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A last-minute innovation-fund proposal

Topics/tags: Grinnell, things I was writing already

Tonight is the deadline for this year’s round of innovation fund proposals. I’ve been planning to write a proposal, but way too many things have gotten in the way, most recently taking Youngest off to college and a three-day meeting out of town. I prefer not to write things at the last minute, not least because I like to get feedback and I consider it important to bring collaborators on board. However, I’d rather submit something than wait another year. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about passively for the past year and actively for the past few months. At worst, I’ll get feedback that permits me to revise and resubmit for another year [1].

For those who haven’t read all of my too-many musings [2], I have some concerns about how we assess the success of Grinnell’s Individually Advised Curriculum (IAC [3]). If you aren’t a Grinnellian, you may not know that Grinnell is one of the few schools in the US that lacks general education requirements. Instead, we expect that students will work with their faculty advisors to craft their own version of a liberal arts curriculum. In the ideal, this process requires students to think carefully about what aspects are essential to a liberal arts education and gives them more incentive to take the particular courses they have selected. In practice, that does not always happen.

What does that have to do with assessment? Well, when the College gets reaccredited, the external evaluators want to see evidence that our students are getting an appropriate liberal arts education. Most recently, we’ve tried to prove that by giving statistics on the percentage of students who take at least three courses in each division, or meeting the Phi Beta Kappa requirements, or whatever. From my perspective, that kind of bean counting is the wrong way to assess the success of the IAC. If we’ve been successful, students should be thinking deeply about the meaning and goals of a liberal arts education and should be able to explain how their selection of courses achieves those goals. In fact, they should be able to do so persuasively and even eloquently [4]. Why not look directly at those outcomes, rather than indirect measures? How should we do so? That’s the subject of my proposal. Here goes.

Name of Project Lead:

Samuel A. Rebelsky

Email of Project Lead:

Project Lead’s role at Grinnell:


If there are co-proposers for the project, list each name/email/role at Grinnell:

[Blank] [5]

Submission Type:

A Pilot project implements an innovative idea. It is evaluated for success based on goals and measurements as determined by the project lead. Pilot projects can apply for up to three years of funding.

A Planning project investigates whether a certain innovative idea is feasible before the actual implementation. Planning projects are limited to one year of funding.

Pilot project (3-year)

Focus Area of Project (may choose up to 2): [6,7]

Curricular Innovation


Short Title: (In a few words, what is the title of your project?)

Beyond bean counting: A more humanistic approach to assessing Grinnell students’ individual curricula

What is the amount of funding that you are seeking? (List dollar amount for each year. Pilot project annual limit is 50,000. Planning project limit is 10,000.)

Year 1: $45,000 [8]

Year 2: $25,000

Year 3: $41,000

Abstract: (Up to three sentences, please.)

Grinnell prides itself on a relatively unique Individually Advised Curriculum (IAC). In recent years, we have assessed the success of the IAC primarily by comparing student course selections to those that might exist in a more traditional, requirements-laden curriculum. In this proposal, we suggest an alternative approach to assessing the success of the IAC in ways more closely tied to Grinnell mission to graduate individuals who can think clearly, who can speak and write persuasively and even eloquently, [and] who can evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas.

Project Description:

(What is the project? Include the significance and potential impact of the project, how the project relates to teaching and learning, and the institutional support, equipment or physical resources needed for your project to succeed.)

Fifty years ago, the Faculty of Grinnell, with the approval of the Board of Trustees, embarked on a new curricular experiment. Rather than telling our students that they would achieve a liberal arts education by taking a particular set of courses or meeting some set of breadth requirements, we entrusted to students and their advisors the more difficult tasks of identifying the meanings and goals of a liberal arts and then selecting courses that will help students meet those goals. We now refer to this approach as the Individually Advised Curriculum (IAC).

In recent years, the Higher-Learning Commission has asked Grinnell to provide evidence that this long-standing curricular approach is successful. Our response has generally been statistical: We respond with statistics about the percentage of students who take mathematics, or foreign language, or at least twelve credits in each division. But such measures don’t get to the heart of a Grinnell education, which is less about particular courses or types of courses and more about the empowerment of students to design their own curricula. It may also miss some important characteristics of students’ experiences, such as those obtained from co-curricular experiences or schoolwork outside of Grinnell.

In this project, I propose that we pilot a set of new mechanisms for both supporting and assessing the IAC. In particular, I suggest that for a selected set of students, we make two changes to the declaration process and add a senior curriculum retrospective.

