Thursday, May 15, 2008

If Dr. Crazy Ruled The World: Reconceiving Undergrad Curriculum at a Regional Comprehensive University, Part I

This will be my first post in a series (because I'm writing as I'm going) of a response to Timothy Burke's post imagining a 21st century liberal arts college and to Dean Dad's commentary on that post. I'll admit the germ of this response first came from how I felt about Dean Dad's response to Burke's post, as when I first read what Burke had to say, my initial response was, "this has nothing to do with me." What struck me about Dean Dad's response was that he seemed to conclude (though this may be simplistic) that there was no room for transgression or innovation unless one was at an elite college or university. And thus, my first comment to him was basically, dude, why would you think that Timothy Burke, at Swarthmore, would speak for you or for anything that you could reasonably achieve? Now, that was a flippant response, but it did come from a real place. From my perspective, it's important that we think about what our own institutions, and our own student populations, need and want and could benefit from, as opposed to dreaming that they could become something other than what they are without some pretty substantial intermediate steps. That said, the response was flippant, and Burke called me on it. In a comment back to mine, he wrote:
Yeah, it's absolutely an elitist kind of institution that I'm imagining. As I told the faculty at College of the Atlantic, you're a "long tail" institution: there is only a small number of students who ought to be there, and the real challenge is to find them and persuade them.

It's worth thinking about what could carry over to a wide variety of institutions, though. In some respects, that just takes us back to the kind of constructivist v. behavioralist arguments about pedagogy. Or maybe the question is, "If a CC or regional comprehensive didn't have severe resource limitations, what would it do educationally that its students might be prepared to benefit from?" I don't think, for example, that large lecture classes with typical remember-and-repeat pedagogy benefit most students, regardless of their preparation.
Now, I think this was an entirely fair response, and I agree that it's valuable to think about what could carry over to a broader range of institutions. Indeed, for whatever reason, I'm more interested, in many ways, in thinking about innovation from within strict constraints than I am in imagining innovation in a more free, or "long tail," setting. So what I've been thinking about is just this: how would changing the structure of university curricula work from the vantage point of a regional, comprehensive, non-selective university work? If I'm at No-name, Mid-tier State (some version of the moniker that Dean Dad often applies to my type of institution), how might I imagine "innovation" in higher education?

Now, there are two primary things that I have been thinking about in terms of such a project. One, I've been thinking about the mission of my particular institution. This mission, basically, includes the following:

  1. We educate the people of our region toward a goal of them being more employable.
  2. One of our main goals is bettering the community of which our university is a part.
  3. We value educating the "whole person" - we are not just job training.
Two, I've been thinking about how we fit into the broader structure of higher education. On the one hand, we need to have a structure for our curriculum that allows students to transfer in, either after attending community college or after attending a SLAC/research university (either because of money issues/family issues/performance issues). On the other, we've got to have a structure for our curriculum that allows for students to transfer out, into SLACS or into research universities. Thus, in some respects, the situation at No-Name State is in some ways more difficult to negotiate than the situation at your local CC - we've got to be "transferable" both on the front and back ends. Our curriculum is both determined both from the bottom (what CCs need to transfer in) and from the top (what can transfer out, # of credit hours students need to graduate).

So, the short version of all of that is, how in god's name can we imagine a new kind of higher education from the vantage point of a regional university, with very low admissions standards, that mainly caters to first generation college students, and that has absolutely no donations coming in from alumni/ae? Very little grant money (for we have a 4/4 load)? Very little state support (for the most money goes to the flagship)?

These are the questions that I've been considering. And the only answer at which I arrive has to do with the wholesale revision of general education requirements.

Now, before I get into what I'm thinking, let's talk about why this will never work. This will never work because how general ed. requirements work at most universities is that they expand rather than contract. The idea is that there are categories that students must fill in, and then courses get plugged in under the categories that will fulfill them. The thing is, because this is how it works, faculty don't have a huge investment in trimming back. General ed. requirements become the battleground in which we fight for the centrality of our disciplines. Moreover, they become the battleground in which individual faculty fight for course enrollments. If a department's value lies in its ability to generate FTE hours, then gen. ed. is essential in establishing a department's power and a discipline's value. At my institution, FTE is tied to a department's funding and in my case directly to travel funding for faculty. It's also tied directly to knowing whether a course you're scheduled to teach will "make" enrollment, and so it has to do with knowing, as a faculty member, what you will teach in a given semester. I can "count on" my gen. ed. courses in a way I can't count on "electives" or even on courses within the major. Thus, revisions of general education requirements almost always end up ending in stalemate and basically in failure. (I should note that many at my institution are suggesting that we're heading for another look at gen. ed. revision, and that many have noted that they want me on that committee. Oh joy.) In addition to faculty entrenchment, this is a difficult place in which to innovate when it comes to administrative pet projects, as gen. ed. is the bread and butter of an institution like mine - it's what asserts that we are a "quality" institution, it affects accreditation, etc. In other words, there are a lot of things against innovating at the gen. ed. level.

That said, I think that's where we need to start with innovation. But how, at an institution like mine, do we change how gen. ed. works keeping in mind that students both need to be able to transfer in as well as to transfer out? How can this possibly start from an institution like mine?

I've got lots of ideas, but I'm tired of writing for now. Thus, I'm going to leave you with this cliff-hanger. If you've got ideas, or comments, do leave them. You can expect my Grand Plan for General Education in the coming days, and I'll take any feedback that you give into account.

eta: See Part III here.


Doctor Pion said...

This looks really promising. Be sure to put in forward and back links so it is easy to follow as you put it together.

I see some meat in DD's next blog about "failing too many" or, rather, what appeared in the comments about the Atlantic Monthly article. Can retooling the gen ed classes help connect composition and basic science classes to the future cops and teachers etc that don't see the relevance of a U of Chicago "Great Books" approach?

Bardiac said...

I think your point about how much easier it is to add to gen ed than to reorganize or rethink it is important.

We've been talking about reorganizing gen ed at my school, and it sounds like we're going to do it from the ground up. Should make for some interesting changes; we'll certainly see who's moved into more power positions!

Funny how the business folks never teach gen ed, isn't it?

Susan said...

To do gen ed well, you have to agree on what you think people should know. And those are always difficult discussions. But it's also interesting when you think about the possibility of a "core" rather than, or in addition to, gen ed.

But helping people transfer ideas from one course to another -- it's amazing how hard that is.

I can't wait to see Dr. Crazy's U.

Dance said...

Oh, *please*, do link it all up. This is something people might want to return to later. I hate it when people don't link.

The only thing I could think of would be a sort of AP-equivalent-test at college level. Actually, a community college might be able to use current AP exams even today---who cares if they innovate with how English and History are actually taught if the students pass the AP exam, as AP credit is widely accepted.

Professor Zero said...

Yes - this is very interesting.

Small point: state gen ed requirements here drive me insane because they are so picky. I liked the requirements at the R-1 where I was an undergraduate. They were:

1. Your major.

2. No formal minor required, although you certainly had latitude to create one or more for yourself or, alternatively, undertake a second major.

3. There were only 3 courses in the core curriculum if you had come in without deficiencies, and there were lots of interesting choices for these.

4. The only other requirement was any 6 courses outside the "field" of your major, the fields being: humanities, social sciences, hard sciences.

It was so simple and so mature.