principles of general education

To my mind, our revision of general education at VCU should be well-informed, conscientious, deliberate, and transparent. I believe that

  • first-year students must be mentored by tenured professors in meaningful, face-to-face learning environments, allowing students the possibility of maintaining meaningful contact with senior faculty members throughout their college careers
  • students must be taught primarily by experts in a variety of academic disciplines, as opposed to being taught primarily by their interaction with one another
  • throughout a student’s college education at VCU, the academic disciplines available to students must be easily distinguishable from one another; e.g., students must be able to recognize the unique intellectual qualities of political science courses as distinguished from history courses, and sociology courses, anthropology courses, etc.
  • students must understand that interdisciplinary collaboration works only when those involved possess powerful disciplinary knowledge.
  • students are more fulfilled by their college careers when they can recognize a coherent arc in their process of learning from their first semester to their final one.

2 thoughts on “principles of general education”

  1. Kate,

    I agree with all of those points and do not think that our current QEP requires us to contradict them. If it were to do that, I would call it a failure. We are trying to add things to the student experience, not subtract them.

    For the first point, I recall a statement attributed to an unknown administrator (actually talking about an entirely different issue): “That train is not going backwards.” Quality Enhancement Plans are, in my mind, supposed to be experiments. SACS is perfectly OK with us modifying a plan if it is not working. Failure needs to be an option and we should not have trains that cannot go backwards.

    Bob G.

  2. Hey Kate-

    I agree with your positions above and that, to me, the Tier 2 should involve focused study of distinct disciplines. While some disciplines borrow from others- political science borrows from history, economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy- the goal is to teach that discipline. I also agree that higher education should involve a hierarchy of expertise, with teachers having already received the qualifications providing the guidance and instruction to undergraduates. Without that, I suspect the course is likely to involve more uninformed opinion and less critical analysis.

    But I am also thinking that cross-disciplinary learning is worthwhile, even at the initial stages. Students studying a topic, for instance a course I taught, ‘The War on Drugs’, can be introduced to a variety of ways that disciplines consider the issues involved in narcotics and the social issues and debates involved. But that too requires capable instructors. Such a course can be useful for developing critical thinking, writing proficiency (mine was a first year writing seminar), oral communication skills, civil and ethical responsibility and a variety of the goals of the core competencies.

    But as I see it, the problem in Tier 2 and even Tier 1 involves packaging too many learning objective with too little time and resources. We can spread those competencies across a number of classes perhaps, but the more we add (digital fluency and integrative learning) the greater we tax the resources at our disposal. Simply, we don’t have the resources that Amy Nelson has.

    But we could create courses that achieve some of those core objectives. For instance, first year writing seminars that are multidisciplinary and that involve students engage in learning analytical writing and research would allow them a set of skills that would carry them through four years at VCU and serve them later, after they graduate.

    I am not sure if there are differences as to whether a student writes a 5-7 page paper or a good 5-7 page blog- as long as its a good argumentative paper. That paper should state a clear problem, make a powerful claim, develop warrants, use thoughtful reasons and reliable evidence from dedicated research, and considers alternatives. Students would require a small class dedicated to learning those skills, which, in turn, requires dedicated faculty who can have small 15-20 student classes and be allowed more time to dedicate to useful mentoring. Some of us may have those resources, but I suspect many of us don’t.

    There in lies the problem. From the seminar, many of us agreed we already engaged in integrative learning- but do we do so at a level of competency expected of us? Some of us utilize digital tools- when they are helpful to our pedagogical goals and not because we are “forced to” adopt a tool simply because someone thinks the tool is useful.

    I agree with you Kate, that there should be an arc in the student’s educational advancement, that we need to acknowledge the importance of disciplinary knowledge, that we should distinguish the value of mentored over student interactive learning. I think we also need to ensure that we are achieving the core competencies first rather than embrace added values that may not be relevant or useful to achieving those core competencies.

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