Sunday, January 28, 2018

Default Settings

The best part of blogging, for me, is being able to draw on other people’s solutions to problems that many of us face.  This is one of those.

We’re working on a version of “guided pathways,” as part of a larger effort to reduce achievement gaps among various groups of students. The idea is that making paths to graduation clearer and more legible from the outset will reduce the chances of students getting lost and spending time and money on classes that won’t count. Part of that involves replacing placeholders like “social science elective” with specific recommended courses. The specific courses are defaults, rather than mandates, so a student with an interest (or transfer credits) in something else in the same category won’t be shut out. Behavioral economics teaches us that default settings will tend to get increases in demand, and alternatives will tend to see decreases. While some students have clear interests in a given field, many -- especially fulfilling requirements outside of their major -- just want to be told what will work so they can get it done.

The academic in me bristles a bit at it -- it smacks of one of my least-liked phrases, “get your gen eds out of the way” -- but the social scientist in me has to concede some validity. Particularly for students whose parents didn’t go to college, some of the categories we use may not be terribly intuitive. And we don’t (and won’t) have the staff to give every student intensive one-on-one advising. The money simply isn’t there. So there’s a pragmatic argument for designating a default humanities course and a default social science course for, say, Biology majors.

But how, exactly, is that done?

I ask because the internal politics of selection are sticky. Selecting a default elective involves picking winners and losers, and the stakes for the losers can be high. If we choose, say, Intro to Psychology as the default social science elective, I could imagine enrollments suffering in anthropology or political science. Over time, that could have implications for staffing, and even for the viability of program options. Faculty in those areas are smart people who can do the math; they can be expected, rightly, to defend their disciplines. In their shoes, I would do the same.

Distribution requirements have their flaws, but as internal political compromises, they serve a purpose. Getting more prescriptive involves foregrounding some long-buried conflicts.

We could set a few basic ground rules -- for example, any recommended default selection has to transfer well -- but that doesn’t settle the question.  Intro to American Government transfers as well as Intro to Psychology does.

The Biology department may not want to pick fights, so it may be tempted to punt the issue over to the social science faculty. But they might not know which courses would be of most benefit to Biology students, and the internecine conflict could get ugly fast. And this is one area in which I really don’t want to be the bad guy, because the precedent of having vice presidents set curriculum unilaterally strikes me as a dagger in the heart of shared governance.

Having said all of that, I’m sure we’re not the only place dealing with this question. Colleges that have made more progress on pathways must have dealt with this, one way or another.  So, my question to my wise and worldly readers who have seen this issue tackled cleanly:

How do you choose the default settings?