Advancing the liberal arts curriculum

Wheaton helps students turn their potential and promise into rewarding professional careers. Through exciting experiential learning opportunities and individualized professional mentoring, Wheaton students chart their course for success.

by Karen McCormack Ph.D., the Dorothy Reed Williams Professor of the Social Sciences
Chair, Department of Sociology
Compass Curriculum Coordinator
Co-coordinator, Journalism Studies
Parent, Class of 2022

This year marks the start of Compass, a new general education curriculum that provides Wheaton students with many new possibilities and pathways. As the curriculum coordinator, a faculty member, and a Wheaton parent, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share some of the opportunities that this creates for your students and to tell you a bit about how the first 6 months have gone.

Let me start with the briefest of primers on Compass. The Class of 2024 will be the first class to graduate with the requirements of Compass, and while our current sophomores, juniors, and seniors continue with the earlier set of requirements, there are many ways that they also benefit from the new programs and options.

With Compass, students are introduced to the liberal arts in their first semester through their First Year Experience (FYE) courses, team-taught interdisciplinary courses that help students to apply two or more areas of study to a big question or problem. This focus on bringing multiple modes of analysis to any problem is designed to help students to think about their classes, and their education, more holistically. This fall, 30 new sections of FYE launched, with topics ranging from: “What Good is College?” (sociology, education) to “Between Good and Evil” (philosophy and psychology) to “Medical Mysteries” (chemistry, anthropology, and English).

These FYE courses help students to understand the necessity of taking classes across the disciplines regardless of the problems or issues that interest them. We know that students need some guidance in this process, and to help we have both a new advising model and many pathways through the curriculum that can provide a roadmap. Each first year student has a Mentored Academic Pathway (MAP) advisor, a faculty member who will be an advisor through all four years the student is at Wheaton. Each semester, students will reflect in writing on a series of questions that will form the basis of their advising conversations. These reflections, beginning with questions around the students’ strengths and concerns, will develop over the four years until they are writing to a potential employer or graduate school in their senior year about the value of the liberal arts to their ability to contribute to an organization.

The second component of the curriculum, the pathways, are opportunities for all of our students in every class year to benefit from Compass. Three honors and scholars programs now encourage all students to strive for excellence. The Eliza Wheaton Scholars program, the only one of these programs only available to the class of 2024 and beyond, looks quite like our traditional breadth requirements and rewards students (with the designation on the transcript and eligibility for Latin Honors) who fulfill classes across the College. An analysis of class choices by our first year class tells us that 74% of our first year students have already completed 4 or more of the 9 requirements for the EWS designation, most simply based on their interests. In advising appointments this semester, students will learn to track their progress toward completion of this program.

Two additional honors and scholars programs offer students the ability to develop in more specialized areas and are open to all class years. The Global Honors program prepares students to be leaders and to think and communicate beyond the boundaries of their home country. The Taylor and Lane Scholars program helps students develop skills to work in communities around issues of social justice and social change. Both of these programs combine coursework, in depth experiences, and reflection to demonstrate depth and breadth of engagement.

One additional element of Compass will roll out this spring and will be available to all students, LEAPS (Liberal Arts and Professional Success). These programs also combine coursework and experiential learning along with engagement from alumni and professional mentors to prepare our students for the world beyond Wheaton.

Compass offers pathways for student success and a structure to help students chart their own course through the curriculum. As students begin to own their educational experience, plan for their futures, and add to their toolkit, they become more confident in their ability to make good decisions and grow from each opportunity. We know that this will serve them well after Wheaton. And of course we will be there with them at every step as their advisors and faculty.

You may wonder whether Wheaton can truly be a liberal arts college without the traditional requirements. We believe that requirements are not what makes a liberal education. Rather, the critical thinking, writing, information literacy, ethical decision making, multiple modes of thinking, and habits of mind that students develop across our classes are at the heart of the liberal arts. This new structure allows for students to build their path through the curriculum in an intentional way guided by strong faculty and staff mentors.

In short, Compass does not represent a move away from the liberal arts. Rather, it introduces students to the liberal arts on day one. It represents our trust in our students’ abilities to make good choices and own their education. And it reflects our firm commitment to our students’ success not only in college but as lifelong learners.