Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Gen Ed

IHE's story yesterday about a kerfuffle over Gen Ed reforms at the University of Kentucky convinced me that the issues are the same everywhere.

For those outside higher ed, “general education” refers to the classes that students have to take for graduation, but that don't count towards their major. For example, even chemistry majors have to take English composition, and even art majors have to take math. The idea is that anybody with a college degree should have the background of an educated person. It's what separates education from training.

Reforming Gen Ed is one of the hardest things to get done, bureaucratically. It's obviously important, since every matriculated student is affected. But it flies in the face of almost every organizing principle we have. A few obstacles, just off the top of my head:

  1. Different configurations of Gen Ed requirements at the various 4-year schools to which our grads transfer. They love to nitpick, as a way to deny transfer credits, so we have to play it conservative here. No interdisciplinary freshman seminars, for example, since transfer courses have to fit neatly into disciplinary boxes.

  1. Conflicting and/or ambiguous statewide requirements. These are legion, and uniquely demoralizing.

  1. The widely-held doctrine of 'nullification.' I've written on this before.

  1. Inter-departmental turf battles. Credits added to one category have to come from another, since the overall number of credits we can include in a degree are capped. So if we add a requirement in social science, we have to take one away from, say, humanities. Anybody who believes in the purity of faculty governance is invited to observe those meetings. They make town hall discussions over the location of a new halfway house seem civil.

  1. Honestly and deeply held conflicting beliefs about what an educated person should know and/or should be able to do. These are often of long standing, and in direct conflict with the realities of 1-4.

    6. Requirements set by 'special' licensing/accrediting agencies in specific fields (i.e. Nursing)

7. Different degree 'types' (A.A.;A.S.;A.A.S.;A.F.A., etc.), and the extent to which degrees designed for one purpose gradually morph into different purposes over the years ('career' degrees with high rates of transfer; 'transfer' degrees that are often terminal).

Since my state doesn't have a tightly integrated system, different colleges have adopted different approaches over the years. Worse, it's not always clear when 'nullification' is actually an option, and when local control has to take a back seat to directives from the outside.

Internally, the faculty are divided into academic departments. Departmental ownership of program curricula works fairly well when it comes to the specialized courses in a discipline, but it doesn't work well with the gen ed part, since that crosses boundaries. In fact, there's no one arbiter of gen ed to adjudicate disputes, so decisions are often made based on interest-group politics.

Repeat that cycle a few times, and the veterans of those battles will do everything in their power to resist bringing up the subject again. The wounds are barely healed from the last round, even if the last round was decades ago.

(Weirdly, in retrospect, this structural flaw didn't exist at Proprietary U. There, there was a single Gen Ed department, which owned the Gen Ed part of all the other curricula. At the time, I didn't realize how unusual that was. While there were certainly issues, the jurisdictional lines in this sense were clear.)

The shame of it is that Gen Ed is, in many ways, the most important part of what we do. It's what students in disparate programs have in common, and it's where (we hope) students hone some of the 'softer' skills that will serve them long after their field-specific training has become obsolete, or has been superseded by subsequent, higher-level training. (I used to tell my techies at PU that their technical skills would get them hired, but their communication skills would get them promoted.) This is the stuff that employers constantly complain is lacking in their new hires. (They don't complain enough to hire English majors and give them the technical training, but they complain nevertheless.) Critical thinking, clear writing, and effective speaking don't go out of style.

I'm just struck at how hard it is to get at our central mission, given the way we're organized.

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college found an effective and honest way to deal with changes to its Gen Ed?

Oh, boy.

As a student, and one who has been an undergraduate at three different universities, I have to admit that gen ed can be beneficial. There have been courses that I did not expect to enjoy or receive any benefit from, and did. But at the same time, I deeply, deeply resent having my time and money wasted in utterly absurd ways.

A few examples:

At University A, I was a music major for 3 years. At University B, none of my music credits satisfied the fine arts requirement, and so I had to take a "music appreciation" course.

At University A, I was required to take one lab science, and did so -- I chose an introductory course in oceanography which covered the physics, biology, and chemistry of Earth's oceans. Fascinating stuff.

At University C, I was required to take TWO lab sciences -- and oceanography wasn't on their "approved" list. This is no minor hardship since I take classes in the evenings. Lectures and labs of course meet separately and so TWO evenings of my week are consumed by one class - not an easy thing to endure when one is trying to write a senior thesis. (I'm in the humanities, and at this late point in my education, lab sciences add little.)

