Friday, November 13, 2009

Quote, Representation

Reviews of an institution's general education (or liberal arts requirements) might be characterized as nasty, brutish, and interminable, to paraphrase Hobbes. You can get a taste of it in "Progress, But No Votes, For Review" in the Harvard Crimson, about that institution's journey to re-enlightenment. And then there's a fascinating set of minutes from "WCU" here that documents the tortured trip:
The creation of a dynamic general education program that the faculty will "buy into" can perhaps change the University culture in a way that talking cannot. So, how are the faculty enticed to "buy into" a program? It is necessary to ignore the noisy 15-20% who fight any change in the status quo. [3/21/97 Minutes]
Also found in this rich set of minutes is a bibliography of recommended sources for those foolish enough to buy a ticket on this train:
The committee will look first at AAC's New Vitality in General Education, the first half of Weingartner's Undergraduate education: Goals and Means, AAC's Strong Foundations: Twelve Principles for Effective General Education Programs, and Gaff's New Life for the College Curriculum.
This was, of course, before the AAC&U released its LEAP initiative.

There is a virtual thicket of documentation to be found via google search, a salad of despair, Thomas Pynchon might say (see "Meeting Salad" for the quote).

My particular interest this morning was the composition of gen ed review committees, but it's easy to get lost surfing the epics struggles documented online--surely enough material for several posts. Heck, I should invite applications for a gen ed review "sub blog."

The practice I'm accustomed to is to select a representative from each large academic unit (a department or division, for example) that has content usually found in general education. This would include sciences, humanities, social sciences, and PE. Our accreditor, SACS, actually has a list of minimum requirements for a gen ed program.

Here's an example from "MU":
The General Education Review Committee is composed of two faculty representatives from each of the four academic units elected by Faculty Senate for overlapping terms of two years, one representative from non-school faculty elected by Senate for two years, and two student representatives elected by Student Senate for overlapping terms of two years. In addition, a chairperson is elected by Faculty Senate from the Faculty Senate membership to serve a three-year term.
There are also non-voting members with administrative titles.

Both the AAC&U and Academic Commons advertise an interest in the liberal arts. The former has a book on the subject of gen ed review, but you have to buy it to see it. The site compares general education curricula to see if they get the basics, as defined by a conservative list of subjects.

The issue that I take up in the title of this post is the question of representation. If we assume that the practice of creating a review team in the way described above is common, then the result is a discriminatory process that almost guarantees political turf battles.

Think about the arrogance in the assumption "we'll pick a math guy to represent all you math people, and a history person to represent all of them, and so forth." This is roughly the same as picking a Cubs fan to represent all Cubs fans on how a stadium should be build or picking someone who likes hot dogs to represent all hot dog eaters on how to choose a new menu.

There are many, many design questions for a general education review team to consider, and only a small part of it concerns the number and type of courses to be chosen. With the usual discriminatory practice, the only basis for "representation" is to lobby for one's own area: let's pack in as many math courses as we can, so we can get more faculty slots. Unless the committee can rise above that (and take the heat from their respective departments), the outcome is almost guaranteed to be bland, and the dynamics encourage unhealthy inter-departmental politics. Of course, there's no way to avoid politics. Why not make that a virtue?

In a representative democracy, we don't go out an pick one Toyota lover to go to congress to represent all Toyota lovers. That kind of blatant discrimination would never be tolerated (okay, gerrymandering aside--but that's ugly too). What if we modeled the selection of a gen ed committee on an actual representative democracy? Nominees for the committee slots would be put up for a vote. They would be expected to set out their views on general education, probably in writing, but perhaps in a debate with other candidates too. It could be a vibrant, rich affair that properly celebrates and illuminates the process as it begins. It would also illustrate the use of liberal ideas that were hard fought in the enlightenment instead of forcing an illogical form onto a titanic exercise in critical thinking. The irony of the usual process is eye-popping.

Just like in a representative democracy, the election of the representatives does not by itself create the design. The hard work of design and compromise, and yes, departmental politics, still has to be done.

Of course, this may be too Utopian. Perhaps what would happen is that the initial gamesmanship over the election of representatives would center solely on discipline loadings for the final product. Maybe the big departments would just vote themselves candidates that would beef up their areas. If so, that would be sad, but at least it would reveal the true motivations of the academy.

Update: I just noticed that InsideHigherEd has an article about the "jeopardy" liberal arts is in, citing a need for proof of relevance. They note that some institutions have presentations that resemble the kind of political debate I described in my Utopia:
The University of Alaska at Anchorage has started a lecture series where professors from different liberal arts disciplines give talks aimed at attracting a popular audience. Utah State University has invited successful alumni back to talk about how their liberal education shaped their careers.
It seems that having more open processes for constructing (via faculty procedures) and validating (with authentic assessment) general education means and results, potential students will have a better chance of seeing the point. In a retention study I did (see "The Value of Retrospection"), we ultimately discovered that many of our students simply didn't understand the product they were buying.


  1. harmonica de sade11:15 PM


  2. Steve Smith5:12 PM


    I found your comments very interesting and have the following comments with regards to selling the merit and need for liberal education. I find in my line of business a persitant problem - poor communication skills! This deficiency exists in both the written and verbal medims. There is a perpetual lack of communication knowledge and skill in our ever increasing techno world. When attempting to solve problems in the business world I find more and more people resort to buzzword bingo and are unable to elaborate on their ideas, let alone articulate a plausible solution. My posit is simple: Encourage liberal education as a means to enhance the skill set of all academia...


  3. It's funny--that's the second time in two days I've heard the expression "buzzword bingo" (the other in the Charles Stross novel _Halting_State_). You're not alone in seeing the need for more communications skills, and there are definitely ways we can improve them. At my previous job we started jr/sr seminars where the students had to stand up and present their ideas on whatever they were researching. We filmed these, and they did self-critiques. It was gratifying to see how much most of them grew during the experience. I really saw the fruits of it when I took one of my students to a student research conference to present. He was impressive.