SMU senate tightens course pre-reqs, outlines

University also ponders restricting special topics courses

The Saint Mary’s University senate met on Friday, Nov. 16. Photo: Rachel Ward

Students should be told if they need specialized skills to take a course, Saint Mary’s University’s senate has decided.

The Saint Mary’s senate has approved a policy that will see professors clearly outline in the syllabus any skills a student must have in order to take a course, for example, involving the use of technology such as statistical or mapping software.

Students have appealed their grades, saying they weren’t prepared for courses, said Paul Dixon, SMU registrar and chair of the senate curriculum committee. 

“We had one grade appeal from a student saying that, ‘I shouldn’t have to use those sorts of tools or be expected to learn those sorts of things during the course,’” said Dixon. “And we didn’t feel that was appropriately conveyed to the student at the time of the course starting or them signing up for the course.

“If there is something that you need to acquire or need to remember from a past course, you’ve (now) got advance notice of it,” said Dixon. “And you’re not going to find that out seven weeks into the course.”

The new policy, spearheaded by the university’s curriculum committee, is intended to reduce the number of grade appeals and result in students taking courses they’re ready for.

“There are certain sets of expectations on the student coming into it,” said Dixon. “That’s communicated clearly to the student and it also helps hold the student accountable to it.”

The new course outline policy goes into effect in January and states that outlines should only be changed with written notice to students and copied to the dean. 

Professors will be adding several additional items to course outlines, such as a list of recommended specialized skills, as well as the course descriptions from the academic calendar. 

Sometimes courses change over time but professors don’t update the course descriptions in the academic calendar which student use to pick courses during registration, said Dixon, acknowledging he’s occasionally done that with his own classes in the commerce department. 

The policy includes a template to standardize course descriptions for the academic calendar.

Dixon noted the policy is meant to serve as a template, without firm rules dictating how exactly professors should fulfill it. Nonetheless, the policy earned the majority support of the senate last Friday.

Special topics reviewed

The senate was more divided on a proposed policy put forward by the curriculum committee about special topics courses and directed study.

Dixon told the senate some departments at SMU were over-using special topics classes and by-passing the senate, which approves each regular course. Special topics classes are meant to pilot a new subject or invite a guest lecturer, and have looser approval processes. But Dixon said that’s not what’s happening.

“Speaking on behalf of the curriculum committee, they feel offended by the excessive use of special topics courses. They put in long hours approving courses and providing feedback on these,” said Dixon. “There are certain communities on campus that by-pass senate and the approval processes so that they can put on their set of courses for the year.”

Many courses labelled as special topics look similar to courses that have been approved by the senate, he said, or have been done multiple times, without going through the course approval process. 

“There should be some justification why we need special topics courses.”

Not everyone agreed, and several faculty members suggested the committee seek more input from faculty.

Alison Barclay, a classics professor and SMU senator, said policy changes to special topics courses would disproportionately affect her department, which is staffed by herself and one other professor. 

“It was our way of being able to rotate some courses which Dr. (Myles) McCallum and I have expertise but cannot necessarily offer,” said Barclay. “It was a way of offering more course offerings without locking us into 20 different courses to have available.”

She says the effect is even greater when one of them is on sabbatical. 

Senate has sent the policy back to committee and will review it again at the next meeting after the committee seeks further feedback from the deans.