Tuesday, March 29, 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 in Humanities 102. Not sure if the students are as interested in it as I have been, but I'm having fun figuring out how to teach it. We do Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Marx today. Nineteenth Century painting on Thursday: Ingres to the post impressionists.

Senior capstone? Ah, there's the rub. Now that the new core has passed (release the pigeons!), senior capstone is dead man walking. It will stumble on for another year or two, but it's execution is fixed. I may come to feel like a mortician rouging its cheeks and combing a few strands over its bald pate. But that's the thing with senior capstone: every semester I think I've done a wretched job with it, yet students continue to give me strong evaluations. I just never know. Some kid who sat sullenly staring out the window for weeks will linger after the last meeting to tell me how much he enjoyed the course. You would think after 20 years I would start to get a feel for these things, but I just never know.

Twenty years? (The very words are like a bell.) Apparently there is to be a little faculty recognition affair later next month, but is recognition really what people want as they slink past these milestones? As I said, April always comes off a little cruel in academic life. I hate to give Eliot that, but he nailed it.

Friday, March 25, 2011


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.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

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 Calculus.

Let's also do four 4-credit seminars in each of the following Social Sciences: Psychology, Economics, Political Science and Sociology. Although history is technically a social science, I would set it apart. It's too important. So let's have 24 credits in the following 4-credit units: Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, Modern and Non-Western. And I also want four years of Modern Language in the student's language of choice. That's 32 hours right there.

We'll definitely require 20-credit hours in Philosophy and Religion, which would include a 5-credit overview of Western Philosophical Thought, 5 in Ethics, 5 in World Religions and then students could choose an additional 5 credit seminar in one of the following: Symbolic Logic, Aesthetics, Epistemology or an in-depth look into a single religious tradition. Lastly, I want one course in each of the following: Rhetoric, Speech, Music Performance, Dance and Drawing.

That's about a 170 hour curriculum right there and would take six or seven years to complete. And what the heck? Let's require that all students spend an additional year abroad. Maybe two. Then, but only if they wanted, they could spend a few weeks learning some useful or employable skill. That should about do it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

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 subjects just isn't enough to do the job well. Theoretically, we could expand the core, but the market imperatives on higher education make that unlikely to happen. The public views us as the credentialing arm of the private sector, which in large measure is an accurate description of what we do. Fewer and fewer students come for a true liberal arts education.

There's another problem, too. Engineering personal growth and the development of desirable values is an inexact science, one that often backfires. It often blurs the line between teaching and preaching, and let's face it: instilling pre-approved values in students runs counter to the very spirit of the liberal arts, which at their best ought to equip people to think for themselves. Heck, look to the Jesuits, the Marine Corps, or any number of high pressure religious cults if you want a model for instilling values. Those people know what they are doing.

So what can liberal arts cores reasonably accomplish given their limited size and tendency to be hodgepodges of introductory courses often designed for specific majors rather than general education? I've come to believe that even in its present form a well-designed general education core can still do a lot of valuable things. While it's true that exposure to a variety of liberal arts disciplines is unlikely to lead to mastery or a high level of content retention without a significant expansion of the core's size, requiring students to take courses in fields other than their major can help them to understand the relevance and usefulness of disciplinary perspectives. Non-biology majors may not ever think like biologists or remember what mitosis is in ten years after graduation, but they can understand why biology matters and even why some understanding of it is relevant to very important questions.

This latter point should not be overlooked. It's crucial for those of us teaching core classes to help students to see the relevance of our disciplines for answering fundamentally important questions. Too often we operate under the assumption that the value of our disciplines is self-evident. It's not, which becomes clear every time we hear students ask, "Why do I need to take this course when I'm not even in that major?" We must show students how our disciplines answer big questions. Without this primary understanding, what we teach is bound to seem meaningless and irrelevant.

There's a second and equally important reason for requiring students to take a variety of subjects in the core. Even in its attenuated state, a liberal arts education can still provide students with opportunities to discover new interests and passions. An accounting major may develop a passion for art history, a chemist may find that history is fascinating. Consequently, cores with discipline-specific requirements continue to perform a valuable function. They broaden the possible avenues of a student's intellectual development.

