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Monday, March 13, 2017

Liberal Education III

When we last left our heroes, they were struggling to figure out what liberal education should be at the University of Minnesota. In today’s episode, they update their ideas based on discussion at the third liberal education open forum.

To begin, I heard a few themes at the third liberal education forum that I would like to repeat here:

  • The current system is wastefully bureaucratic; simplify, Simplify, SIMPLIFY (metaphor points to Chris Phelan).
  • The current system is disrespectful of disciplines.
  • The current system does not address many of the aspects a student needs to become a productive citizen (this came up at a table without any prompting from me, honest).
  • As idealistic as we would all like to be, everyone is worried about the budget.
  • There is some support for nearly every possible configuration ranging from the status quo to an honest to goodness core curriculum.

In short, few people are happy with the current system, but there is no emerging consensus around what should be done.

I will again state what I stated in my last post: we need to decide what we are trying to accomplish with liberal education before we try to create or modify a liberal education system. Some may believe that liberal education is about distribution requirements or about producing economic growth. Liberal Education a la Gary, as described in my last post and repeated here, is about creating citizens to make a better Minnesota. Mission and purpose of an organization are what we do and why we do what we do. Purpose drives mission.
  1.  The purpose of liberal education is to improve the State of Minnesota, the nation, and the world.

  2. The mission of liberal education is to create graduates who are engaged, ethical, and knowledgeable citizens ready to change the world.
      To be these better citizens our graduates must have certain qualities, a few of which are listed here (I’m sure we can identify many more candidate qualities):

      • They are active citizens.
      • They are independent thinkers who strive to answer questions but are equally willing to question answers.
      • They work effectively with other people. This requires communication, working across cultural differences, and leadership/teamwork.
      • They understand how the world works and how other people see the world working. This requires a wide knowledge base and an understanding of peoples and societies.
      • They can synthesize and integrate ideas and concepts from multiple perspectives.
      • They seek to do what is right.
      • They adapt to changing circumstances and see the world both for what it actually is and for what it could be. This requires lifelong learning and a tolerance for change.

      Let’s set the goals before we create our policies. In my mind, we need a liberal education system that promotes the kinds of qualities listed above, not just general education.

      Whether or not you agree with my ideas about the purpose and mission of liberal education, the university needs to establish the purpose and mission before digging too deeply into the structure and function of liberal education.

      As described above, engaged, ethical citizenship covers a lot of territory not touched by the current liberal education process, which is focused more on the knowledgeable aspect. I do not believe that the current structure is adequate, because it is too narrowly focused. At the same time, a full, formal core curriculum can be excellent at preparing students for becoming citizens and making the most of their time at university, but it presents tremendous logistical problems for all students as well as possibly insurmountable problems for transfer students. Some compromise, or something else entirely, is needed.

      I will now put forward a proposal for liberal education that I believe comes closer to fulfilling my mission for liberal education than does the current system (and then I will duck and cover). I am not wedded to this proposal, but I do believe that it represents a starting point for discussion. My proposal tries to avoid the worst aspects of various possible structures, but it has problems of its own. It retains most of a classical distribution system while adding coverage of the more developmental or non-disciplinary issues mentioned above. I have tried to simplify the system, but I have not run any budgetary analyses to determine whose ox is gored.

      My liberal education proposal has two components: general education to ensure a broad knowledge base and core curriculum to ensure attainment of the roles as citizens. Another way to think of this is ways of knowing and ways of being. In brief, the general education/ways of knowing component is similar to the current liberal education core requirements. Students take a selection of designated courses from broad groupings. The core curriculum consists of four courses that all students take. These courses cover a range of topics to be determined, but I would want them together to cover topics such as adaptability, citizenship, critical thinking, ethics, synthesis, communication, and getting the most from the university.

      From the student perspective, general education would look pretty much the same. There are six categories (down from seven, combining physical and biological science), and students must take at least one course certified for each of the six categories: mathematics, science, arts/humanities, literature, history, and social science. We would need to establish the qualities or characteristics of courses in these categories, but we could use the current criteria as a starting point. Tuition for these courses would follow the standard rules as it does now.

      The big change is in how courses are approved. Each general category has a set of “owner” academic programs that offer majors in the category. A course is approved for a category if one of the owner programs/departments approves it based on the published criteria. As an example, for the Mathematics category, Mathematics (in CSE) and Statistics (in CLA) might be the owner departments. If Computer Science or Psychology or some other program has a course they wish to be certified, one of the two owner departments must agree. Likewise, if Geography, Environment, and Society (in CLA) wishes to have its Global Garden course certified for Science, then one of the owner departments in CSE, CBS, or CFANS would need to do so. This puts decisions in the hands of the subject matter experts. This is not as unconstrained as the suggestion that any course in History should satisfy the History category requirement, because we might wish to impose some conditions on the courses that narrow the possibilities. For example, we might require that a science course include a laboratory. Unfortunately, we probably need a court of appeals for those who believe they were unfairly turned down or those who believe a course was inappropriately accepted. Perhaps CLE could fulfill this role.

      For sake of discussion, let’s call the four core courses CORE 1001, 1002, 1003 and 1004. What should these courses be? When should students take them? For this, I borrow freely from discussion at the three liberal education forums as well as from discussion and suggestions in several email chains circulating among CLA faculty. I make no claim of originality for these ideas.

