Thursday, June 20, 2013

 

“Rationalizing” Gen Ed

In the “choice is bad” conference Wednesday, several speakers referred to “rationalizing” the general education curriculum as a way to improve student success.  The idea was that students who don’t already know their way around higher ed -- typically the first-generation, low income students -- are easily overwhelmed by too many options.  So if we want to improve the percentages of those who make it to graduation, we should narrow down the options so the pathways will be clear.

That sounds innocent enough, but implementation could be ugly.

Most colleges construct gen ed requirements on the classic “distribution requirement” (also called “Chinese menu”) model.  Take two from column A, three from column B, one from column C, and so on.  When you’ve checked off the relevant boxes, you’re generally educated.

That’s not because anybody particularly believes that the “distribution” model is a great idea.   It’s both too broad to form any sort of basis of common knowledge, and too disjointed to form a coherent whole.  The movement to assess gen ed outcomes was born, in part, of a recognition that the whole doesn’t necessarily equal the sum of its parts; as options multiply, the odds of students getting a coherent education get longer.  Embedding, and assessing, gen ed outcomes in various classes is a sort of retrofit to try to stop the leakage.

Columns A, B, and C are as long as they are for a couple of reasons.  First, at least in theory, a wider range of choices offers a greater likelihood of a given student taking something she actually likes.  As any teacher knows, student interest greatly enhances student performance.  And there is some truth to that.  (A close variation on that argument is the “serendipity” argument.  If I hadn’t been forced to take economics, the student says, I never would have discovered how much fun it is.)  But for the most part, students wind up picking gen ed electives based on scheduling, what their friends are taking, and/or how difficult the courses are reputed to be.  Yes, there are exceptions, but the expression “get your gen eds out of the way” exists for a reason.

The second reason is internal campus politics.  Getting your course on the list of ways to fulfill a requirement effectively guarantees a certain level of enrollment.  If your course is dropped from the list, you could reasonably expect enrollments to drop.  Depending on context, the drop could be minor or it could be severe.  But when resources are constrained, which department wants to take the chance?

To make that concrete, take the social sciences.  Right now students can satisfy a social science requirement by taking psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, or several others.  If we were to “rationalize” that requirement by streamlining it -- say, by making Intro to Psych the social science requirement for everybody -- I could imagine the psychology department hailing that decision as wise, and the sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics departments raining holy hell upon all and sundry.  They’d perceive the change, correctly, as a direct threat to their livelihoods.

In principle, that shouldn’t matter.  Colleges are supposed to be run for the students, rather than for the faculty.  But students come and go, and faculty stick around.  They have no intention of reforming themselves out of work, or even out of resources, no matter how good the argument.  Provosts who push that sort of change tend not to stay provosts for long.

My sense is that “rationalizing” gen ed would make a marginal difference at best; the real issues are around other things.  And the politics of trying it are simply prohibitive.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an approach to streamlining gen ed requirements that actually worked, made sense, and didn’t result in campus bloodletting?  Or is this really a red herring?

Comments:
I'm admittedly in physics rather than a social sciences or humanities field, but aren't there schools that have GE classes that are just "Humanities Survey 101" or "Social Science Survey 101"? My understanding is that these courses are offered as broad surveys. The faculty get to offer their Big Picture Take On The World without the constraints of having to cover the obligatory topics of Econ 101 or Psych 101 or British Lit 101 or whatever.

This shouldn't necessarily threaten any department. The school had X number of social science professors to teach Y number of students. They still need X number of social science professors, and as long as faculty are willing to teach general surveys they can still justify their staffing.

The problem, of course, is that Econ 101 is the gateway to an Econ major or minor, but Survey of Social Science 101 isn't. So maybe you structure the GE program to balance breadth with disciplinary perspective. They have to take a mix of Survey 101 courses and Discipline 101 courses.
 
I'd like to see your prioritized list of the "real issues". I suppose developmental ed is at the top? In some ways, the argument over how to do gen ed results from the need to do in US colleges what some countries do in high school. It is certainly at least second on the list. And since we can't afford to add an army of full-time academic advisors (or convince students that they need to see one because they are more useful than a HS guidance counselor), something has to be done to help students get started on the right track.

The challenge in "rationalizing" general education is getting a rational discussion (for some of the reasons you mention) and the more important one of dealing with major requirements if the number of gen ed requirements is large enough that the two might come into conflict. That latter situation is where meta-majors come into play because you can't deal with all of the 100+ different university majors.

Your psych example is a good starting point. It doesn't work for a business major who needs two semesters of economics and might need to use up some electives getting ready to take business calculus. Allied health needs psych but certainly doesn't need a traditional business econ course. (Does anyone teach a gen ed course on the economics of the insurance, retirement, and credit card world other than those low level personal finance classes?)

The biggest flaw of the various systems I have seen is that they are totally disjointed. I'm so old that I witnessed the fading away of a university-wide social science sequence and a humanities course sequence that (at one time) must have been modeled on the Great Books program at Chicago. These had been supplemented with some "chinese menu" options, first for specific majors where the catch-all class was a waste of time, then for political reasons in the revolutionary 60s to bring in Newer Books. In my time, the original course was abolished and replaced with a "menu" version that had various complicated ways of trying to get a diverse coherence.

Some of those systems are complicated enough that the faculty had trouble understanding it, let alone the students, so I can never blame students for getting lost in that mess.
 
I went to school with an honors program that completely coonstrained my gen ed requirements. There was an "honors" English literature class (focusses on women's studies), an "honors" math (non-Euclidean geometry) class, honors history classes (Greek and Roman history and Chinese and Indian history, both) etc. We in the program did not get to pick how we fulfilled those requirements, and we took all of those classes together, as a cohort. About half the students even lived together freshman year in the on campus "honors house." (I was not among them.)

All our classes were in theory linked, not only by having the same students in them, but in having the same primary sources only/great books approach to curriculum development. I really liked that aspect of it.

So in the end I went through college with two communities -- the other physics major, and the honors kids in my year. All of my classes, pretty much, were with one group or the other.

I think I could imagine creating cohorts like this for all of the students. What if you did force even students who hadn't declared a major to declare a general interest category -- social science or health care or science or art or something -- and then you grouped them together into cohorts and assigned each cohort the same list of required "gen ed" classes? That would reduce the number of decisions that had to be made, possibly simplify academic advising and scheduling, give students more of a built-in support network and study group... Without necessarily hurting any given department (as long as some cohorts are still assigned to all of the existing distribution requirement classes.) It seems like win-win-win. And I can testify personally that I enjoyed the variation on this idea that I experienced in college.
 
Frankly, I could also see the Psych Department in your example freaking out and saying, "we can't handle EVERY SINGLE student taking our intro class!" And they'd be right, because most likely they wouldn't get extra faculty members to teach it (or only the junior/tenure track/adjunct people would teach it).

I have worked with a number of general education requirements over the years. It seems to me that their main focus is to impart breadth to the curriculum, not necessarily to make all the students "generally educated" with the same set of courses. I do think there's something to the thinking that "too much choice" presents a challenge to many students, but that's more of an argument for better advising (faculty, professional deans, whatever) narrowing the general education requirements.

You're right to point out the internal campus politics issues, one of which is the "we've got to spread this out so that the 'burden' doesn't fall too much on one department."
 
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