Tuesday, June 08, 2010
"Get Your Gen Eds Out of the Way"
It's one of those phrases that well-meaning advisors use to try to help students plan their schedules. But I'm convinced it does untold damage.
"Gen Eds" are the courses outside your major that you're required to take to get your degree. English composition, math, and suchlike are typically required of students in almost every degree program. The idea behind the requirement is to ensure that every college graduate has at least some fluency in the basics of what most of us expect an educated person to be able to do or to know. (On a less exalted level, gen ed distribution requirements often also constitute a de facto jobs program for faculty in certain disciplines. Anyone who doubts this is invited to sit in on a faculty senate discussion of changes to gen ed requirements.) Even if your major is Early Childhood Ed or Marketing, you should still be able to write clearly and handle grownup math. I'd argue that something like "Intro to American Government" should be a requirement, as should something like "Life Economics," but that's me.
Of course, many students perceive the requirements as entirely pointless, or as a form of hazing. They want to get right to the good stuff, or at least to what they perceive as the useful stuff, and they resent having to take anything else. Anyone who has taught those classes knows the frustration of hitting a wall of "why do we have to take this class?" on the first day.
In dealing with both faculty and staff, though, I see plenty of well-meaning people throughout the college who actually feed that cynicism. In helping students navigate degree requirements and cobble together schedules that work, it's easy to go native and adopt the perspective of the student a little too uncritically. In dealing with a skeptical student, the "get your gen eds out of the way" line can function as a sort of hook; it acknowledges some of the student's perspective, in the service of pulling the student along. Sometimes, that can work.
But students are quick to pick up mixed messages. And once the well is poisoned, getting it clean again isn't easy.
Wise and worldly readers, I seek your counsel. Have you seen an effective and non-patronizing way to reduce self-defeating messages like "get your gen eds out of the way" on your campus?
Of course, most high schools are pretty weak and many students have not studied as diligently as they could have, meaning their general educations have some conspicuous gaps in them. Focus on identifying the gaps and require that they be rectified by coursework, rather than shoving everyone through the standard sequence of 100-level courses.
I think the way to do this is to have a standardized set of required courses for graduation for everybody (perhaps English, math, a science, American history, geography, and a language) and let them be satisfied by either a college 100-level course or by a senior-level high school course. You might want to allow some substitution (philosophy, say, rather than history), and there are probably some high schools whose "senior" level courses you should refuse to accept.
But generally, by treating gaps in general education as definite and diagnosed deficiencies to be corrected rather than as yet another set of arbitrary hurdles on the way to where the students want to go, you can get both the students and their advisors to take them more seriously.
I think a better message is to say, "these are your 'background' classes, because they'll give you the basis for solid work later on". It's much more accurate -- if the high schools would teach them much of the stuff that colleges have to teach them, they wouldn't need this kind of background. Also, if they blow off a class like Comp I, they'll struggle to write papers in every class after that.
As someone who teaches in a discipline closer to the humanities than the sciences it is hard to convince students that there is anything positive about a science or economics.
I guess I'm saying its harmless in this context, and inevitable. In your own job, I'm sure all of the committees and meetings and so on are very important, but when you've got other things to get done than day, don't you still think about getting some of those "out of the way"?
i don't really buy the whole 'well-rounded' argument, because the spectrum of gen-eds is so broad. yeah, everyone has to take English I & II, but not everyone takes calculus I & II, which I would argue everyone should take, along with physics and chemistry. and with most gen-eds being a category (need 3 hours of either psychology, philosophy, or ethics...), you aren't really guaranteeing that all students are well rounded in any particular subject.
i took a class on Tudor England in college to fill a history gen-ed, and it is absolutely worthless. i took a philosophy gen-ed class where we watched episodes of South Park, the Matrix, and Lord of the Rings. yeah, this was at our state's biggest U! really? well-rounded?
i have an engineer's bias, and it was painful for me to be in classes with business, general education, history, and athletic training majors. they were [mostly, as in 99%] morons who couldn't do anything, and who constantly needed help. in the end, these gen-eds were good, because it gave me a hint at what the 'real world' would be like, where my fellow engineers and i would have to constantly hold the hand of others. there's nothing like showing an accounting major how to use excel macros and functions, or doing all of the photoshop work for your group in a business class, even though half of the class are marketing majors who should be able to do this stuff in your sleep. what's sad is i still do this. ulgh...
I try to get my students to think of it as learning different approaches to thinking and solving problems, and exploring their bliss. So when I meet with a student, I try to get a sense of the things they might like to explore even if they've never heard of it.
BUT, that exploration goal is at odds with the reality of scheduling and trying to get into classes. If the student works Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the perfect Anthropology class is on those days, then they'll end up in a poly sci class instead or something.
