This article was drawn from an interview with Matthew Battles, an associate director of metaLAB, and has been edited for clarity.
What motivated Curricle?
The motivation for Curricle came out of a conversation we had with the previous Dean of Arts and Humanities, Diana Sorensen, regarding a kind of crisis in the humanities and the liberal arts: questions around their purpose and what value they have to society now. In the context of a world in which students feel very compelled by preparing for the private sector and industry, we wondered if it might be possible for us to reimagine a course selection experience that would prize a greater depth of curiosity, inquiry, and reflection; not only asking what needs they have to fulfill in the course of their educational career, but why those needs exist.
As a historical case study, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein, both alumni of the College, were two very different writers in the early 20th century. They had very different approaches to the courses they chose and the course of study that they ultimately undertook, and those rhyme in interesting ways with the cultural figures they became later on. Eliot’s course of study was very straight, down-the-line literature, with most courses lying in religion, language studies, and 19th-century literature. If you look at the courses that he decided to take, they look like really good preparation for writing like The Wasteland or the Four Quartets. Stein, on the other hand, took a more eclectic set of courses, studying with William James, George Santayana, and Josiah Royce. As a consequence, Gertrude Stein’s work appears in interesting places across the curriculum — psychology, philosophy, and even in theater and dance courses — while T.S. Eliot is typically concentrated in literature and religious curricula.
Today, the landscape of possibilities looks much different than it was fifty or a hundred years ago. In what ways does course selection matter today, in the context of students deciding whether they’re going to go work as consultants, or go into government, or go to graduate school, or start a business?
What is the motivation behind the visualizations that Curricle offers?
We’ve got four different visualizations in the part of Curricle called the Explorer that offer a 30,000 foot view of one or two dimensions of relationships among courses. One example is the keyword comparison: you input two keywords, and you get a quick selection of the departments where those words are present and overlap.
As a student, you might say that you’re going into economics, but you also want to learn something about the ethical expectations of practitioners. Alternatively, if you’re somebody who’s interested in questions that might be at more of a kind of meta-ethical level, you might want to choose a set of keywords that lets you drill down to a more provocative set of possibilities. The tool gives you the chance to look at a map of possible connections and disconnections and in a sense choose your own adventure.
How does the matching tool relate to formal requirements already laid out by the various degree programs?
We recognize that [degree requirements] are powerful, but we hope that they can be generative for students at the same time. We’re optimistic that if we can get the visualizations right, they’ll both serve students’ purposes in addressing the mandates that those strictures impose while also offering a little bit of flux and openness. Perhaps in searching for a way to fulfill your art requirements, the visualizations point you to a class that asks questions about the impact of technology on art production over time, which might help you to think about the work you might end up doing as a producer for Netflix or as a product manager for Amazon: bringing design and art and creativity to bear on the commercial sector. The hope is that the visualizations can help to kind of tease apart the norms and expectations of the curriculum while also serving the needs of students.
What questions about higher education and a liberal arts degree do you hope to answer with Curricle?
We had a moment where we were trying to think about how courses have changed over time and we really quickly realized it’s really not pertinent to course selection. So we built a separate platform called Curricle Lens, which is a storytelling platform for looking at the history of the curriculum. We’re trying to ask questions about the relationship between the curriculum and the world. To what extent did changes in the courses represent changes within academic discourse? Alternatively, do they provide a signal of the kind of conversation between the university and the world?
One story that we’ve focused on is looking at differences how the disciplines teach, particularly looking at differences between the sciences and humanities. C.P. Snow, a mid-20th century novelist, gave a lecture in the 50s arguing that the culture of the sciences and humanities were diverging from each other and that this was a problem for not only for the university but for society. We see that very concretely in their course offerings over time. Courses in the sciences tend to last for a long time, while courses in the humanities have far more variation.
In these visualizations, red hash marks are where a course was first offered, and the hash marks go blue as they get closer to the last time it was taught. The sciences, which is where we think innovation happens, tend to have a lot of consistency. There’s a lot of conservatism, in fact, which also makes sense in scientific terms because the burden of proof that comes with innovation is very high and very specific. In the humanities, by contrast, there are lots of courses that emerge and disappear in very short order. Humanities courses seem to be always trying to fit a set of past materials to the present, and there’s constant revision of what is unique and valuable about the classical tradition. It motivates us to think that there are ways to seize some of that disruptive potential of the humanities, that are valuable in business, academic life, and government.
What do you aim to learn as students use Curricle more and more?
We feel like we’re still maybe halfway there in terms of finding visualizations that really crack the curriculum open in ways that are generative. A substantial part of that actually is the kind of quality and granularity of the data that are available to us. We’re currently relying on basically the course descriptions, which are 100 to 250 word chunks of texts that are just the abstract-level description of what a course is. However, there’s only so much that the course descriptions can tell you about the authors, works of art, media or problem sets that a class might engage in. The next step is for us to actually use the syllabus as an enrichment of our dataset so that you can visualize relationships not just among words or phrases or topics in the course description, but also among the contents of the courses. So we’re hopeful that we can get students to help us map the relations among the finer sets of data in a way that really feeds their curiosity in ways that are rewarding.
Check out Curricle at: curricle.berkman.harvard.edu. Below is a more comprehensive overview of its features, drawn from the project’s pubbing materials.
- How do I find a class in between two disciplines? I want to take a seminar, but where do I start the search?
- I have a favorite professor, but how I do branch out in new directions?
- I wish I could shop and plan my week out at the same time…
- I wish I could easily access the Q Guide as I plan out my semester…
Are these thoughts running through your mind as you gear up for Spring 2020 shopping? If so, we can help!
Curricle is an innovative software platform for students to discover classes, share questions and findings with advisers and friends, and map out trajectories through the Harvard course catalog. Through engaging data visualizations and advanced search tools, Curricle reveals otherwise hidden connections among classes and instructors, giving users the chance to forge meaningful links across diverse fields of interest.
Curricle features a list of capabilities including:
- Provocative visualizations that encourage new ways of discovering interesting classes, subjects, and professors
- Suite of planning tools that allow you to view your schedule as you shop
- Integration of Q Guide and syllabus links for direct access from course windows
- Automatic import of courses you have taken in the past for you to plan your academic trajectory
- One-click sharing of schedule with friends and advisers
- Streamlined process of exporting of schedules into my.harvard for registration
To learn more about the project and the team that brought it to you, find us at the metaLAB (at) Harvard.