The Course Outline of Record vs. Academic Freedom

Smith, Beth, Vice President

Faculty are obligated to teach to the Course Outline of Record (COR). This requirement is in Title 5 and accreditation standards and should be in all contractual job descriptions. Yet, ensuring that faculty adhere to the basic content, objectives, and evaluation methods for the course seems to be an untouchable subject, and discussions of teaching to the COR often challenge our collegiality. As peers we must be willing to protect, defend, and teach to the COR as fiercely as possible, and we must respectfully challenge our colleagues who veer away from it. Retaining academic freedom to create and teach the course as each teacher sees fit is the professional right of each faculty member. Despite all the possible controversy to the contrary, academic freedom and teaching to the COR are not necessarily in conflict. Both principles are, in fact, the same, and faculty need both.

Academic freedom applies to two parts of course creation which are, first, developing, and, second, carrying out the COR. Faculty design the COR, which describes all sections of the course, and then design the class syllabus, which describes an individual section of the course. Because both require academic freedom to develop and deliver, faculty may become confused about why and how academic freedom protections apply to a course or to an individual. Faculty are the writers and directors/producers of the course with the COR as the script. The discipline faculty, academic senate, and curriculum committee have all endorsed the “script”, and now it is up to the individual classroom teachers to create a syllabus for the course that includes their own artistic license with the material. All elements of the COR must be included, and more can be added to the individual instances of the course, but objectives and content cannot be eliminated from the course.

The Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet has been performed in many different versions. The play has been a musical, a high school play, several movies, and many professional productions around the world. It has also been produced with a variety of settings—western, medieval, roaring 20s, and various ethnic influences, ages, and persuasions—all at the discretion of the director and producer. The themes for the play remain the same, as does the script, but there is creative license for the director and producer to see Romeo and Juliet through their own particular lens. When the marquee says Romeo and Juliet, everyone knows what story to expect, and disappointment is rampant and critics unforgiving when the production is something other than what was advertised.

The same is true for community college CORs. The course description has been published in the catalog, students have registered, and faculty have been assigned or hired to teach the course according to the COR. Everyone is expecting the course as advertised, and that’s what faculty must deliver. The teacher of record may choose to use computers, lecture, selected readings, group work, and cooperative learning, but the course content is still the same as defined by the COR. All faculty in the discipline know the course content, how to pace it, and how to evaluate it. Creative means to deliver or assess the course are worthy of discussion within the department or amongst faculty teaching the course. Sharing ideas for the course and agreeing to the key elements to convey to students is the collegial aspect of teaching.

At some point, discipline faculty or departments should approve the component parts of the COR prior to it reaching the curriculum committee. Faculty should know what content is proposed and how acquiring the knowledge and skills in the course will be measured and grades awarded. The step of asking all the faculty teaching the course to sign or agree to the COR as part of the curriculum process reminds faculty of their opportunity to contribute to the development of the course and understand the goals of colleagues when teaching it. If all faculty teaching the course have the opportunity to contribute to its design, there will be greater buy-in to the content and outcomes for the course. In some instances, a course is taught by only one person or departments may be small, but this crucial aspect of collectively creating a course can save time and prevent conflict later.

Student learning outcomes provide one means to engage faculty in conversations about teaching to the COR. As faculty establish and assess SLOs, conversations can begin about how and what to teach in the course. Sharing materials, syllabi, and evaluation tools will help everyone teaching the course to determine appropriate tests, quizzes, projects, and other assignments, plus it can define reasonable grading standards or rubrics. As faculty begin discussions of establishing prerequisites, it will be critical for all teachers of a course to be on the same page with expectations for students and each other regarding preparing students to succeed in a given course. The best way to get on the same track is to talk about the curriculum collegially and help everyone create the best course possible. Faculty can routinely share syllabi, visit each other’s classes, discuss data about student performance in the course, and evaluate one another on adherence to the COR.

Some faculty may argue that teaching to the COR creates standardized instruction, and in some ways this is true. The course should be the same script in every section of the course, and all stakeholders (students, discipline faculty, curriculum committees, senates, and colleges) have the right to expect truth in advertising. The teacher of record for a given class has the right to apply the COR according to his or her individual style, and that’s where academic freedom comes into play. As with Romeo and Juliet, the themes and story must be the same no matter who teaches it and how it’s delivered. Some standardization is important for articulation purposes and for the establishment of prerequisites, and compliance with Title 5 and accreditation standards require faculty to ensure that teachers are teaching to the officially approved COR.

The COR and academic freedom protect faculty when used together. Some disciplines routinely field challenges to the curriculum from outside the institution—occasions when an individual or group wants to push and direct the content of a college course in a particular direction. By using professional expertise to establish the COR, faculty are free from unjustified or biased voices external to the institution that attempt to corrupt or commandeer certain courses or experiences for students. Academic freedom protects the development and delivery of official courses in these instances, and once a course is approved by the senate and board, no one has the authority to change the content—not speakers at a board meeting, newspaper editors, or faculty on the campus—except the faculty within the discipline.

If senates feel strongly about adjudicating academic freedom inquiries, they could develop a peer review panel to handle such situations. The panel could help assess whether or not the teacher’s academic freedom has been curtailed or whether the teacher’s approach to the script actually creates a new play. Faculty within a discipline could serve on the panel, or it could be a collection of faculty from across the campus. Through some faculty sponsored mechanism, instructors of the course must be held accountable for teaching the COR and given license to provide the artistic setting in which to teach it.

Faculty must know the boundaries for standardization and individualization, which means recognizing legitimate challenges to academic freedom. No one benefits from having students succeed in a course that does not provide the content advertised in the catalog and described in the COR. Both the institution and students lose in that scenario—the institution because it has failed to guarantee to other entities that students are receiving the content, knowledge, and skills defined in the COR, and students because they are expecting and relying on the content, knowledge and skills published in the college catalog description of the course. Academic freedom gives us license to customize our instruction as long as we stick to the script, and both regulation and good practice require that faculty do so.