I'd love a program where everyone took life economics and enough statistics to understand what's happening in the news and such. And I want them to understand the basics of the scientific method.
The most common general education requirement I find myself having to "defend" is the math requirement, as for most of my students this tends to be their biggest stumbling block. Granted, for some students, it's appropriate to show a requirement connection between their gen ed courses and those courses that they're excited about taking down the road (i.e., the fact that math course A might be a pre-req to their major course B).
In the example of math, however, I find myself trying much of the time to articulate how Algebra teaches them to think abstractly and that regardless of their long term personal and educational goals, abstract thinking is a skill that can serve them greatly. I also use this logic as a way to empathize with them as to why Algebra can be so difficult at first -- because many of us don't find abstract thinking to come naturally.
Many students still grumble and groan and lament that they have to take courses that they feel have nothing to do with their ultimate personal, professional, and educational pursuits, but hopefully I'm able to at least open their mind to viewing coursework at a deeper level and to think about the life skills they are learning by way of it. A similar logic can be used when explaining to students why taking general psychology or history is useful and important.
We can all fall into the trap of responding to students' questions with the all-too-easy, "because you have to", but whether it's a faculty member, academic advisor, or other university staff member, we need to strive to help students view their education at a deeper level. General education courses, and college coursework in general, is not some necessary evil that students must endure but rather a valuable tool to teach them thinking and learning skills that can serve them throughout their lives.
They should be able to do this stuff in their sleep. Proper grammar is a useful tool, and I learned all about it in humanites classes.
That said, I agree that math requirements should be more rigorous. But - and Dean Dad has posted about this problem often - when even above-average students are leaving high school with little more than arithmetic skills, the problem of getting everyone through calculus in college and still graduating on time is problematic. And like it or not, graduating on time is a pressing, legitimate concern. College is absurdly expensive; most students who go cannot afford it. An extra year or even an extra semester often means thousands of dollars in extra loans.
Also, now that everyone with a pulse is going to graduate school, students are not willing to risk the horror of a "C" in calculus when they can have an "A" in the humanities and look that much better on those inevitable grad school applications. Considering the impact they believe the graduate degrees will have on their careers, I can't say I blame them.
Anyway, I agree with Bardiac that perhaps our best shot at marketing gen eds a little better is to work the exploration angle. When else in life do you have this luxury to spend time working with a subject you might not otherwise encounter? But with too many students facing severe time pressures and financial pressures, especially in the community college demographic, as well as pressure to perform well in the classes they do take, the college environment can be surprisingly inhospitable to exploration. The only way we can really get students to step out of their comfort zones is to force them, and even then they're going to encounter eye-rolling engineers who treat them as less than human.
The students, meanwhile, know they're being manipulated. Of course they're thinking they want to "get it out of the way."
Implication being that students are savage and uncultured? ;-D
I have often wondered if some of this might be field dependent. I know that when I was doing my undergrad (in physics), there were a lot of people who would 'get their gen eds out of the way', and it seemed like they would get very stressed out later on. I actually think the better tactic is to have a combination of major credits and at least one gen ed course every semester. (Of course, at a CC, this may not work as a lot of CC students are trying to do their gen eds first.) I found that getting some major courses early on helped me to stay motivated while the one gen ed course allowed me to balance my schedule, giving me one course that was a bit less demanding than my science and math courses. I also tried to make sure and take gen ed courses that had interesting topics. Sometimes this meant I took courses that were actually advanced (i.e. senior level) courses in things like sociology or psychology if it sounded more interesting than the freshman level equivalent. I think trying to find gen eds in which there is some intrinsic interest is helpful.
On the other hand, a humanities major often may find math and science classes difficult. I would be inclined to tell such a student than they should take their math and science gen eds early so that they aren't competing for time (later on) with advanced-level major classes, which will often be more time consuming.
A look at the current degree sheet for my B.S. program shows only two semesters of freshman composition, one semester of American government, and only one other (upper division) humanities/social sciences course. And aside from first semester chemistry, no other courses required outside of math, physics, and (chosen field).
We're no longer in the business of creating broadly-trained graduates. Not scientists, at least. They have poor critical thinking skills, can't read well, and can't write well, but by golly they can integrate. Sigh.
An abolutely horrible and idiotic reason to have a requirement...so someone can have a job? Maybe we should consider courses in panhandling -- it's a way to employ the bums.
Taking your Gen Eds early is an effective way to stall for inspiration for a major, I started out PoliSci, then English, then CompSci, and finally to Math. Stayed full time and never missed a beat b/c my school had a good broad Gen Ed base. At the time I might not have appreciated it, but I certainly do now.
