Saturday, May 17, 2008

If Dr. Crazy Ruled The World, Part II: General Education

I've been thinking for the past couple of days about how to write the follow-up to this post, in which I muse about how to rethink undergraduate curricula. Where I left you, faithful readers, in the last post is that I think we've got to rethink general education requirements. Now, I really want this post to be grand, but I feel like it's not going to be. It's sort of a "duh" post, to my mind, no matter how I try to dress it up. But so here's what I was thinking. First, I was thinking about Tim Burke's ideas about a program of study for first-years. Now, the procedure he outlines (which is lengthy, and which I won't go into here) has a lot of great things about it. First, I really like how the courses connect to one another, and I really like the emphasis on skills that we expect students to gain in the first year as opposed to x courses a student must take.

Where it falls apart for me when I think about the curriculum at my regional university is that it's too regimented a program of study. At a university where you've got students who've transferred in (from both more and less selective institutions) and where you've got students who are non-traditional in a variety of ways (even if they are traditionally aged, they typically have work and family obligations that are very different from what we think of when we think of a "traditional" college student), there needs to be much more flexibility, and I think the program of study needs to be much more clearly connected to the possibility of a major. My students don't come in wanting to explore, for the most part. They come in wanting a degree so that they can get a better job. So it's up to the faculty to trick them into exploring. That's one thing I think our very traditional general ed set-up fails to do.

The way that gen. ed. typically works at institutions like mine pretty much sucks. General education is like a buffet, where you've got to take a certain number of dishes from each part of what's offered. Some students end up gorging themselves in one area only to end up feeling gross and not having been nourished properly later. Other students can't seem to get it through their heads that the point is to be enriched by their gen ed requirements - and hopefully to enjoy them - they're more concerned about "getting their money's worth" and so only take courses that can double up for major requirements, about getting the "most value" for their buffet buck, even if they don't actually like what they choose (and even if they change their major later, which thoroughly screws them, as I know because I took this approach in my own undergrad career). They see gen. ed. as a necessary evil for the most part, which I can't believe is how the people who came up with this idea wanted students to see these requirements.

So why does gen. ed. typically work this way? Well, I'm thinking that it has played out as it has in large part because there wasn't the technology to do it better. Back in olden times before outcomes-based assessment and the computer programs that turn the specific content of courses into statistics, the only way to ensure that students got certain "skills" or "concepts" was to identify courses that would teach those skills/concepts that could be plugged in to demonstrate that students had gotten them. But currently at my institution, with new measures for assessment and accreditation, there are all of these new technologies being implemented that basically mean that the old "course x does skill/concept y" model is totally outmoded. But still, rather than revise how we think about gen. ed., we're trying to align the old model with the new assessment requirements (which is ultimately a huge time-suck and not terribly rewarding for anybody).

Now, there is the concern that if we did away with stipulating certain "core" requirements (comp, math, speech) that students would somehow come out of college not knowing how to write, do math, speak publicly, etc. There is then the further concern that if we don't outline very carefully what courses "count" that this would limit students' transferability in or out. There is also the concern that this would be too hard to monitor. Now, I'm conceiving of this idea specifically in relation to a new data collection thing that we're being required to do, in which we have to upload our syllabi, make sure that each syllabus has specific learning outcomes that align with those of the department, college, university, etc. In other words, I have this extra work in order for the university and the accrediting body to be able to evaluate my teaching, and yet we're not using it for any educational value. With this system in place, it seems to me that it only makes sense to use it to benefit students, faculty, and the university as a whole, rather than clinging to a system that values course numbers that ultimately no longer hold any value.

So let me speculate about how I can conceive of this working.

