Season 5 - Episode 547
Baylor’s rigorous core curriculum was recognized this fall as one of only 22 in the nation to earn an “A” rating from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. On this Baylor Connections, Blake Burleson shares why Baylor’s core curriculum is so highly regarded, how it is shaped and what it instills in students. Dr. Burleson serves as senior lecturer in religion and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, specializing in world religions.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education research in student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking core curriculum with Dr. Blake Burleson. Baylor's rigorous core curriculum was recognized this fall as one of only 22 in the nation to earn an, A, rating from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. On this Baylor Connections, Dr. Burleson shares why Baylor's core curriculum is so highly regarded, how it is shaped and what it instills in students. Dr. Burleson serves as senior lecturer in religion and as an associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. He teaches in the Department of Religion with a specialization in world religions, and he's with us today here on the program. Dr. Burleson, I know it's a busy time of year, I appreciate you taking the time to jump on and share with us today.
Blake Burleson:Derek, you're so welcome and glad to be a part of the program, thanks for inviting me.
Derek Smith:Well, glad to have you here. Have you ever been invited to be on a podcast to talk core curriculum before or is that a new one for you?
Blake Burleson:Yeah, this is a new one for me. I think I've been on a few podcasts, but not on the course. So I'm glad to share the news on what we think is something important at Baylor.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. And as we mentioned, this fall, the news that Baylor was only one of 22 at schools in the nation to earn an, A, rating. Give us, if you would, a bit of a core curriculum 101, when we talk about that, how do you define that?
Blake Burleson:Sure. Well, so let's start with the basics. Undergraduates at any university or college will take courses in one of three areas. One, is the core curriculum, sometimes referred to as general education. The second, is their major, such as biology or accounting or anthropology. And then the third are electives, and those are courses that are not required, but are simply chosen because of the student's interest. At Baylor, we have about 15 or so bachelor's degrees, and all of those programs have or include a core curriculum. At Baylor, the core for each degree makes up about 50 of the 120 or more hours for the degree. So in short, the core is the general education that all students take no matter what their major is.
Derek Smith:Who plays a role in shaping this? We'll talk about a little bit later on, we reviewed ours in 2019.
Blake Burleson:It's a tradition in the academy that the faculty determined the curriculum. So no course, whether it fits into the core or to the major or minor or program, is approved unless it's developed by and reviewed by and ultimately voted into the catalog by the faculty. Each academic unit, such as the College of Arts and Sciences or the School of Business or School of Education, has a curriculum committee that participates in the shared governance of the curriculum. And so that's true of the core, the core in a sense is just like any other part of the curriculum.
Derek Smith:How often is that reviewed?
Blake Burleson:Well, on one level, it's reviewed every 10 years. In fact, our entire curriculum is reviewed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, SACSCOC, every 10 years. That process however, is very different from what we did in the College of Arts and Sciences in reviewing and changing our core. In fact, as far as I can determine, the university had never had such an extensive revision to our core, ever. And perhaps for good reason, since most of the attempted revisions of the core curriculum at a university end up failing and often failing miserably.
Derek Smith:Why is that?
Blake Burleson:Well, because it's fraught with political issues related to many departments and many different faculty members and programs and it involves so much of the students basic, it's a third or a half of the student's curriculum. So these typically fail and ours succeeded, but we also made the pledge that, going forward, we won't take another 150 years to revisit it, we plan to revisit this every 10 to 15 years. That's the pledge we've made and anticipate that will be what happens.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Blake Burleson here on Baylor Connections. And Dr. Burleson, I'm curious, let zoom out just a little bit here. So many of our listeners, Baylor alumni, probably benefited from Baylor's core curriculum and knew they had a lot of great classes, a lot of great professors in across different departments on campus. But I'm curious, help us understand, in the context of higher education, what makes Baylor's core curriculum unique? And particularly, maybe if you were talking to other colleagues or if colleagues from other institutions reviewed our curriculum, what would stand out to them as being distinct, or even if we're just talking about ACTA as they're reviewing a lot of great universities with their core curriculums?
