“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”

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The above illustration distills my reflections on today’s presentation on gen-ed, sparked by the group exercise in the midst of it. Before articulating what this image means, and why it’s tag line is a quote from a famous film, a few related thoughts.

The exercise on what gen-ed should look like raised some questions for me before the “answer” emerged. First, the jump from reimagining the university to handing the faculty their share of this – the design of the new effective gen-ed ethos – presupposes that the role of faculty is to generate ideas, rather than act as agents of structural change. In my mind, there will never be real change – ideas will not come to fruition and yield this re-imagined gen-ed ethos – without there being established a real connection between faculty and the execution of ideas. As it is, faculty provide the “soft” input of a focus group that can be ignored when the budget speaks louder. Instead of recreating ethos, we just generate a new course. Nothing new there!

To put it in Heidegger speak, whose thought on teaching appeared among our readings for today: faculty remain at the level of inoperative ontology. They never make a passage to the ontic level of practice when it comes to this ethos. Their voices are like the call of being, which goes increasingly ignored and risks falling on deaf ears if the situation continues. At the same time, they are supposed to be operative and are in fact the executors of the very ontical courses that bring the ethos into being. There is a tangible disconnect that is being reaffirmed here. The situation is not in step with integrative thinking and practice.

In more familiar speak, faculty need to become real stakeholders whose working conditions do not reproduce the very conditions of inequality that produce a watered-down, inadequate education in the first place. The risk of course is that top-quality education will only be something that is available to the chosen, well-heeled few, taught by the chosen, well-heeled few.

Thus, the exercise, while being sincere and genuinely thought-provoking, unveiled a blind spot that for me remains fundamental to the very feasibility of what we are thinking about, separately and collectively. It was a measure for me of the non-governance of faculty in matters whose resolution involves structural change in their institutions.

In other words, a brilliant new ethos – brilliant new course in ontical practice – is a great start, but it cannot accomplish what it proposes in an old context that remains unexamined and unquestioned. This way of proceeding addresses the should, but not the could of the problem.

Now, on to the image that for me captures what gen-ed should be for every student.

We upended gen-ed education in our reflections. Instead of big sections where students learn basic skills, we agreed that gen-ed – at the heart of what the university is supposed to strive for – is based on mentoring of students in connective environments (re-imagined courses) with a view to development of civic-minded individuals able to function in local and global contexts. This is achieved through small-section courses early on and then later in the student’s career.

In terms of the image of the eye, the narrow left corner represents these small sections, followed by a larger-section experience, with narrowing down at the end to small sections again. The scheme is student-centered and emphasizes his or her coming to multiple perspectives in a space that opens onto the world. So the image should be thought of as sculptural, with a temporality that is not necessarily linear.

But do conditions exist that are conducive to you occupying this privileged position, no matter what your level of privilege in the world? Will you be cast into a new, digitally-fueled isolation? Or will you find connection, have people along for the plane ride, those other points in the network of knowledge unique to your context: the faculty?

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

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