Monday, May 19, 2008

If Dr. Crazy Ruled The World, Part III: Reterritorialization and the Disciplines

This series, which I suspect is going to be five posts total, begins with these two posts.

Hello, readers. I ended my last installment in this series claiming that I was going to continue by talking about innovation within majors, but I lied. Or, rather, I didn't lie exactly - for I did intend to go there next, and I will be getting to that probably in the next post I do in the series - but in reading the comments to my post about revising the way that gen. ed. works, I realized that I needed to interrupt my previously scheduled idea for the next post in the series with one that talks about how to deal with the tendency to try to use curriculum to "protect territory" in higher education.

First, let me state outright that I'm too much of a cynic to believe that people's territorial tendencies are going to fly out the window if somebody proposes possible ways to go about changing the curricular structure of universities. In fact, what is totally clear in most cases is that when such proposals are made, the typical response is for people within individual disciplines to dig in their heels and to "fight the good fight" to "save" territory and/or to attempt to annex even more territory in the resulting confusion. In this way, curricular revolutions at universities mimic actual revolutions. For this reason, I think it's naive to think that changing how we think about curriculum will do away with territories. Rather, I think we've got to think about this in terms of deterritorialization and reterritorialization (look at me with the jargon! cf. Deleuze and Guattari). In common language, and overly simplistically, my point is that while the process of curricular change does first involve starting from scratch, doing away with the old territories and old centers of power, that the result isn't then some utopia in which territories no longer exist. Instead, new territories and new centers of power will crop up, and so in order for radical change to happen, it seems to me that we've got both to consider the new territories that will emerge and to plot how to organize such territories in such a way that the integrity of the disciplines remains.

Practically, we want to make sure that we don't end up in a situation where "innovating" in education turns into eviscerating disciplines that aren't currently "hot" or that don't hold as much value in a corporate model for higher ed. I'm thinking specifically about the hullabaloo at the University of Toledo, here. In the president's proposals, what we see is a thoughtless - if not outright diabolical - reterritorialization, and one that ultimately would do harm to students at that university. Now, that is an extreme case. But what often happens when major curricular overhauls come up for discussion is that either a) as in the case of Toledo, such overhauls are the brain-children of administrators and they circumvent faculty governance, or b) such overhauls do start with faculty, but the departments with the most "power" (whether through grants, size of department, most loud-mouthed people, FTE hours generated) end up setting the terms for change in ways that consolidate the power that they've already got and also take away some power from weaker entities.

And so, with this being the case, it's essential to pause and to think about how to preserve the integrity of the whole university while at the same time remaining open to radical change. And this is why it's important to take seriously the comments that Dance and Maude left on my last post about changing general education. I'll quote Dance, with whom Maude basically agreed:

"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?"

I'll say this: it's not that I didn't consider this as I was writing about my ideas for gen-ed. I think it's more that it was so clear in my head about how to make this work that I didn't bother to address it. This is the part of the whole innovation thing that requires political savvy and know-how. This is the part where you have to convince people, by hook or by crook, that change will ultimately give everybody more rather than less power. How is that possible?

Well, here are my scattered thoughts about how to keep a plan such as the one that I outlined for general education rooted in the disciplines and to maintain - while at the same time revising - how the power of individual disciplines influences general education curriculum.

- If one moved to an outcomes-based model, particularly for the core writing, speech, research, and math requirements, one would have to give the departments that currently house such requirements the power to determine the exact language of the outcomes and the power to determine the criteria for what makes a course acceptable for fulfilling them. The point is not "anybody can teach academic writing," for example. Rather, the point is that we do believe that our colleagues across disciplines are familiar with academic writing skills and that they can, with assistance, develop courses that fall into line with the outcomes that "composition specialists" believe are crucial to the education of incoming students. So. You leave it to your writing program to come up with the outcomes. Then, you leave it to your writing program to generate criteria that non-traditional "writing courses" would have to meet in order to establish their viability for instructing students toward those outcomes. We already do something like this at my university with the second semester of comp, in which we already have people within the disciplines teaching a handful of sections of those courses, under the advisement of our writing program director and with resources provided by that program. In other words, the point is not to make general education into a free-for-all in which anything goes, but rather to acknowledge that our colleagues do have the ability as teachers and thinkers to devise general courses in which they introduce students to basic concepts.

Now, a good question is whether people in disciplines outside of English would be willing to take this on. At first, perhaps not many. But, there are advantages, and if the pilot program of moving second-semester comp at my institution into the disciplines is any indication, there would be takers. Why? 1) This is a service course that has a small enrollment. Instead of having a lecture course with 80 students and no TA support (in a discipline like psych, for example), you have a discussion-based course with a maximum of 22 students. This can be a really great thing and a great break from the grind of teaching large intro courses. 2) There is the value of better preparing students to do the kind of writing you expect in your other courses. I hate teaching comp, but I will grant that things I don't hate about it are the personal contact that I have with students and the fact that when I see those same students in future courses, they've already got skills that I expect them to have (which is less true for the one's I've not seen in composition). Instructors in other disciplines know that composition doesn't really work for a lot of their students, at least not how they want it to work. But if you give them the tools to do some basic writing instruction (which they end up having to do anyway in those large courses that they teach even though they don't really know how to do it effectively, for the most part) and give them a small class size in which to do it, that can be a real lure.

