Sunday, February 23, 2014


Possible New Gen Eds

Rebecca Townsend asked a great question recently.  Should public speaking be a general education requirement?

First, some definition.  Most colleges have certain skills that they want every graduate, regardless of major, to have.  Those skills -- in edu-speak, “general education outcomes” -- dictate certain course requirements for students across majors.  Typically, colleges will have the same basic set of outcomes specified: written communication, critical thinking, quantitative literacy, information literacy, and sometimes something about civic knowledge and/or diversity.  To ensure that all students graduate with some basic level of fluency in each, students have to take a certain set of courses outside their major.   Typically, some are tightly prescribed, like composition, while others are satisfied through choosing options from a list.  

In other words, there are very real internal allocation decisions that follow from how “general education” is defined.  And given a finite number of credits in a degree, it’s impractical to just pile on new requirements.  If you have too many, you might as well not have any.  I wouldn’t advise any college to have more than a half-dozen or so.  Adding new ones would require subtracting some existing ones, and you could count on the affected departments to have something to say about that.

Against that background, then, a proposed new requirement would have consequences for staffing, scheduling, and student demand, as well as assessment.  That’s why questions like these tend not to get respectful hearings most of the time; the internal politics of making a change can easily trump the initially abstract gains.  But it’s still worth giving some thought from time to time.  

The idea of a public speaking requirement, for example, is not radically new, as anyone who knows her Aristotle can tell you.  Rhetoric was part of the trivium.  For that matter, a certain form of rhetoric can be traced to the pre-Socratics (the “sophists,” whose echoes remain in the words “sophistry” and “sophisticated”).  But somewhere along the line, it sort of fell away.  Most undergrads never take a public speaking course, though they do take multiple writing courses.  

I don’t think that’s because the ability to give a presentation has become irrelevant, or because effective public speaking can’t be taught.  As with writing, most may never become great, but most could become pretty good with time, instruction, and practice.  To the extent that students are being prepared for work in white-collar settings, I could envision a perfectly valid argument to the effect that the ability to present well to a group, to respond effectively to an audience, and to maintain poise under fire is both useful and scarce.  But most colleges don’t require it outside of a few, select majors.

At NACCE, I heard several people argue that “entrepreneurship” should be a general education requirement.  The idea there was that the economy has shifted to such a degree that we need to graduate a generation that knows how to do startups.  To the extent that colleges teach entrepreneurship at all, it’s usually within the confines of a business department or major.  But the folks who might benefit the most from it are IT majors and artists, neither of whom is typically found in a business major.

Over the past few years, some very sharp people have argued that “coding” should be a gen ed requirement.  The argument there, obviously, is that the rewards in our society are increasingly going to “techies,” but that “techies” have been largely a breed apart.  (For some sense of why that matters, do a search on “brogrammer” and see what you find.)  To the extent that the population of people with coding skills can be expanded and diversified -- in terms of both demographics and substantive interests -- we all stand to benefit.  It’s getting increasingly difficult to function as an educated citizen without some technical literacy, and that trend isn’t likely to change.  

And of course, no list of popular prospective gen eds would be complete without some variation on “personal finance.”  Simple economic self-defense requires some basic understanding of compound interest and amortization.  In the U.S., terms like “co-pay” and “deductible” matter in concrete and often powerful ways.  A good personal finance course could combine information literacy, quantitative literacy, and a bit of applied sociology, as well as easily passing the “news you can use” test.  

Each of these has its merits, and I’m sure there are more.  (I’m particularly fond of the public speaking and personal finance ones, myself.)  Community colleges can’t have this discussion on their own, since so many students transfer to four-year schools, and we don’t want to saddle students with credits that wouldn’t transfer.  The discussion would have to be across both institutions and levels.  That’s no small thing.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a new gen ed outcome you’d suggest?  Is there one that should be retired?  Or should we just move away from the concept altogether?

