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Signature Experience

SLU’s new core curriculum will help students find themselves and God in all things.

image of apple core with the words Signature Experience on top
 

Three years ago, Dr. Ellen Crowell, associate professor of English, asked members of the University Undergraduate Core Committee (UUCC) to dream big.

The group was tasked with creating SLU’s first-ever University-wide core curriculum. The curriculum would prepare students to be flexible, creative and critical thinkers. It also would nourish students’ minds, hearts and souls, as well as guide them to discerning how to use their talents for the good of others.

“It was a tremendous undertaking,” said Crowell, director of the University core and chairperson of the UUCC. “We weren’t reforming curriculum. We were creating an inspirational, distinctive approach to a Jesuit, liberal arts education from scratch.”

The collaborative process involved months of discussion among faculty, students, alumni, staff and administration on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid. After several drafts and formal feedback, SLU faculty and leadership approved the new 32-hour core curriculum in 2020. (See below.) Portions of the curriculum will be piloted for incoming students this fall, with a full rollout launching in fall 2022.

Fork in the Road

A core curriculum serves as the centerpiece of an undergraduate intellectual experience. The Higher Learning Commission, SLU’s accrediting body, mandates that an institution’s core be consistent with its stated mission and that the curriculum be assessable. Graduates need to know what the institution expects them to know regardless of major. Crowell said the new core meets these criteria.

Understanding why SLU lacked a uniform core curriculum until now requires going back more than 140 years.

When SLU’s first Jesuit president, Peter Verhaegen, S.J., took office in 1829, one of the administration’s first undertakings was to revise the curriculum to reflect the typical academic expectations of a Jesuit university. Rigorous courses in philosophy, ethics, languages, history and literature were designed to prepare students to become educators, politicians, philosophers and ministers.

By 1858, SLU became the first Jesuit university in the country to offer curricular choice. It developed a “commercial” track to prepare students to enter the workforce in such fields as medicine, engineering and business. Commercial, or professional, students took far fewer courses in the humanities than classical students.

Ellen Crowell
Crowell

The problem, Crowell said, was that every time a new college or school was founded within the SLU system, the college or school leaders developed their own approach to general education that suited their students.

“Our approach to general education has been wildly divergent,” said Crowell, an expert in curricular design. “Some professional schools require their students to take no more than 18 credit hours unrelated to their majors, while other colleges, such as the College of Arts and Sciences, require students to take up to 66 hours outside their majors.”

Freedom and Flexibility

Crowell said this disparate approach to general education created several challenges. SLU’s general education requirements have left little room for SLU students to explore subjects that, on the surface, seem unrelated to their major but could enhance their studies by expanding their ability to think beyond disciplinary boundaries.

SLU’s lack of a common core curriculum also made it challenging for students to change majors. If an engineering student, for example, wanted to switch from Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology to another college with a different core curriculum, the student would have to take additional general education courses to get in sync with the new major. This delayed graduation and added to tuition.

Jean Marie Cox, assistant vice president of enrollment and dean of admission, said the new core curriculum allows students greater flexibility to switch majors, double major or minor in other areas of interest without moving their finish line. It also gives transfer students greater clarity as to what courses will transfer in.

“The other exciting thing is that the core allows us to provide students with a wonderful, well-rounded liberal arts background no matter what major a student chooses,” she said. “This speaks to our Jesuit mission of educating the whole person.”

Clarity of Purpose

Another push for a uniform core came from faculty and students who felt the lack of a common core put a soft focus on what it means to study at a Jesuit university. Crowell said the new core, with its emphasis on philosophy, theology, collaboration and diversity, makes it crystal clear why an education at SLU is distinctive.

“Every student who encounters this curriculum will not be a Catholic or a Christian or a person of faith,” Crowell said. “But every student who goes through this curriculum will richly understand why it matters that they’re being educated within Jesuit, Catholic, faith-based traditions that purposefully, carefully guide students through intellectual experiences and simultaneously invite them to think about who they are and what they can bring to the table for the good of all. This core encourages
students to ask, ‘Who am I? Who is with me, and who do I serve? And, how can we collaborate to make this world a better place?’”

Dr. Michael Lewis, provost and the University’s chief academic officer, said SLU already does an excellent job of defining itself as a strong Jesuit academic institution. The core underscores this.

“You can get a degree in biology or history or education from a lot of different institutions,” he said. “This core illustrates why students choose to study at SLU. It provides an intellectual and spiritual foundation for their education, one that allows them to assess the moral and spiritual implications of their actions and life choices.”

David Suwalsky, S.J. (Grad A&S ’89, ’10), is vice president for mission and identity at SLU, and he served as an adviser to the UUCC. He appreciates how much more intentional the core makes the University’s mission of educating the whole person.

“We’re all here in order to eventually be from SLU, to be out in the world of neighborhoods and communities sharing our gifts and talents that have been refined by our SLU experience,” he said. “The core assumes engagement not only with ideas and values, but that the engagement will lead to greater interest in participating in the dynamism of God’s creation. We do this first by being in community with one another and sharing common experiences that will converse with the experiences we bring to SLU.”

Collaboration Meets Creativity

Crowell said the unified core will give students a greater sense of the diversity on campus because they will share a common experience with peers. Rather than staying in their lanes, students from all colleges and schools will be in the same classrooms for core courses — nurses will be talking to artists, engineers will be collaborating with philosophers.

Faculty also have an opportunity to grow. Crowell said the new curriculum is designed to foster cross-campus collaboration and innovation by offering faculty members opportunities to step into new configurations with colleagues. Faculty are encouraged to develop courses to meet the new core requirements and to meet the curiosity of students they previously would not have encountered. 

“The great hope for our core is that it inspires faculty to participate in teaching the new curriculum because they see how it allows them to shape the student experience across all of SLU’s colleges, schools and campuses,” Crowell said.

One University. One Core.

The core consists of 32 credit hours to be completed by all undergraduate students regardless of major, program, college, school or campus. The small, discussion-driven seminars will be led by interdisciplinary faculty. The curriculum includes the following components.

Ignite Seminar: Designed to introduce students to what makes teaching and learning at SLU distinctive and transformative

Cura Personalis Sequence: Designed to launch students on a path of reflection and self-discovery by exploring fundamental questions of identity, history and place

Theological and Philisophical Foundations: Designed to engage students in “ultimate questions” regarding the meaning of human existence, faith and human destiny

Eloquentia Perfecta: Designed to teach eloquence in written, oral and visual communication

Ways of Thinking: Designed to expose students to a breadth of disciplines and intellectual traditions, a hallmark of a Jesuit liberal arts education

Collaborative Inquiry: Designed to give students the opportunity to integrate and collaborate with peers on information learned earlier in the core and through other coursework

Equity and Global Identities: Designed to help students understand the world in which they live so they can better advocate for justice and act in solidarity with those who are disadvantaged or oppressed

— By Marie Dilg

Universitas, the award-winning alumni magazine of Saint Louis University, is distributed to SLU alumni, parents and benefactors around the world. The magazine includes campus news, feature stories, alumni profiles and class notes, and has a circulation of 129,200.