I also think that well-constructed cores can strengthen broad academic abilities common across disciplines: writing, oral communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy. Students get better when they practice skills repeatedly and in various contexts. I have to believe that an institution that systematically embeds and reiterates performance of these skills (at a common university-wide standard) is doing students a big favor. And this is very do-able.

Lastly, I believe that liberal arts cores can provide arenas for reflection, growth and the development of ethical commitments. I just don't think we can make it happen in any surefire way. What we can do is put meaningful opportunities before students. What they decide to do with these opportunities is up to them. The question for us is not whether we've made better people, but whether we've given them every opportunity to seriously reflect upon and articulate the kind of people they want to be. That there's no guarantee growth will happen is no reason not to put the opportunity out there.

The core we put together (and which goes before the faculty next week) is premised on the above assumptions. It has its fair share of compromises, but on the whole I feel pretty good about it.

'Nuff said.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

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 maddening exercises one can imagine.

More importantly, though, the cultural literacy model tends to assume that its essential content will be retained. But few people retain content if they aren't actively using it over an extended period. Indeed, lasting retention requires longer and deeper exposure to a subject than is usually allotted to meeting a core requirement.

Consider the case of algebra. I've seen longitudinal studies that measure performance on a basic algebra test. Students who have taken a single course in algebra will see a decline in their performance that begins about a month after the course ends, and this decline will continue on the same downward trajectory for 50 years. It's true that students who did well in the course will perform better than those who performed poorly, but their rate of decline parallels those who did poorly. On the the other hand, those who have taken a sequence of math courses leading up to and beyond calculus have almost no or only a slight drop off in performance over 50 years. This isn't to say cores can't teach any content; it's only to say that the assumption that content will be retained from single-shot exposures is probably flawed.

The problem of insufficient time on task also confronts those who assume that cores should be ramp-ups to disciplinary mastery. In other words, courses in the core ought to introduce people to the disciplinary habits of mind unique to given fields. Students in history, for example, should be taught how to think like historians, students in science like scientists, etc. Unfortunately, study after study in cognitive science reveals that thinking late in training is not simply a ramped-up version of thinking early in training. They're different beasts altogether. The implication for teaching here is obvious: no one-shot, semester-long course can assure that students will think like anything like experts. The "experts" have had a whole lot more practice.

Could the "time on task" problem be solved? Theoretically yes, but practically no. A curriculum with challenging and reiterative sequences of courses for each discipline could take students deep enough into training and assure retention of content. Imagine four to five carefully-sequenced courses each in history, science, math, literature, social science, art... ( 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!) Such a core might amount to 80-90 percent of an undergraduate degree, leaving the last 10-20 percent for career training. I mean, really. How long does it take to learn accounting or how to sell tires? Sadly, such a solution is not marketable to today's students and their parents, who--rightly or wrongly--see education mostly through the narrow lens of career preparation.

The bottom line is that most general education cores do not do a particularly good job of teaching content that lasts or even minimal disciplinary competence in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. Consequently, most cores are compromises. They are notionally serious about turning out extremely well-educated people with well-rounded minds, but they can't actually do this in the current market for higher education. The public isn't buying that product. So some feint at a liberal arts education is retained, although, like a vestigial organ, it no longer serves its original purpose. Look closely at most cores and you'll probably see a patchwork of skill-based courses like composition, applied math and speech along with a whole lot of courses designed for specific departments that are "double dipping" as core offerings.

But perhaps cores exist for another reason. Perhaps they exist as arenas for self-discovery, values clarification, or the development of beneficial attitudes. The core, then, is not an end unto itself, but a means for turning out ethical, open-minded and socially responsible people. Historically this idea has informed the work of thinkers like John Dewey, who wanted to create learning experiences that strengthened democratic institutions and better equipped students for the responsibilities of self-government. This idea recurs in more recent attempts to inculcate in students a commitment to tolerance, multicultural understanding, environmentalism, what have you.

I confess a certain fondness for Dewey's project, but I'm also aware of its critics. Not the least of whom were Walter Lippmann, a critic in Dewey's day, and Reinhold Niebuhr, who profoundly doubted that we could ever teach or preach our way to a brighter tomorrow. In the end, effectively and consistently engineering attitudinal shifts in students remains an inexact science. Moreover, qualities like a commitment to diversity, tolerance or multiculturalism are difficult to measure. At best, cores can put opportunities for reflection and change before students, but Lippmann and Niebuhr were probably right: we cannot manufacture better people who in turn create better societies. The idea that we can may be the biggest of the many big assumptions about what any educational curriculum can accomplish.

