Thursday, October 01, 2009

Pragmatism and Ideals: A Post about Curriculum

Over the past week, I've had much occasion to think about curriculum, both within my discipline and across my university. One of the things that has been most striking to me is the way that deeply held and ultimately righteously held ideals can get in the way of good policy. What occurs to me as I write this is that some think that policy should be driven by ideals and not driven by pragmatic solutions. They don't separate ideals from implementation, nor can they see where idealism can coexist with pragmatism. They create a binary opposition, wherein ideals are on the side of all that is good and right and just, and wherein pragmatic solutions are on the side of all that is bad, and wrong, and unjust. And, it occurs to me, that this is ultimately a very top-down approach to thinking about curriculum. Father knows best, and it's Father's job to insist that x ideal is upheld, regardless of the pragmatic consequences of insisting on x ideal. Even if the ideal is an important one, important ideals don't necessarily translate easily into a policy that works.

Here is the issue: I think that policy is not ultimately about ideals. I don't think that policy should compromise ideals, or that we should ignore ideals when constructing policies, but that isn't the same thing as making policy with only ideals in mind. I think policy is about pragmatic solutions, and ultimately good policy is pragmatic, but also thoughtful, and pragmatic policy should support the ideals that an institution (or college, or department) upholds. Supporting, though, isn't the same thing as being driven by. The moment that we begin to think that ideals drive policy, I think we enter treacherous waters.

Not because ideals are bad. Ideals, are, obviously, something that we hold dear and that are incredibly important to the mission of higher education. However, ideals can tend to be very discipline-specific, and even specialization-within-a-discipline specific. Those ideals that I hold most dear are not the same ideals of a fabulous colleague of mine in Chemistry, and my colleagues in history and political science have ideals that I respect that neither I nor my colleague in Chemistry share. The thing about ideals is that they are shaped by individual and specific experiences. They are shaped by personal inclination and they are shaped by training. When we think about individual courses that we teach or develop, or our individual research agendas, ideals ultimately are central to the work that we do. And this is as it should be. But when we're thinking about things on a macro-level, in the area of program curricular development or university-wide curricular development, as opposed to on a micro-level of what an individual course over which we have total control should do, well, it occurs to me that to allow for ideals to drive what we do is a mistake. Again, this isn't to say that what we come up with shouldn't support ideals. It should, and it must. But ideals in themselves don't necessarily facilitate good wide-ranging policy that serves a multitude of needs.

Let us turn to the ever-popular discipline of Underwater Basket-Weaving to illustrate what I mean. Let's assume that I teach a course, Underwater Basket-Weaving 101. As the instructor of this course, it is up to me the outcomes that I believe should be achieved within this course, as it should be, if we believe in academic freedom. Let's say that I believe that students in this course should demonstrate the following Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs):

Students will:
1. Communicate in standard English and with attention to proper grammar about issues in Underwater Basket-Weaving with a clear attention to differences between a variety of audiences.
2. Understand different approaches to Underwater Basket-weaving, engaging with different theories of Basket-making in a variety of contexts.
3. Complete a Basket using at least three Weaving techniques, which demonstrates originality and initiative.
4. Understand the importance of Underwater Basket-Weaving in local, national, and international communities.

Fine student learning outcomes, right? And as the Czar (I mean, instructor) of this course, I can determine methods of assessing these outcomes (I mean, assignments that students will complete to demonstrate them), and I am the sole arbiter who determines what "counts." Fine and good.

But the moment that we move to the level of the Underwater Basket-Weaving major, some problems occur. I have a colleague who doesn't believe that students should have to communicate about basket-weaving to a variety of audiences. I have another colleague that objects to the "originality and initiative" SLO because those are squishy terms, and we can't agree on a definition for those terms that suits all who teach the course within the program. And I've got another colleague who thinks that students in this course must fulfill an outcome in which "Students will use the theory of Underwater Basket-Weaving in application to digital media," but I don't see the relevance of that, and the rest of the department is divided.

And let's telescope out further, assuming that this course is part of a general education program. SLO's 1 and 4 meet the Gen Ed SLOs, but nowhere in Gen Ed do we see evidence of SLO 2. My ideals, as an individual, might indicate that SLO 2 is crucial. But in terms of developing a program, can I get people across the university to agree about what these things mean? Let's note that I can't even do so within my own discipline. So probably not. So is it worth it to insist that this SLO be included in the program? And if it is, how do we come to agreement about what the SLO means and how it should be assessed?

