Colgate’s revised Core maintains tradition while introducing fresh perspectives.
In the shared space of 113 Broad Street one night in mid-October, a group of students — some wearing pajamas, one wearing a bedsheet toga — gathered to rehearse Antigone in preparation for the next day’s performance, which was their midterm for Professor Meg Worley’s Conversations course. They contemplated their lines, scribbled on note cards, adjusted their positions, and smoothed out the bumps in their delivery.
The Core Curriculum inspires community in many ways at Colgate, with this scene being just one example.
Core Conversations is one of three components, along with Core Communities and Core Sciences, in the new curriculum that officially launched in the fall. In addition to the components (three courses completed in any sequence during the first two years), students must take three “areas of inquiry” courses and five “liberal arts practice” courses at any time in their four years.
The number of Core courses stayed the same in this revision — a process the University initiates every 10 years to evaluate the curriculum — and the emphasis on lifelong learning is unchanged, but as Colgate encourages students to think about thoughtful citizenship, there is now greater attention being paid to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“We’ve maintained the traditions of the Core in terms of trying to promote a holistic view of human knowledge and skills for citizenship at the same time that we’ve tried to make it more inclusive,” says Chris Henke, director of the Division of University Studies and Christian A. Johnson Chair in liberal arts studies.
Professor Maura Tumulty, Department of Philosophy chair, adds that the opportunity to reevaluate the Core Curriculum every 10 years is “genuinely pedagogically and intellectually exciting.” Not only do disciplines change, but also students are different and new faculty members bring fresh perspectives.
“It’s important to do this every 10 years because it’s the centerpiece of our curriculum at Colgate. It’s one of the things that makes us distinct,” says Henke. “If you have something that’s that important, you’ve got to take a look at it. Knowledge changes, and there’s constant innovation in scholarship, with new fields emerging and new interpretations. So you have to reassess and see what those new interpretations tell us and whether our existing understandings of what we’re telling our students still hold. In a lot of cases, it does, and that’s why we have these elements we’ve maintained over time — as well as elements that we’ve introduced, because we’re not standing still.”
Then and Now
Originating in 1946, the Core was founded as a way “to integrate the curriculum across both departmental and divisional lines,” according to Becoming Colgate by Jim Smith ’70. That mission continues today, and other similarities can be drawn to those early days.
In the wake of World War II, the University realized the importance of teaching students about other countries and cultures to increase their knowledge of the world.
“The Third-Century Plan, as I read it, is about taking the liberal arts tradition that is Colgate’s hallmark and building on that tradition in a way that responds to the world around us now, a world that is increasingly globalized, increasingly polarized, where information proliferates but is less reliable, and where you need the kinds of habits of mind that a liberal arts education can instill,” says Christian DuComb, who was a member of the Core Revision Committee and is associate dean of the faculty for faculty recruitment and development. It’s also important for our students to encounter “forms of knowledge from across the globe because our students — although they are still mostly domestic U.S. students — do come from just about everywhere. They’re a diverse bunch in terms of race, class, ethnicity, gender, et cetera. It is a much more diverse group of people than you would’ve found on this campus 100, or 50, or even 20 years ago.”
Today, the curriculum aims to facilitate students’ understanding of the world in which they live by redefining “community” and “communities” in ways that break out of geographic boundaries. The theme of community carries throughout the Core, but it is most explicitly addressed in the Core Communities component. As outlined in the course catalog, the communities explored in these classes take a variety of shapes that may include nations and societies; geographic regions; historical communities; transregional or transnational communities; communities of practice; or communities emerging through things, technologies, or markets. These courses emphasize three pedagogical goals:
1. Gain academic and empathetic understanding of the experience of people in communities that may be different from one’s own;
2. Understand the cultural, ethical, economic, and political significance of living in community; and
3. Explain dynamics of power that shape patterns of inclusion and exclusion within a community, with attention to the histories and contemporary implications of those patterns.
“Community isn’t a thing that just automatically happens or is eternal or is somehow genetic; it’s a thing that people do,” says Padma Kaimal, a member of the Core Revision Committee who was then-University Studies division director. “Communities are constructs. People achieve communities through processes of inclusion and also processes of exclusion. All people do them, all over the globe.”
Dominique Hill ’05, assistant professor of women’s studies, teaches a Core Communities class called Black Youth, which “thinks thematically about and across spaces that Black youth take up and engage in, with a focus on education, activism, and art,” she explains.
To delve into the layers of this community, some questions she poses in her class include: How do we look at the racial category of Black? How do we look at the population of youth? How do we look at that particular combination? “It’s having students sit with the complexity of this population,” she says. “How do we think about the nexus of Blackness, youthfulness, and criminality? How do those things run together to create both popular narratives about Black youth, inform Black youths’ actual lived experience, but then also, how do we turn an eye to what Black youth have to say about that and what they’ve been doing to live and survive amid these social dynamics?”
