At TEP’s “Best of UO General Education” event May 17th, College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Ian McNeely presented telling statistics to about 40 faculty attendees:
• UO has 777 group and multicultural requirement satisfying courses; more are added every term.
• Calculated in terms of student credit hours, general education courses bring in more than $60 million each year to schools and colleges.
• Only about seven percent of UO undergraduate classes at UO have 100 or more students, but nearly 40 percent of all undergraduate instruction is delivered in these large courses. In some fields, like the natural sciences and journalism, the proportion is more than half.
• About 85 percent of Gen Ed credit is offered through CAS, the rest through the professional schools and the Robert D. Clark Honors College.
• Across CAS, tenure-track faculty teach a little over one third of all student credit hours at the lower division, about half at the upper division; the percentage of instruction offered by tenure-track faculty is in decline College-wide.
• Twenty-five percent of all Gen Ed credit that UO counts toward a degree is not from courses taught at UO. (It’s AP and IB credit and transfer credit from other colleges and universities, and even certain high school courses that are transcripted as “dual credit”— meaning they count for both high school and college graduation requirements.)
Faculty can conclude from these data that “general education is sprawling, lucrative, neglected, and not fully under our control,” McNeely said. The $360,000 Rippey Endowment-funded General Education Initiative he’s launching is aimed at cultural more than structural change, he added. By strategically redesigning enough courses, boosting their quality and inventiveness, “the seed can grow until it bursts the shell,” he said, explaining that these new courses are meant to put positive pressure on the rest of the curriculum.
McNeely’s fellow panelists—Associate Professor of Anthropology and Chair of Undergraduate Council Josh Snodgrass, Professor of Biology and co-director of UO’s Science Literacy Program Judith Eisen, and Associate Professor and Head of Comparative Literature Lisa Freinkel—sketched the principles animating their own their general education courses, highlighting their attempts to convey social relevance; the nature of academic research; excitement and intrigue; a sense of belonging in intellectual communities; and resilient processes of problem solving.
General education is the centerpiece of a liberal education, Snodgrass said. He cited Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, which identifies economic (personal and societal), political (democracy functions thanks to an educated citizenry) and personal (a student’s own growth and satisfaction) goals for core curricula.
Then Snodgrass asked a question that drives his own teaching: “What is the ‘value added’ of having me as an active researcher present this material, as opposed to, say, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) or a community college instructor?” Snodgrass said. “Our students are paying for access to knowledge producers,” he added. And that makes him responsible for integrating his research and teaching as tightly as possible, he said.
In addition to creating serious research opportunities for undergraduates, research-led teaching can mean “sharing my own stuff—in a humble way—as an example of how science is done. I can convey my wonder and excitement, and the limits of my knowledge. I can take a broad swath of students and show them, ‘this [the university] is the place where we explain “why?”’
Eisen shared the philosophy of UO’s Science Literacy Program (SLP), which, thanks to a $1.5 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant, is revising general education in the sciences one course at a time: by the end of next year—year four of the four-year grant—it will have developed 11 entirely new courses and substantially revised 10 courses already on the books.
Eisen’s own BI 140 “Science, Policy and Biology” is one of those new courses, which are built around “impactful” topics and taught in participatory, context-rich ways by a team that often includes more than one faculty member, graduate student SLP fellows, and undergraduate SLP scholars. “Teaching content isn’t the entire point of the enterprise,” Eisen told the group. “We’re thinking long past college, toward students’ comfort and confidence” years later, as they approach scientific phenomena, research, and reporting as critical citizens, she explained.
Institutional support is crucial for the kinds of curriculum reinvention the SLP has enacted, Eisen said. “You can’t teach the same old thing the same old way at the same time you’re trying to redesign it and develop it into something new,” she said. Her program buys faculty out of a course, usually the term before they debut their SLP course. Moreover, the SLP provides structured conversations about teaching through a weekly journal club at which science faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates meet to discuss articles on science pedagogy and how their courses are going, and to try small-scale experiments in deploying well-researched methods of science pedagogy.
Freinkel described a redesign of Comparative Literature’s (COLT’s) curriculum and sophisticated co-curriculum—one that has rejuvenated the department, raising its campus-wide profile and leading to a sharp increase of interest in the Major and in enrollments. Freinkel said that “comparative literature” itself is a suggestively open field: what connections does it allow; what are its boundaries; what disciplines, languages, media does it include? “That’s all good grist for our mill—we teach students to think about that.”
“We’ve embraced mystery,” she said, pointing toward playful, provocative annual topics like “SECRET” and “TRICK” that are raised in the classroom at all levels and spill into a lively speaker series and undergraduate research journal that pairs undergraduate writers with GTF writing partners to prepare work for publication; nomad, the journal, is celebrated by an annual release party and faculty/student panel discussion. (In addition to academics, the “TRICK” speakers series included a magician who is also pursuing a Masters in psychology. While showcasing his sleight-of-hand, he talked about why people believe in illusion.)
Freinkel explained that the department seeks to get its millennial generation students to slow down and carve out an intellectual space that’s their own and that they actively perceive themselves as helping to define—“nerd-dom” can be an enlivening point of identification, she says.
Questions for consideration
After the panelist presentations, the event opened for general discussion, during which faculty tried to define the notion of “general education” so the group could better clarify its mission: they questioned if it is “common” education required as a basic component of citizenship—general to all of us and highly useful inside the classroom and out? Or perhaps important for employability because it suggests students’ flexibility in problem solving across disciplines? A gateway used to determine which students are talented enough in an area ultimately to major in it? Or maybe a component of the curriculum meant to transition students from high school to university-level work?
Participants expressed concern with “general education” seeming boring to students, or like mere boxes to check off, and questioned how UO might use advising, “marketing,” and outreach to lend excitement and credibility to the general education curriculum.
Moreover, the group wondered how to assess whether the general education courses met crucial but difficult to pin down learning objectives—relating to, say, the thought processes, confidence level, and ethics students would be prepared to bring to a range of situations throughout their lifetimes.
They questioned whether experiments with grading methods (more P/NP options or contract grading, for example) might encourage the openness and intellectual risk taking many faculty want students to develop with these course, and whether, with tuition rising and more students trying to satisfy lower-division requirements elsewhere, UO might focus some of its renewal efforts on 300-level general education courses.
CAS General Education Initiative Update
Several dozen faculty members submitted preliminary letters of interest on topics as diverse as war, climate change, and global cinema—plus proposals aimed at enlivening staple subjects like math, writing, and introductory science. “I’m sensing a real outpouring of enthusiasm about this initiative,” said Ian F. McNeely, CAS Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education. “Faculty understand how important General Education is to our academic mission. We’re eager to get the planning started this summer, but the train has by no means left the station.” The first round of course redesign funding applications will be due in January 2014.