The point of all of this is, programs are not about individual ideals, however much we respect the ideals of individuals. Programs are about what is achievable and assessable across a range of experiences and practices, across a range of ideals. The moment that we believe that our own individual ideals should shape a program, that is the moment that the program starts getting ridiculously complicated, and it is the moment that a program loses coherency, both for students and for advisers. The thing about curricular development at the program-level - as opposed to the course-level - is that it has to acknowledge that those ideals that we hold most dear personally are not necessarily (or even regularly) universal. We need to compromise more and more as we move further out from our own courses in developing programs, not because we don't believe in our ideals, but rather because we are sophisticated thinkers who recognize that not all people share our ideals. When people resist our suggestions that are rooted in our own specific ideals, this is not something that should inspire our mortal offense. Rather, it is something that should inspire us to consider how our particular ideals may not reflect the needs of the broader communities involved. Put another way, if I vote against you, it's not because I'm disrespecting you. It's because I think your specific agenda doesn't contribute to strong across-the-board policy. I honor your ideals, and maybe even share them. But what I care about is coming up with something that serves as many people as possible. I don't, ultimately, care about "winning" or care about having the most power.

At the end of the day, a good program is stream-lined. Everybody who participates in it can meet its goals. At the level of a course, individual instructors might decide to add things in that they believe need to be there. Nobody's saying they can't. All that is at issue in this discussion is that individuals shouldn't bully people into making their ideals the standard that all people have to meet. Instead, there should be compromise that allows the individuals in a particular group to promote their individual ideals that might not be shared, while the group agrees on baseline ideals that all should meet.

To me, this is common sense. Obviously, in my course on Underwater Basket-Weaving and Sexuality, I have certain outcomes that I believe my students must meet that might not fit into everyone's conception of what students must do in a course within the major or a course within the general education program. So I add those. I'm not being told that I can't address those issues, or that I can't demand that students perform in a certain way. At the program-level, what we're talking about is a baseline. Not about a cap. It's not rocket science, people. And it's not freaking about you. It's not even about your discipline or about the humanities or about the sciences or even about the status of professional programs. What it's about is students, and about shepherding students to graduation in a timely fashion. Or at least that what it's supposed to be about.

It's certainly not about turf. Woops. That's an ideal of mine that I want to impose on everybody else. But I totally think I'm right.


life_of_a_fool said...

"it's not about you. . .it's about the students."

yessssss. I wish more people in my department would consider this more often. Especially the first part.

James said...

I think this can work when you're working with people within your own field, but it becomes problematic when dealing with people in different fields. I'm not talking about turf battles (though those certainly happen), but rather the fact that we don't have a good understanding of all of the other fields in the university so while our votes may not be intentionally disrepectful, there is some disrepect in objecting to something without fully understanding it.

I see this both in myself, as there are plenty of fields that I don't understand, and in others, the scientists who can't understand why the students need history or the historians who don't see why they need math. I think both groups are honest enough; they really don't have enough understanding of the other area to know why they need it, which ironically indicates a deficiency in general education. Both history and math should change how you see the world, and if they don't, either your teacher failed you or you failed yourself by not gaining that perspective.

My own discipline is plagued by a name that's as accurate as calling astronomy telescope science, and I can't help but find people disrepectful who judge the discipline by its name rather than taking an hour or less to talk with someone to figure out what it's about.

PhysioProf said...

Instead, there should be compromise that allows the individuals in a particular group to promote their individual ideals that might not be shared, while the group agrees on baseline ideals that all should meet.

Compromise!?!?!? In academia!?!?!?!? Have you lost your mind!?!?!?!?


Dr. Crazy said...

I get what you're saying about needing to listen to various perspectives, to try to understand where people are coming from and to try to understand the stakes involved for various constituencies. (It's funny, one of the people I agree with most when it comes to this stuff is a person within your - very different from mine - discipline, which makes me think that disciplinary divides aren't necessarily so insurmountable.) I'll admit, I was thinking about something fairly specific in this post, in which I (and many others from across many units of the university) had an informed disagreement with a person's suggestion. This person then leaped to, "you're disrespecting me and everything that I hold dear and everything that makes my discipline MEAN something!" which wasn't the case at all. It's possible to be informed about a person's position and yet still to respectfully disagree when it comes to program development.