  1. Declaration Essay. We extend the requirements for the major declaration essay so that it requires that students (i) clearly state their perspective of the meanings and goals of a liberal arts education, (ii) ground that perspective in appropriate literature, (iii) explain how the courses and co-curricular activities they have selected allow them to achieve those goals, and (iv) explain how the courses and co-curricular activities they have selected allow them to engage successfully with a wide diversity of people and perspectives.

  2. Curriculum Defense. At the time of the major declaration, we require each of these students to present a public defense of the issues raised in the essay before a review board consisting of (i) a faculty member from each division, (ii) an alumnus/alumna, and (iii) a staff member (e.g., from student affairs or the CTLA).

  3. Curriculum Retrospective. Near the conclusion of their career, we ask students to meet with a review board to discuss the concrete results of their work at Grinnell to their plans from earlier: (i) What is their (potentially new) view of liberal arts education, (ii) how have their curricular and co-curricular choices contributed (or failed to contribute) to their learning goals, and (iii) how these same choices contributed (or failed to contribute) to their conceptions and ability to engage with diversity.

Not only does this process provide us with deeper understanding of how students understand the meanings and goals of a liberal arts education and how well their course choices help them achieve those goals, it provides us with information on their ability to evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas (in this case, about liberal arts education) and their ability to speak and write persuasively and even eloquently.

This pilot project allows us to assess the costs (primarily faculty, student, and staff time) involved in restructuring these aspects of the IAC and the potential benefits to this very different approach to assessing our students’ curricular and co-curricular choices.

Strategic Goals:

(How would this project contribute to the success of one or more of the College’s six strategic goals? They are Teaching and Learning; Learning Spaces; Enrollment; Post-Graduation Success; Alumni Engagement; and Financial and Human Resource Management.)

This project aligns most closely with Teaching and Learning as it requires students to think more deeply about their learning and to present it to others in multiple ways. Involving alumni in the review process adds a small Alumni Engagement component.

Diversity and Inclusiveness: [9]

(How does the project contribute to a college community that maintains a diversity of people and perspectives as one of its core values?)

It is my hope that because the declaration essay, the curriculum defense, and the curriculum retrospective all require students to reflect on diversity, this approach will provide students with a deeper value for and understanding of diversity.

Learning objectives and measurable outcomes:

Objective 1: Students will develop and demonstrate an appropriate understanding of the liberal arts and choose curricula that support that understanding.

Objective 2: Students will develop and demonstrate an appropriate understanding of diversity and choose curricula that support that understanding

Objective 3: Grinnell will understand the costs (workload, financial) and benefits of employing this approach to assessing curricula.

Measurement: The declaration essay, curriculum defense, and curriculum retrospective provide the primary forms of measurement for objectives 1 and 2. A post-project retrospective workshop will allow us to review these measures. Short surveys about time costs, along with the results of the workshop, will allow us to measure issues relating to objective 3.

Describe why the project is innovative and its suitability for the Innovation Fund:

(Why is the proposal uniquely suited to the stated goal of the Innovation Fund rather than other funding sources? Also include risks/challenges and how they may be addressed.)

This approach to assessment supports a significantly different model for how students think about and express their curricular and co-curricular choices and the College understands those choices. No other obvious funding sources are available for such a project.

The primary risk/challenge is the workload for both students and those who must support the process, such as by helping students craft their essays and prepare for their curriculum defenses (advisors), reviewing those essays and conducting the defense (panelists), and conducting the retrospective (panelists). Will we be able to obtain enough buy-in from faculty and staff to conduct this experiment? I believe so. I also expect that some financial incentives will help, at least during this pilot phase.

Describe the project lead’s qualifications (and co-leads if applicable):

Professor Rebelsky has been on the faculty of Grinnell College for over twenty years. In that time, he has not only advised more than two hundred students. He has also served in a wide variety of roles relevant to this project, including Chair of the Science Division, member of the CTLA Board, member of the Assessment Committee, co-convener of a summer assessment workshop, member of the Tutorial Committee, coordinator of a Tutorial Teaching and Learning Group, and co-director of the Grinnell Science Project.

Budget breakdown:

Provide a list of budget items, their estimated costs, and totals for each year of the project. Option: Instead of entering all the budget information in this application form, you may (1) email an itemized budget to, and (2) enter will send by email in the field below.

