The Sociology of Higher Education

Core Curriculum



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by Faith Sanchez and Shuo Qiu | SOCI 20514


A university’s curriculum both reflects its own worldview and serves as a vehicle for fostering that same worldview in students; the normalization effect is exaggerated when it comes to mandatory courses. In our very surrounding, the University of Chicago (UChicago) offers a two-year mandatory Core Curriculum for all of its college students.

For our project, we do not aim to determine the effects of increasing the diversity of a curriculum, as these impacts have already been well documented (see, for example, MacPhee et al. 1995 and Scott 1994). Rather, we aim to do a case study of UChicago, which has the potential of producing a unique data set and filling a gap in current research, due to its status as one of the last few American universities that employs a core curriculum, a series of required coursework designed “to raise fundamental questions and to encourage those habits of mind and those critical, analytical, and writing skills that are most urgent to be a well-informed member of civil society” (The University of Chicago 2020). Like other universities, UChicago is continuously grappling with the effects of having a historically Eurocentric curriculum even though the questions raised by the Core are supposed to address the human experience in general. In the past three years, there have been efforts from the College to increase the inclusivity of the curriculum design, such as adding new course sequences and swapping readings to embrace diverse texts. However, the results of such efforts remained uninvestigated and ambiguous, and it seems students are still complaining about the limited inclusivity in the classroom. Our project approaches the topic of inclusivity in the Core from two directions: theory and practice. First with regard to theory, we ask: what do UChicago instructors, and students believe to be the aims of the Core Curriculum, and what role do they think cultural inclusivity plays in it? Then with regard to practice, we ask: How do UChicago instructors and students perceive the actual state of cultural inclusivity in the Core as a result of the theory?

Literature Review

Hollins writes, “The school curriculum legitimizes the knowledge, perspective, values, and interactions and relationships between people and institutions” (Hollins 1996:2). The importance of these roles and the long history of Eurocentric, white-male-dominated curriculums in higher education has prompted many researchers (see, for example, MacPhee et al. 1995 and Scott 1994) to examine the effects of increasing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in college curriculums. The conclusions are clear. Inclusive curriculums allow students to engage with new ideas and challenge preconceptions, thereby improving students’ critical thinking skills (MacPhee et al. 1995). Student engagement increases when students are exposed to inclusive curriculums (Scott 1994). Perhaps most importantly, inclusive curriculums help reduce ethnocentrism and create cultural bridges that prompt students to be more aware of and critique oppressive social structures.

Our project is concerned with the relationship between curriculum and diversity and inclusion efforts. Many of the Core humanities and social science courses feature Western-centric curricula. As a method of “disrupting settler colonial ideology in education,” Masta suggests one of the ways of disrupting biased and problematic curriculum is to question the aims of their application within the curriculum in the first place (2019:190). Our interviews with those who are active in changes made to Core humanities and social sciences courses will hopefully result in more insight into the University of Chicago’s active efforts to create a more inclusive environment for students. The benefits of diverse and inclusive curriculum within higher education have been studied extensively, with one study concluding that “an institution’s ability to achieve a positive climate for diversity is indeed reflected by the faculty’s commitment to incorporate diversity” (Mayhew 2005:408). We wish to take a similar approach by interviewing both administrators and students, analyzing course evaluations over time, and conducting student surveys in order to collect qualitative data on the experiences of University of Chicago community members with the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion efforts as reflected in the Core.

Methods and Data

In this case study of UChicago, we will adopt a mixed-method approach to investigate the changes in Core Curriculum and students’ perception of the changes. As theorized by Ashwin (2014:123), there is an information flow from the course design to the instructor to the students. Furthermore, the knowledge intended in the curriculum is often different from the knowledge imparted by the instructor, which is also different from the knowledge learned by the students. Therefore, we intend to collect data from the three parties of this information flow and test whether the school is correctly responding to the calling for an inclusive curriculum and whether changes in curriculum is reflected in students’ perception.

By interviewing Core program administrators and professors, analyzing course evaluations over time, and conducting student surveys, we aim to gather, compare, and share the perspectives of students and faculty in the university about the efficacy of the university’s efforts to increase curriculum inclusivity. It is our hope that this will enable us to make realistic suggestions with regard to making UChicago’s Core Curriculum more inclusive. 

