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):
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.
4 years ago