The vote against wasn't an attack on this person's discipline or values (but it may have been a bit of an attack on this person for being a blow-hard, though that wasn't the reason I voted as I did). For me, it was a judgment call about a program that has to serve a variety of needs - not just this one person's (or this one person's discipline's) needs. At the end of the day, this is why there is broad collegial governance, and this is why votes happen. If one takes every vote against as a vote of disrespect and a personal affront, one is going to be a really, really unhappy person. And I say this as somebody in a discipline that people reduce to, "I'm going to have to watch how I talk around you! You'll catch all of my grammar mistakes!"

It is the responsibility of every individual to advocate for his/her discipline and intellectual values. But at a certain point, if people aren't persuaded by your advocacy, the only thing for it is to realize that perhaps it's best just to let it go and to move on to the next thing. Life's too short. (Though perhaps that I think this means that I'm a shallow person who doesn't really believe in anything. I don't think that's true, though. I'd say it's more that I believe in fighting only battles I have a strong chance of winning.)

And Physioprof: I've not lost my mind, but I'm clearly and idiot naturally. People who've been around much longer than I have find my naive belief in the possibility of things like productive compromise a source of amusement. Sooner or later I'm sure to become jaded, at which point it will become time for me to be dead wood. I figure I'd better use my idealism in productive ways before that day comes (as it surely will do). :)

James said...

I know you're not the type of person who would attack a person's discipline or values, and I agree that we have to make judgement calls based on necessarily incomplete information. I also agree that disciplinary barriers aren't insurmountable, but there are so many disciplines to know about that I don't think we can surmount them all. While I may have what I think is a good understanding of why we need general education English classes, I may be wrong, and I also know I don't know enough about a field like medicine to evaluate its claims with a high degree of accuracy.

I'm not specifically trying to argue for a particular discipline or even for a specific solution, but trying to point out something along the lines of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures, except that we have dozens of such cultures and you have to have a basic level of understanding of a culture before you can understand the advocacy of its proponents. We have to make compromises without fully understanding, and that's a problem that worries me, yet it's one I don't know how to solve.

I think what you're doing will lead to a much better system that you currently have and perhaps that's all that we should hope for.

Doctor Pion said...

So I can assume you major service involved working at the college or university level on Learning Outcomes and Assessment related to the new focus on same by the accreditation folks? For "general education"? You have my utmost sympathy and respect.

Particularly if you brought a bit of pragmatic reality to the process. We are working on the same thing, and good sense came in second to idealism on the first pass in our area. Some seemed to think this was just another pointless exercise that would never see the light of day again, not realizing the entire college will be held accountable by SACS for proving that you have actually assessed those specific outcomes!

We are carefully separating (at the policy and course level) those outcomes that are to be tied to specific outcomes common to all science classes from those specific to the majors that require our classes as prerequisites. And eventually we will look at what math and communications are doing, so we can see if they expect students to come to us with the ability to do algebra and write a lab report.

To James:
You don't have to sign off on the outcomes for a major in another area, although some at the college or university level have to judge if they are complete and assessable. But if you don't have enough knowledge of another field to begin to judge what minimum competencies are relevant for General Education, that would be an indicator of a need for an improvement in those areas. A classic recent example of the risk of failure would be innumeracy on the part of the lawyers who were regulating what turned out to be the Ponzi schemes of Bernie Madoff and of bundled real estate loans.

Dr. Crazy said...

Dr. P - something like that :) And SACS is the devil. I have to say, the process thus far has been very productive, though, and people across units really do seem to get what's at stake here, for the most part. We're now at the stage though where people who haven't been as invested in the process are weighing in, and some of those people don't really seem to understand the wider-ranging implications of the things that they're suggesting, in part because they've not taken the opportunity to educate themselves about those wider-ranging implications. They're out for their own interests without thinking about how those interests can run counter to doing what needs to be done (and without thinking about how to take responsibility within their own disciplines over curriculum and making sure that their curriculum remains strong and relevant). In other words, change, it's hard. Forward-thinking folks see that with the difficulties of change come exciting opportunities, but those opportunities also mandate a certain amount of intellectual flexibility and work - and some people are very, very jaded, and they are against anything that insists on those things.

Dean Dad said...

I couldn't agree more.