      CORE 1001  University Education and the Unity of Knowledge
      How to get the most from your time at the U. Learning and unlearning. Education as more than a list of checkboxes. History of higher education and interconnectedness of and commonalities across arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences.
      CORE 1002  Citizenship, Ethics, and Critical Thinking
      Roles in society, modes of engagement, ethical actions and decisions, answering questions and questioning answers, finding and criticizing information, rhetoric and debate.
      CORE 1003  Adaptability, Collaboration, and Communication
      Engaging with and communicating across diversity, adapting to change, teamwork and leadership, community engagement, empathy, sharing a message.
      CORE 1004  Synthesis
      Innovation together across disciplines to solve problems and create public good. Group projects, community engagement.

      Ideally, 1002, 1003, and 1004 would all be writing intensive. 

      Administratively, I am thinking of the core courses running out of a campus-wide office. These courses are staffed by regular faculty from all colleges. You could build a cadre of interested faculty from across the campus; this is appropriate as the integrative nature of these courses crosses the colleges. 

      Here is some commentary on this proposal:

      1. One potential drawback of this proposal is that “double dipping” (as is the case in the current system when a course satisfies both a Core and a Theme) would probably not be possible. Engineering students, in particular, might find that to present challenges. With some reluctance, I would agree to make 1004 optional if we needed to shrink the liberal education curriculum.

      2. Teaching Core courses means that the University will be teaching fewer disciplinary courses. In many disciplines, that is probably acceptable. In some disciplines, that will put an uncomfortable pinch on needed disciplinary curriculum. One suggestion to fix this might be to take the resources currently dedicated to Freshman Seminars and redirect them to the Core curriculum, as Core curriculum would fulfill many of the roles of Freshman Seminars.

      3. Golly there would need to be a lot of resources dedicated to Core curriculum. Dealing for the moment only with NHS students (new freshmen), at steady state we would need to offer 24,000 enrollments per year in Core curriculum just for NHS students. If we assume 120 students per section (which is pretty big for something like the Core), this is 200 sections per year, or 100 sections per semester. That is 200 faculty teaching assignments (or more if we allow co-teaching, for which these Core courses are well suited) and a minimum of 200 50%-time teaching assistants. For scale comparison, CLA faculty teach about 1,660 course assignments per year. Of course, if we make the classes smaller we would need more faculty.

      4. I know we have faculty interested in teaching integrative classes like those I have proposed for the core. Do we have enough to do it at scale?

      5. With dozens of sections of each Core course each year, we cannot expect them all to be identical. Who does quality assurance to make certain that the Core courses are doing what we want across their multiple incarnations? Perhaps this is another role for CLE.

      6. The general education part of this proposal is sufficiently similar to the current Core liberal education requirements that transfer students should not have a problem. The new Core courses as described above could, potentially, be offered at other institutions, but more likely we would require transfer students to take the new Core courses here. If nothing else, this makes the Core courses a signature aspect of U of M undergraduate education.

      7. The proposed general education courses are nearly the same as the current core requirements; if we added a seventh category by splitting science into physical science and biological science, then the requirements would be the same. (I combined them in an attempt to reduce the size of the liberal education curriculum yet retain coverage across fundamental ways of knowing.) The only change would be if the new approval mechanism significantly alters who is offering the courses. I would imagine that the “owner” programs in category X are going to expect to see trained scholars of X teaching a course before it would be approved for the category. Thus anyone teaching out of their area now would likely meet some resistance. Without a thorough analysis and detailed census of faculty, I expect that the college most at risk in this would be CEHD, which currently offers courses meeting all seven current cores yet lacks majors in several of the categories; CDES and CFANS probably also have some risk around History and Social Science.

      8. Deciding how to parcel out the tuition from the CORE courses to the colleges is less obvious. The simplest approach is to allocate tuition to the college of the instructor(s) as we do for GCC courses. Although this would not be my first choice, you could treat CORE 1001[234] designation in the same way we treat themes now (that is, we don’t actually use the CORE designator but add an attribute to courses in other designators) and let tuition follow the college of the course designator. Other models are possible. For example, OUE could collect all of the tuition, pay the colleges for the use of their faculty (12.5% of salary and fringe?), pay its own overhead (including the cost of TAs), and distribute the remaining tuition back to colleges. This distribution could be devised to try to maintain financial stability, or it could be proportional to students enrolled at the U, or proportional to current enrollments in the current themes, or some other mechanism.
      Regular readers of this blog–and I hope there are at least a few–saw a few scales for describing liberal education systems in my February 7 post. These were: 

      • Simple in implementation to complex
      • Promoting exploration to promoting applicability in major
      • Individualistic to prescriptive
      • Susceptible to “gaming” or not
      • Check box to integrative
      • Administrative overhead: streamlined to bureaucratic
      • Articulation with other systems: simple to complicated

      How does the suggestion I put forward here land on these scales? I would say that:

      • The proposed system is about the same level of complexity as the current system, and would be a bit less complex (for students) if the Core courses are genuinely implemented as CORE rather than under normal departmental designators.
      • The proposed system is less about applicability in the major than the current system.
      • The proposed system is more prescriptive than the current system.
      • The jury is still out on susceptibility to gaming.
      • The proposed system in more integrative than the current system.
      • The bureaucracy for the general education portion of the system is considerably less than for the current system; the bureaucracy for the Core courses is still murky.
      • Articulation of general education for transfer students is unchanged; articulation of the proposed Core requirements will be difficult unless, for example, Minnesota State institutions adopt something parallel.
      If you are still reading, you must be very interested in liberal education. You might like my liberal education proposal, or you might think it is the dumbest thing ever. That is not really important. What is important is that you care about liberal education and continue to be involved in its evolution at the University of Minnesota. I believe that the next step is to decide the mission, purpose, goals of liberal education, because I don’t believe that you should design a system before you decide what you want the system to do; that is the horse that I am riding. Choose your horse and ride along with us as we create the future for liberal education.