Tag Archives: General Education

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.

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.

Back to the Future

The most recent issue of the AHA’s Perspectives includes a very thought provoking essay by current AHA president Kenneth Pomerantz on the place of history courses in the general education curriculum. Pomerantz correctly sees history courses as being under threat in a national conversation about making college education “more practical” or “more relevant.” I applaud Pomerantz’s taking up of the AAC&U and Lumina Foundation’s take on general education as needing to provide more opportunities for students to pursue integrative knowledge that focuses their attention on the practices and epistemologies  of academic disciplines rather than on their content.

No matter what we might think of the changes that are coming, the tide is running against the notion that general education curricula should represent some sort of intellectual check list for students — one of these, one of those, two of that other thing. For at least five years, if not longer, I’ve been arguing against such an approach to general education, both because I think our students need to be able to make more choices on their own, but also because I know (from long engagement at the administrative level with these issues) that in today’s underfunded university, general education requirements are as much about preserving the economic viability of certain disciplines as they are about providing our students with a broad, integrative approach to learning. Let’s just be honest about that, because to pretend it isn’t true is to talk about only part of the issue here.

I couldn’t agree more with Pomerantz about the need to rethink our approach to history courses that are part of any general education curriculum so that the courses we offer highlight “the skills particular to our own craft, and the broad usefulness of learning those skills with people who actually practice them.” But I think he’s left out three crucial dimensions of the problem he has taken on.

The first thing that’s missing from his essay is a conversation about the history survey itself. All the way back in 1908 a committee of AHA chaired by Harvard historian Charles Homer Haskins issued a report that every teaching historian should read. The most important point in this report is that the typical college freshman is ill equipped by his/her high school training to engage in the sort of broad synthetic thinking that the typical big survey (the US Since Reconstruction, Western/World Civilization) requires. Instead, the members of Haskins’ committee argued, those big synthetic courses should be reserved for advanced history majors who are intellectually ready for that kind of big thinking. Freshmen should be in seminars focused on exactly the kinds of learning Pomerantz is advocating for in his essay. So, here we are in 2013, back to where we were in 1908. That’s depressing.

More depressing is the fact that the economic models of today’s university mandate that we teach large surveys to freshmen to finance our upper division/graduate courses with smaller enrollments. But just because this is the economic model we live in today, there is no reason why it is the only model. There are ways out of this particular hole we’ve dug ourselves and our students into.

A second problem that Pomerantz doesn’t engage is what we often frame as “faculty roles and rewards.” At most research-focused colleges and universities the book remains the standard for promotion and tenure. As the AHA argued this past summer, history remains a book-based discipline. My disagreement with this position is well known, but it is the case that to get promoted and tenured at most places, historians still need to write books. And writing books takes a lot of time and intellectual energy–time and intellectual energy that, if put into the kind of intensive teaching Pomerantz argues for, works against getting the book done. So, if we are going to go down the path that Pomerantz advocates, we have to think seriously about multiple paths to promotion and tenure — as is the case in the sciences.

I’ve never been clear why it’s possible to be, say a scientist tenured at a place like Duke or Brown on the basis of research on pedagogical innovation, but history departments reject such notions. We can dig ourselves out of the tenure/promotion hole we’re in, but like the first hole I’ve discussed, it will require creativity and, more importantly, will.

Finally, Pomerantz doesn’t address the online course tsunami poised to sweep over us. It’s not that hard to imagine a future where brick and mortar universities don’t offer introductory courses any longer–a future where students take all such courses from online providers. Such a future is very appealing to university budget hawks, trust me. I’ve been sitting in meetings with them all year. And why not? Imagine the cost savings if students could knock off all those general education courses via MOOCs before they ever arrive on our campuses? We’d need, oh, perhaps one-third fewer faculty. Wouldn’t that be great? Regardless of the educational issues such a future raises, it certainly raises the specter of a more balanced budget.

All of us at brick and mortar institutions are going to have to make a very compelling case for why what we do in general education is so much better than what the online providers offer that students should pay us substantially more and should agree to show up for class when we tell them they must just so they can learn face to face with our faculty. If our students are going to sit in a large lecture hall and watch a professor perform on stage, then they might as well take the course online. In fact, they probably should. Pomerantz offers one vision of how we might make the case for something different. But his case depends on dispensing with the large lecture model.

But first we’ll have to figure out how to get of two pretty deep holes.

The All Digital Semester

Now that I’m back in my old department (after four years in administration) I’m back up to a full teaching load and I’m happy that this semester is an all digital, all the time semester. That does not mean that I’m teaching online. Far from it. Instead, it means that both of my regularly constituted undergraduate courses and the readings uncourse I’m conducting with four of our PhD students all have heavy digital components. In fact, all three are organized around digital history.

The first of my undergrad courses is my version of our historical methods seminar. I call the class “Dead in Virginia” because we’re using local family cemeteries as the starting point for our learning about historical methods. The digital component of the course is built around an Omeka installation in which the students will deposit the results of their research and through which they will build their final presentations. As the syllabus makes clear, the focus of the course is learning historical methods through actual historical research. This is the second time I’ve taught the course and I’m looking forward to it very much.

The second undergrad course this semester is our newish course designed to meet the university’s general education IT literacy requirement. Long-time readers of this blog will remember that several years ago I was engaged in a long running stand off with our general education committee over the approval of this course. Well, the course was approved at last and has been taught twice by Dan Cohen, and once by Amanda French. I’m teaching it for the first time and have a few tricks up my sleeve, none of which is reflected in the syllabus, which is heavily derived from Dan’s and Amanda’s…at least this first time through. Sharon Leon is also teaching the class this semester and her version is different from mine, which will give us a chance to compare notes throughout the term.

Finally, I’m teaching a small group of our PhD students in a modified version of my grad course Teaching History in the Digital Age…modified because we’re meeting in as a small group around a table at CHNM rather than in a formal course setting. Our work this semester will be built around the Zotero group of the same name that students in my grad course have been building over the past few years. You can follow along if you like by signing on to the group. For now, it’s not open to outside editing, but my plan is to open it to the world after the semester to try to build a much larger and more comprehensive annotated bibliography of sources on teaching history in these digital times.

I’m very glad that my reconnection to full time teaching is so heavily digital. While I was making the final edits to my forthcoming book, I had a lot of time to think about teaching digital history, but because of my administrative duties, not much time to implement those ideas. This semester I’ll finally get to try out some of those new ideas.