Core combines timeless courses and fresh ideas

Years of faculty discussion help update storied curriculum

The debate that led to the creation of a new, two-quarter “Civilizations” sequence at the University of Chicago on gender and sexuality centered around a couple of big questions: Why doesn’t the College's Core curriculum examine gender and sexuality in a more sustained and rigorous manner? If gender and sexuality are fundamental categories of human existence, isn’t it important to include them as part of any study of civilization?

It took two years and numerous lunches and committee meetings with the faculty who teach in Gender Studies to bring the idea for the new sequence to fruition, according to Prof. Linda Zerilli, director of the University’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.

“You had people coming from every imaginable discipline to put this together,” says Zerilli, the Charles E. Merriam Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the College. She adds that the new Civ proposal was spurred by strong interest among numerous professors who teach in the Gender and Sexuality Studies program, but base their work in other disciplines.

“We thought, wouldn’t it be great if you had students learning about the fundamental importance of gender and sexuality as analytic categories, and then take the questions that they learn to ask in our Civilizations sequence into their other Core courses?”

Faculty are the driving force behind the Core curriculum, deciding which books get read and what courses should be elevated or cast aside. But creating a new Core sequence comes with extensive debate, discussion, and revision. The Core’s intent has remained consistent since it was established: to introduce UChicago students to the tools of inquiry used in science, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences, providing a general vocabulary that current students share with their peers and alumni of the College.

John W. Boyer, dean of the College, who along with the Collegiate Masters, has ultimate approval over new courses, says the bar for creating a new Core sequence is high.

“Changes to the Core are the subject of a great deal of faculty conversation, usually friendly, but always quite vigorous,” Boyer says. That’s because the faculty generate the Core, “from the bottom, up,” and their interests and needs are always changing.

Since its formation in the 1930s, the Core curriculum has changed dramatically, as faculty have debated the value of certain texts, shaped and reshaped the course offerings, and sometimes added to them or paired them down.

“We estimate that every ten years something like a quarter or more of the faculty at the University change as people come, go, retire, die, and new faculty come in with different ideas of what they want to teach,” Boyer says.

Ever-evolving nature of the Core

Civilizations, or Civ for short, is one of a handful of multi-quarter Core sequences that students can take to fulfill the University’s undergraduate curriculum requirements. Most Civ courses focus on the history of a geographic area, like Europe, the United States, Africa, East Asian, or Latin America, but a few are structured around themes, such as religion and music. Not every Civ course is offered every year, but this year there are at least 11 available for students to fulfill the requirement.

Longtime UChicago faculty say the addition of the Gender Studies Civ is emblematic of the ever-evolving nature of the Core.

If you attended the University in the 1990s, for example, you may have enrolled in classes like Form, Problem, and Event, or Wealth, Power, and Virtue. Neither course exists today, but the analytic themes they address live on in course sequences like Media Aesthetics and Power, Identity, and Resistance.

Faculty discussion is key to every decision about the Core, Boyer says, and the Core staffs have ultimate approval over revisions to their reading lists. Moreover, every year, a group of faculty representing each Core sequence meets to update the course syllabi and debate which texts should be included or put aside.

Larry McEnerney, a senior lecturer and the director of the University’s writing program who has taught many Hum and Sosc courses, says those yearly faculty meetings are key to defining the vision of the Core courses.

“People are in these heated discussions, arguing and disputing and debating which books would be the most useful, which books would be the most powerful, and people who passionately wanted to teach a book would defend it against people saying no,” he said. “That’s where I get a terrific sense of the pedagogy of the course.”

Charting a new course

Boyer says groups of faculty also drive the creation of new Core sequences, either to replace existing sequences that they believe are no longer useful, or to fill a void in existing course offerings. Successful new sequences stem from collaboration among faculty from several different departments, and require that enough professors would be willing to teach the new courses over more than just one year.

To create the Gender and Sexuality in World Civilizations course, Zerilli says faculty from several different departments met six times in the fall of 2012 to hammer out a syllabus, which includes both Western and non-Western texts that consider the place of gender and sexuality in culture, politics, religion, and economics. Some of the curriculum is inspired by Problems in the Study of Gender and Problems in the Study of Sexuality, two introductory courses for the Gender Studies major, but the Civilization course also breaks new ground.

Nia Sotto, a fourth-year in the College majoring in Gender Studies and Comparative Human Development, decided to pick up the major after taking an introductory course and seeing its impact on her other coursework. She says the Civilizations sequence could benefit students across majors who otherwise wouldn’t have time in their schedules for a Gender Studies elective.

“We pull from disciplines within and beyond the social sciences and humanities,” she says. “Gender studies courses both contextualize and provide a comprehensive overview of issues that come up in numerous classes at the University.”