UO’s College of Arts and Sciences moved closer to its goal of driving general education reform from the grassroots up Tuesday, calling for proposals for new or redesigned courses by individuals, pairs or “clusters” of faculty. Awards range from $8,000 for individuals to $40,000 for collaborative groups, with the first of three annual rounds of applications due January 15, 2014; interdisciplinary courses might be team taught or taught individually in conversation with other courses to which they’re explicitly connected in theme, skill-building, or cross-course assignments and activities. (Read the CFP here.)
“Our faculty already do a tremendous job with General Education. We teach some amazing courses. There’s nothing broken. But the whole experience has become fragmented and diffuse. We need to be able to speak of General Education as a curriculum again. That’s why we’re calling this a ‘Renaissance,’” said CAS Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Ian McNeely, who is spearheading the initiative.
General education courses are the heart liberal education and a key indicator of the health of any public institution’s undergraduate program, says the call for proposals.
“It’s great if students get a leg up on Gen Ed at community colleges or in high school. But there’s something special you can only get by being exposed to big ideas at research universities. That’s what we want our General Education curriculum to communicate to students from the moment they arrive to the moment they graduate,” McNeely added.
The call for proposals follows a series of conversations by a 25-member summer working group of faculty volunteers who tried to articulate the skills and abilities general education courses should develop in millennial students; the structures, advising, and “marketing” that might make general education more immediately meaningful for students; and the barriers—size, varied levels of student preparedness, demands on some courses to serve both majors and non-majors—to effectively teaching these courses.
“Our charge seems to be to innovate at the margins,” putting positive pressure on the general education curriculum a few courses at a time, said Professor of Psychology Holly Arrow, a member of the summer group. Arrow said the overview of UO’s general education courses McNeely offered to launch the group’s discussions—including the fact that UO has 777 (and counting) group and multicultural requirement satisfying courses—has piqued her interest in longer-term structural reform to create greater coherence among an unwieldy number of courses and streamline UO’s requirements. “Some students really appreciate sampling many different courses and discover new passions through them, but the complicated accountancy of Gen Ed—‘two of these count toward this requirement, but not three’—can discourage them from actually pursuing new passions in depth, unless they decide on a minor or second major,” Arrow said.
“To create more opportunities for a truly interdisciplinary experience (which goes beyond the multidisciplinary experience of simply sampling courses from different departments) it would be great to have more connection among courses that look at related topics from different disciplinary perspectives,” Arrow explained.
The group converged around two main goals for general education reform: that it would feel like a connected, coherent experience for students and that it would define and enhance a core set of student abilities—the call for proposals identifies synthesis, analysis, quantitative reasoning, and writing skills. The summer group also discussed the importance of student reflection about their own learning over time, peer collaboration, and the intellectual rewards of grappling with ambiguity.
Professor of Physics Greg Bothun, who presented to the group his “Culture and Science” course along with co-teacher Professor Emeritus of History John Nicols, was a strong advocate for the electric, if disconcerting, ambiguity that comes from bringing faculty from different disciplines together in the classroom, modeling their approaches to argumentation and revealing the fluidity and biases knowledge. “Students and faculty should be able to ‘sell’ their discipline-based points of view—should be able to say ‘here’s what we believe and why—but remain aware that there are other lenses available to view the problem,’” Bothun said.
Bothun noted that in his 23 years at UO this CAS effort is the “first funded initiative specifically targeting general education pedagogical reform.” He said he was particularly heartened by the summer group’s enthusiasm for interdisciplinary approaches to general education and willingness to consider skill building as more important than content: “that would be an amazing transformation,” he said. Bothun also liked the idea of clustered courses targeting second-year students—who are perhaps ready for sophisticated intellectual work now that they’ve found their bearings in college, but who also may feel adrift in a sea of requirements.
Even a “little more coherence could translate into a lot,” said Associate Professor of Geography Shaul Cohen. Faculty might identify paths though Gen Ed electronically, or even just by telling students around registration time “here are some other courses to consider”: this would serve as an explicit invitation for students to see connections between courses and might create de facto cohorts for students who see each other in multiple classes. “I’d like students to see what the whole Gen Ed curriculum is about more collectively and more quickly,” he said.
Cohen himself leads a four-year student cohort on campus: his Carnegie Global Oregon Learning Community sparked particular interest from the summer group, which wanted to consider intellectual cohort building, creative use of co-curricular activities, and peer teaching. Global Oregon begins as a Freshman Interest Group (FIG) then extends through the entirety of students’ undergraduate careers. The cohort—which now includes freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors—invites high-profile speakers to campus, participates in Eugene-based service learning projects, and meets with Cohen for an ongoing one-credit course to discuss ethical questions: it’s now a tightly bonded intellectual and mentorship community.
In addition to planning and delivering their grant-funded courses and clusters for at least two consecutive years, CAS ‘Renaissance’ award-winners will be asked to assess the impact of their efforts and to be part of an ongoing conversation about Gen Ed on campus, according to the call.
“When I look at the broader landscape of higher education, I sense we’ll need to do a much better job of proving the value of what we do. The lofty statements we make about liberal, general education will have to approximate the standards of evidence we apply, for example, in our scholarly research. That’s what assessment is about, and it will be coming soon to a classroom near you. It will be so much pleasanter if our own faculty can articulate, on their own terms, what that ought to mean. That’s another, subsidiary purpose of this initiative,” McNeely said.
Participants in the summer sessions seemed ready to keep talking and experimenting.
The summer sessions were a different kind of meeting—“a pleasant and rare surprise,” Cohen said. Gen Ed “brought together people who care about students and have a passion for teaching. It was great sitting in a room and learning from everyone what they’re doing—we don’t do enough of that,” he said. “There’s a reservoir of willingness to implement something that will better engage students.”
“Because it is the students whose education is being discussed here, it would be great to hear from a panel of more senior students about their experience with Gen Ed and what they appreciated or found frustrating. What changes would they like to see? Input from those on campus who do academic advising might also be very helpful, to find out what problems students commonly encounter in navigating the current ‘menu’ system,” Arrow added.
“Regardless of the specific initiatives, Gen Ed needs to evolve so that the courses become more meaningful and relevant to the students. Else, why have the requirement? A move away from courses that are based on content memorization to courses that are more interactive, interdisciplinary and relevant to real-world issues would be welcomed by both students and faculty,” Bothun said.