Why Words Matter in a Residential Curriculum

When thinking about my own experience in developing a residential curriculum, I’m reminded of a wordsmithing session I had with some colleagues. We were attempting to set some broad learning goals for our curriculum and we wanted to ensure that our language encouraged critical reflection but also allowed for a diversity of viewpoints. It took us a while, but there was one phrase we finally settled on:

“Students will be able to act from an internal coherent ethical belief system.”

This original formulation was mine and I chose my words carefully. I chose “internal” because although students may be influenced by external belief systems, they nevertheless should choose and act from a belief system that they have personally vetted and adopted. The word “ethical” was included because of our institutional mission to create citizens that can act morally and with civility towards others–however that may be defined by an individual. The word that we spent a lot of time on in our wordsmithing session was “coherent.” I chose “coherent,” because I wanted students to critically examine their beliefs and yet not prescribe a certain belief system. Belief systems may differ from one student to another, but they should at least be coherent and not contradictory. For instance, if one believes in tolerance towards others, and yet actively speaks hateful words, can one justify that these two beliefs/actions are coherent? If they are not, why is that? How can one bring them into alignment through a deeper level of understanding or by changing beliefs? There can be multiple systems of beliefs that are different, but all equally coherent.

Dictionary Definition

As creators of a residential curriculum, it is not the educator’s role to prescribe beliefs for students, but it is the role of an educator to get students to think critically about their beliefs. In the case of developing a residential curriculum, words matter. What matters even more, however, is how these are interpreted when enacting a curriculum. Training staff to understand the history behind an institutional residential curriculum, its formulation, its founding principles and learning goals and why certain words were chosen, is equally as important as deciding on the language itself. Like the childhood game of telephone, an original phrase or meaning can change as it moves through time and from person to person. Developing a curriculum doesn’t just end at the initial conception, but extends throughout its implementation year after year.

This is also why professional staff members are elevated in the residential curriculum process. Although professionals are likely still working through these issues as human beings themselves, they are at least (hopefully) in a better position to have thought through these topics more deeply. Many student staff members who are of traditional college age are still in the process of developing their belief systems. By utilizing professional staff to develop the foundation of a curriculum, a department sets the tone for the entire learning environment. The work doesn’t stop there, however, as student staff must be engaged in dialogue to ensure the original intent shines through.

Key Questions:

So when developing learning goals for a curriculum, I think it’s important to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the language of the learning goals allow for diversity of thought, but also encourage critical thinking and student agency?
  • What mechanisms are in place to ensure that these concepts are carried through more uniformly and with the original intent?
  • How can we engage student staff in this process and maintain the integrity of the curriculum?

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