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Art department paints new picture for student success

Curriculum review closes gaps and strengthens foundation for senior-level courses

From left, Kathleen Ralph, Dona Schwartz, Brian Rusted and Peter Deacon, along with Susan Cahill and graduate student Chelsea Rushton, led the Department of Art's curriculum review. The review resulted in significant changes to improve the visual studies program. Photo by Joni Miltenburg, University of Calgary

By Joni Miltenburg

Kathleen Ralph is excited to receive her fine arts degree at convocation next month, but a small part of her wishes she was starting her studies in another year or two.

Ralph was deeply involved in the Department of Art’s curriculum review, which will result in significant changes to the program for the class starting in 2017.

“They’re making a lot of really great changes that are going to improve the student experience and broaden what students are able to learn,” Ralph says. “I’m so excited about the changes they’re making, and I’m sad I’m not going to be there for it.”

Getting a bird’s-eye view

Curriculum review offers a bird’s-eye view of a program: its strengths, how all of its courses fit together, and any potential gaps. The result is a clear picture of the entire program, and a plan to improve it. It’s a major component of the university’s Quality Assurance Review process; each undergraduate and course-based master’s program at the University of Calgary will undergo review on a five- to seven-year cycle.

The Department of Art launched its curriculum review in 2014, but conversations about the program had started a few years before. Faculty were concerned that the curriculum was too heavily weighted towards first-year courses, and that those courses weren’t properly structured to give students a foundation for senior-level courses.

“We had all these 200-level courses and there was never clear agreement on what the learning outcomes of any one of them might be, or how they fit with the senior-level courses,” says department head Brian Rusted.

Planning for the future of digital media

As a result of the year-long review process, the department created a number of new courses, added more required courses in third and fourth year, and restructured the early part of the program to give students a better foundation in art history and theory.

“We’ve tried to place specific courses on media and technique early in the program, and then have more open-ended, conceptually-driven studio classes at the upper end of the program,” Rusted says.

The department also gave thought to the growth of digital media and the need to teach digital photography and animation, 3D modeling and printing alongside traditional media.

“The better a student understands how to work with sculptural material with their hands, the easier it is for them to design a digital 3D model. We looked for ways to build both skill sets and have them integrate at a higher level.”

Thinking about the future directions of a program is an important aspect of curriculum review, says Patti Dyjur, a curriculum development specialist with the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.

“It’s an opportunity to think about not only the program you have today, but the program you want in the future. It’s a chance to think about emerging trends in the field, what employers want, what students want, and get a variety of perspectives on that.”

Dyjur provides support to groups across campus as they undertake curriculum reviews. In addition to consultations, she offers a five-part workshop series that guides groups through the review process.

‘They are committed to doing everything possible to make students successful’

Dyjur says the Department of Art’s review was unique in having undergraduate and graduate student representatives on the review committee. It’s a model she hopes will be adopted by other curriculum groups across campus.

“The students were treated as equals on the committee, and they were wonderful advocates for the different student groups. They had input and perspectives on each stage of the process, and brought their experiences to that.”

Kathleen Ralph says being part of the art department’s curriculum review was a great experience that allowed her to see her program from a new perspective.

“As a student, you don’t necessarily recognize the way that courses are supposed to fit together; you don’t realize that there’s a list of things the department wants you to have when you graduate. For me, it really drove home that they are committed to doing everything possible to make students successful when they leave the program.”