So what can a core reasonably accomplish (with the emphasis on reasonable)? It's a good question. I think I'll tackle it tomorrow. Time to hoist a Guinness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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 University would spend the first year designing and building a place to live. I had shown them a short film about Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water, a house designed to constantly attune its inhabitants to their natural surroundings. Indeed, Wright was practically suckled with Emersonian ideas.

My class must have been struck by the film because they really took to the idea of having students design their own living spaces. Building these structures would be an Emersonian lesson in self-expression and the imposition of one's vision on matter. It would be a physical statement of one's life philosophy.

I really like this idea. The art students seemed to like it, too. Accounting majors? Not so much.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

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 listening to me kvetch over the next few years. Then I agreed. That's how I came to chair the "committee to louse up everybody's life." I didn't want the job--still don't--but maybe that's the Catch-22 of core revision. Anyone who's eager to do it is by definition a lunatic and ought to be kept as far away from the work as possible. On the other hand, those desiring no part of it must be thinking clearly. Therefore...

True to form, my leadership on this project has been all over the place. I've made any number of blunders, fouled up the roll out and sent all kinds of conflicting signals. Just in the last week alone I've given half the campus a case of the vapors, ticked off the student newspaper and triggered an all-campus e-mail war. Nevertheless, in a few weeks we will vote on a new general education core. There will still be a lot of work to do after that, but passing the new core will be a milestone. Strangely, too, I find that this inept Major Major is even a little proud of what the committee accomplished. Among the thorny issues we addressed were the following:
  • We will have put in place meaningful assessment and oversight.
  • The new core will reiterate outcomes throughout the curriculum.
  • We have for the most part avoided the "turf wars" that often accompany core revisions.
  • We have not messed up the market for transfer students.
  • We reduced the total number of outcomes to a manageable number.
These aren't particularly sexy issues. In fact, there's nothing very innovative about the new core. It even looks a bit like the old one if you squint at it hard enough. Even so, it does address some longstanding institutional weaknesses and pushes the change envelope about as far as this place was prepared to go. Not sexy, but not bad.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

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 that. He would sit me at the bar with a glass of 7-Up or a bowl of peanuts, and I would chat with the bar maid as he sat across the room speaking sotto voce to a table full of men.

To this day, I have no idea what any of this was about and he has never volunteered an explanation. Even so, I have learned the family rule the hard way: Never buy anything from your father. This is practical advice because whatever you buy will have some special flaw. I once bought a VCR from him in my younger and more gullible days. I took it home, hooked it up, and it worked fine for almost 30 minutes. Then the screen went blank and it shut down. I called him up, but before I could tell him what happened, he said, "Did it go off?"

"Yeah. What kind of piece of junk is this?"

It was okay, he told me. You just have to prop the VCR at a 45 degree angle. I did as he instructed and it worked fine after that. I owned that VCR for years and, sure enough, I always had to tilt it to 45 degrees after the the first half hour of every movie. My brother had a similar experience with a truck. It would die every 70 miles or so. He had to jump out, open the hood and give the fuel filter a few taps with a crescent wrench. Then it was fine. Almost everyone in my family can tell a story along these lines. They also fully understand the meaning of my father's Ten-Four guarantee on everything he sells (ten feet or four seconds, whichever comes first).

I mention all this because there was a bit of a milestone at our house last evening. I try to have breakfast with my dad every Sunday morning and often bring my son along. My father's in his 80s now and has slowed down, but he's still wheeling and dealing. Anyway, the previous week my son had shown off a watch that he bought with his allowance. My dad had said, "You want a watch? I got a hundred of them. Some are still in the box." So last Sunday at breakfast there was my dad with a bag full of watches. He let the boy pick out two to take home. The kid was thrilled.

Last night, however, while my son and I were sitting together in the big chair reading, he informed me that one of the watches had stopped. It no longer moved when he wound it. "That's okay," he said. "I still have this other one." He brandished the watch on his wrist and we looked at it. The hands had fallen off.

Welcome to the family, kid.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...