At the root of the problem is the fact that high school today is largely a worthless waste of time. If students went into the low-wage workforce for the four years they currently spend in high school, they would probably, on average, be no worse off academically in college than they are now - and they would probably be more motivated to do well. Conversely, if we actually took high school seriously - and were willing to nudge out those who aren't interested in learning - then high school could take the place of much of what is now Gen Ed in college. And doing so might actually restore some of the value to a high school diploma, and allow high school graduates to once again find entry level jobs.
I use the phrase, or something like it, all the time with my advisees, but it is for a purely practical reason. Most majors (in a 4 year program) have some pretty tight scheduling challenges, with some required courses offered only once a year. The gen ed courses typically have more sections and more flexibility. So I urge my advisees to get their gen ed courses done so that they have more flexibility to design their schedule for their last two years.
I should say something about the perspective I come from, so you don't write me off as a math-hater. I was a math major. I love mathematics: it is a fantastically beautiful, elegant subject.
But, I think our math requirements make no sense. I totally don't understand why we require all students to take Calculus. Who is this benefitting? Sure, engineers, scientists, and economics majors need to know Calculus. But our general liberal arts majors? Calculus is useless. And what's worse, the students know it -- they know we are wasting their time with something they will never use in their life. When we tell them that "it's good for abstract thought", we're basically just B.S.ing them, and I believe many of them can tell that.
There are so many fantastic, beautiful, inspiring, and useful areas of math, I don't know why we ram Calculus down their throats. Why don't we teach them basic numeracy? Order-of-magnitude estimation, a little bit of statistics and probability, enough to understand the difference between correlation and causation, to understand confidence intervals and statistical significance, to understand why we do double-blind experiments and how to lie with statistics and how to tell when you're being lied to. Now that's some stuff that might actually be useful to many people -- and still has plenty of rigorous content to open people's brains up to a different kind of thinking.
On the primary topic:
Our CC requires passing the main composition course before you can take humanities. This makes it a lot easier to explain why that composition course is required (to prepare you to write papers in those other classes) and to emphasize that those skills will be used later in their education. If the student is in a technical major, I will also mention that it will be very helpful when writing a business plan or producing research reports and funding proposals, using my brother's work experience as an example.
Our biggest challenge, which also has a retention and success-rate impact, is getting students to work through their math requirements in an effective way. That is, the challenge is to get them to take the classes in sequence and continue that sequence without interruption once the mandatory "prep" classes are completed. Here there is no risk that they will develop a dislike for math as a result of being told to get it over with: that happened in the previous 12 years of schooling and is the reason they don't want to take the next class even if their career (e.g. business) depends on it. My take on it is to ask them if they would rather wait a year and take that class after they forget everything they learned last semester, or take it now while those hard-won skills are still fresh in their head. The positive nature of this approach seems to work, and helps signal the sequential nature of those courses.
boomerprof says "As someone who teaches in a discipline closer to the humanities than the sciences it is hard to convince students that there is anything positive about a science or economics."
That opinion must result from a really sad experience with your own general education courses along with utter and complete ignorance about the foundation required to major in business or engineering, not to mention the opportunity to understand how a cell phone and its calling plan each work.
It is interesting to see someone from the humanist side of campus diss the human endeavor of doing science because, on the flip side, the engineering profession requires that every engineering major (whether at a comprehensive liberal arts college or at a private engineering-only technical university) experience the humanities and social sciences rather than take some additional courses about materials or processes if it wants to be accredited. They understand the importance of ethical behavior toward their fellow human beings when entering a profession that serves those people. We see an example in the Gulf of Mexico right now.
You should defer that history or humanities class until later to be sure to fit in that chemistry class you need so you can take organic and biochemistry before getting into more serious classes in your senior year, but you should not defer anything without having a plan for when you will actually take it.
Failure to plan is planning to fail. Isn't that one of John Wooden's lines from the Pyramid?
But there's also a PR issue. At my college, we have a special grant-funded program to create learning communities--freshman seminars and clustered two-or-more-course communities, all around cool, hip themes. And I've got to say, once you add a fancy poster, a catchy title, and some eye-catching descriptions about things like stereotypes and sexuality and how we learn language and whether intelligence is inborn or learned, Psych 101 and college writing and college math begin to look much more like the exciting, mind-expanding courses they often ARE, rather than something you'd want to get out of the way so you could get to the interesting stuff. Maybe we can sell our gen eds better?
David... please take a gentle request to ease up on the 'bum' rhetoric a bit. There are plenty of folks who read this blog who are or have been homeless. I know you didn't mean any specific disrespect, but there are stronger examples to make your argument.