We collected primary data from our interviews with administrators of the Core Curriculum, professors teaching the Core Curriculum courses, and students attending the Core Curriculum courses. From these primary data, we will use interview transcripts and Course Evaluation to qualitatively determine whether changes in humanistic Core courses would be reflected in course evaluation submitted by students. From the interviews with the administrator of HUMA courses and SOSC courses, we asked whether there were major changes to the course syllabus in terms of the inclusivity of the course, how the changes were determined, and when the changes happened. We looked for common themes in their rationale offered for the changes in Core Curriculum and produced a synthetical review of the mechanism of the changes with a focus on inclusivity. 

Lastly, we compared the vision of the administrators with the response from the students to measure the effectiveness of such changes. The responses from the students are collected from the survey and the 2019 Course Evaluation, which is published by the College. We especially focused on students’ definitions of inclusivity, their expectation of curriculum inclusivity, and their reaction to the current curriculum inclusivity. We further explored the factors that determine their perception of inclusivity, such as peer’s behaviors, professors’ teaching strategies, and most importantly, the curriculum design.  

We conducted 2 interviews with administrators, 3 interviews with professors, 2 interviews with students. We collected 31 survey responses from the students. We analyzed the course evaluation results from 205 classes (all of the HUMA and SOSC courses) in the quarter of Autumn 2019. You could download the quantitative analysis separately here.

Overview of Findings

The professors and the students hold different perspectives on the meaning and significance of inclusivity. Most of the time, when talking about inclusivity in the curriculum design, students are more concerned with social equity, whereas the professors are trying to ground inclusivity in pedagogy. That these two perspectives overlap most of the time does not guarantee that they would always be in harmony. Once a student doesn’t share the pedagogical view of the curriculum, the student would find themselves in disagreement with the readings. One way out of this dilemma is practicing good pedagogy that helps to reconcile the tension between canonicity and inclusivity. However, if the instructor fails to proactively practice inclusive pedagogy, students are left alone dealing with estranged texts and learning few from the texts.

There is also an important distinction between inclusive syllabus and inclusive pedagogy. Faculties are the sole authority on the design of syllabus, including the readings lists assigned to the students and the formats of assignments. Many of the time, it is the few authoritative faculties, such as co-chairs, within the division that have more sayings than the lower-rank instructors, such as doctoral students. The degree of freedom in the design of syllabus is relatively small compared to that of teaching strategies. On the other hand, each instructor enjoys a higher degree of freedom during the class time, where the inclusive pedagogy has the potential to substantially influence the quality of the education. Moreover, external groups such as inclusive pedagogy workshop, core forum, and assistant teacher union could have a positive influence in the classroom by offering coaching and professional training to the instructors.

Works Cited

Ashwin, Paul. 2014. “Knowledge, Curriculum and Student Understanding in Higher Education.” Higher Education. 67(2):123–26.

Hollins, Etta R. 2013. Transforming Curriculum for A Culturally Diverse Society. Routledge.

MacPhee, David, Jill C. Kreutzer, and Janet J. Fritz. 1994. “Infusing a Diversity Perspective into Human Development Courses.”

Masta, Stephanie. 2019. “Challenging the Relationship Between Settler Colonial Ideology and Higher Education Spaces.” Berkeley Review of Education 8(2).

Mayhew, Matthew J., Heidi E. Grunwald, and Eric L. Dey. 2005. “Curriculum Matters: Creating a Positive Climate for Diversity from the Student Perspective.” Research in Higher Education 46(4):389–412.

Scott, B. M. 1994. “Integrating Race, Class, Gen- Der, and Sexual Orientation into the College Curriculum.” Multicultural Prism: Voices from the Field 61–72.

The University of Chicago. 2020. 2020-2021 Catalog.

Now that we've shared some perspectives, we'd love to hear yours!

Disclaimer: This project was completed for pedagogical purposes for an undergraduate sociology course at University of Chicago. While we are sharing results from our mini-project with the public, it is important that readers understand these are NOT findings from a human subjects research project intended to contribute to generalizable knowledge.