IL requirement replacing cluster courses

Class of 2021 will not take clusters

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Muhlenberg will no longer be requiring its sophomores to take two integrative learning classes called Clusters. Instead, it will be instilling a new General Academic Requirement, called Integrative Learning, beginning with the Class of 2021.

The Integrative Learning (IL) designation is given to select classes which study a single topic through multiple lenses, including different ideological, epistemological, disciplinary, and/or methodological ways of thinking. Courses which will meet the IL distinction include “linked” courses, which are two classes on the same topic, similar to Clusters, select Muhlenberg Integrative Learning Abroad (MILA) programs and a few Service/learning or Community Engaged courses. On Capstone there are seven courses with the IL requirement listed for Spring 2018, and more are to follow.

Like any other GAR, students can take as many IL courses as they would like, and they have from second semester freshman year up until the end of junior year to fulfill the requirement. Clusters, on the other hand, were required to be taken sophomore year. This rigidity in structure was something the Academic Policy Committee (APC) was trying to move away from, explained Dr. Kimberly Heiman and Dr. Sharon Albert, Co-Coordinators of Integrative Learning.

“Integrative learning is a concept that has become central in higher education nationally over the past 10 years or so… The Cluster requirement was Muhlenberg’s first attempt at making integrative learning an explicit part of the curriculum,” said Albert.

Although the Cluster system itself is being dismantled, the College still highly values integrative learning, explained Heiman.

“I think we as a college would do our students a disservice if we didn’t highlight and really focus on teaching those particular skills,” said Heiman.

In addition to creating what Heiman called a “richer learning experience” in the classroom, the skills learned in integrative learning carry weight in the workforce too. Heiman noted that employers look for interdisciplinary problem-solving in their employees, which can be used to address larger issues.

“If you look at the problems that are facing society and the environment and the world today, not a single one of them is solvable from a single disciplinary perspective,” said Heiman, “Take global climate change, for example. There’s a scientific/ecological component to that, but there’s also a socio-economic component to that, there’s a political component to that, etc. There’s no way to solve that problem from just one disciplinary perspective.”

Gabby Baum ‘21, a member of the Curriculum Committee which has been approving certain courses for IL designations, agrees that a large part of the liberal arts experience is interdisciplinary learning.

“For me, integrative learning is a large part of coming to a liberal arts college and having the availability to learn things from various, different academic areas and being able to put them together later in life,” said Baum.

Baum hasn’t taken any IL courses yet but is looking forward to taking one in the Spring.

“Faculty started thinking about how we could do a better job achieving our integrative learning goals almost as soon as Clusters started, and last year we recognized that it was time to make the changes happen,” explained Albert.

Multiple students admitted to just taking cluster courses to satisfy GARs, which one student, who took a cluster in her major, felt made her class weaker.

And indeed, the rigid system was not met without challenges.

“The biggest reason why we’re moving away from the cluster structure is the scheduling issues and the burden on the sophomore year for students … The other reasons why the Clusters were challenging was getting 60 professors to be able to teach them,” said Heiman.

Multiple students admitted to just taking cluster courses to satisfy GARs, which one student, who took a cluster in her major, felt made her class weaker.

A senior, who transferred their junior year, took their cluster course that year to satisfy three GARs. They said that because nobody cared about the class, and that it was the lowest choice on everyone’s list, that everyone was “miserable.”

“[The cluster] had no benefit to me,” they concluded. “It was a waste of money.”

Harry Stein ‘21, on the other hand, learned how to approach topics from an interdisciplinary perspective without taking overlapping courses at ‘Berg. His high school, rather, taught him Algebra and Physics side-by-side, with one class making pointed reference to the other. This semester he had taken Biology as a requirement for his major and Anthropology as a GAR, and he drew on knowledge of the two to form his own opinion on a famous anthropological argument.

“I pulled from everything that I was learning, everything that I knew so I could have my own views. I was reading Geertz and he had his own concrete opinions … It made me want to have some of my own, if very limited in scope compared to theirs,” said Stein.

Stein, though, recognized the challenges to implicating interdisciplinary learning, although he thinks it will help immensely in the long run.

“It’s difficult. It’s intellectually difficult … Yes, I think it really does [help in the long run], especially in a liberal arts institution and I think in the companies of the future, you have to be able to connect ideas and plans and propositions from multiple sectors, multiple schools of thought to be able to come up with the most creative solution to basically beat the competition,” said Stein. “I think it’s useful, but not necessary for the college liberal arts experience. I think it’s sort of an added bonus.”

Dr. Laura Edelman, who has taught multiple Cluster courses with multiple other collaborators, and who intends to teach more linked courses, said she loves the experience because she learns so much from her other faculty members.

“I like seeing what they [my colleagues] do. As a teacher you learn from other people. I learn how other people are in the classroom, and by doing these links, I get to see others teach that I under no other circumstances would otherwise get to see. I’m learning a lot from them about teaching.”

Heiman expressed the same sentiment.

“Clusters, as a professor, are one of the most exciting ways of teaching. I really enjoy the process that goes into thinking about how my content can be linked and engaged with someone else’s content,” said Heiman.

Overall, the interest in integrative learning is still strong at ‘Berg, though the method of integration is debatable.

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