Blake Burleson:Thank you for that question, Derek, I think it's an important one and it allows me to dive in a little bit here and go into some of the details. Basically, what is distinct here about Baylor's core curriculum, there're several things, really four that I want to mention, probably are more, but let me just stick with four. The first thing I think that is somewhat unique, is the fact that faculty of all rank, from graduate students to full professors, teach core curriculum classes. So in many universities, it's rare that a tenure track professor would teach general education. At Baylor, all of our faculty, at least faculty of all ranks teach, in fact, it's fairly equal across the board, as many full-time professors are teaching it as you would find adjuncts or graduate students. That's the first thing. Second, the core is unified. So students take the same core in the College of Arts and Sciences, irrespective of their degree. That means a student getting a BA in history will take the same core as the student who's getting a BS in biology. A student who's taking a BFA in theater will be taking the same core as a student who's taking a BS in anthropology and so on. So that's the College of Arts and Sciences, but beyond that, with degrees outside of the College of Arts and Sciences, for example, the BBA, Bachelor of Business Administration, while that core is not exactly the same as the one in the College of Arts and Sciences, it's largely the same. There's a mapping on from other academic units to our core, so in a sense, we can say that the core is unified across the university. The third thing that I would mention, is the diversity and inclusion elements that are embedded within the courses of the core. So at many universities, there's one course on diversity, and that's required of all students to take that. At Baylor, we don't have one course on diversity, but rather we have elements embedded into multiple courses within the core that have these inclusion elements within it. So let me just give you one brief example to show you how that would work. We have a common core course that's called American Literary Cultures, and that's required of almost all of our students at Baylor. So in addition to reading well known Anglo-American authors like Emily Dickinson or Nathaniel Hawthorne, students are also reading Latinx, African American, Asian American, and Native American authors, American Literary Cultures. So diversity is embedded in that course, and there are multiple courses like that. And then finally, let me mention one other distinctive. We have three co-curricular elements to our core. One is well known, it's one of the oldest traditions at Baylor, my brother Burleson, the university chaplain directs this. And it's chapel so all students take chapel where we worship together, that's a co-curricular part of our core. A second, is that, our students must attend, during their four years, 12 creative arts experiences. And those are experiences like a play, a film screening, an arts exhibition, or a concert. So they attend 12 of those. And then third, we have a civic engagement component that puts students out into the community in service that relates to their academic vocation or the course they're taking. For example, a major in professional writing might assist a nonprofit in developing their website. A ministry student might serve a local church as a youth minister and so on. So those are four, what I think are distinctive elements, it's not that no other universities have those, but probably very few do.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Blake Burleson. I want to ask you, as you described some of that, I can almost hear it tying back into the Baylor mission as we talk about preparing students for worldwide leadership and service. Maybe I'm in part answering this question, I'll ask, but as you talk about the goals of that core curriculum, what are those, when you think about the students that we want to send out into the world?
Blake Burleson:What are the goals, so there really are three goals that we have for our core curriculum. The first is, that the student should acquire shared knowledge. And you're exactly right, Derek, that this relates to the mission of the university, which is to produce leaders for democratic societies and for faith communities. Baylor's motto, [foreign language], for the church, for the state, is where that ties in. Baylor graduates, no matter what their profession, go out with a knowledge of US history, our constitution, the Christian Church, and its scripture and so on. So this shared knowledge that we expect of all of our graduates is one goal. The second goal, is to attain liberal education skills. So we're thinking here about analytical thinking, creative thinking, scientific reasoning, written and oral communication skills, social and political awareness and so on. These are skills that are relevant for any profession, they transcend professions. No matter what field you're in, you need to think clearly, you need to communicate effectively, and you need to get along with people, so these skills are important. Third, and this certainly relates to our mission as well, and that's that we hope that within the core, we cultivate academic, moral, and spiritual virtues for our students. So we want students to embody these virtues such as compassion, empathy, respect, rigor, and so on. It's not enough just to be knowledgeable about a subject or proficient in a skill, but we think character is important.
Derek Smith:Dr. Burleson, you mentioned, we talked earlier, there's a lot of great universities out there, really good ones that Baylor is part of the Higher Education Academy with, but only 22 of those institutions, Baylor being one, got an, A, rating for their core curriculum. I think you've described that, but I want to ask you specifically, why do we rate so highly that an independent organization like ACTA put Baylor among the elite of the elite, really?
