Navigating “Pathways” and treading water


graphic by Tyler Herron

In last week’s Trinitonian, Evan Chambless described the Pathways curriculum as “an obstacle course … that has to be navigated while treading water with a blindfold on.” I understand how she feels.

As acting chair of the University Curriculum Council (UCC), I often find myself in the position of explaining and justifying Pathways requirements to students and faculty colleagues. This is ironic since I was not initially one of the strongest supporters of the new curriculum.

Despite my initial misgivings, Pathways has many strengths. The First Year Experience has done a terrific job of connecting faculty and students across departments, and it provides a solid foundation in university-level reading, writing and analysis. Students’ writing and presentation skills continue to improve each semester, and I suspect that this is partly because of the curriculum’s writing capacity (WC) and oral and visual communication (OVC) requirements.

However, any new curriculum has growing pains.

As Evan mentioned, it has been difficult for Pathways students to find courses. This is something that the UCC and Academic Affairs are attempting to remedy as quickly as possible. The problem of sporadically offered prerequisites is also troubling, and it is important for students to speak up when they cannot find the courses that they need.

Because the First Year Experience is concentrated in the fall semester, fewer upper-division courses are offered at that time, making it extra difficult for sophomores and rising juniors to find the classes they need.

The capacities are effective, but they might need to be tweaked. For example, the OVC requirement was included in Pathways because Trinity students need to know how to deliver an effective presentation using tools that will be used in the workplace beyond Trinity. Many professors who agree with the goal of the OVC believe that the current requirements take up far too much class time by requiring iterative rounds of presentations. Many also think that the digital literacy (DL) requirement needs to be modified to encompass a wider range of courses.

As for study abroad, you can count overseas courses as capacities, requirements of your major (if approved ahead of time by the department chair) and overall credits toward graduation. The tricky parts are the approaches and interdisciplinary cluster. These eight courses must be taken at Trinity because the university has to be able to prove to accreditors that a Trinity degree guarantees exposure to certain types of topics. We cannot really do that with courses taken at other institutions.

So, if most people agree that some things need to be fixed, why does it take so long to do so? Why do we have this “lengthy, paperwork-heavy process”? The answer is linked to accreditation.

Every 10 years, a group called Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) conducts an in-depth evaluation of our curriculum to make sure that we are actually doing what we said we are going to do. And it is essential that we keep our accreditation if you want to keep federal financial aid and if your degree is to have value in the coming years.

SACS rules require that faculty guide and control the curriculum. The people who serve on the UCC do this as service to the university on top of teaching and research responsibilities. Approximately once a month, the UCC meets for between 90 minutes and three hours to review every single form. This is why it takes so long for things to change.

It is not as simple as saying “OK. Let’s fix the OVC next Friday.” A faculty subcommittee must study what’s working, they must identify possible changes to the language, and they must propose changes to the UCC. These changes then have to be voted on by the entire faculty. Relatively minor changes can take anywhere between one or two years to implement.

If it sounds like I am blaming accreditation rules for the pace of curricular change, this is certainly not my intent. We want the faculty to be in charge of the curriculum! This approach promotes rigor and enhances academic freedom. But it is important for students to know that this deliberative process is not just something that makes sense to faculty; it is also a process that we are required to follow.

Evan mentioned feelings of powerlessness, and I urge you to claim your power as students. We are always going to be constrained by federal law, accreditation guidelines and the language in the Courses of Study Bulletin, but students can put more explicit pressure on the university to acknowledge these concerns. If you don’t speak up, your voices will not be heard. You have a new, SGA-appointed representative on the UCC. Emily Herbert is a voting member of the UCC, and her role is to represent the student perspective. Please let her know how you feel.

There is one thing that every Trinity student should know when attempting to navigate curricular requirements: those who work in Academic Affairs and the Registrar’s Office genuinely care about your situation.

During six years of service on the UCC, there are three people that I have seen at almost every single curriculum meeting, no matter how small: Fred Rodriguez, registrar, Jennifer Reese academic records analyst and Duane Coltharp, associate vice president for curriculum and faculty development. Unsung heroes of the curriculum that was and the curriculum that is being born, they are constantly trying to figure out how to implement the rules in a way that is fair, legal and consistent with the will of the faculty.

Often, it’s people in the Registrar’s Office who deliver bad news to students about courses that did not transfer or requirements that have not yet been satisfied. If this ever happens to you, please don’t shoot the messenger. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Ask them if they have any suggestions about what might be done to fix your situation. They probably will.
Pathways is not perfect, but we still have a curriculum that is the envy of many institutions. Just last week, Trinity was ranked one of the top ten universities in the country “” along with Harvard, Stanford and MIT “” by College Rankings Consensus.

Not content to rest on our laurels, we need to fix the things that aren’t working. If you keep speaking up and letting us know how you feel, we can make it even better.