Also at University C, I was required to take an Introduction to Computers course that boiled down to "How to use Microsoft Office." Useful for many students no doubt, but I've been using Microsoft Office for my job(s) for seven years now. Students used to be allowed to test out of this requirement, but no longer, in most cases. Additonally there are two texts for the course, both authored by professors from this university, both in the $90 range. One of them MUST be purchased new because it's got a slip of paper in it that has a 6-digit code you have to have in order to be able to take the exams.

This is just abusive. It was bad enough when I thought that such things were done just because Bureacracy Is Stupid, but now that I have enough understanding of universities to realize that no, the departments doing this sort of thing are actually doing everything they can to get their hands on my tuition money, whether or not there is any benefit to me -- well, it pisses me the hell off, to put it bluntly.

I don't know if anyone is trying to reform the Gen Ed curriculum at my university, so I can't answer your question. All I know is they damn well ought to.
We're in the midst of gen ed revisions right now. It's been interesting. My institution is a multi-campus state school, and a lot of students transfer between campuses (and not exclusively from the "regional" campuses to the "flagship" campus). So in addition to the single-campus issue, we have the within-institution transfer issue.

Our current approach is focused on defining a set of gen ed principles, but not a set of gen ed courses (that'll come later, and may differ from program to program, in some cases). Not surprisingly, in the course of defining the principles, people want to ask, "But which courses is that?" Turf matters, and I don't know how one avoids it.
General education would be useful if it weren't such a watered down waste of time. I'm bitter because a third of the units our students take are general ed and that prevents them from taking upper division classes in their majors (because of the upper limit on units per major). With the number of campuses in our system, change is slow to impossible and departments have become financially addicted to the gen ed courses we teach in large sections with adjuncts who come and go.

This is all the more frustrating because our students come to us ill-prepared for college and general ed done right could potentially remediate this, both by exposing students to things they should have learned in high school but did not and by encouraging practice in writing and reasoning that would enhance their entire educational experience. But instead we feed them trash and dilute their upper division core to make room for it. This is not going to change any time soon as high enrollment gen ed courses keep some of our departments alive. The only solution I can see would be to reduce units in all areas equally or to junk the whole thing overall and just teach majors classes. Both of those solutions have significant disadvantages associated with them.
We, too, are in the middle of gen ed revisions. Or I should say, we're in the middle of having discussions about possibly, maybe reforming our gen ed. No: we're in the middle of having discussions about how different departments should begin having discussions about the possibility of reforming gen ed.

I think we're calling ourselves a gen ed task force, and each meeting, so far as I can tell, has consisted of different people from different parts of the college identifying obstacles.

At first (as a younger still somewhat idealistic faculty member,)I was excited about the prospect of being a part of some larger reform at the school. Now I see that what Dean Dad says is all too true.

Ivory is right. Gen Ed done right could be effective. But it often isn't, and trying to improve Gen Ed seems very difficult at best.
Gen Ed is a very US thing. Most places you pretty much only take courses relevant to your degrees, of course, most places you have had one or two more years of schooling before you head to university
If Gen Ed is a major part of your mission, but there is no centralized organization with the power to impose standards, then I'm impressed anyone lives through those meetings.
Oh, it gets even more complicated when you consider professional degree programs at 4-year schools. At our school, there is a general unit that covers arts, sciences, and humanities, and then there are professional schools. While the many majors in the general unit share a common set of general education requirements, the professional schools all have their own set of required general education courses. Some of the differences between the professional gen eds and the general unit's gen eds have to do with accreditation requirements of professional schools.
I am so happy to be in a state with laws that say any state uni must accept the Gen Ed courses required for an AA degree in lieu of whatever Gen Ed courses they require of their native students, provided you transfer with the AA. [Heaven help the kid who transfers with 57 credits.] The bureaucracy that applies to us is well worth that. Besides, the biggest hassle of Gen Ed Wars is removed by the State: they dictate the minimum allocation of hours into social science, humanities, science, and english.

DD, the solution to your problem is political. Tell every student who complains to you about what University X did that they (and their parents and relatives) need to write their legislator.

Eli - It is a US thing, partly because our high schools don't provide the college level gen ed that "college prep" high schools do in other countries. It really took off with the GI Bill, when millions of soldiers came to college with a minimal HS education that might have been complete 4 years earlier. The quality of our high schools makes it just as relevant today. And I am 100% with Ivory on the reality of how our current Gen Ed plan actually addresses that need.
While over at IHE, I noticed an essay from today education and regret that had quite a list of alternative paths to erudition that each have their faults.

There not be any answer, which means that Gen Ed discussions are just another example of the aphorism that "academic fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low".

The stakes certainly are not low for students who have to pay thousands of dollars and spend extra time taking courses that benefit them minimally, if at all. Just saying.
Well, what you describe still has to be better than what Pataki's SUNY Trustees did.
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