Political Thoughts About Curricular Revision

January 1, 2002

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of Newsletter articles on innovative ideas for changing the undergraduate music curriculum. The series is the result of a panel discussion that took place at the 2000 CMS National Conference in Toronto.

During the 1999-2000 academic year, the Ithaca College School of Music revised its music education curriculum to include a total of five more credit hours. Spurred by new regulations established by the New York State Board of Regents, our revision accommodated the Board's demand that all education programs in New York include a minimum of 100 hours of observation and pedagogy prior to student teaching experiences, an increase for our programs of approximately fifty hours. While the faculty at Ithaca debated the wisdom of the Regents' mandate, we had little choice other than to add these credits, unfortunately at the very time that we were seeking to reduce credit requirements in all degree programs.

This recent example demonstrates the squeeze put on college music programs by requirements in music education, so often impressed upon departments and schools by external legislative agencies. It begs the question of how curricula may adapt to and cope with such changes. At Ithaca, the School of Music opted to reduce elective credits, both in general studies and music course work. Although fortunately not the case with Ithaca's action, such an expedient move might bring a curriculum to a point of opposition with NASM guidelines for course distribution. The larger question posed by this forum suggests that internal innovation may be necessary in order to maintain the integrity of our curricula in the face of such externally motivated changes. As a music theorist, I suppose this forum would logically call upon me to propose specific changes in that subdiscipline of the music school's curriculum. Certainly there are obvious adaptations that come to mind, many of which have been implemented by various programs around the country: reducing semesters of music theory and aural skills study, removing fundamentals from the core curriculum, combining written and aural courses, and integrating all musicianship coursesmusic theory, music history, aural skills, and keyboardinto one set of comprehensive courses.

While any such curricular changes may be possible for a given department or school, I am more concerned at this point with the political approaches that academic bodies will need to discuss before affecting successful internal restructuring. First, I would suggest that there are three likely models for curricular review that might lead to some innovative change:

1. An incremental approach through the traditional curriculum committee process. This may be the most cumbersome, due to entrenched procedures and political issues within the committee, but it may also be the most effective for ensuring faculty-wide consensus.

2. Autonomous control by curriculum committee or other similarly empowered body. Such a model would require faculty to accept the changes established by the committee, similar to a binding arbitration procedure. This may be the most efficient model, since it could proceed without requiring broader faculty consensus during its work, yet its outcomes are clearly the most politically volatile.

3. A steering committee that functions like a curriculum committee, but outside the traditional organizational structure, seeking consensus and approval from departments and faculty. Such a middle-ground approach may be the most attractive, yet it requires significant faculty support at all stages of the process. Additionally, its ad hoc status renders the committee ultimately powerless within the organizational structure; results will depend on full-faculty approval.

Two likely approaches exist within the models outlined above:

1. A more traditional approach calls for considering the current curriculum in light of credit reduction, combination of courses, and elimination of some othersin order to make room for external mandates and internal curricular innovation. Such an approach may prove to be more popular and may more easily achieve faculty consensus, but the process itself may prove agonizingly slow compared to the incremental results yielded.

2. A more comprehensive and radical approach starts with the essential mandates established by state regulations and NASM guidelines. A committee then builds the curriculum from that base up, following the philosophy of the faculty. While such an approach may seem attractive, due to its lofty goals, it may also prove very difficult to achieve consensus in discussions of courses, credits, and general balance of sub-disciplines within the curriculum.

I imagine most readers know of examples of all three governance models and both curricular review processes, and undoubtedly there are others. From my understanding of relative successes at various institutions, it seems clear that no single combination of model and approach will satisfy the needs of all departments and schools. Clear, however, is the need for faculties to discuss at length which will best suit them.

Once a committee is constituted and charged, yet another task remains, one that is probably more difficult than choosing a governance model or curricular change process. In fact, I believe that a committee charged with developing new curricula must maintain an active awareness of its own ethnography, as well as that of the entire faculty. Diversity of membership related to department or sub-discipline, longevity, and academic background, results in a committee ripe with biases that may conflict with each other. Whether verbalized or left unspoken, these biases may prevent a committee from reaching consensus, and they could lead the committee toward eventual outcomes that are not supported by faculty colleagues. Some discussion at the outset of deliberations should occur to expose such biases, to reveal where each member is "coming from," and to make possible later discussions that may tread precariously on members' turf. Perhaps such confrontations of individual and collective biases may lead to a more open process, one that yields innovative solutions for a curriculum supported by consensus.

A good friend of mine in the humanities once remarked that we in music must have an easy time effecting change and maintaining consensus since "we're all musicians." Most readers here would probably agree with me that such a statement strays far from the truth. If, however, we can be open about our biases and judicious in our governing processes, we may be more successful in our attempts to innovate.

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