Eat Your Brussels Sprouts!

When I was a child, I knew that if a Brussels sprout passed my lips, one of two things would happen — I’d vomit, or I’d die. Unfortunately for me, my mother loved Brussels sprouts and so they showed up on my dinner plate far, far too often. Because she had a “sit at your place until you clean your plate” rule, and our cats wouldn’t eat vegetables I  dropped on the floor, I spent many nights sitting at that damned dinner table until it was time to go to bed.

Spinach? I hated it, but could force it down. Collards? They were worse, but I could force them down too. Limas? Peas? Loved them! But Brussels sprouts was where I drew the line.

Ultimately my mother gave up and just made me peas on the nights she cooked Brussels sprouts for herself and my father (who secretly loathed peas). Sometime in my twenties I had to eat a Brussels sprout and lo and behold, it was delicious. Who knew? We eat them often at my house, but never once have I forced one of my children to eat them. They’ll find there way to Brussels sprouts on their own. Or not. Either way, it will be up to them.

I’m sorry to report that our approach to general education in American higher education is just like my mother’s approach to vegetables at dinner — Eat them, kid. They’re good for you! And you can’t leave the table (graduate) until you DO eat them. Why? Because I’m the Dad and I said so, that’s why.

For years I’ve been railing about the state of general education in American higher education. [See for instance, two of my personal favorites from 2008: Why the Apparatchiks Would Have Loved General Education, and Milo Minderbinder University.] In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo brings a fresh voice to the long simmering and frankly shameful debate about the truly silly ways we force our students to eat their vegetables before they graduate.

Toward the end of his essay, Selingo says, “general education is also meant to equip students with an understanding of the wider world and a sense of civic responsibility. Whether it still does that is debatable.”

I don’t think it’s debatable at all.

I think we force students to eat their vegetables because we’re the adults and we know better.

In fact, at far too many institutions of higher education here in the States, we’ve let our approach to general education ossify to the point that the thing we misleadingly call “general education” has become nothing more than an exercise in box-checking by our students who just want to graduate with the credential everyone tells them they must have to succeed in life.

Rather than cast aspersions on any other institution, I’ll cast them on my own, because George Mason University could be a poster child for the sorts of problems Selingo describes in his essay.

As evidence, let me lay out for you the requirements every student who graduates from Mason must complete (with the add on of additional requirements students in my college–Humanities and Social Sciences–must complete in addition to the already onerous requirements imposed by the university).

In what we recently renamed the “Mason Core,” every student must fulfill the following requirements with the number of credits in parentheses:

Written Communication (3) — English 100 or 101
Oral Communication (3) — Communication 100 or 101
Information Technology (3-7) — One or two courses from a list of 15
Quantitative Reasoning (3) — Math 106 or an advanced class from a list of 10
Arts (3) — One course from a list of 83
Global Understanding (3) — One course from a list of 85
Literature (3) — One course from a list of 29
Natural Science (7) — Two courses, one with a lab, from a list of 41
Social Sciences (3) — One course from a list of 35
Western or World Civilization (3) — History 100 or 125
Advanced Composition (3) — English 302 (writing in the disciplines)
Synthesis [capstone] course (3) — One course from a list of 7

So you don’t have to count up all those credits, I did it for you. That’s either 40 or 44 credits depending on the IT course you select.

Then, my college adds on an additional 18 credits to this list, meaning anyone majoring in the humanities or social sciences must complete between 58-62 credits from a list forced on them by the faculty.

Now here’s the best part. Of all of those courses we require of our students, by my count one — that’s ONE — of them actually connects to any of the others. One. As in less than two. That course is English 302, which is a writing in the disciplines course in which students learn to write in the broad categories  they are studying in — Humanities, Social Sciences, Science, Business, Engineering, etc.

At no other time in all of those 40-62 credits do any of our required courses reach across the disciplinary boundaries to connect to other aspects of the core curriculum, unless it happens by chance (or design) in a particular course because the professor goes out of her or his way to make it happen. The capstone/synthesis courses are really just capstones within majors, not across the curriculum, so even those don’t pretend to be general education courses.

So really, here at George Mason, we don’t have a “core” that is anything more than a list of boxes that students must check.

Or, given how so many of them feel about it, Brussels sprouts they must eat.

