Aims of the Core Curriculum
Based on the Plan II Faculty Retreat, January, 2004
“Education for a life, not a living,” wrote Dean Parlin, the founder of the program; and by way of recruitment he would promise students that in Plan II they would learn “everything a [person] should know.” This, of course, is too grand a promise; even in middle age no faculty members feel they know all they should. What can Plan II reasonably promise? A baccalaureate education that lays the foundation for a future of self-education, and feeds its graduates’ curiosity so well that most of them will make on-going learning an essential part of their life-plans in a broad range of disciplines. We have learned that we can reasonably promise this from the alumni who testify that they have received such an education, starting with the first class of 1939 and continuing to the newest cohorts.
Plan II is a four-year interdisciplinary major in a core curriculum in modern arts and sciences. The University of Chicago developed a similar program in the early 1930’s, and theirs may have been the model for Parlin in 1935. Plan II’s original aim comes close to what the ancient Greeks meant by paideia — education for active citizenship as opposed to vocational training.
The core curriculum creates a common experience that allows for a high level of conversation among Plan II students and graduates, thus creating a broad-based interdisciplinary community with a shared vocabulary and range of concerns.
A distinctive feature of Plan II is its interdisciplinary character. Plan II students take pride in being part of an arts and sciences program, and they major in virtually every area of the university. They are rarely planning to major in the areas that Plan II requires them to study, their career interests cover the range from architecture to zoology, and they have the power to bring their interests to bear on any class they take. Plan II classes typically create dialogue among science, business, engineering, and liberal arts students.
Plan II seminars are designed to be interdisciplinary. But even in discipline-specific courses our students inject an interdisciplinary element. As a result, many professors report that they cannot teach the same courses in the same way for Plan II and for their home departments. The presence of Plan II students alone makes a difference.
The Plan II curriculum is shaped to give students increasing independence as they move from the requirements of the early years through the electives and senior thesis of the last two years, in effect launching students gradually into the greater intellectual community of the university. Plan II is not a program closed in upon itself, but one that looks outward and aims to have an impact on the university and beyond.
This document offers the rationale for each of the Plan II requirements, as they are understood by the faculty. For examples of courses scheduled under each rubric, see the course descriptions available on-line or ask the Plan II staff for syllabi. An archive of course syllabi is maintained in the office.
First Year Plan II Signature Course
TC 302, which each student takes in the first year, can take on virtually any topic, so long as it is not identical with a departmental course. The course has two aims — to teach its own peculiar content (and sometimes this is very peculiar) and to teach first year students how to be ideal college students.
TC 302 students practice skills in responding thoughtfully to texts and other material, and in exchanging ideas with their colleagues. Discussion is fundamental to the course, and this requires that students learn to listen to each other, as well as to make useful contributions to the group.
The course should instill respect for the importance of ideas and give students the opportunity to develop skills in refining their insights and beliefs into coherent arguments, both in writing and in speaking.
Students should emerge from the course with a basic understanding of research techniques at the college level (how to use library, internet, and other resources). They should also have good writing and speaking skills, and to this end the seminars typically require both writing and formal speaking. They also give students the opportunity to mingle with faculty and to become comfortable talking with them. To this end, TC 302 teachers often require students to visit them in office hours and may also invite them to social events. Graded oral presentations are often required.
Well taught sections typically give students feedback on short papers in the first two weeks or so, and also require students to attend office hours early in the semester.
Junior Tutorial Seminars
Every student takes TC 357 twice, and must take it at least once before embarking on a senior thesis. TC 357 enhances the skills practiced in TC 302. Like TC 302, it aims to impart an understanding of the peculiar subject matter of each seminar. The unique goal of TC 357, however, is to cultivate advanced research and writing skills that can be transferred over a range of subjects, and that are suitable for use in a senior thesis. Many of our best senior theses grow out of work done in junior seminars, or use techniques learned in seminars.
Graded oral presentations are usually required along with substantial term papers; students who have taken TC 357 should be ready to present research in oral or written format, as for the senior thesis or the Plan II Senior Thesis Symposium.. In any given TC 357, however, only a few students will contemplate a senior thesis in the specific area of that course. Topics vary widely. They should be suitable for a seminar course to which students contribute on the basis of their individual research projects. A lecture course is never presented as a TC 357, nor is a creative writing or performance course. Readings vary widely also, but a common feature of these courses is that individual students read and report on materials not assigned to the entire class.
TC 357 is scheduled for three hours a week, usually in standard blocks of time. The course usually needs periods longer than fifty minutes, however, to allow for full discussion. The usual pattern is two ninety-minute classes each week, but three-hour classes are sometimes scheduled with special permission from the dean, and two-hour classes paired with one-hour classes are not unknown.