For this project, we hope to involve approximately 50 second-year students in years one and two, slightly more than 10% of each year’s class. In year three, we will conduct the curriculum retrospectives with the first cohort. The initial plans are that each panel will involve five people (three faculty, one alum, one staff member) and will hear ten defenses. We may adjust that as interest and availability dictate.

Year One: First cohort of second-year students.

Summer workshop to prepare for the project. Includes development of the declaration prompts, guidelines, and rubric; planning for curriculum defenses and curriculum retrospectives; identification of appropriate resources for students; and similar activities. Approximately 20 participants and two leaders. $20,000.

Incentive for advisors to help advisees with declaration essays and defense preparation: $100 x 50 = $5,000.

Incentive for panelists to compensate for time to prepare for and conduct panels and to take notes for later review: $500 x 25 = $12,500. (Since staff members may not be able to receive incentives directly, their incentives might be used for professional development.)

Travel expenses for alumni panelists. $1,000 x 5 = $5,000.

Student assistant to manage surveys and data; also other miscellaneous expenses: $2,500.

Total: $45,000.

Year Two: Second cohort of second-year students.

Incentive for advisors: $5,000

Incentive for panelists: $12,500

Travel expenses for alumni panelists: $5,000

Student assistant + miscellaneous expenses: $2,500.

Total: $25,000.

Year Three: First cohort now in their senior year.

Incentive for students to participate in curriculum retrospectives ($100 x 50) = $5,000

Incentive for curriculum retrospective panelists: $12,500

Travel expenses for alumni panelists: $5,000

Student assistant + miscellaneous expenses: $2,500.

Retrospective workshop. In this workshop, participants will read and review the data from this workshop, both qualitative (essays, panelist notes) and quantitative (surveys of time requirements). Approximately fifteen participants and two leaders. $16,000.

Total: $41,000.

Note: This proposal does not include a third cohort of students in year three because that would raise the year-three expenses over $50,000. If it is possible to shift funds from year two to year three, we would include that third cohort in year three.

And that’s what I submitted.

One thing I dislike about the Innovation Fund process is that our answers to all of those questions have to fit into two pages. As someone who served on the committee, I appreciate the requirement for concision. But if we want people to be concise, we should perhaps require answers to fewer questions.

Perhaps because I had the requirement in the back of my mind, my first draft was close to two pages [9]. Because I was keeping it short, I likely left out a variety of issues that were somewhere in my head. I wish I had more time to add things and then edit this proposal. Oh well; that’s how things go. I really wish that I had time to better involve others. Unfortunately, that’s a task for the future.

Postscript: If you’re a Grinnell faculty or staff member and would like to participate in this project, please let me know. I assume that at some point, I’ll get a question from the Innovation Fund Committee about likely collaborators.

[1] It also stings less when a last-minute proposal gets rejected.

[2] And rants, since the original impetus for this project likely appeared in a rant.

[3] Is this an acronym in which one pronounces the letters or one that one tries to say as a word? I’d pronounce it like Yak.

[4] Grinnell College. (n.d.). Mission Statement. Available online at The full statement reads as follows:

When Grinnell College framed its charter in the Iowa Territory of the United States in 1846, it set forth a mission to educate its students for the different professions and for the honorable discharge of the duties of life. The College pursues that mission by providing an education in the liberal arts through free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas. As a teaching and learning community, the College holds that knowledge is a good to be pursued both for its own sake and for the intellectual, moral, and physical well-being of individuals and of society at large. The College exists to provide a lively academic community of students and teachers of high scholarly qualifications from diverse social and cultural circumstances. The College aims to graduate individuals who can think clearly, who can speak and write persuasively and even eloquently, who can evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas, who can acquire new knowledge, and who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.

[5] I should have been more proactive about this.

[6] For those who care, the options are Curricular Innovation, Experiential/Applied Learning - Curricular, Experiential/Applied Learning - Co-Curricular, Career Development or Post-Graduate Success, Residence Life, Access - Retention, Learning Space, Technology, Interdisciplinary, Diversity, Global, Alumni Engagement, and Advising/Mentoring.

[7] I considered selecting Diversity, but Advising seems more central.

[8] The full budget explanation appears later in the musing.

[9] As most faculty know, the amount of text that a student can fit into two pages can vary significantly, depending on the typeface, font size, margins, inter-paragraph spacing, and more. My two pages relied on what I consider reasonable choices [11].

[10] Why isn’t it Inclusion?

[11] I would encourage the committee to set word limits, rather than page limits.

Version 1.0 of 2019-09-27.