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My Students’ Take on PowerPoint

As I do every semester in my course The Digital Past, yesterday I asked my students what drives them crazy about how their faculty members use PowerPoint and other slideware in class. Herewith, their litany of complaint:

  • The inclusion of random slides that don’t seem to pertain to what the professor is discussing
  • Slides with links that then don’t get followed
  • Shared slides with links that are broken
  • Professors standing in front of the screen and reading the text on their slides
  • Graphics that aren’t, or are not sufficiently, explained
  • Graphics that are so small you can’t make sense of the data on them
  • Slides that are out of order and the professor jumps up and down the sequence trying to find the one he/she wants to show
  • Too many slides (One student said she had a one hour lecture with 65 slides. Really?)
  • Too much text on the slides, or alternatively, a slide with just one bullet
  • Bizarre color choices (One student had a class that was all red text on a black background. Yikes!)
  • Bizarre font choices, or fonts that don’t fit with the topic at hand
  • Uncorrected slides — “Oops, I made an error there, let me take a few minutes to fix it while you watch.”
  • Slides that mimic or simply copy what is in the textbook
  • Professors who move way too quickly through their slides, especially at the end of class
  • Slides that are not used to generate discussion or thinking — are seemingly there for informational purposes only
  • Slides that are not posted or shared with students
  • Seemingly random photographs
  • Slides with seemingly random information
  • Slides with typos in the text

So, dear colleague, be warned that if you do any of these things when using slideware in your classes, you are probably annoying the hell out of your students.

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The Reality of College Admissions

Tomorrow is April 1.

How fitting that newspapers across the United States will run stories about Melissa, or Johnny, or Tong, or Razan, getting into some ultra-selective college or other. We’ll hear all about how the “America’s Top Colleges” just keep getting more selective as application numbers soar higher and higher and admit rates fall farther and farther. Relief will be palpable in the homes where a child got that coveted email saying “You’re in!”, and sadness will permeate the homes where all the emails from America’s “best colleges” say something like, “I’m sorry to inform you…”

And these stories will have about as much relevance to college admissions in America as a story about Warren Buffett’s tax bill has to me.

Here’s a fact for you. In 2015 “America’s Top Colleges,” as defined by the top 10 schools in the US News and World Report rankings of universities and of liberals arts colleges, enrolled exactly 0.8% of all undergraduate students in America.

That’s less than 1%. As in such a small number as to have no meaning.

The reality of college admissions in America is that (according to the U.S. Department of Education) there are around 20,000,000  students enrolled attending some college or other and the vast, vast majority of them attend non-selective or barely selective institutions.

Most work more than 20 hours per week to help pay those tuition bills. A substantial fraction have no time for partying on Thursday (or Friday or Saturday) nights, because they have to get home to feed the kids or help them with their homework. An embarrassingly large number skip meals because they have to save money for tuition or are homeless. Far too many take six, seven, or even ten years to graduate because they can only take one or two classes at a time. Many bear the scars of military service in Afghanistan or Iraq. And their average age is well over 22.

That’s the reality of college admissions. Not Johnny getting into Williams. Or Melissa getting into Princeton. Or Razan getting into Stanford. Or Tong getting into Grinnell.

So, newspaper editors of America, how about this year we give stories about who did or did not get into “America’s Top Colleges” a pass. Instead, write us a story about how Johnny is living at home so he can work and go to community college part time? Or about Melissa trying to figure out how she is going to get to her classes on time after work? Or about Razan being trying to decide whether to take 12 credits or 15, when 15 would mean skipping lunch the entire semester? Or about Tong heading off to his local state university after finishing his AA degree when he finishes his AA degree this summer?

Those stories would be anything but an April Fool’s joke.

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More Than a Few Tough Things (3)

In my second post in this series I took on my colleague Steve Pearlstein‘s argument that “universities” should engage in less research, more teaching. In this final post in the series, I want to take up his argument about general education.

Cheaper, better general education. The reform of general education is something I’ve had a lot to say about in this blog over the years, for example: 20062008; and 2008; and again in 2008; and 2010, just to highlight a few of my more agitated posts. So, I agree with Pearlstein that it’s time to take an axe to general education requirements at many universities (not all, just many, and especially mine). But where I have a problem with his argument is when he says the following:

“A university concerned about cost and quality would restructure general education around a limited number of courses designed specifically for that purpose — classes that tackle big, interesting questions from a variety of disciplines. Harvard, with its Humanities 10 seminars, and the University of Maryland, with its I-Series, have recently taken steps in that direction. But this approach will achieve significant savings only if the courses are designed to use new technology that allows large numbers of students to take them at the same time.”

