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?