Intercultural Learning in First-Year
By Maria Tahamont, professor of biological
sciences and coordinator of Rowan seminars, Rowan University
Curriculum transformation is not easy. It requires
a well-articulated plan with a specific set of goals.
In addition, as Sandra Kanter has written, transformation
must be an ongoing process, “not a one time event
but . . . a continuing effort in which each iteration
deepens or improves upon some aspect of the curriculum”
(2000, 6). This type of transformation is what Rowan
University has been trying to achieve through the Bildner
New Jersey Campus Diversity Initiative.
Rowan University’s project supported the development
of team-taught interdisciplinary courses to address
issues of diversity and democracy in our first-year
Rowan seminars. The courses seek to open minds to the
complexities of human interactions and the interrelationships
among different disciplines. At the same time, these
courses integrate the realities of personal identities
and experiences as a component of learning.
Faculty development works
well when it is done as both an individual and
a collective exercise; when faculty are given
the time and resources to inquire, reflect, and
experiment with pedagogy; and when they can do
this work within a community that shares common
concerns and goals.
Designed to enrich offerings available to first-year
students, the courses are challenging and rigorous,
and can ultimately be life-changing. An early exposure
to U.S. democracy and diversity gives students a strong
foundation for understanding multiplicities of people
and cultures in American society today. By engaging
freshmen with challenging content and opportunities
for discovery and dialogue, we aim to open their minds
to new ideas that will influence the rest of their academic
careers. After they graduate, we hope these students
will be more informed, involved, and engaged citizens
who are aware of multicultural, global, and democratic
issues facing contemporary society.
The Rowan seminar (RS) program was the logical place
to house the new interdisciplinary courses. Taken by
first-year students only, Rowan seminars have small
class sizes (usually fifteen to twenty students) and
are taught by full-time faculty trained to help first-year
students in the transition to university life. RS courses
have four common goals: to foster critical thinking
and writing skills, library research skills, effective
team skills, and time- and classroom-management skills.
Most RS courses are offered as part of general education
or are specific introductory courses for a major. During
the last three years, faculty developed over twenty
new courses for the Bildner project.
Faculty Development Workshops
The faculty development workshops offered resources
for designing these new interdisciplinary courses. Each
workshop was a five-day intensive experience organized
into two parts. Each morning participants discussed
shared readings, and each afternoon paired faculty worked
on their course proposals. Topically, we focused on
diversity, higher education in a diverse democracy,
migration, the intersection of identities, immigration
and global identities, and “multiple belongings.”
We borrowed freely from Association of American Colleges
and Universities (AAC&U) resources developed for
their summer institute in 2000, Boundaries and Borderlands:
The Search for Recognition and Community in America.
We supplemented readings with material on team-teaching
strategies and the goals of RS. In addition, we provided
a stipend when each course proposal was completed.
One of the greatest benefits of this curricular effort
has been its effect on faculty and staff. Over forty
people, from disciplines as different as civil engineering
and philosophy and from departments as diverse as budget
and career planning, participated in our Bildner project.
This cadre of Bildner fellows has developed an identity
on campus, and participants have been invigorated by
the experience. Faculty development works well when
it is done as both an individual and a collective exercise;
when faculty are given the time and resources to inquire,
reflect, and experiment with pedagogy; and when they
can do this work within a community that shares common
concerns and goals. If all of these elements are combined,
faculty development fosters lasting change in teaching
and academic programs (Chism, Lees, and Evenbeck 2002).
The Benefits of the Project
Participation in the Bildner project has enhanced job
satisfaction, professional renewal, and collegial relations.
Interdisciplinary work is transformative in itself and
its impact far reaching. How faculty teach, even in
their own disciplinary courses, is now informed by having
developed a team-taught interdisciplinary course. Participants
especially appreciated that the institution sponsored
and supported the workshops. As one fellow said, “It
is nice to have the university support professional
development, both programmatically and financially.
This was far more valuable than a conference.”
Having documented the value of the faculty participation,
what do we know about the students? In our initial survey,
students reported that the courses are interesting and
unique. In general, they found the material to be, as
one student put it, “eye and mind opening.”
For many, these courses were their first opportunity
to learn about different cultures. We plan to do a longitudinal
study to follow students’ progress at the university
and inquire later in their careers about the impact
of their freshman seminar. From the positive responses
we have seen so far, we anticipate the impact will be
Higher education is one of the few remaining arenas
where dialogue, deliberation, and thoughtful engagement
are pursued as primary components of the institution’s
mission. Such experiences expand students’ minds
and provide skills for intelligent discourse and decision-making.
It is essential to be mindful of the multicultural and
diverse society in which we live, and to provide an
education that addresses the challenges students will
face within a global community. We think our Bildner-funded
diversity program helps students, faculty, and staff
alike acquire knowledge, skills, and values they need
to live in such a world.
Chism, N. V. N., N. D. Lees, and S. Evenbeck. 2002.
Faculty development for teaching innovation. Liberal
Education 88 (3): 34–41.
Kanter, S. 2000. Reflections on reform. Peer Review
2 (4): 4–8.