Sunday, November 08, 2015


Meta-Majors, Sampler Platters, and Sneaky Ambition

High-toned liberal arts colleges often like to have interdisciplinary freshman seminars.  Community colleges generally can’t, partly because our definition of “freshmen” is more heterogeneous -- does the freshman year start at enrollment, or when developmental classes are done?  what about for dual enrollment students? -- but mostly because anything interdisciplinary often won’t transfer.  

That’s more a function of neglect and bureaucracy than conspiracy.  Many four-year schools have checklists into which courses must fall to be accepted.  If a course doesn’t fit a category neatly, it either doesn’t make the cut at all, or makes it only as a “free elective.”  Free elective status is where credits go to die.  So we can run Intro to American Government all we want, but, say, The Politics of Protest Movements is a non-starter.

The gap in first-year course ambitions has stuck in my craw for years.  If quirky and interesting first-year courses are available to the elites, they should be available to everybody.  Fair is fair.  

So that’s the starting point with which I came to the idea of meta-majors.  As I understand them, meta-majors and guided pathways are related and complementary attempts to improve student success rates by being much more prescriptive with entering students.  In practice, the idea is to make the transfer checklist the ‘default’ setting for student course selection.  If students are kept on the straight and narrow, the theory goes, they’re less likely to get lost.  If they only take courses that count, they’ll make progress more quickly, and be likelier to finish.  

Meta-majors and guided pathways strike me as very promising ways to improve student success, both at the community college and upon subsequent transfer.  But they’re vulnerable to the critique that they “solve” the tyranny of the checklist by surrendering to it.  They seem to sacrifice adventure for safety.


(People who know me know to get a little nervous when I start a sentence with either “unless…” or “what if…”)

Unless the Big Intro course -- the meta-major -- is interdisciplinary and ambitious in its own right.

The most effective meta-major class I’ve seen was the Intro to Health Careers class at Holyoke.  It was a sampler platter of the various occupations within the allied health field, taught on the assumption that many students who had identified nursing as a career goal didn’t know that many other options even exist.  They’d spend some time learning about other roles in the industry, with the goal of finding the one that fits them best.  Some students peeled off into social work, some into nutrition, some into public health, some into medical coding.  The ones who continued with nursing were fewer, but better chosen; after a couple of years, both the diversity of the nursing class and the NCLEX pass rate went up.  When students who actually wanted to be nurses were the ones in the nursing track, they did better.  That’s not surprising; they wanted it more.

Okay, you say, but what does that have to do with the rest of the curriculum?  How would that work in, say, humanities?

And that’s where I sneak my ambitious little friend, interdisciplinarity, back into the plan.

Imagine a Humanities 101 course along the ‘sampler platter’ model, but with a theme.  For example, with “Love” as a theme, the class could offer glimpses into “love in art,” “love in music,” “love in literature,” and the like.  (And before anyone cracks the inevitable joke, no, “Love” will not be a lab class.)  The social sciences could use money, sex, or power.  If you can’t find something interesting among those three topics, well, I just don’t know what to tell you.  Building the sampler platter class around a hook would give it some coherence, would allow faculty to branch out a bit from always doing the same old thing, and would likely give the students a reason to care.  

If the meta-major class is part of a package, it’s likelier to transfer.  And if it helps students identify their interests early on, and thereby to make more strategic course selections as they go, it’s likely to reinforce the ‘guided pathways’ structure.  In other words, we may not have to choose between ambition and safety.  We could have both.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Could a meta-major structure offer the venue for community college students to get a meaningful version of what students at elite places get?  

Great idea, but I don't think that will help it transfer as more than an elective unless it really was a HUM 101 class that counted for humanities gen-ed credit. That wouldn't happen where I am, because our HUM classes can't be taken by first-term freshmen; they need ENG 101 to show they are ready to write and use the library at the expected level. (Similarly, I'm assuming your Health Careers class does not count for science gen-ed credit.) But it is a great idea nonetheless.

We have meta majors that are much to vague to be associated with prescriptive schedules. Only the Business one really has a fully defined pathway. As you mentioned, health can go in many directions. Same for STEM. The main thing the STEM one does is try to get them on the path to calculus and CHM 101, but some go on through organic chem while others only need one semester of chemistry and tons of math and physics. Ditto on the social science side, where some need real statistics (hence more math) than others do. But we also have a freshman experience class that is supposed to do what your Health Careers class does. The only problem is that each class consists of 30+ kids with totally random interests. Putting focus -- and some content -- into ones for different career tracks would make it more engaging and might give the result you are getting.

So I'll say it again, great idea.
Good idea, but I doubt it would work in California. Students already have the IGETC general-ed curriculum (which is a distaster for STEM majors) so a new meta-major wouldn't do anything new there. And individual courses would still transfer based on the individual articulation agreements, which will generally give only undifferentiated "credit" for classes that don't match something at the destination institution almost exactly.
We do something sort of similar, but a little different. We create themed sections of already existing courses that students take in conjunction with courses in other disciplines that offer sections fitting the same theme. For example, a student might take a section of BIO 101, ENG 101, and POL 101 that all emphasize environmental sustainability (they register for all three at the same time and the professors of each of these sections worked on a joint theme proposal). Each section covers the usual syllabus and assignments, but framed through a certain perspective. The BIO course might cover ecology through the lens of environmental degradation and the POL course might use green legislation to examine how a bill becomes a law, while the ENG course would focus on books or argumentative papers along the environmental theme.

We have a whole bunch of these themed, linked sections and I believe that the majority of our freshmen now take a set of such courses in their first semester. Of course, the catch is that it only worked well if you pick courses where you have tons of sections and if many of the linked sets of sections include only courses for which testing out of the developmental sequence is not a prerequisite.
For a community college?

"Socioeconomic class, race, gender, and intersectionality."

I guarantee you -- guarantee you -- a massively improved pass rate and a fierce loyalty to your institution.

I can't tell you how much I love this post. I spent what seems like an eternity arguing for something like that in the social sciences (econ, poli sci, soc, psych, etc.) and proposed an intro-team-taught course on human decision-making: Here are some issues people often face and must make decisions about. What would (Discipline A, B...) have to say about this?

Got nowhere.
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