An Inside View of College-Conservatory Collaboration

By Laura Baudot and Peter Swendsen, cochairs of the Conservatory and College Interdivisional Curricular Committee

This fall we set out with a group of six Oberlin faculty members to harness one of Oberlin’s greatest strengths: the coexistence within one institution of an extraordinary conservatory of music and a renowned liberal arts college.

Many students, of course, have taken advantage of that unusual combination over the years, forging their own inventive courses of study. But as the One Oberlin report made clear, we can do more for more students, if we act boldly to put this kind of collaboration at the heart of an Oberlin education.

The quality, depth, and variety of current course offerings in the college and the conservatory afforded us ample material with which to work. The rigor of existing academic and performance majors provided us with the freedom to design flexible and experimental curricular models that would complement students’ majors.

What struck us as we set about this work is that Oberlin is unique not only for its combination of excellence in the liberal arts and music, but also for its longstanding tradition of experimentation. The ExCo program, Winter Term, and individual majors; interdisciplinary minors and integrative concentrations; and TIMARA, PACE, and Performance and Improvisation (PI)—all of these speak to the spirit of restless inquiry that infuses Oberlin’s culture.

For more than a decade, the Allen Memorial Art Museum has assisted faculty members in drawing from the visual arts to develop novel pedagogical approaches to fields that span the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. More recently, a Mellon grant has inspired faculty members to incorporate the study of music into courses across the disciplines to enhance music in the liberal arts. The institution’s academic and artistic excellence affords us the means to break new intellectual and artistic ground. Exploring new paths is the Oberlin way.

Beginning in late August, the Conservatory and College Interdivisional Curricular Committee (CCICC) met weekly. Faculty also worked in interdivisional pairs outside of the regular meeting time to design the minors in Arts and Creative Technologies, Interdisciplinary Performance, Music and Cognition, Music and Popular Culture, and the integrative concentration in Arts Administration and Leadership.

The nuts and bolts of building these new curricular areas often led to fascinating debates among committee members. What qualifies as a performance? Why “integrative” concentration? If “integrative” signifies the marriage of theory and practice—coursework, plus a pre-professional experience—isn’t the term redundant? Isn’t everything an integrative concentration?

These questions point to important cultural differences between the conservatory and the college in their traditional cultures and orientations. Professional development is intrinsic to our conservatory education; the liberal arts has traditionally devoted itself to academic study and intellectual inquiry as an end in itself. In bringing our divisions together, we not only pool our resources to develop new curricular offerings; we also help each other integrate the best of an education designed to reach a specific career goal with the best of an education that makes learning itself the goal. We want our students to be savvy in negotiating the multiple avenues leading to meaningful careers, animated by a deep love of learning, eager to share their talents, and resourceful enough to cultivate audiences and opportunities where none yet exist.

What emerged from this heady exploration was a new level of collaboration between the college and the conservatory and a shared commitment to opening up more opportunities for students to synthesize their study in music and the liberal arts. These five new areas of study are not the finish line; they are a starting point for a future of innovation in educational programming.

The work of the CCICC will continue into the spring semester and will include bringing a new minor in music—already endorsed by the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), the Educational Plans and Policies Committee (EPPC), and the conservatory faculty—to the college faculty for a vote in February and increasing the quantity and quality of secondary lessons and performance opportunities for college students in the conservatory.

In collaboration with college and conservatory admissions, we have begun strategizing ways to showcase the newly enriched opportunities for studying music available to students who matriculate in the college, and for double-degree and conservatory students, the new wealth of interdisciplinary minors and integrative concentrations. Because we also serve on other One Oberlin implementation committees, we have witnessed firsthand the truly interconnected nature of the goals.

We are excited about this new level of collaboration between college and conservatory, and we are grateful to our colleagues: the tireless and dedicated members of the CCICC (Julia Christensen, Todd Ganson, Rebecca Leydon, Tom Lopez, Tamika Nunley, Alexa Still); the faculty and staff on EPC and EPPC for their thoughtful and constructive feedback; and the many faculty who answered our inquiries about course offerings with enthusiasm and support and who volunteered to serve in administrative capacities. A special thanks also goes to Mikala Jones, our student assistant in the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences office, for her careful assistance with compiling information on courses in all five areas. And finally, we could not have done this work without the vision and leadership of Dean Kamitsuka and Conservatory Dean Quillen.