"Against that background, then, a proposed new requirement would have consequences for staffing, scheduling, and student demand, as well as assessment. That’s why questions like these tend not to get respectful hearings most of the time; the internal politics of making a change can easily trump the initially abstract gains."
One thing I liked about this blog when I started reading during grad school was that it frequently brings up issues you don't think or hear about as a grad student. A year ago, this would have been one of those things, but now, 6 months into my first TT appointment, I found myself reading, nodding, and sighing...
Public speaking is a gen-ed requirement at the University of Tennessee. I am told that many underemployed lawyers have been hired as part-time faculty in order to staff this requirement at a low cost.
Could you list your half-dozen gen ed classes? Two composition and only one each of humanities, math, science, and social science? Pretty lame if your goal is general education of the liberal arts students you might target with a programming class.

On your main point, public speaking works better as an upper division gen ed class tailored to the major. I know engineering and business programs that build it in across the curriculum, so it would be a waste to reguire all freshmen to take a generic course.

That said, anyone who watches political discourse and advertising in the united states needs to study the sophists and learn the techniques used to present seemingly plausible but logically false arguments.

I also endorse personal finance over some other options, particularly if it includes the math of compound interest and some of the background on financing a small business as well as a household. It could cover entrepreneurship as well as student loans.

Similarly, the basics of algorithms and programming could be considered a modern extension of logic in the humanities.
Ditto ccphysicist. I came to programming through the humanities. At my former institution, CS satisfied a quantitative requirement. Many a humanities student went there instead of math and found they liked it. I took personal finance in college. I use that information every day, still.
The suggested Gen Eds are subjects that have often been taught in High School -- our high school required Consumer Ed (Personal Finance) and Computer Skills (contained a small bit of coding). The problem has been that the kids can learn these things at some level in HS but they promptly forget them because there's not a practical reason to remember them. The exception, I think, would be Speech (Public Speaking). That pays off right away.

Entrepreneurship as a required Gen Ed? Not so much. But make it available, make it fun, and have it available in the 3 or 4-week intersession time slot as well as at night, weekends, etc.
We have an oral competency as part of our GenEd. Prior to our most recent revision of these requirements, we weren't doing a very good job of assessing whether the classes that met this requirement actually taught any public speaking skills. Many of them required students to do an oral presentation, with no preparation for that presentation.

What we've found since we've started trying to assess this is that: 1) it's hard to assess this (what kind of artifact do you use? Do you tape the presentation? Do you require them to do an online version? You can imagine faculty trying to deal with the technical issues related to this) and 2) we aren't doing a very good job of teaching this.

This has led to some really good discussions in our department about how to do this right (while assessment can be a bear, it can also produce good discussion and learning amongst faculty and students). It turns out one of our faculty members was really focusing on teaching students to do this, so now many of us have adopted his methods.

For me, I think skill based outcomes are really critical in this day and age. Yes - students do need content and it is good that they take courses across a variety of fields, but these skills are the things they will take with them.
My CC required public speaking as a gen ed. We also had a solid forensics team. My transfer institution would only accept that credit as elective, but did have a "behavioral science" requirement, for which people had a functional choice of a speech class (theory, not practice. A great discussion of Sapir-Whorf and advertising strategy, but no actual speaking) or psych 101. My university had a solid psych research program, and thus a substantial pool of psych TAs. I tried, unsuccessfully, to lobby for my speech credit to transfer as their speech class. They were right, they were very different things. My speech theory prof was also right, much of what I learned in that class was interesting in the long run. I was right, as well, though, that since I did competitive forensics, I benefited more from the general education requirement of public speaking. I just didn't understand at the time the institutional constraints.
The college my daughter attends requires end of semester presentations from all students (in addition to normal presentations in classes).

At the end of every semester (after finals) there's a day set aside and each student must present on SOMETHING from the semester. The presentation can be a music performance, a video of work they've done, a talk, or a poster presentation.

Professors, students, and outside visitors attend this Expo.

Because this is an end of EVERY semester thing, students have 8 chances at this.