“With the opportunity of the new Core, I wanted to create a course that asks us to engage in community and think about how a community is built.”Dominique Hill ’05, assistant professor of women’s studies
Students in Hill’s class must hone their critical media literacy skills by examining news articles to think about how stories get told, what’s left out of those stories, and the political ramifications of storytelling. She also asks them to analyze, privately, their own assumptions and how they may have changed or stayed the same throughout the course.
“With the opportunity of the new Core,” Hill says, “I wanted to create a course that asks us to engage in community and think about how a community is built while also troubling the idea of community, such as the very notion of who gets to determine what is a community.”
Other Core Communities classes this fall included:
Wilderness with Professor Andy Pattison: A multidisciplinary engagement with the idea of wilderness and the lived experience of the people and communities that have been shaped and reshaped by the local, regional, and global forces involved in the conservation and preservation movements in the U.S. and internationally.
Pre-Modern Households with Professor Lynn Staley: Readings include philosophical, political, historical, and literary texts from approximately 800 BCE–1500 CE that offer pictures of rural, ecclesiastical, and aristocratic households, which prompt considerations of both the nature of power and the realities of gender, class, and race in relation to that power.
Haudenosaunee with Professor Chris Vecsey: Students examine the archaeology, culture, history, economics, religion, literature, arts, politics, law, and individual lives of the Haudenosaunee — Colgate’s closest Native American neighbors — from the period before European contact to the present day.
A Shared Experience
As alumni know, conversations that begin in Core courses can continue years later over lunch or spontaneously pop up under a reunion tent.
“The Core is something alumni remember,” says Xan Karn, university professor for first-year seminars. “They talk, in particular, about that sense of commonality; they feel like they were part of something that several thousand people went through with them. The questions that were raised and the search for answers, it built an intellectual family that alumni say has lasted past graduation.”
In the new Core Conversations class, students will have this shared experience as they all explore five texts: Antigone, the Tao Te Ching, Frankenstein, Braiding Sweetgrass, and Paris Is Burning.
“What we’re focused on is this sense that, on this campus, there will always be other people who are thinking about these exact books, ideas, writers, and places,” says Provost and Dean of the Faculty Lesleigh Cushing, “and to create the opportunity for cross-campus conversations. You could run into somebody in the dining hall who happens to be reading the same book in a totally different section and be able to talk about it.”
Tumulty adds: “You’re unified with your fellow students across class years in that endeavor, but also, as the new Core keeps going, you’re unified with increasing numbers of alumni who also will have done that.”
In choosing the five texts for Core Conversations, faculty members wanted to promote wide-ranging discussions, anchored in the past and directed toward the present. The term “text” is not limited to written work; it includes intellectual and creative expression from multiple disciplines — for example, Antigone is a play, Braiding Sweetgrass is a book of essays, and Paris Is Burning is a documentary. The works are from pre-modern and modern worlds as well as Western and non-Western cultures.
“Those of us on the Core Revision Committee realized that there would have to be a representative selection that would give students an introduction to some different knowledge systems,” explains DuComb.
The texts were determined after several professors presented their ideas — some of which were piloted during spring semester classes — and then the slates were put to a vote during a Core pedagogy retreat last May. “It was a really thoughtful, in-depth process,” Henke says.
With the texts serving as the backbone of the course, “each individual faculty member can put the flesh on the bones around it,” says Cushing.
“Everybody’s adding different kinds of connective tissue to find a path through it and around it that grabs them, that they can imagine getting students excited about,” adds Tumulty, who taught one of the spring pilot classes and is now teaching Core Conversations.
“Different people have found different themes, which is what we wanted,” explains Worley, who is the university professor for Core Conversations and thereby helped to implement this new component. She decided to take what she considered the best parts of her Core 151 Legacies of the Ancient World class and incorporate them into her Conversations class. Worley began the fall class readings with the Bible, which ushered in Antigone and discussions about civil law versus religious law. From there, the class read Plato, Confucius, and then the Tao Te Ching, followed by one Chinese graphic novel and a Chinese-American one. Worley concluded the semester with Paris Is Burning and Frankenstein. Meanwhile, she sprinkled the essays that comprise Braiding Sweetgrass throughout the semester; Worley used that book “almost as a clothesline” from which everything else hung.
“The new course does more with texts across time,” reflects Worley, “and how they are all in conversation with one another.”
Both Worley and Tumulty shake up the conventional classroom format by having students hold engaged conversations — actively listening to and bouncing ideas off of each other — while the professor acts as a moderator. When Worley teaches Confucius, students debate the nuances of the word “gentleman,” and in the Plato segment, they write a serious Socratic dialogue on the topic of whether a hot dog is a sandwich.
Grace Schrader ’27 is one student who took those questions back to her residence hall: “A lot of times, I’ll ask my roommates, ‘What do you think about this?’ Because it’s still in my head.”
Emma Senglaub ’25, who took Tumulty’s pilot Conversations class last spring, echoed the sentiment: “You learn from your peers instead of only the professor, because it can lead to conversations outside of class and it can lead to working with each other, even though you may have a different professor or be in a different section. It helps foster community and learning as a whole.”
