foundational questions about foundational pedagogy

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?

7 thoughts on “foundational questions about foundational pedagogy”

  1. Nice post and comments. I had a greater sense of what this has been all about today than yesterday, but I still feel we are without context or direction. Honestly, being a new member to VCU, I had thought I was merely uninformed and had looked at this process as something of an initiation into VCU’s general ed and perhaps the chance to learn something new. But I am still puzzled by this.

    I share with you many of the comments you raised, especially those with regard to Gardiner’s willingness and openness. I have appreciated his candor. But I feel largely without context or direction.

    By the way, I have enjoyed your comments and thoughts- if only because it has offered me more insight. Thank you for sharing them.

  2. To clarify, this statement “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? ” is inaccurate.

    The UUCC agreed to allow piloted sections to be tagged with a course attribute . The difference is… your section, the one you teach in the Spring 2016 semester, and only in that semester will the students in your section allow to use it toward their general education requirement. Not the “course” , the “section”. The terminology of a “course attribute” is one of our information system and can be misleading. This will be added only for a semester and removed afterwards. A request to pilot a course a second time will need a review before allowing it to be repeated.
    If a successfully piloted section would like to remain a part of the general education, then it must go through the UUCC to be added to the Core curriculum. A piloted course does not guarantee it will be added to the Core. There needs to be demonstration of scalability. An environment of a piloted section with 15 – 25 students will not be approved as a course for the Core, it needs to serve many more students.

    1. Oh, what a profound relief. Thank you so much, James, for clarifying this essential point. For years I have believed the UUCC’s veto power was based on the collective intelligence and the institutional memory of its members. When I gathered today that the attribute system would circumvent that veto power, it worried me a tremendous amount. Thank you again.

  3. Sigh. It’s really late. I do understand your concerns. I do. I suppose in my perhaps ill-equipped mind I see it as an issue of learning objective vs. what you should privilege in your discipline. You know what you need to teach and what your students need to learn. The rest be damned. But do think about your vehicles for learning and make sure you are meeting students in the world in which they actually live. I am curious as to why this is such a point of tension for you considering how terrifically JC has been able to reimagine digital vehicles to meet course outcomes.

    Okay. Horse vs carriage, if you will. Your content will ALWAYS be your horse. It must be. For some of us teaching earlier in the “learning arc” the carriage might be more important than the horse. I know this is true when I teach writing. I am not ashamed of that. I teach my students the contours of the carriage, its affordances and utility and structure, so that their horse might perform at its top capacity. I think this is valuable.

    For you, the horse is more important than the carriage. Although you must (you really must) attend to the carriage or else you will be riding a horse and buggy on I-495 and that would be really, really unpleasant. No one would like you and everyone would honk. Traffic would be backed up for miles and you may even make the evening news. I don’t think that’s your aim.

    The carriage of learning changes. That is all that is happening here. No one is messing with your content. Many years ago, our only carriage was the ink, quill, parchment, vocal word–gesture in seals of wax and so forth. Other communication affordances I cannot think of

    right now because I should be asleep and not typing this.

    Many years – eons – before that, we relied on the affordance of oral communication and memory. Certain privileged people were in charge of carrying that. Not unlike how we view ourselves in Higher Ed, particularly those of us like you, with specialized and important knowledge and the credentials that act like a torch you will pass to those who are eager for it. This is profound and paramount, a coal you pass to another that will keep the knowledge pure and alive.

    The frickin’ carriage ain’t gonna change that.


  4. There is some (I think deliberate) ambiguity about what is being required of us. Imagine what would happen if Gardner prescribed a particular definition of “integrative thinking via digital fluency” with a rubric for measuring how well any given course lived up to that definition. Even at our very top-down institution, the faculty would simply not accept that and nothing would be accomplished.

    Instead, we are being challenged to find ways to improve our courses, ways that can be made to sound like what our current QEP is asking for, but are things that we would want to do anyway. I seriously doubt that we will get to our 75% goal, but the net effect will be positive. I have seen this scenario play out several times in the past. Challenges (which do not kill us) make us stronger.


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