1. In place of the core of 2 semesters of comp, one math class, and one speech class, I'd like to see students required to take 1 course that would be labeled with a W (for writing-intensive) wherein the specific aim would be to give them lots of practice in writing formal, academic papers; one course labeled with an R (for research-intensive) wherein the specific aim would be to give them lots of practice in doing college-level scholarly research; one course labeled M (for math-intensive) wherein the specific aim would be to give them practice doing college-level math/logic; one course labeled with an S (for public-speaking intensive) wherein the specific aim would be to give them lots of practice in doing college-level public speaking. This would not do away with the old courses that fulfill these requirements, at least not initially, but it would offer greater flexibility for options, particularly in the first semester of college. There is no reason why "freshmen comp" needs to be the only class in which students learn academic writing, and, in fact, I'd argue that many first-semester comp classes often don't actually focus on academic writing. They focus on personal writing, "creative" assignments, reactive writing... things that ultimately don't serve students terribly well outside of the composition classroom, especially in certain majors. There is no reason why "College Algebra" has to be the only class that serves the math needs of all college students. Students could very easily get a great deal more out of a research-intensive course in the first year that is more closely related to the major that they think that they'd want to choose than your typical second semester of composition is, and there is no reason why a course within a discipline couldn't emphasize public speaking. Now, sections of those "traditional" offerings would still be there, and it could even be emphasized that if students would like to transfer out that these will ease the way. But given the trouble that people have in transferring courses from one institution to another anyway, it's not unlikely that even if students chose that option that they'd still need to provide assignments and syllabi to "prove" that those courses met the requirement elsewhere. If the student has to take that step anyway, what is the inherent value of "ENG 101" on a transcript? The fact is, I don't think that there is one. And I know that I could adapt my 100-level and 200-level literature courses to be either writing-intensive, speaking-intensive, or research-intensive in ways that would be really great, if this were an option. Now, you may be wondering about the overlap question. Because obviously there would be overlap. Well, this could be dealt with in one of two ways. One option would be that courses could have multiple designators, but students would still need to take four, even if they killed two birds with one stone in one course that they took. Another option would be that the instructor would choose the designator that he/she felt was most dominant in the course. Either way, students would take four courses that fulfill these core "learning outcomes" - it just wouldn't depend on taking four specific courses.

2. After these courses, the requirements within a traditional gen. ed. framework become much more flexible. As gen ed currently stands at most universities like mine, students must take X hours in a certain number of areas (humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, diversity, fine arts, typically). And there are courses listed under each area that "count." Now, why are these particular courses essential to a students "general education"? Students often choose these courses with no rhyme or reason other than that they fulfill a requirement and fit into their schedule. They don't necessarily speak to one another, nor do they necessarily build a student's skill set or body of knowledge in a systematic way. For example, I'm teaching one of these courses this summer, and I think it's fair to say that 90% of the students in there are only taking it because it fits with their work schedule and fulfills their requirement. They don't give a crap about what I'm teaching (well, or maybe they are starting to now that I've got my hands on them, but they didn't come in giving a crap - they came in doing time). Is there a way, I wonder, for us to focus more on what we hope students will learn and who we hope they'll be after that first 60 hours or so, rather than on protecting our disciplines and course enrollments? Is there a way to make general education even more flexible, so that students actually get something that benefits their ultimate majors after general education is over?

What I'm wondering about is how it's possible to keep the broad categories and yet to do away with assigning particular courses for fulfilling them. Instead, we'd arrange the "general education" requirements according to desired outcomes. So, let's say that we believe that students should have mastery of the basic techniques of literary analysis, to read literature carefully and to write about it in a systematic and formal way. Why can't any 100 or 200-level literature course do this? Or let's get even more general. Let's say that we want students to be able to "read" creative works (art, film, music, and/or literature) carefully and to write about creative works in a systematic way. Why can't any 100-200-level course across a number of disciplines work to achieve this outcome? Again, if we agree that this is possible, it doesn't mean totally doing away with courses that traditionally did this: instead, it means expanding the options to include the non-traditional, the multidisciplinary, the stuff that doesn't fit into the traditional models as they now stand.