There's not necessarily any direct instruction in presentations, but the chance to present regularly to people outside of your class and to see what/how other people are presenting gives people a lot of chances to improve.
Back in the dark ages, I was required to take a half-term, 1-credit class called Use of the Library. Sadly, that class is no longer required, but in this age of Google, students need to learn how and why to do more serious academic searches. At the same time, I have freshman coming in who don't know how to use Word, or BlackBoard, or even how to take notes, or why forming a study group with classmates is important, time management, financial aid, credit cards, and general money management. Yes, some students know these things, but too many don't, and the ones who don't desperately need these skills if they are going to be successful students. Maybe all these things could be a required class called Student Success.
Back when I was an undergraduate, my school had a requirement that all students in the engineering program had to take a semester of public speaking. I am not sure of the reason for this, but I suppose that someone in the administration had decided that all engineers had to know how to speak in public.

Here at Proprietary Art School, we offer public speaking as part of our General Education curriculum. We also offer an online version of the public speaking course, where the students send in video recordings of their speeches. I am not sure how such an online course works out in practice, since an important part of public speaking is talking in front of a live audience.
I, too, attended a college where public speaking was a required gen ed. (Small liberal arts school.) I believe it was the most useful gen ed I've taken.
We have a public speaking Gen Ed requirement. It is one of just two absolutely required, specific, courses (the other is 1st yr. writing) and it is almost impossible to get out of this class. All other gen ed categories - even math - offer students several options. When our gen ed program was last overhauled, many people assumed that this outcome was the result of a bunch of highly placed administrators who hailed from the communications department. The class is basically an easy A or B if students just attend on a regular basis. Given that background, many faculty aren't very supportive of the requirement. At first, I tended to agree with that view, particularly because my own department, which was not well-represented in the overhaul, "lost" a gen ed requirement that had been our bread and butter for many years. Bad feelings abounded.

However, over time I have become a convert to the public speaking requirement. I think the requirement serves multiple purposes. First, it is a good sorter of first year students. While the predictive value is mainly on the lower end, I notice that students who struggle in this class are bound to struggle in their other classes, too. When I advise 1st & 2nd year students, I always look to see how they did in this class; often, our conversation (and my advice) about their college experience will start from there. Second, most students report that they really did gain useful communication skills that they continue to use from the class. Third, it is one of the few formal contexts in which our many first-generation college students are socialized into the (often unspoken) norms of college classrooms, because part of the course includes very intentional discussion of how to participate effectively in classes and how to approach profs, admins, and other students outside of class in a professional and efficacious manner. On a purely self-interested level, I find it is easier to manage classroom discussions and individual student interactions(including appropriate email etiquette and social media use), when I have a group of students who have already taken this course.

That said, we have begun to move toward an "across the curriculum" approach for all of our communication expectations, and I think that makes a lot of sense. The two things that tug at the corners of my mind, though, are whether I am equipped (as somebody outside that field with no formal training at all) to teach these skills, and how I should assess students in this area. These are professional development issues, and it requires that my school cough up a bit of money to provide faculty support for such endeavors. Of course, it also requires faculty buy-in, which is tricky to achieve in the face of lingering bad feelings about how this requirement achieved its prime position in our gen eds in the first place. The latter speaks to the political realities of programmatic changes and turf. The former, though, would be true anywhere, even with faculty approval of the changes. If you're going to ask faculty across disciplinary boundaries to reinforce some core set of skills or values, then you need to offer on-going support, training, and useful advice to make it possible and sustainable.
Anon- not that your university should leave things to untrained people who don't want to do it, but if you really want to improve your evaluations of other people's oral communication skills, you can always try Toastmasters yourself. Academic types do very well in the evaluation contests, from what I've seen. And it's fun.
Another effing sinecure so that majors become meaningless. Tough enough to have to fight the language drones, the gym dandies, the fifteen English courses each student has to have. Oh yes, everyone needs a course in philosophy and classics and art and music
I can see that you are putting a lot of efforts into your blog. Keep posting the good work.Some really helpful information in there. Nice to see your site.

College Industry

Bilal Hussain

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?