As St. Olaf prepares to review and revise its general education (GE) curriculum, one area of the college has already experienced similar changes on a smaller scale. The St. Olaf music department, which is comprised of more than 60 faculty and staff and hundreds of students, recently conducted an intense review process that culminated in substantial changes to prerequisites for popular courses, more opportunities for non-music majors to participate in music courses and the addition of a new faculty member.
The changes affect all incoming first-year students and beyond, and they have the general goal of enabling students to take a variety of new courses, according to music department chair Professor Justin Merritt.
The changes have several far-reaching implications. For instance, by adding elective courses and relaxing prerequisites, the department hopes to open itself up to more non-music majors who might be unable to participate under the current structure.
“In the past, if you were interested in an advanced musicology class, you had to take two full [prerequisites] to take that class,” Merritt said. “[These changes] were implemented with the idea that students can take all these wonderful different kinds of courses, whether it’s musicology, composition or jazz history, and that they can design their own plan of study without us doing it for them.”
But opening up the department to non-music majors is only a “side benefit” of the changes, according to Merritt. Affording students “the chance to develop their plan of study with greater freedom” is the ultimate goal of the reforms.
Intrinsic to the goal of increased academic freedom is the hiring of an ethnomusicologist, “someone who studies music from a sociological and ethnographic perspective,” Merritt explained. By requiring fewer core courses for music history or theory, for example, students will be freer to enroll in the new professor’s classes.
As would be expected given the scope of the changes, the music department did not design and implement these revisions overnight.
“We had two full years of working groups that came up with different plans,” Merritt said. “We spent almost a year devising the curriculum and making sure everybody would be able to graduate, so yeah, it’s a long time coming.”
Student reactions to the changes are generally positive. Devon Steve ’17, who serves as a student representative of the music department, voiced his enthusiasm for the direction the revisions promise to take the department.
“I think it’ll be a great change because it gives first-year music majors a chance to really dive deep into the parts of music that they really want to explore, but also gives non-music majors even greater opportunity to participate in the music curriculum and benefit from the experiences that music majors have,” Steve said.
Ultimately, the changes are in keeping with the mission of St. Olaf in general, according to Merritt.
“Music is a liberal art and always has been,” he said. “This is going to give us the opportunity to have that be ever more the case at St. Olaf.”