Friday reading: Wagner and the dreaded curriculum story

More than a dozen years ago, Wagner College in Staten Island, New York revamped its curriculum and put in place what it calls “The Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts.” (There’s a whiff of the oxymoronic in “practical liberal arts,” but I digress.) By the time Laura Barlament came on as editor of Wagner in 2007, the school had succeeded in using the new curriculum to attract undergraduates, but it was her sense that her alumni audience didn’t understand it very well. Neither did she, for that matter. Sounded like a good subject for a feature story in the magazine.

Except for the fact that 90 percent of the time program stories are deadly dull. Barlament is a bit more tactful—she describes such pieces as “not necessarily great reading.” No argument from me.

What to do, what to do. Barlament hit on the idea of following a group of students from Day One of their Wagner matriculation to Commencement as they progressed through the program. Her plan: produce a four-part, four-year series. How’s that for long-range editorial vision? (Around my office, we’ve got a pretty solid idea of what’s happening next week. After that, things get hazy.)

In the Wagner Plan, each Wagner undergrad completes a set of core liberal arts courses and pursues a major. Incoming freshmen also select a “learning community,” which is a cluster of courses linked by a theme. During their four years, students will participate in three of these “LCs,” as they’re known. LCs include classes that Wagner calls “reflective tutorials.” Barlament introduced her student subjects by sitting in on their first reflective tutorial, with a professor of religion named Walter Kaelber, making good use of narrative:

On Friday afternoon, August 24, 14 brand-new Wagner students make their way to Main Hall room 11 for the first meeting of their reflective tutorial.

It’s the first day of orientation for the fall semester of 2007, and understanding what exactly a “reflective tutorial” is supposed to be is only one item on a long list of new things to figure out. Their day began with moving into their dorm rooms. They’ve been buried in information on everything from residence-hall rules to dining plans to Internet connections. They’ve said good-bye to their families. Whether they came from Tottenville, Staten Island, or Torrance, California, they have one thing in common: They’re overwhelmed.

One by one, the students enter the room and take a seat at the tables, arranged in rows, facing the front. No one talks. No one switches on the lights. They wait in the dark to meet their first college professor.

Barlament then told a series of stories derived from her observations of the students in class and her conversations with them. Writing in scenes, she deftly managed to work in explanations of all the key components of the first year of curriculum. The first installment got the series off to a good start: engaging storytelling, some interesting kids, clear explication of the Wagner Plan. Following these kids was going to be a great plan. Smooth sailing.

We all know how long smooth sailing lasts in our business. Let Barlament tell it: “The biggest hitch I encountered was that several of the students I featured during first year transferred out of Wagner. Enough remained that I could continue it, but I lost the thread of those stories that I had set up, and I didn’t have quite the diversity of majors I wanted to represent.” Okay, regroup. Same concept, shuffled lineup of players. Barlament again: “In the second year, I featured four students in diverse majors, but then my science major transferred. Argh! And my other science major graduated early, so I featured her in the third year.”

Barlament had two things going for her. First, there was enough of a gap between episodes, so to speak, that few readers were likely to notice that the cast had changed. Though Barlament lost some of the resonance and deeper understanding she’d have derived from being able to follow everyone for four years, she still had good material and she’s an able writer. From Year Two:

If the stuff in a student’s dorm room says anything about whom that student admires, then Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung is Kyle Glover’s hero. The Carl Jung Action Figure, a 5-inch plastic icon of the bespectacled doctor, graces Glover’s desk in Guild Hall next to his copy of The Portable Jung.

“Knowledge is something I collect,” says Glover. “Really that’s what interests me, is everything. I want to study everything. That’s why I’m drawn to Carl Jung—he was the last man, they say, to know everything.”

Barlament’s Year Two story also is written in scenes, each featuring a different student: there’s Glover, and a young woman working with 4th-graders in a Staten Island school, a musical theater student,  a biopsych major. For the third year, Barlament changed gears, reprinting excerpts from one student’s journal about her experiences as an intern at the Institute for Basic Research, studying Alzheimer’s disease, and another kid’s blog about studying abroad in Jerusalem. For the last installment, she posed questions to eight students she’d been following and published their answers as questionnaires.

Says Barlament, “Things that worked: I do understand the Wagner Plan very well now. I hope we can conduct another survey to see if alumni familiarity has been affected. I have had a number of Wagner staff members say to me after reading my articles, ‘Now I understand the Wagner Plan!’ I think the photography worked well. John Emerson did the whole series for us. The first year, we did a series of individual portraits of the students and published them in black-and-white, including the cover, and I got a lot of comments on how striking that photography was. Even if I was bummed that some of the students left Wagner, the ones that remained were fantastic, and their stories worked out to exemplify the Wagner Plan very well.”

One comment

  1. Claude Skelton

    As the designer of many, many admissions viewbooks over the years, we’ve been faced with the task of explaining various novel curriculum plans to prospective students and their parents. Some graphic or editorial approaches have been more successful than others. I’ve seen Barlament’s approach attempted in an admissions/recruiting context, so the concept itself doesn’t strike me as particularly original. What it does demonstrates is the power of excellent writing to carry a concept and make it seem like you’ve never seen it before (granted, in the alumni magazine world, you probably haven’t). Paired with great photography, this is the result I always hope for but never have quite achieved, if only because admissions publications are nowadays limited to “quick reads” pointing to websites. I think we underestimate the power of the well written story.

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