And let's say that you do something similar with speech, writing, research. I'd say that the same benefits and attractions would hold. Perhaps the way to begin would be to start very small. Although the requirement would change, you'd start with keeping the traditional courses dominant, and have only a handful of outside offerings, and those faculty participating in those would be part of faculty learning communities led by the "traditional" departments that typically handled those requirements. It would thus encourage collegiality across disciplines, there would be support and resources for faculty who haven't typically taught such skills, and it would mean that the faculty were really engaged in innovating at the general education level - rather than just doing time in those courses, just like their students. In other words, I don't think it's impossible.

- Just as there would have to be power centered in the disciplines for devising outcomes/criteria for those core requirements, I think there would have to be similar power granted to the disciplines - or interdisciplines, like Women's Studies, which are typically marginalized in discussions of curricular change - to choose the wording of the outcomes and to designate criteria for how such outcomes should be implemented. What this might mean, logistically, would be that once small groups (of maybe three or four faculty for each general area) determined these things would be that a larger (maybe 10-member or so) university wide "general education committee" would need to exist, at least in the first few years, to ensure that those outcomes and criteria were met and to discuss strategies for doing so most efficiently. The point is not to make more work for faculty but rather to give faculty more agency in determining how curricular change is implemented and in fostering relationships between faculty across departments and providing a space for productive conversations across departments to happen outside of an administrative setting. The chairs at my university are the only faculty across disciplines that regularly meet, and they have to deal with administrata in those meetings, primarily.*** They can't do this work. This has to be faculty without those other issues pulling on their time, faculty who are in the trenches of the classroom full time. Otherwise, we'll end up with a system just as dysfunctional as the current one, one which is a burden not only for students but also for faculty.

The point is, I really believe in disciplinary expertise and I really believe that power in regards to curricular change needs to come from the bottom up - from faculty within the disciplines. That said, I really respect my colleagues in disciplines different from my own, and I wish that there were more productive interchange between colleagues across disciplines when we think about things like the general education of our students. The current system does not engender those conversations, nor does it really allow for them to happen in an ad hoc sort of way. Indeed, we end up protecting the territory of individual courses rather than working together to protect the territory of what students actually learn and how they learn it. This then paves the way for top-down approaches to curricular restructuring and reorganization in which faculty within the (wrong) disciplines are ultimately silenced and in which the general education of students across the university suffers.

This is a conversation that needs to happen not only within disciplines that traditionally have been responsible for general education - not only or even primarily within the College of Arts and Sciences - but also within disciplines that have traditionally been outside of the general education loop (like the College of Business, for example). What the current system does is exempt some disciplines from thinking about the general education of our students and burden others with the responsibility of it. This isn't good for anybody. But individual disciplines do need to have power over certain territories within that general geography of education, and they need to have the power to determine the borders between the different outcomes that we as faculty agree that all students should achieve. The point is not to diminish the expertise and skills necessary to effectively teach toward those outcomes: it's to acknowledge the expertise and skills necessary and to find a way to value those while sharing them across the university. That's not about giving up territory or giving up power: it's about using the power that we've got to make our institutions better and to better the educations of our students.

(I feel like I'm a bit of a Pollyanna in this post, and I know I'm crazily idealistic about the value of cross-disciplinary conversation. That said, if you give me this version as compared with the one that currently exists at many places like mine, I'd be willing to give it a shot. Of course, it could have disastrous consequences, but how can we know if we don't try? This is why I really do think, though, that a slow, measured approach, in which we keep the current courses that "work" while slowly adding other options would be a good way to attempt such an experiment. It's also why I think it's important to think about the logistical part of how all of this works, and to set up structures for oversight on the front end.)

***Actually, that's not entirely true. Faculty across disciplines who serve on things like faculty senate, the university-wide and college-wide curriculum committees, or the graduate council also regularly meet. However, their mission is more procedural than innovative. In other words, the curriculum committees spend their time dealing with new course proposals within the current system, not in changing the system and figuring out how that would work. Same goes for other bodies that deal with procedural issues like faculty senate. My point is that it would be nice for there to be a body that was devoted to the procedures of innovation, or some such, rather than in the nuts and bolts stuff that absorb the current bodies that are in place.


Susan said...

I like your strategy here, which does away with faculty sort of saying, "oh, sure, my course meets X distribution requirement" with no accountability.

I too value cross-disciplinary conversation, but it's really hard on some things. We could see some great conversations here.

And while there is a touch of Pollyanna, I don't think it's crazy crazy. The real problem is that once existing faculty have bought into the outcomes, you have to bring new faculty on board. And that's not easy, necessarily.

Shaun Huston said...

What I'm learning this year is that whatever promise the move to outcomes based curriculum planning has, and the creative possibilities it might open up, can be easily undermined by ham fisted administrative actions that make devising "outcomes" and "assessing" their achievement by students seem like nothing more than hollow bureaucratic exercises with little or no bearing on teaching and learning. At that point, you not only have traditional turf protection to deal with, but also active resistance to one of the tools that might otherwise ameliorate concerns related to disciplinary boundary preservation.

Doctor Pion said...

Its OK to be idealistic; there is plenty of time for reality to fine tune the ideas.

Part of my "freshman" composition requirement was redistributed into a senior seminar, to really positive effect. It is a little easier to get deeper into Bloom's taxonomy when you have three more years under your belt and are learning how to write from someone who can write really well about topics in your academic discipline. I had forgotten the significance of that in my own career until reading your suggestions here.

As you note about an experiment at your school, there was also a lot of stimulating discussion in that course because of a commonality of interest.