The revised QEP, as interpreted and codified by the general education task force at VCU this spring, requires that all tier II courses in the general education requirement feature “integrative thinking through digital fluency.” This means both/and. Before today, I believed tier II would entail integrative thinking and/or digital fluency, at the discretion of the professor, but I have been soundly corrected on that point.
Many of the participants in this seminar have, quite rightly, asked what “digital fluency” means. Gardner Campbell prefers not to define it, since, as he declared today, he expects that, at some point, a faculty member or student will offer him a better example or definition than one he’s yet come up with. So Gardner wants to leave that definition unstated, just in case future serendipity eclipses the concept as he understands it now.
Many of my fellow participants have asked, with even greater urgency, for Gardner’s definition of “integrative thinking,” but he refuses to define that on exactly the same grounds. But since “integrative thinking through digital fluency” (hereafter ITtDF) has been defined as THE learning outcome of all new tier II courses, this lack of definition troubles me greatly. The QEP was originally written mostly by people in the University College, who, according to Patty Strong, are henceforth committed to emphasizing ITtDF in their tier I courses. It does not surprise me that professors in the University College will emphasize whatever Gardner asks them to emphasize, since they are (as my recent post noted) almost completely devoid of institutional power and privilege. Moreover, ITtDF is an excellent learning outcome for tier I coursework. But I cannot conceive of how tenure-eligible faculty in the rest of the university, most of whom have their own definitions of both concepts (not to mention their own decades-old methods of implementing said concepts) can commit to designing and teaching tier II courses whose primary attribute must be two learning outcomes that are not publicly and institutionally defined.
I genuinely admire Gardner’s expansive imaginative power and his admirable capacity for receptivity to new ideas. I admire his energy, his ambition, his grace and poise in the midst of conflict (he is inundated by conflict, I suspect, most if not all of the time). I even admire him as a person (and my admiration does not come quickly or easily). At the same time, I fervently long for greater transparency in his model for changing our university general education.
Neither integrative learning nor digital fluency is new. Neither one is peculiar to VCU. Neither one makes VCU a special, interesting place to learn. What makes us interesting and special is our faculty. Our faculty have intellectually rigorous, discipline-specific knowledge. Why are we asked to restructure an entire segment of our general education requirement according to undefined attributes rather than disciplinary knowledge? Are VCU faculty really going to capitulate to that demand?
What role has the VCU Faculty Senate played in determining the shape of our general education revision? What role has the Faculty Council played? How puzzling that neither group gave any time in its most recent (May 2015) meeting to anything about faculty governance of changes to the general education curriculum!
How many times did the interdisciplinary general education task force meet over the 2014-15 school year? (Not nine times, as the link would suggest, but rather four.) Which members of that task force–I refer to those members who were nominated precisely because they possess vast and rich institutional memory–offered ideas that carried the day in any one of those four meetings? Whose ideas made a lasting difference to the task force’s accomplishments? And what are those accomplishments? Are they written down somewhere? They are not, as far as I can tell, publicly available.
Why did our seminar convene without being assigned to read anything written by the general education task force? For that matter, why did we convene without being asked to read the original 2014 QEP, the politely scathing response to our QEP handed down by SACS, the consequent revision to the QEP (of which only a summary exists publicly), or even simply the six competencies named in the university bulletin? Our seminar is comprised of extremely bright, extremely congenial and imaginative faculty who haven’t been offered enough context to understand what, exactly, we are being tasked to discuss revising. People are asking not only for definitions of digital fluency, but “What are the six competencies?” “How are those competencies measured?” “What is the difference between the College gen ed requirements and the university gen ed?” “What are the ‘dangling nine’?” (Paolo followed this last one up with a poignant reminder that ‘dangling nine’ is an idiom in poor taste.)
But while I am fortunate enough to have joined the seminar already knowing answers to those questions, primarily because I was supported by well-informed senior colleagues in English who took time to show me the documents linked above, I have more questions to add. What is the ultimate goal of this seminar? Do we have any deliverables (I hate that word) at all? Or is this just a week of brainstorming? Will our group have any accomplishments? If we do, will they be written down? Will anyone read them? Or are we just blogging and linking to one another’s posts merely to produce a derivative of our hours-long discussions this week? Will there be a checks-and-balances system to review the work of the task force before it is implemented? Who will be the people implementing these changes? Who, exactly, will be reviewing the courses professors nominate as potential tier II courses? Will that committee’s members be named publicly? Now that the UUCC has agreed to a system by which courses deemed worthy of tier II status will simply be tagged with an attribute in the computer system, will the UUCC raise any serious intellectual objections if they disagree with any individual judgment of a course as worthy or unworthy? Ordinarily the UUCC would embody the checks-and-balances system, but has the attribute solution superseded the UUCC’s authority to contravene any tier II gen ed designations? UPDATE: Please see UUCC Chair James Wiznerowicz’s response to this post below; what I’ve said in this paragraph about UUCC’s decision-making process on gen ed courses is quite erroneous.
And why, above all, are we allowing “integrated thinking through digital fluency” to trump learning outcomes that pertain to disciplinary knowledge in our general education courses? Why are we making that the defining characteristic, rather than establishing a structure of diverse disciplinary skills courses? Again, I can see why ITtDF is appropriate for tier I. But after making a terribly conspicuous pest of myself over the course of about six hours of discussion today, I still am not convinced by the vociferous arguments to the contrary that it is appropriate as a defining element of anything beyond tier I. I want tier II courses to introduce students to disciplinary knowledge, not merely continue the interdisciplinary exploration they’ve already conducted in UNIV 111, 112, and 200. If we make ITtDF the single learning outcome of tier II courses, what distinguishes tier II from tier I? And if there is no distinction, are we not asking VCU students to spend two of their four years at this university conducting potentially serendipitous thought experiments rather than learning specialized knowledge from VCU’s indisputably distinguished experts in their respective academic fields?