Science and Society
In the previous version of the Core Curriculum, Scientific Perspectives examined how science interacts with society. The new Core Curriculum takes that one step further, and the Core Sciences courses “investigate the scientific process and the relationship between science and society, while engaging with the histories, inequities, or social differences that can be and have been associated with science,” explains Professor Doug Johnson, dean of academic and curricular affairs.
In his Psychology of Sport and Exercise class, Johnson has students read the history of the field and consider who is — and isn’t — represented. Introductory books, for example, tend to focus on philosophical backgrounds associated with Western traditions, and most people who are cited are white males, Johnson explains. His class has conversations about how “there were other people doing similar work who don’t get cited as being some of the founders of the field. Why? It’s not because of the science they were producing. It’s because of other social issues at the time.”
Johnson’s class can be described in three questions: What is science? Why is psychology, when it’s done right, a science? And what does it mean to talk about the psychology of exercise and the psychology of sport from a scientific lens?
“When you look at what exercise does for people, the data are excruciatingly clear that exercise is just generally positive,” he says. “It’s good for your heart, it lowers your risk of dying of cancer, it lowers your risk of having cardiovascular disease, and it also meaningfully lowers your risk of being depressed or being anxious.”
As the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of psychological and brain sciences, Johnson explains how the class relates to the Robert Hung Ngai Ho Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative: “You’re linking together the bidirectional relationship regarding how exercise can change how your mind works and yet your mindset can change how much you exercise — and/or how there can be two people with the same sets of physical abilities and one of them can perform better than the other in competition based on psychological skills.”
There can also be sociological and economic barriers to exercise, Johnson points out. Not everyone has affordable access to a gym or lives in an area where it’s safe to run outside. “There’s a problem getting people to exercise, and we’re talking about that too, but some of the problems with getting people to exercise are connected to socioeconomic factors,” he says.
Other Core Sciences classes this fall included:
Origami and Creative Coding (pictured) with Professor David Perkins. A first course in programming languages that uses origami as a metaphorical parallel to programming and generative art. Students learn and practice elementary programming techniques such as loops, conditionals, and functions, as well as the abstraction of objects.
Molecules, Energy, and Environment with Professor Anthony Chianese. When reduced to fundamentals, virtually all of our environmental problems deal with chemicals in the wrong place: noxious and reactive gasses in our atmosphere, insecticides and toxic metals in our ground and drinking water, and spilled nuclear waste. Coursework explores the chemistry behind some of our more pressing environmental dilemmas.
The Science of Music with Professor Ryan Chase. Where there is music, there is sound; and where there is sound, there is physics. Students explore the underlying principles of the musical phenomena, including acoustics of musical instruments, formation of scales, and perception of sound.
Welcome to the Intellectual Portal
Because Worley’s Conversations class was taught as a first-year seminar (FSEM) in the fall, those students have known each other since the start of their Colgate educations. They met during orientation, and they live in Hancock Commons — making it easier for them to come together for gatherings like a late-night rehearsal of Antigone.
“On this campus, there will always be other people who are thinking about these exact books, ideas, writers, and places.”Provost and Dean of the Faculty
The FSEM is “the intellectual portal that brings them into the community,” explains Karn.
Karn has helped develop a new piece of the Core called the Living and Learning Workshops, which he has been planning and implementing with Vice President and Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II. “The first aim of the workshops is to introduce an ongoing orientation experience,” Karn explains. “It’s also about community building; how we can help students to find their way on campus, to find opportunities that are important to them here while also giving them a sense of inclusion in what is a pretty diverse and dynamic community.”
The Living and Learning Workshop currently comprises four sessions:
1. Self-Awareness and Decision-Making
2. Holistic Health and Wellness
3. Identity, Campus Culture, and Interpersonal Violence
4. Citizenship and Community Involvement
The workshops are staffed primarily by those working within the Dean of the College division, who have expertise in these areas.
“This new Core aims to foster a more meaningful connection between academic and residential spaces,” Karn says. “The hope is that by keeping these cohorts together and moving them through the curriculum and through the residence halls together, a deeper set of bonds is created that allows for more meaningful conversations and, therefore, better learning outcomes.”
Schrader adds the student perspective, based on her Conversations class: “We’ve known each other since that very first week when we were all stressed and panicked and trying to meet people. We’ve seen everyone come together and grow and get used to being a first-year on a college campus. We’ve made those connections, and we’re able to have lighthearted moments in class, but also, people share some pretty serious things, and I think that’s what has made the discussion good, because we’re all putting in what we want to get out of it.”
Tell us about your experience with the Core and how it played a role in your life beyond graduation. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every 10 years, the University reevaluates the Core Curriculum.
The Mellon Foundation awarded a $100,000 discretionary New Presidents Grant to Brian W. Casey in 2017, which he dedicated to the Core revision process.
The Core was founded as a way to integrate the curriculum across both departmental and divisional lines.