Blake Burleson:And we've consistently received that and I think it is certainly a part of our history. As you mentioned, we're one of 22 in the United States that received the, A, rating. But also, we're one of two that are in the research one category that received the, A, rating, and that might be even more important, the other school was the University of Georgia. The ratings are given, as you mentioned, by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. It's an organization that looks at the core curriculum for the BA and the BS degrees at universities across the country, and they make their rating, and we earn high marks like other universities that earn the high marks because our core is broad. And so to get the highest mark, you have to have six of seven essential liberal arts and science areas included within your core. These areas are writing literature, foreign language, United States history, economics, math, and natural science. Now, let me add one thing here, and that is that, in some ways, we really should get an A+ because if the rating looked at all degrees, not just the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science, if they looked at all 15 of our degrees, they're basically seeing the same thing.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Blake Burleson. And Dr. Burleson, you mentioned the redesign of the core curriculum implemented in 2019. Obviously, you look with this approach that you've described has remained the same even with the changes that were made. And I'm just curious, what are the biggest elements of that change in terms of bringing everyone under a shared vision and synthesizing all the different parts of this to ensure that the student outcomes and those distinctives remained a part of whatever tweaks were made?
Blake Burleson:This is one I could take about three or four hours talking about.
Derek Smith:I'm sure.
Blake Burleson:It was actually a seven year process, believe it or not, think about that. From the formal beginnings of it until the approval and implementation, it was seven years, which sounds ridiculous, but higher education moves slowly at times. There were really four phases, I'll be brief, but it gets into how it went. The first phase was discussion about, really should we revisit the core and do we need to change it? And after a lot of meetings with a lot of faculty, the answer was a resounding, yes, we need to revisit this. The second phase was very important, and it was to determine what the core should achieve, but what are we trying to achieve with the core? And we had a committee of faculty members that developed a vision document that was eventually unanimously approved by the College of Arts and Sciences Council of Chairs. The third phase was the most difficult, the most fraught, about a year and a half, it was a 40 member task force of faculty that were assigned the task of determining, based on the vision, what the size and the content of the core would be. And we basically rebuilt the whole house, we removed everything and started from scratch. This was a very political process, and there were 100s of meetings over a year and a half that included input from all 600+ faculty members in arts and sciences. The end result was remarkable, in that, we had a 20 to 4 vote in the council of chairs to adopt the new core. And then the fourth phase was the implementation, which was not easy, it was like turning a large ship in the ocean. You don't just turn it overnight, we had a process led by 10 committees and 100s of faculty that worked on that. And thank goodness it occurred before COVID hit.
Derek Smith:I'm sure.
Blake Burleson:So we got it just in time.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Blake Burleson. And Dr. Burleson, as we wind down, this ties into so many different elements of the Baylor experience. We recently saw that Baylor had once again made the US News top 10 undergrad experience and that core curriculum plays a role in that. And we've also got world class faculty as well teaching. As we talk about these courses and their goals, you mentioned faculty and their approach. Just curious, what does it mean to you to see that combination come together here at Baylor? You and your colleagues approaching a curriculum that's recognized among the best, the magic that happens in the midst of that?
Blake Burleson:I think the core is important as really the single most important component of one of the university's four pillars. And that pillar is transformational undergraduate education. So if we think about students, not so much as consumers, but rather as products, they are the products of the university. We are engendering students to go out, and whether the student becomes a physician or an engineer or an accountant or scientist or minister, lawyer, social worker, a teacher or so on, their undergraduate education empowers and challenges them to be agents of change in the world around them. What they learn, is that the education they're imbibing, ingesting is not finally about them. Yes, they can use it to make a living and they can use it to make a life, but in the end, their education, they will discover is really about others and about transforming others. As they transform themselves with a mentor with their faculty, we expect them to go out and do very important things. So in the end, when I think about what our country needs, we need individuals that are not only knowledgeable and skillful, but that are good people and that are people that care about the fellow citizens and how to be good neighbors in this place that we call home.
Derek Smith:That's a great description, alumni definitely doing that. Well, Dr. Burleson, I really appreciate you taking the time today to share with us maybe about a topic a lot of us haven't thought as much about, but I think we'll find even more pride in our core curriculum after people get to dig into this a little bit. So thank you so much for sharing.
Blake Burleson:Derek, it's my pleasure, man. Anytime, I'm glad to chat with you whenever you want to.
Derek Smith:Well, that sounds great, we'll have to do it again here. Dr. Blake Burleson, senior lecturer in Baylor's Department of Religion, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith, a reminder, you can hear this and other programs online @baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.