Showing posts from March, 2011

Stirring the dull roots

I've never been much of a T. S. Eliot man, although middle age seems to make more and more of his lines ring true, especially that bit about April. I've blogged on this before, but Spring, which ought to be the beginning of things, is paradoxically the end of the academic year. In a few weeks, I will toss the cap and gown in the back of the car and drive away from another graduation ceremony. It will likely be a ludicrously beautiful spring day. It will also be the twentieth time I've done this. I can't say I will miss this semester, although it hasn't been a particularly bad one. The first-year honors seminar has been a delight: such a good, tight-knit group. Last week we took a day off from Darwin and watched Errol Morris' "Gates of Heaven," a hilarious documentary about pet cemeteries in 1970s California. The students loved it. I made a big pot of Jambalaya and corn bread. I'll miss this group. And it's been good working out the new scheme…


Three years of work, countless meetings, seemingly endless discussions, compromises, mistakes, breakthroughs, nervous break downs, apologies and regrets, but as of 4:30 pm yesterday, my committee managed to get passed by the faculty a new general education core for this college (77% yes, 17% no, 6% abstaining). What a long strange trip it's been, but it ain't over yet.

Pipe Dreaming

But what if you did not have to compromise? What if you could create a core curriculum by fiat, and the marketplace be damned? First, let's get rid of the idea of a major. No more Sports Management majors, no more Radio/TV majors, no more Computer Science majors. Gone, all gone. In their place a heavy dollop of courses that put the general back into general education.

Let's start off with 20-credit hours of Humanities. How about four 5-credit seminars built around major themes like Nature, Society, The Human Condition and Meaning and Mortality. These seminars would be heavily interdisciplinary, integrating literature, art, drama, philosophy, poetry, history and music.

Next let's do another 20-credit hours in the Sciences: 5-credits of Biology, 5 of Earth Science, 5 of Chemistry, and then we'll give students a choice between Physics or Astronomy. I'll also want students to take 16 credits of math in a sequence starting with College Level Algebra and leading to Calcul…

Core Assumptions and Compromises (Part II)

Note: what follows is some summative reflection on what I've realized after spending the past three years revising the general education core at my institution. It's part aide-memoire, part wonk-fest, and part philosophical musing. Just wanted to warn the unwary.

I mentioned yesterday that all cores have built in assumptions. Some assume that exposure equals retention of essential content, some that sufficient levels of disciplinary ability can be acquired in 40 credit hours spread across multiple subjects, and others that cores provide arenas for personal growth and the development of desirable values or ethical commitments. Often cores claim to be some combination of all these optimistic aims.

A few problems make these assumptions unrealistic. First, most general education cores today do not require the depth and time on task to make content stick or to develop even minimal levels of disciplinary thinking in the various liberal arts. A 40-45 credit hour core split between 7-10…

Core Assumptions and Compromises (Part 1)

All general education core curriculum are based on assumptions (or wild guesses--take your pick). One common assumption is that there exists some requisite body of knowledge essential for all students. Sometimes--as in the case of people like E.D. Hirsch--this essential knowledge (or "cultural literacy") comprises a kind of critical mass of facts and shared understanding that underpins and makes possible meaningful intellectual activity.

Like I said, cores are the product of assumptions, and the cultural literacy model makes some really big ones. First, it assumes that a pluralistic and ethnically-diverse society like the United States can come to consensus on which facts, perspectives and historical events merit inclusion in the content. Anyone who has ever designed a course by committee understands what a big assumption that is. Having to hammer out what to include in a course with a room full of academics (each with a strong opinion and scholarly agenda) is one of the more…

Man-Thinking University

Last Friday the first-year honors seminar students discussed Ralph Waldo Emerson's American Scholar address. In it Emerson calls for a new kind of academic, Man-Thinking, which he defines as a new type of thinker. This is someone who draws inspiration from direct contact with nature, who uses the mind of the past but isn't cowed by it, and who remains deeply involved in this world through active engagement. No scholarly recluse, he. You might say he's as much a brawniac as a brainiac.

So I asked the class to imagine the curriculum at Man-Thinking University, a hypothetical institution of higher learning set in some remote and heavily forested wilderness . It's a place dedicated to turning out Emersonian free thinkers and visionaries. What, for example, might the first-year seminar be like at MTU?

It's an interesting pipe dream of a question, and I've blogged about it before (Man-Texting). This year's class suggested that all students at Man-Thinking Universit…

Major Major and the L-Word

A little over two years ago the senior academic officer asked me if I wanted to chair a committee that would revise the general education core curriculum at my institution. I politely declined and informed her that my wife shuttered at the idea of me even balancing a checkbook.

Besides, I thought to myself, one only has to look at my list of leadership fiascoes to see the idea is absurd (revising the first-year experience, implementing a new assessment culture, coordinating a senior capstone). My leadership philosophy has always been you really don't want me in charge. Indeed, I only stumbled into academia by accident and have remained here due to a few quirks of fate. Good heavens, I'm the Major Major of the faculty. Even my office is hard to locate.

The provost gave it a day or two and then called back: "Everybody says you're the person to do this, so I'm just going to ask once more." I hemmed and hawed. I thought about how teed off my wife would get listeni…

The Ten-Four Guarantee

My father, bless his heart, has always had a knack for procuring things: watches, lawn mowers, chain saws, flat screen TVs--whatever you need really. The provenance of these items is often obscure. Nothing overtly illegal, mind you. Just, well, murky.

Indeed, my father's various "business dealings" have always been something of a mystery to me. One of my earliest memories is making the rounds with him on Saturday mornings as he went in and out of various taverns. My mother would insist upon his taking me along, no doubt as a kind of check on his activities. After all, there is only so much trouble a person can get into with a five-year old boy in tow.

So from tavern to tavern we would go, and just before we entered each one my dad would say, "Now in here everyone calls me Rudy." We would walk through the door and a half-dozen people would look up and shout, "Rudy!" It was "Hank" at the next place and "Carl Edward" at the place after …