This statement betrays a belief in the efficacy of teaching complex knowledge to large numbers of students at the same time and in the value of efficiency through technology. For a century now, ever since what was once known as the “Harvard system” (large lecture/small recitation) began to invade college campuses, university general education curricula have been built on the delivery of content to masses of lower level undergraduate students (in the classic Course X 101 lecture hall). The application of technology to this delivery system is just a different way to do the same thing — sever the connection between teacher and learner.

A teacher on a screen or as the hidden hand behind an algorithm is no more connected to a learner than is the “sage on the stage” in a lecture hall seating 100, 500, or 800. And I challenge you to find a study run by a cognitive scientist (as opposed to an educational or disciplinary researcher) that demonstrates that the learning outcomes from such disconnected learning exceed those one obtains in a smaller classroom where real connections between teacher and learner are the norm and collaborative learning is the standard. Such studies may exist. And if they do, I’d love to read them.

The real problem is one that Pearlstein doesn’t acknowledge, namely that in today’s challenging fiscal environment in public higher education, fraught with legislative disinvestment, spiraling discount rates, and other financial pressures he doesn’t acknowledge (especially growing amounts of deferred maintenance) general education is all about the money. At today’s enrollment driven public college or university, what really matters is butts in seats. If you can’t filled the seats, there is no money. That’s true at the department level, but also at the institutional level.

In fact, Pearlstein’s suggestion is in line with the tried and true approach to this budget model, namely, let’s find a way to let “large numbers of students to take [their general education courses] at the same time.”

Why? Because if we don’t, our budget model will break. Plain and simple.

Thus, I’m not impressed by Pearlstein’s notion of creating something new and cost efficient that would be somehow different. I don’t want cost efficient general education. I want quality general education where students actually learn a subject — something quite different from “great talks by one or more professors and outside experts [combined] with video clips, animation, quizzes, games and interactive exercises — then supplementing that online material with weekly in-person sessions for discussions, problem solving or other forms of “active learning.”

Who, by the way will hold those “in-person” sessions if 800 students are taking the class? And more to the point, who will staff the ““labs” open day and night that use tutors and interactive software to provide individualized instruction in math and writing until the desired competency is achieved.”

Oh, wait. He must mean graduate students…

And so we are back to the economics of the thing. You can’t have “in-person sessions” for large numbers of students and late night labs for large numbers of students unless you are paying graduate students near-starvation wages. It just doesn’t work. Sorry.

A better solution is to rethink the very notion of how we deliver general education altogether.  As  Matt Reed wrote in his response to Pearlstein’s argument in Inside Higher Ed:

Cheaper, better general education? We have an entire sector for that, too. Research universities are called “research universities” for a reason. If you want a place that values teaching, community colleges are everywhere. For that matter, so are the former teachers’ colleges that form the backbone of most four-year public systems. If you don’t like the economics of the research university sector — and there are good reasons not to — you have alternatives.

The Ernst & Young study of Australian higher education speaks to this exact issue and I have to say, I’m sympathetic to their argument that we need to rethink public higher education as  a sector, not just university by university (our default).

What would that look like in Virginia where I work?

We have two large well-endowed and well-funded flagship universities: the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. We should just admit that those two universities are, and will continue to be the big kids on the block, offering a broad range of graduate programs and research across their campuses. The other three doctoral universities in our “system” (Virginia isn’t really a system like Wisconsin or Indiana or Texas) should become, in the words of the E&Y report, “niche dominators.”

George Mason, where I work, might dominate the niche(s) most closely connected to Washington, D.C. — policy, security, human rights, etc. Virginia Commonwealth University already dominates the niches of health care and the arts. Old Dominion University might end up dominating niches related to defense (given the Norfolk naval station close by), maritime and/or ecological research, or whatever makes sense for them. To get to these dominating positions in our niches, the three institutions in this sector would then also engage in cost shifting by radically downsizing, or yes, eliminating, their investment in graduate programs in any discipline outside their niches, and pour that money into undergraduate education.

And were I the king of Virginia, I would also shift a significant amount of the resources currently devoted to undergraduate general education — especially every penny spent on a course seating more than 100 students — to the community college system. As Matt Reed points out, community colleges, by and large, do an excellent job in those first two years of the college curriculum — so why not throw bad money after good and give it to them?

Don’t believe me when I say they do a good job? A student who enrolls at George Mason University after completing an AA degree from a community college is more likely to graduate from our university than one who enrolls with us as a freshman. So, who’s doing a better job when it comes to general education?

Of course, everything I’ve written in this series flies in the face of both generally accepted practice in American higher education, and our common desire to be more like University X or Y who I likely see as being more of a “real university” than the one where I work.

I guess it’s probably a good thing I won’t ever be king of Virginia.

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