addressed, debates about required courses tend to consider neither the effectiveness of teaching practices, nor substantive re-articulation of program-level goals. Ultimately, the book concludes – and this isn’t terribly surprising – that successful change is more likely when its purpose is clear.
Five Themes Driving Curriculum Change
Blackmore and Kandiko identify five “curriculum characteristic themes,” – that is, concerns that were almost universally expressed among the institutions they studied and visited. These include:
- Research Intensiveness: including the relationships and benefits (or lack thereof) between research and teaching.
- Academic Literacies: centrally including writing, but also considering matters of plagiarism, digital literacy, and generic research skills.
- Interdisciplinarity: including emerging demands for interdisciplinarity on the parts of funding, bodies and the threats and opportunities this creates in and among traditional disciplines.
- Global Connectedness: including adjustments in pedagogy, curriculum and co-curricular activities to promote internationalized campuses and classrooms.
- Community Engagement: including civic engagement, community-based research, service learning, partnership strategies, and knowledge dissemination and mobilization.
Striking is the transdisciplinary nature of these themes, and hence the need to think beyond immediate departmental cultures if they are to be embedded in any faculty or university-wide mission.
The Importance of Collective Action
To illustrate some forms that purposeful change can take, Blackmore & Kandiko (2012) review many institutional efforts too address the (often overlapping) themes noted above. The case studies in the book are interesting reading, and creative fodder for those proposing change. Interdisciplinary, thematic clusters or courses, technology-enhanced student advising practices, attributes models, community-based research, and purposeful partnerships with other faculties are among the many initiatives described.
The book’s overarching message, however – at least in my mind – is that successful initiatives strike a balance between departmental autonomy to innovate, and a clear vision or message that compels (or preferably inspires) departments to think beyond their disciplinary interests and borders. The five key themes characterizing curriculum change all require the transcendence of particular disciplinary cultures or outcomes. They can only be achieved by coordinated efforts to articulate a program “vision” that is unique enough to instill pride and a sense of identity among the faculty and staff who deliver programs.
The message is timely. Change is unsettling at the best of times, but under the pressure of declining revenues, “curricular innovation” feels more like clawing for a place on a lifeboat in a storm. Sometimes crisis conditions are gussied up as “change inspiring innovation,” but that’s tough rhetoric to swallow when jobs, programs and entire departments are on the line. Under such conditions people tend to hunker down and conserve.
Polster (2015), based on a recent institutional ethnography in which she interviewed a range of institutional actors in (presumably) her university, argues that while academics are apt to vocally opposed the incursion of administrative mandates, their behaviours are ultimately compliant. Protests, where they occur are discreet and individualized: personal mandates to “work to rule,” subversive tactics, and willful ignorance of administrivia are strategies employed by faculty to lessen administrative hold over their work. Yet because such practices do not openly and collectively challenge the new Academic “Man” they are at best ineffectual, and at worst turn colleagues into competitors.
Polster proposes a number of strategies that faculty can employ to resist the corporatization of their work (and the public interest) but all, again, require collective action and voice. Successful curriculum change comes out of a process of sustained, focused, and inclusive inquiry (Blackmore & Kandiko, 2012; Hughes, 2007; Tight, 2012). Wouldn’t it be a fine thing if the BA Renewal process, through concerted cooperation, could transcend reactionary fears and offer a creative, progressive, broadly owned vision of what a BA should offer? In this sense, the BA Renewal is not simply a technocratic exercise; it is a public statement of the values that drive our research and teaching.
Blackmore, P. & Kandiko, C. (2012). Curriculum organisation and outcomes. In P. Blackmore & C. Kandiko (Eds.), Strategic curriculum change: Global trends in universities (pp. 43-61). London and New York: Routledge.
Chan, A., & Fisher, D. (Eds.). (2008). The Exchange University: Corporatization of Academic Culture. Vancouver, BC, CAN: UBC Press. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca
Hughes, J. C. (2007). Supporting curriculu assessment and development: Implications for the faculty role and institutional support. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 112, 107–110. doi:10.1002/tl
Polster, C., & Newson, J. (2015). A penny For your thoughts: How corporatization devalues teaching, research, and public service in Canada’s universities. Ottawa, ON, CAN: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca
Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2004). Academic capitalism and the new economy: Markets, state, and higher education. Balitimore: John Hopkins University Press.
 The value and future of the Arts degree on the labour market is under constant speculation. This (2013) Financial Post article cites weak returns for arts graduates, for example, while this recent US commentary argues that perennial arts-bashing is based on myth. (Good US data appears to be available here.) Consider multiple data sources, their biases, their lack of uniformity, and the range of disciplines covered by “Arts” in any given commentary and… well. Good, reliable data is hard to find.
 Also see Rizvi, F., and B. Lingard. 2010. Globalizing education policy. London: Taylor and Francis. Lauder, H., Young, M. Daniels, M. & Lowe, J. (Eds). Educating for the knowledge economy? Critical perspectives. New York: Routledge