The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Occidental a $750,000 grant to re-imagine components of the College’s first-year general education Core program.
As a result of a three-year strategic planning process, components of the Core program are being re-envisioned as "Labs for the Liberal Arts." The Mellon grant will be used to develop and support an array of experimental courses, or Labs, over the next three years.
These Labs will be "team-taught, multidisciplinary communities of students and faculty engaged in intense intellectual exploration and synthesis around some of the ‘big questions’ of human experience," said John Swift, English and comparative literary studies professor and director of the Core program.
The Labs will give a self-selected group of first-year students an essential experience of the liberal arts, jump-starting the College’s mission of producing students who can analyze and synthesize complex material, develop and communicate new knowledge, take risks, tolerate ambiguity, and embrace difference. Like literal laboratories, the Labs will give Occidental faculty space for experiment, discovery, and innovation, serving as incubators for the development of new initiatives for general education.
The Labs will be complemented by an annual Core theme reflected in shared readings and a distinguished lecture series, plus community cultural experiences. The goal is to "both create a common experience for Occidental’s first-year students and focus that experience clearly and explicitly on our institutional values and educational mission," according to Swift.
In 2012-13 four Labs will be offered, centering on four "big questions": immigration, revolution, health, and community. In the fall, students may choose from two Labs: the California Immigration Semester, a hands-on inquiry into the realities of immigration taught by faculty from the departments of sociology, Spanish, and critical theory and social justice; or Revolutions: Africa and Beyond, a transnational exploration led by faculty from diplomacy and world affairs and history.
In spring 2013, Lab choices will be Health and Humanity, taught by faculty from philosophy, religious studies, and economics, and the Los Angeles Community Semester, staffed by the departments of politics, critical theory and social justice, urban and environmental policy, and English and comparative literary studies.
The theme for the 2012-13 school year is Communities and Justice, and the shared reading is Hector Tobar’s novel The Barbarian Nurseries.
The Labs have evolved from the College’s longstanding insistence on significant inquiry and rigorous interdisciplinary synthesis as the core elements of a liberal arts education. This insistence lay behind the classic course History of Civilization, which was taught from 1948 to 1970, and according to Swift "has energized Occidental’s thinking about general education in all of its ensuing manifestations," with faculty repeatedly taking the lead in generating innovative team-taught, interdisciplinary curricula.
The Labs concept is the result of more than two years of integrated planning initiated by President Jonathan Veitch on his arrival at the College in 2009. Since March 2011, the entire planning process, including its critical focus on the Core, has been supported by generous grants of $700,000 from the Mellon Foundation and $117,000 from the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation.