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Politics of Curricular Change:
The Story Behind Media Attacks on Georgetown communication tips
By James Slevin
Professor of English, Georgetown University

In 1993, the Georgetown English department began to review its curriculum. It had not been revised for twenty years, during which time knowledge in the field had expanded and the intellectual interests and professional needs of students had shifted dramatically. We were generally pleased with our course offerings, Having added courses that reflected important developments and which answered the needs of our shifting student body. we felt we had combined the best of the old and the new.

However, we were dissatisfied with the system of requirements guiding our students through our program. In a yearlong study involving biweekly department meetings of the entire faculty, we realized that the old curriculum actually kept both us and our students from shaping a curriculum leading to a coherent understanding of our discipline and to a solid foundation for the work of their lives.

To assist students in developing coherent courses of study, the department established three concentrations: Studies in Literature and Literary History emphasizes literary works in themselves and in relation to literary history. Studies in Culture and Performance examines the interaction between literature and a variety of social contexts, values, and institutions. Studies in Writing: Rhetoric, Genre, Form develops students' skills as writers by studying a wide range of literary and non-literary genres. With the guidance of their departmental advisor and only with the approval of the department, majors now choose a concentration and develop a coherent course of study.

This new curriculum eliminates none of the courses or approaches offered under the old curriculum. What has changed is the latitude and obligation students have in structuring their program of study. A recent media furor over our curriculum obsesses about the latitude granted students while ignoring the fact that, under the new approach, students have to become far more responsible and faculty advisors have to work a whole lot harder.

The furor began in November 1995, when students associated with a conservative journal at Georgetown sponsored an "open forum" and secured a reporter from the Washington Times to report the event. While anti-intellectual polemics dominated the meeting, Reverend Moon's Washington Times featured the story on its front page the next day, thereby instigating from right-wing pundits the predictable commentaries not unlike those written about Stanford some years ago and Yale more recently.

One group keeping the furor alive was (and is) the National Alumni Forum (NAF), chaired by Lynne Cheney and directed by Jerry Martin. Amply funded by conservative foundations like Olin and Bradley, NAF aims to mobilize conservative alumni to pressure universities to resist curricular changes. In addition to Georgetown, NAF has targeted Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, and, most famously, Yale, where they continue to organize alumni to protest the Western Civilization curriculum for its "multicultural" leanings.

In language evoking the Cold War, the NAF, as reported in the Washington Times (April 1, 1996), declared that it would "wage a national publicity campaign against the curriculum changes at Georgetown" and "fight to preserve classical literature." In Mr. Martin's own words, Georgetown "'is the place to draw the line'" in higher education against recent encroachments on the territories of Western Civilization. Mr. Martin characterized our curriculum as an "'attack on the great works.'" He insisted that Georgetown was "defaulting on [its] responsibilities" and "merrily throw[ing] the Bard overboard" (Washington Post, letter, April 1, 1996).

Nothing could be further from the truth. While universities our size offer on average fewer than three Shakespeare courses per year, Georgetown offers nine. While roughly 7 percent of all undergraduates nationally enroll in a Shakespeare course, the average at Georgetown is 17 percent. Over the past 15 years, we have increased our Shakespeare offerings by 300 percent. Virtually all majors in English take Shakespeare. So even as we have moved in recent years toward a curriculum that is more inclusive of different literatures and ways of studying literature, we have, in fact, increased our offerings on "the Bard."

We have repeatedly given accurate information about our curriculum, particularly our continuing commitment to traditional literary study, to our critics and the media. But, almost inexplicably, they continue their attack. Perhaps one explanation lies in the way they continue to selectively use titles of courses from our department offerings, parading through the press, in a tone of contempt and indignation, course titles that use words such as "race," "sexuality," "sexual orientation," and "women" in their titles. They already know that such courses are no threat to Shakespeare studies at Georgetown. We have neither added nor deleted any courses. We have established not an "either/or" curriculum, but rather an inclusive way of structuring knowledge and courses. Nevertheless, they continue to misrepresent or ignore the facts.

This is the frustration we at Georgetown feel, and we are not alone. Other colleges and universities who have been attacked publicly in this way report the same difficulty. Once distorted versions of a story "break," it is hard to make the truth known. Misrepresentations become "the reality," and a national discourse proceeds, indifferent to the truth and impenetrable to reasoned argument.

Ironically, the forces promoting these misrepresentations are not likely to succeed at the places they have so far generally targeted. The threat is not felt so greatly at Georgetown (our department is fully resolved to resist such intimidation, and our administration fully and unequivocally supports us). It would be astonishing if a Yale, Stanford, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, or Georgetown capitulated to such tactics as these. But the strategy of isolating one highly visible institution has a chilling effect on other institutions considering similar changes. It instills not only a fear of being targeted but a dread of being isolated for public abuse.

It seems to me that institutions committed to responsible curricular change need to organize to resist such intimidation. Right now there is no place to turn when attacks like these occur. It is time to use the progressive networks of which many of us are a part to help each other handle media attacks. Even the most talented and informed "media experts" on our campuses are unprepared for this kind of assault. We need to make use of information gathered by organizations like AAC&U on curricular change nationally and develop strategies to deal with politically motivated hostility to genuine educational reform. We ought to be collectively responsible for these important curricular developments and collectively challenge politically motivated attacks and media distortion.

DiversityWeb at http://www.diversityweb.org hosts a support network on how to handle media attacks around curriculum changes.

Communication tips When faced with a media furor 1. Quickly determine your best spokespeople on the issue.
  • If possible, work with your public information or communications specialist to prepare a diverse group that will aggressively engage in the debate.
  • This might include the college president, a dean, the relevant department head, faculty members, and student leaders.

2. Determine what simple messages work best. In Georgetown's case, consider:

  • The curriculum change eliminates no courses whatsoever;
  • Georgetown will continue offering more courses on Shakespeare than most schools its size;
  • Courses that teach students about our diverse society benefit us all (elaborate about the ways).

3. Be proactive.

  • It often is a serious mistake to ignore (or delay reacting to) a negative story in the hope that remaining silent will prevent further coverage.
  • The longer you wait, opponents will shape public impressions and force you to have to correct misinformation from a defensive posture.
  • Don't forget to aggressively respond to misinformation. Letters-to-the-editor are one of the more widely read sections of the newspaper, so keep your perspective out there.

4. Set the tone by communicating quickly with widely respected trade journals so that your perspective is clear from the start.

  • Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Education Daily

5. Consider all news outlets available to you.

  • If, as at Georgetown, students associated with a conservative journal are generating coverage in a right-wing newspaper like the Washington Times, think about other ways to communicate with the public.
  • Is there another major newspaper in the city?
    • Consider scheduling an editorial board meeting for your spokespeople.
    • Provide editorial board members with a short fact sheet or backgrounder on the new concentrations.
    • Ask them to consider either an editorial in support of the curriculum revision or an op-ed by a representative of the school.
  • Do local community newspaper(s) cover these issues?
    • Consider ethnic or student publications.
    • Ask them to publish an article by one of your spokespeople.
  • Are there radio talk shows that go into some depth?
    • Consider an affiliate of National Public Radio which may air locally produced talk shows.
    • Ask your communications specialist to call the producer and book an appearance.

  • Consider an appearance on a substantive television public affairs program.
Be proactive...you can make a difference!

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