Nov. 8, 2006
Cornell's curriculum evolves to support, teach and reap the benefits of growing diversity
Thought the Department of German Studies was dedicated to the exclusive study of the language, literature and culture of Germany? Or that English literature was confined to poetry and prose of the British Isles?
Not anymore. As people become more connected across the globe, departments throughout Cornell are evolving to offer courses that are more culturally inclusive -- and more relevant to today's world -- than ever. The result is a new atmosphere of cross-disciplinary collaboration, with students and researchers benefiting from a more open flow of ideas and perspectives.
Compare, for example, the selection of courses offered to English students at Cornell in the 1960s with those offered today.
Shakespeare was well covered 40 years ago; so were the other big names from the British Isles, with perhaps a sprinkling of early U.S. authors.
Today, the standards -- Chaucer, Milton, Lawrence, Woolf -- are still there, but they share the curriculum with a host of new (or newly recognized) voices. Authors originating in Caribbean, Native American or Latino/Latina culture and from English speakers in Africa, Asia and elsewhere are taking their places in the canon and on the course list.
Universities nationwide have made similar changes, but Cornell's English department was a leader in recruiting and hiring faculty with diverse areas of expertise. And that department's story is just one example of an ongoing evolution across the College of Arts and Sciences and the university as a whole, an evolution driven by both students and faculty who want their campus to more accurately address the realities of today's world.
It's a change that speaks to the university's mission, says Peter Lepage, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "A central goal of our liberal arts curriculum is to broaden the perspectives of our students," he notes." That means giving students an understanding of not only a particular niche of academia, but also -- and perhaps more importantly -- a sense of how that area is relevant in today's increasingly global and interconnected world.
The trend has been in the works for decades. Some cross-cultural programs came into being following the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and have been refined over the years. In 1972 the Women's Studies Program was established, later to be replaced by the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Program. Other programs have grown as well: the American Indian Program; Jewish studies, American studies and Latino studies.
On the growth of Latino studies at Cornell, Vilma Santiago-Irizarry, director of the program, notes that the roots of change were planted in the 1960s with Puerto Rican activism. Today, "we're very much embedded in the real world, so that the most publicly contentious issue today is immigration."
Santiago-Irizarry's point about existing in the real world (she also talks about Latino students being "significant participants and actors in the United States") is a driving force behind much of the evolving curricula across campus.
The College of Human Ecology, for example, now addresses racial and economic stressors as a key to the study of families with such courses as Parent-Child Development in African-American Families. In 2005 a course called Racial and Ethnic Differentiation was added to the curriculum. And the college's Urban Semester Program focuses on multicultural issues.
Changes in the College of Engineering are less pronounced, but still apparent in such courses as Information Technology in Sociocultural Context and Ethical and Social Issues in Engineering. The College of Architecture, Art and Planning addresses diversity issues with such courses as Inequality, Diversity and Justice; Latin American Cities; and The Architecture of India. The Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences and of Industrial and Labor Relations have broadened their outlooks as well.
Back in Arts and Sciences, a strengthened attention to issues of diversity means that faculty in departments from history and sociology to comparative literature and German studies are studying the roles that race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation and other influences play in the context of their field.
As a result, says history professor Mary Beth Norton, today's students are much better prepared to be members of a global community than their counterparts when she came to Cornell 34 years ago.
"When I arrived we had no African historian, no African-American historian, no historian who taught Native American studies," she says. "Now we do." Newer additions include a scholar of Eastern European history and one specializing in South Asian studies.
In the English department, Professor Laura Brown has seen the same trend. "Cornell was one of the first to really aggressively add faculty in areas of ethnic American literature," says Brown. And while English literature used to address almost exclusively the literature of England, it now encompasses English-language literature from around the world.
Even the students who choose to focus on Shakespeare or Milton benefit from the broader course selection, Brown adds.
"Whatever they end up taking, the curriculum gives students a picture of what the English department does," says Brown. "If they see the course offerings they realize that there's literature written in those areas. It gives them a broader sense, a more diverse sense of what English literature is."
German studies, too, is about more than German. Leslie Adelson, professor and former department chair, says that any comprehensive study of that country and its people must consider the influences of immigration, ethnic minorities and cultural exchange as well.
"We have a strong tradition of teaching the German canon, but we also have a strong tradition of approaching German culture, literature and film in a variety of interdisciplinary and innovative ways," Adelson says. The 20th-century curriculum, of course, gives serious attention to the rise and devastating effects of fascism; it also addresses the strong influence of Turkish migration and of black German, Jewish German and Russian minorities.
Even sociology and anthropology, areas that have traditionally looked at culture across boundaries of geography and time, have broadened their scope. The Center for the Study of Inequality, established in 1999 and currently residing in the sociology department, offers a new way of approaching global issues of cultural interactions and injustices. The center's associated inequality concentration (established in 2002 and supported in part by Atlantic Philanthropies and the Office of the Provost) is popular among undergraduates interested in careers in government service, policy work or related jobs in nongovernmental organizations, as well as those who want to go on to graduate work in anthropology, economics, government, history, law, literature, philosophy, psychology, public policy or sociology. By offering a core course in inequality that brings in guest speakers from many social science disciplines, and then by directing students toward elective offerings across the university, the concentration is inherently interdisciplinary.
Over 100 undergraduates from five of Cornell's colleges have concentrated in inequality to date, and another 90 students are currently in the program. "There's a broader recognition that there are huge global disparities, and any educated citizen must understand them and come to terms with them," says the director of the center, Associate Professor of Sociology Steve Morgan. The program attracts students who want to change the world, he adds, and its goal is to give them the understanding and tools to tackle the big problems more effectively.
In anthropology, assistant professor Kurt Jordan says researchers and scholars are looking at cultures less as bounded entities; taking the degree to which they're influenced by cross-cultural interactions more into account.
Jordan also works with the American Indian Program (AIP), which offers courses that relate to Native American culture from disciplines across the university. "AIP has brought a lot of people together, from hard science to law," Jordan says. The program is growing rapidly, involving a wider and more diverse cross-section of students and faculty every year.
Near Eastern Studies (NES) is also evolving rapidly to keep up with student interest and current affairs.
"When I arrived [the Near Eastern Studies department] was primarily an ancient studies and medieval studies department," said Kim Haines-Eitzen, professor of NES and department chair. In her nine years at Cornell, Haines-Eitzen said she has seen the department maintain its expertise in ancient and medieval studies, but also become more current and relevant to today's world. "There's a lot more consistent diversity [in the courses offered] in any given semester," she says. "We really try to make sure the curriculum has courses on all different subject matter. That's how we design it."
The curricula in disciplines like NES and Latin American Studies are also shifting to give more attention to the issues that affect a region and comparing the dynamics with other areas of the world that face similar issues -- a contrast to the more limited focus of area studies courses in the past. A seminar on the drug trade, for example, may look at poppy farming in Afghanistan and coca trafficking in Colombia, comparing social factors in each region and giving students a broader picture of the problem as a whole.
That approach draws students and researchers from across the disciplines to the area studies departments, says David Block, acting director of the interdisciplinary Latin American Studies Program; and each new perspective contributes to the program as a whole.
And growing diversity within the classroom, the educators agree, is often a powerful learning tool on its own.
"Many of our students come from really varied international background. It's not uncommon for me to teach a course in which the students come from a diverse U.S. background, and also from countries such as Mexico, Turkey, Ukraine, Korea, Ireland and even Germany," German scholar Adelson says. "And sometimes the ones from Germany learn the most."
We invite your comments on this story and will post your thoughts here. Only signed e-mail will be considered.