The year-long course, TC 603 or E 603, is currently offered in twelve sections of about fifteen students each. It begins with classical literature, including epic, and moves in the second semester to modern literature and usually includes contemporary works. Some versions of the course introduce minority American writing and post-colonial literature in the second semester.
The course is taught mainly by faculty from the Department of English (E 603), but sections have been taught by faculty from classics, French-Italian, Spanish-Portuguese, Middle Eastern Studies, and Slavic languages (TC 603).
TC 603 and E 603 feature intense writing requirements and discipline in both semesters, with extensive comments from the instructors and frequent opportunities for revision.
The course aims to provide a common background in literature, to develop critical reading skills, and to improve writing. Like TC 302, World Lit has developmental aims as well as academic ones, and seeks to transform high school students into collegians. Well taught sections typically give students feedback on short papers in the first two weeks or so, and also require students to attend office hours early in the semester.
Philosophy: Problems of Knowledge and Evaluation.
The year-long philosophy course, Phl 610, is currently taught in four sections of about 45 each, with an experienced TA for each section. In at least one semester, the course features the equivalent of a substantial writing assignment (otherwise there would be no standard writing experience in the second year). One section has experimented successfully with a speech day, in which every student presents formally the topic of his or her term paper while it is in progress.
The main aim of the philosophy course is to encourage students to think for themselves, both about ethical matters and about more abstract issues. Students may well find that the ethical reflections touch their own lives in a direct and practical way. Students should also achieve the capacity to approach any material in a critical and analytic spirit, with a readiness to appreciate the strength of opposing views, and an appreciation of the force of the arguments which can be mustered for and against their own positions.
These aims are pursued by introducing students to some major philosophical thinkers, typically from the European tradition (for example, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume and Kant), though some sections introduce thinkers from one or more non-European traditions. The topics considered include ethics (e.g. what does right action consist in?), theory of knowledge (e.g. what is the difference between knowledge and correct guesswork?) and philosophy of mind (e.g. what, if anything, separates the mental from the physical?).
Studying philosophy can lead to humility in the face of an appreciation of the range of possible views, and also to confidence, as one learns to defend one’s own views and amend them as one finds them deficient.
(This description owes much to suggestions from Professor Mark Sainsbury.)
Humanities / Fine Arts
This is our "civilization" requirement. Plan II students take a course of their choice in one area of the humanities or history and/or performance of any of the fine the arts. This either takes them further into literature or philosophy than E 603 or Phl 610, or it brings them into contact with civilizing factors in the arts.
One Plan II professor wrote of this requirement: “Painting, film, dance, song have much to give engineers and scientists. It is sad that Plan II does not have time in its core curriculum to insist on them. In the same vein, I would try to find a way to make students feel the inexpressible [through the arts] where language breaks down.”
(Engineering professor Billy Koen.)
Language and Study Abroad
Plan II students are especially encouraged to study abroad, and many good senior theses are based on study abroad experiences. The curriculum is flexible enough to allow for this. In addition, like all UT students, Plan II students satisfy (and often exceed) the equivalent of basic language requirement.
The State of Texas mandates six hours of US history and six hours of US government including Texas government.
As for history, Plan II has long encouraged students to seek upper division courses in US history, when seats are available.
The Department of Government offers a variety of courses, including honors sections, to satisfy three of the six hours. Plan II encourages students, when possible, to take honors sections of this course.
Many Plan II students have a basic understanding of American government and may place out of the first three hours of the Government requirement with AP test results from high school or by taking a CLEP test here at UT.
This is as close as Plan II comes to a diversity requirement: two semesters, in one geographical area. The aim is historical depth in one area, as well as the breadth that comes from being a counterweight to the twelve-hour legislative requirement (see below). Plan II sections of western civilization and English history have been offered by the Department of History, but many options are available in European history, Latin American history, Asian history, Middle Eastern history, African history and South Asian history.
Social Science 301: The Individual and Society
One of the original courses designed by Parlin, SS 301 is taught in any social science department, and has been taught recently in economics, anthropology, psychology, sociology, political theory and linguistics. The aim is to introduce students to theories of social science while building their knowledge of contemporary issues that are dealt with by the science in question. Courses are more interdisciplinary than comparable courses in the disciplines. Courses typically introduce the investigatory tools of social science to strengthen critical thinking skills and their application to contemporary social issues.
The aim of Plan II science courses is to teach students what it is like to sniff the air at the frontiers of scientific knowledge, while also giving them the background knowledge of science that informed citizens should have.
