Strong Hall

Strong Hall, a $114 million facility completed in 2017, houses the anthropology and earth & planetary sciences departments, as well as several lab spaces in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

The restructuring of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee has driven discussion between administration, faculty and students alike. Administrators have opened their doors to any campus member who may have concerns about the proposed changes in a concentrated effort to make the most informed decisions possible based on the factors that involve restructuring the college.

While these changes are not finalized, they have been proposed and will be discussed with the Board of Trustees during their February meeting.

At the Social Sciences Divisional Task Force’s open office hours on Dec. 6, the conversation was focused on how these changes will affect undergraduate and graduate students in years to come.

Randy Brewton, a distinguished lecturer in biology and program coordinator for general biology, expressed his thoughts on what he wants to be considered during this change with his priority being UT students.

“We speak a lot on how this new structure would benefit one department in this way and another department in that way, but I have yet to hear a response on how this will benefit undergraduate students,” Brewton said.

With this topic in mind, Brewton and interim executive dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, RJ Hinde, discussed at length the possibility of collaboration between departments and the role of students and faculty in this change.

“Some departments are really organized and foster research interests of their faculty and there are advantages to that, but sometimes they aren’t well structured for a major and career objectives for undergraduates in that department. The reconfiguration of units should be done so that it can address the future needs of undergraduate students. The new structure might make it hard to interact with another unit,” Brewton said.

Brewton continued to outline some of the potential outcomes and improvements that the new structure may have if faculty would collaborate with each other.

“We’re expected to teach department courses, but students who take the courses might not be in our department. We should be able to benefit from the interaction with those departments – if their students are in our classes, then our collaboration could provide opportunities to make some very cool classes and provide alternatives to students who don’t have a set career path,” Brewton said.

Hinde explained his perspective on the issue of general classes becoming overloaded with non-major students, as someone who has worked closely with the provost office and as a professor. As a part of the restructuring process, Hinde hopes that efforts to continue to develop technology and software will help ease the problems with overloading classes.

“I am consciously optimistic about [UT’s] technology, curricular software and insight to curricular changes that units are making. Hopefully these changes would be able to anticipate the enrollment in classes, including the students that might not be in the college that their department would be teaching,” Hinde said.

Both men agreed that open communication is something to strive for as the proposal approaches crucial stages.

“We must be broad and campus-functional rather than functional as an individual unit,” Brewton said.

Hinde agreed and noted that administrative changes will also help to allow collaboration between colleges. He explained to Brewton that one of his hopes was that the restructuring would allow administrators to take on duties that have fallen to faculty members, which will give faculty more time to focus on teaching and research.

When the conversation turned to discuss the role of students in the restructuring, Brewton kept in mind both undergraduate and graduate students.

“We have been thinking about the size of the incoming freshman class,” Brewton said. “Is it going to be bigger? Smaller? We’re structuring our classes mostly out of worry for numbers rather than thinking more broadly about skill sets we want undergraduates to acquire so they can be as nimble and versatile as possible when they enter the job market. With these questions, we have to consider our graduate students as well.”

Within the biology department, from which Brewton draws his perspective, graduate students can act as teaching assistants who will run labs or discussion sections. Brewton feels that this role can be difficult for graduate students to dive into right off the bat, despite their potential.

“In some cases, we will have graduate students in fall semesters that have never taught before and it can be hard for them. There are always students who are better suited for teaching or better suited for research, but regardless of their ability, the transition can be difficult,” Brewton said.

Though this concern was not in the original plans for the restructuring of the College of Arts and Sciences, Brewton wondered if there was a way to find instructors for graduate classes that could show graduate students the ropes. He felt as though including this option in the restructuring could better benefit undergraduates because they would have better prepared instructors. When asked by Hinde if he knew of any universities that used this method, Brewton cited California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State).

“Sacramento State has had their graduate students shadow an adjunct instructor that specializes in lab for their first semester or longer. That way, grad students learn how to teach from an experienced person and they understand why things happen a certain way. Once they learn, the grad students can teach their own lab sections and that leads to higher enrollment– they have more staff that feel comfortable,” Brewton said.

Finally, another option that Brewton has been pursuing is another version of Biology 101 and 102, two introductory courses with labs that are popular as general education classes at UT.

“We submitted a proposal for an online gen ed class with an online lab – the lecture material would reflect material from both Biology 101 and 102 and could be synchronously online,” Brewton said.

“We wouldn’t be using up lab spaces in Strong Hall or competing for lecture halls. The class could be bigger than what you can fit into a classroom and it makes sense to generalize the class for a gen ed so that undergraduate students who are biology majors can take the more specialized 101 and 102 that they need for their major,” Brewton said.

Brewton further explained his thoughts on faculty collaboration. He expressed interest in having the biology department work with the business school to tailor classes toward those who want to sell medical equipment, or having the biology department work with the school of law to create a class that may teach students about biotech patent laws and similar topics.

“I feel like when you’re hired within a department, you’re discouraged from engaging with other departments, but it could benefit both the faculty and the undergrads,” Brewton said.

Overall, Brewton felt like he had had enough time to “freak out.”

“Freak out can lead to considering what we can do in the future to bring something good out of the restructuring. My perspective is different from faculty who chase grants or train researchers. I’m more invested on the instructional side. I think that priority should be included in this discussion,” Brewton said.

The next open office hours for the Social Sciences Divisional Task Force will be on Dec. 8 from 9:30-11:00 a.m. over Zoom. There is also the opportunity for stakeholders to provide anonymous feedback through a Google form. Though both are primarily intended for instructors, student insight could be useful as this restructuring continues to take place.

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