I think the value in this would be huge, both for students personally and for education in the first two years generally. For students, it would mean that they could have a wider range of possibilities from which to choose, which would help with work schedules and other logistical concerns that they have. If they know going in that fulfilling the "creative works" requirement will include careful reading and analysis, they know how much work that will be and whether they can handle that amount of work in a given semester. In contrast, the model as it now stands is you could end up in an Intro to Lit course like mine, with lots of writing and reading, or in one offered by an overworked adjunct, in which the course consists of short readings from one anthology and 3 tests. There is very little similarity between the two courses, but they both fulfill the same requirement, technically. For education generally, the value would be that it would encourage professors to develop courses that are truly innovative in response to the needed outcomes. We'd be much less hemmed in by "how things are done" and more free to explore the best possible approaches. Moreover, there'd be room for thinking about how courses across disciplines serve the same ends.

There would still need to be a limit on the number of courses a student could take in one discipline, but if the possibilities were opened up as I suggest, I think it would be much more likely that students could tailor at least some of their gen. ed. to the requirements of their potential majors. Indeed, majors could list the "learning outcomes" that they think are most essential, and students could weight their courses across disciplines accordingly. They would still get a broad foundation in their general education requirements, but there would be a clearer link between those courses and their future specialization and their future careers.

Finally, this would open the possibility that in a given semester, certain offerings could be linked as "learning communities" or even just as "suggested combinations" that would work well together. (I think that "learning communities" are great, but the scheduling of them is often problematic for many students. So I can imagine that we'd expand our first year programs learning community program while at the same time we could just have "recommended course of study" options that would fit a larger variety of schedules.) This would 1) foster more communication between faculty across disciplines, 2) it would make the links between individual courses clearer to students. In other words, it could make a great deal of sense to take a philosophy course at the same time that one took one's biology with lab and an introductory level literature course focused on nature writing. Such linked courses would encourage students not to put off their general education requirements because, if they're organized by outcome rather than by catch-all course, they can actually take crap that interests them, at least somewhat. Further, majors can begin to develop suggested modules that students would take, which would give them better insight into the issues and concerns of their major before they hit junior and senior year.

As I write all of this out, it occurs to me that some would say that this is way too complicated. The issue, though, is that I would argue that we probably all could agree on 10 or 15 desired outcomes that students would achieve in their first two years of college. If we've got the technology to map how an infinite number of courses address those 10-15 outcomes, why not use it? Again, we wouldn't need to do away with the courses that currently "work" for general studies. Those can remain. This then would resolve the problem of transfer agreements with local CCs, because they would know what our learning outcomes for those courses are, and they could adjust accordingly. But also, if we had a more flexible, outcomes-based gen-ed, it would open up possibilities for innovation at CCs, because as long as they could demonstrate that their courses met those outcomes, their students would transfer in just fine. As for transferring out, it might be slightly more complicated, but again, there could be a suggested curriculum for students planning to transfer out. The point here isn't to throw the baby out with the bathwater: it's to find a way to innovate within the constraints.

I don't want to believe that innovation or transgression isn't possible because I'm not at an elite institution. I don't want to believe that the bureaucratic quagmire that currently exists at my institution is only going to expand and that there's no possibility of re-envisioning a new bureaucratic quagmire :) So these are my scattered thoughts on general education. In my next installment, I want to think about how this works for individual majors, because it occurs to me that if these changes were made at the gen-ed level, that this would then allow for some pretty radical stuff to happen with major requirements.

(Note: I could be on crack with this idea, I freely admit. Feel free to give me the smack-down in comments.)

eta: See Part III here.


Dance said...

I like this idea. It largely follows the same principles that everyone already accepts, but offers a more modern and feasible way to implement them. The promise that this can be gradually implemented alongside the old system, rather than requiring drastic changes, also makes it far more feasible to get done.

My grad uni did the intensive writing requirement this way---e.g., students must write X amount of words, any dept could offer such a course. To a great extent, it's also the way multicultural requirements are handled, that I've seen, though the outcome on those tend to much more loosely written.

I guess one thing you run into is territorial issues---can lit profs really teach speech? will math profs get mad when a physics course meets the math req?