Our demanding science courses are a point of pride in Plan II. Plan II is committed to requiring science courses that offer to students some part of the experience of thinking the way scientists think, rather than courses that merely describe science or teach about science from liberal arts points of view such as those of history or philosophy or social science. Our science courses are designed on the understanding that all Plan II students have studied calculus in high school or are at least familiar with the basic concepts of calculus.
Plan II-type science courses offer a special challenge to students who are not accustomed to the scientific approach, not unlike the challenge that faces some science-lovers who flounder in the poetry of our world literature course. Such challenges belong at the center of our mission to explore all modes of knowledge. Most graduates of the program are proud of having faced the challenge successfully. Employers and graduate schools are also impressed with our science courses. We believe that on this point we are ahead of the many elite universities that do not require notably challenging science courses for non-science students.
Plan II Modes of Reasoning
The aim of the requirement is to introduce students in their first semester to the use of formal systems for representing arguments. The requirement may be satisfied by taking Phl 313Q (Logic and Scientific Method) or TC 310 (Modes of Reasoning). Phl 313Q normally covers proofs in predicate calculus and includes some work in inductive logic or defeasible reasoning. TC 310 has in the past included courses on the use of statistics in science or social science, and it could also include courses in the theoretical basis of computer programming or in mathematical proofs.
The aim of the course is to give students tools for use in Plan II math, economics, social science, philosophy, and in all of their writing.
Plan II Mathematics
Mathematics 310P for Plan II generally covers basic concepts of mathematics beyond the level of applying algorithms to solve problems, as in high school. Plan II students are expected to have taken calculus in high school, or to have an acquaintance, at least, with the concepts of calculus.
The aim of the course is to let students feel the excitement of what mathematicians actually do in areas of research such as topology.
Plan II Physics, Chemistry, or Geology
The aim of the requirement is to introduce students to distinctly 21st century hard science. Currently, only physics is offered.
Physics 321, Concepts of Modern Physics, covers the most important concepts of post-Newtonian physics, quantum theory and relativity, presupposing a basic knowledge of physics and a good acquaintance with mathematics through calculus. The content of the course is chosen to give students a science-based understanding of the triumphs of modern physics, as well as to hone their problem-solving skills from basic Fermi problems to fairly advanced questions about space travel.
The course is rigorous, and it calls for kinds of thinking that our students do not encounter in other courses. Students are expected to find ways to solve problems for which they are not given algorithms. Most science courses teach you how to solve the problems they ask you to solve. Not this one. In Plan II Physics students have the experience of working out ways of solving problems that are unlike any they have seen before. That is why this is high on the list of courses that alumni cite in later life, as having helped them in their careers. Life itself keeps setting them homework problems that are new to them. Plan II physics aims to give them confidence in their ability to invent ways to solve such problems.
Plan II Biology
The core of the course contains genetics (genes and the basic principles of gene expression, current issues in molecular genetics and biotechnology); evolution (basic principles as revealed by plant and animal studies, human evolution), and environmental science (basic principles of ecology, human population growth and environmental degradation).
One version of the course as currently offered emphasizes molecular biology, the other behavioral ecology. Both cover the core.
This requirement, more than any other in the science section, bears directly on choices we must make as a society, and we consider it vital to the education of citizens. The course is now supported by an endowment, which was given to keep the course on the books, keep it rigorous scientifically, and keep it relevant to social decision-making.
(The Plan II committee gave much thought to a faculty proposal to replace this with a sequence of biochemistry and molecular biology, but on consultation with life sciences faculty we decided to continue with the mix of molecular and environmental biology.)
The senior thesis should be the organizing principle for, and culmination of, electives chosen in the junior and senior years. To earn a grade of A, it should represent work done at least at the level of a beginning graduate student in the student’s chosen field. Whenever possible, students should plan to spend a full academic year on the project. For details, consult the Plan II Senior Thesis Manual.
A good senior thesis prepares the student for further work in the field, and in many cases senior theses have been springboards to interesting careers. Like a doctoral dissertation, the senior thesis calls for more determination than is required for regular classroom work. Because a thesis is an independent project, requiring the student to plan the use of time over a nine-month period, the thesis is also an opportunity for adult-level success or failure.
(In 1992 faculty considered a proposal to allow only our best students to write theses, but decided against it, on the grounds that all of our students should have this opportunity for success or failure.)
Every student must make an oral presentation on the topic of the thesis at a thesis symposium. The grade on the presentation counts for 15% of the final thesis grade. The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that students have mastered oral presentation at a basic level.