November 14th, 2013

Tips for Managing Curricular Conflict

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Curriculum changes or differences of opinion about what should be taught and how it should be taught can create tension in any department. And the budget situation in many departments can add fuel to the fire. Jon Bloch, chair of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University, offers the following points to keep in mind to help manage these conflicts:

  • Keep up on the latest curricular changes in your discipline. In sociology, one of the big differences of opinion centers on the extent to which students should be getting hands-on skills training for a job versus learning critical-thinking skills. “There is this movement afoot that college degrees are supposed to equal jobs, and so how does your program or discipline train students for today’s job market, and what jobs are really needed?” Bloch asks.

    Another issue is whether sociology should be a “positivistic or philosophical kind of discipline that looks at society for the intellectual exercise of looking at society, or an applied discipline with a curriculum that emphasizes social change and making society more egalitarian,” Bloch says.

    While there may be some overlap between approaches that provides common ground for faculty from different perspectives to collaborate, “there will be important differences past a certain point. If your life’s work is doing a certain kind of sociology and there is someone or a couple of people in your program who do not value that type of sociology, that will make for some kind of interpersonal tension,” Bloch says.

    Peer departments at other institutions, professional contacts, conferences, and scholarly societies can provide useful information to help in making curricular decisions. “We have the American Sociological Society. It’s not an accrediting body as you see in the professional schools. The ASA has many publications and meetings to help faculty and chairs on a whole range of topics,” Bloch says.

  • Keep the big picture in mind. “The real problem isn’t that so-and-so is a jerk. The real problem is that the department is way understaffed and everybody has too much work to do. Why? Because not enough money goes into public education. I think it helps a lot to look at the issue as a social problem instead of just a personality clash,” Bloch says.
  • Consider diverse opinions and don’t let one person’s opinion dominate. “I think if the department is well, there’s room for everyone’s opinion. Of course, if you’re new there’s a certain learning curve. On the other hand, sometimes when you’re in the same job for many years, there’s a tendency to get set in your ways,” Bloch says.

    Some curriculum recommendations may come from outside the department. “There’s a campaign in higher education to create a seamless transition from community college to four-year colleges or different schools in the same system by having some kind of common curriculum. So I think a lot of programs have been asked formally or informally to take a second look at their curriculum.

    “And there are going to be differences of opinion. Even before you discuss course A versus course B, there are going to be differences of opinion as to the extent to which the department should take seriously these kinds of requests. Some people might say we should stand firm and not change anything. Other people will say, ‘No, we’re going to have to change it anyway, so we might as well have some say in it,’” Bloch says.

    If a faculty member feels very strongly about a curricular issue, find out why it’s so important to this person. Bloch suggests asking, “Can you explain to me why you feel so strongly about it? Past a certain point democracy wins the day. The majority wins and the minority loses,” Bloch says.

Excerpted from Managing Curricular Conflict, Academic Leader, 27.4 (2012): 6.