Maude Lebowski said...

i agree with dance. i like the way you've "re-envisioned" things in a way that seems more practical, perhaps? (if i'm not too much bastardizing what dance said either).

i agree with the territorialness, too. i wonder what that could look like?

Doctor Pion said...

This is really wonderful work on your part. We have that "column A, column B" approach to much of gen ed and it has some flaws. One flaw it does not have is that everyone takes the same composition course and the math sequences are very tightly constrained. It gets fragmented in the science, social science, and humanities territory and can lack any coherence if the student picks classes at random.

What I like is that you looked at the problem de novo, rather than by trying to trade this class for that one.

My biggest problem with Burke's college is that its graduates would all starve or die of disease or exposure without any scientists, engineers, or doctors being produced in a nation that adopted this model for all of higher ed.

I can, however, tell you to look at one place that follows this model with only BS and MS degrees offered: Harvey Mudd College. Everyone takes exactly the same classes during the freshman year. This is only possible because the entering class is fairly uniformly highly skilled, but it makes possible some really creative things. A semester might include a four week class followed by a 10 week class, two 7 week classes back to back, and two 14 week classes. There is a "just in time" aspect to much of it that probably also encourages learning because of the clear (and sometimes immediate) linkage of prerequisite classes.

You will note that this exposes all of the things that make such an approach impossible at your college or at mine.

PS - We already have a process in place at our college where certain science classes will substitute for a math class if the student has a particular disability. I'd rather see a nice linkage between math and science or math and personal finance classes that put the focus on using knowledge rather than cram and forget.

Annette said...

As a former teacher of freshman comp, I like your idea of giving students the option of learning academic writing in other courses rather than forcing them to take one-size-fits-all comp classes. I think students would take the class more seriously that way. And you're right, we do spend a lot of time focusing on writing that is not academic.

OTOH, having students actually learning some subject matter in addition to focusing on really improving their writing skills might be a difficult balance. Would instructors really want the double duty of teaching their subject as well as correcting the writing habits of students who, let's face it, write pretty poorly when they first come to the university? My fear is those courses will get "comp"ed and become as undesirable to teach as freshman comp classes.

Artistic Soul said...

Actually, my university moved to something like this a year ago and so far it seems to be working better than the old model. What you describe here is what I think the idealized version was supposed to be, but it had to take a few hits in places because of several key, powerful faculty that were resistant to changing the old model for exactly the reasons you identify. It's not ideal, but at least I feel like we're moving in the right direction.

Melissa said...

My SLAC has a system like this as well where some courses have letters attached to them which fulfill various parts of the Graduation "Plan". A W means writing intensive and every student must have one every year, and one must be in the major. There are letters for independent learning, applied learning (for classes that have a practical component of some kind), speaking intensive, etc.

In addition there is a "breadth of study" requirement meaning each student needs to take 2 each of fine arts, social science, natural science, and humanities.

Part of the plan also includes a "math" or "reasoning" course and a basic freshman comp.

Anonymous said...

My experience has shown me that faculty too often are less than qualified to work outside their own disciplines, so expecting a biology professor to hammer away at writing skills ... best of luck with that one. Too, the notion of "coherence" that worries so many when addressing the validity of "core courses" worries me a bit, for it assumes that the human mind will collapse if we don't organize the seemingly disparate by making the hidden connections visible for our students ... and doing so with a religious fervor would suggest that life itself, beyond the confines of the campus, will come to our successful students in ways that are forever logical and coherent.

Should gen ed programs be revisited in an ongoing way? Sure, of course, just as degree programs in business and the sciences need to be rethought and reformed. I would advise, though, that we not forget that something far beyond the narrow focus of business and the sciences, for example, serves as the glue that allows those attached to the narrow points of interest to come together, communicate with each other and, with a degree of luck, understand one another.

Much as we now realize just how important family medicine is, especially when the med field has dumped family medicine in favor of splintered speciality areas, it would be an eggregious error to believe or conclude that gen ed programs are like so much rotting fruit.