Revising General Education at RIC: The Process So Far1Maureen T. Reddy, Chair of General Education Task Force
RIC's General Education program has been in place for nearly two decades, with only comparatively minor changes through those years. Nevertheless, when VPAA Ron Pitt formed a task force to revise General Education, reactions from faculty were mixed, running the gamut from strong support ("at last!") to surprise and disapproval ("if it ain't broke, why fix it?"). Although neither Dr. Pitt nor the task force members assumed the program was broken, we believed that it needed fixing or at least a thorough examination, given its advanced age. Both our accrediting agency (NEASC) and RIC's strategic plan (Vision 2015) required that the college revise GenEd. The first goal of Vision 2015 focuses on academic programs and includes among its key objectives the demand that RIC "revise the General Education program so that it has clearly stated goals and a plan for assessment, as well as a curriculum that aligns with national expectations for knowledge, skills, and abilities and reflects the college's mission and goals." In addition to those spurs to action, we were sure the program would benefit from intense scrutiny and broad discussion; given the program's longevity, comparatively few people now on campus had participated in the deep and wide-ranging examination of the principles undergirding GenEd that made the program dynamic when it was first instituted. At our first meeting, members of the General Education Task Force (GETF) concluded that involving faculty members in an examination of GenEd would be a worthy project even if we ended up recommending no substantial changes in the program.
Dr. Pitt's charge to the task force made devising student outcomes a top priority, which therefore became our first major goal. Several members of GETF had attended the 2010 summer engaging departments institute sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), where they gathered materials and information on national trends in general education. During our first weekly meetings in the fall of 2010, the GETF focused on these AAC&U materials, especially the "essential outcomes." We also sent out a call for suggestions to all faculty, both regular and adjunct. That first call asked for "(1) suggestions about the outcomes you believe RIC students should achieve in a general education program (for instance, critical thinking? proficient written and oral communication?) and (2) any ideas you might have about particular elements of a general education program that you would like the task force to consider." By early October, we had received dozens of suggestions, including several emails from groups of faculty who had met to discuss GenEd and then sent us an email with their collective recommendations. We were delighted by the outpouring of ideas, especially those that came from departments or groups of colleagues, which we saw as evidence that our hoped-for discussion of general education was already underway.
Of course, that outpouring of ideas also meant more work for the GETF. We spent most of our two-hour weekly meetings in October and November discussing the emailed suggestions, the AAC&U materials, Vision 2015, NEASC requirements, our existing GenEd program, general education programs at peer institutions, general education programs that colleagues around the country brought to our attention in response to emailed requests to department chairs in several of our professional societies, articles about general education in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, and statements from various organizations interested in general education, including the Teagle Foundation. GETF members did a lot of homework in preparation for each of our weekly meetings, resulting in extremely productive discussions.
By early November, we had a draft of thirteen outcomes—which at that point we called "competencies," about which more later—to bring to the faculty for campus wide discussion. We sent out the outcomes draft to the faculty and set up three open meetings in mid November, choosing times carefully so that as many faculty as possible could attend. Well over 100 faculty members participated in these meetings, with some faculty members attending all three. At the meetings, the GETF asked people to choose an outcome or two to work on for the first part of the meeting, which gave people a chance to speak with colleagues in small groups, and then we got back together as a large group for the final third of each meeting. By the end of the third meeting, we had hundreds of suggestions for revision, including a number of ideas for outcomes we had not included in our first draft. We also had numerous complaints about the term "competency," which many faculty felt implied a low degree of achievement, while others objected to the term's suggestion that GenEd serve a purely instrumental function without sufficient regard for content as opposed to skills.
Those complaints gave us a good place to begin our review of suggestions and the revision of our draft: we dumped the offensive term ("competency"), which was perhaps the easiest thing we did all year. During our weekly meetings for the following two months (with part of January break off), we worked our way through the suggestions for each outcome. The GETF broke up into groups of two or three to synthesize the comments for specific outcomes, which the smaller groups then brought to the whole task force for discussion. In the event, we significantly revised the outcomes, dropping several that had elicited especially negative responses (notably the wellness outcome, dear to the hearts of several GETF members but anathema to so many faculty that we worried it would derail the entire project), combining several others, thoroughly revising a few (such as the scientific literacy outcome), and adding one new one (arts). Our goal was to complete this revision by mid February in order to have a month of task force meetings to devote to the next stage of our work before the second round of open meetings in late March.
Following Dr. Pitt's original charge to the task force, we then began work on devising a structure for GenEd that would achieve the revised outcomes. We knew from our research and discussions in the fall that we wanted a structure that would be not only horizontal but also vertical. We had been persuaded by our reading that general education program outcomes should be pulled through students' entire four-year careers, not confined to courses taken in the first two years of college. We also wanted a structure that maximized student choice and that encouraged depth as well as breadth of study. What we most wanted, though, was a way to engage students in stimulating college-level learning from their first days on campus. It can be difficult for students in introductory classes to grasp the possibilities of fields in which they do not already have established interests, but if GenEd is really going to expand students' scope and form a basis for lifelong learning, faculty need to figure out a way to share our own enthusiasm about our disciplines with students from the beginning of their careers regardless of students' intended majors. Given all these aims, as well as the NEASC requirement that any general education program "ensures adequate breadth for all degree-seeking students by showing a balanced regard for what are traditionally referred to as the arts and humanities, the sciences including mathematics, and the social sciences" (standard 4.16) and the tight credit-hour limits imposed by requirements in professional programs that eat up a huge chunk of the 120 credits required for graduation, we quickly came to consensus on a rough outline of a GenEd structure. That outline grew from several basic agreements:
- that 4-credit-hour courses should be the norm in GenEd to allow for greater depth in each course than 3-credit-hour courses allow;
- that the disciplines represented in GenEd should fit the NEASC standard for breadth;
- that the program should include several small classes to stimulate student engagement with faculty and peers;
- that writing should be a central part of the program and that writing in the major should be emphasized;
- that some upper division courses should be included; and
- that interdisciplinary and cross disciplinary courses should be part of the program.
The elements of that new structure that task force members found most exciting were our proposals for a first year seminar for all students and a course we called "connections," an upper-division course emphasizing comparative perspectives on a particular topic or idea. We imagined many options that each of us would like to teach in those two categories and assumed—rightly, it turned out—that our colleagues would also be inspired by the vast potential inherent in both.
We did, of course, struggle with some aspects of the structure. Perhaps most difficult to resolve were the issues raised by second language learning, mathematics and science, and the social and behavioral sciences. The first was represented in outcomes but not in a required course, while the latter faced a reduction in the aggregate number of courses students would be required to take. We debated the options for what felt like forever, devising so many alternate models that at one point no one on the task force was sure which models were still live and open to consideration and which we had already ruled out. The debate finally came down to a fundamental question: were we willing to give up the elective category in our draft proposal in order to add in a second math/science or second social/behavioral or a language course? The unanimous answer was no—the elective was too important to give up, as it was the one place where departments and programs not otherwise included in GenEd could propose a course firmly within their own disciplines. It also provided the broadest choice for students.
When GETF sent out the revised outcomes and proposed structure on March 19 in preparation for another round of open faculty meetings in late March, we anticipated a mixed reaction, which is indeed what ensued. The emailed responses as well as points made at the three faculty meetings (which followed the same format as our first round of meetings in the fall) revealed tremendous, widely shared enthusiasm for both first year seminars and connections courses, lively interest in writing for the disciplines courses, and overall satisfaction with our scotching the Western/Non-Western core of the current GenEd. There was general support for most other elements of the proposal as well. The areas of dissension were in science, math, and, to a lesser degree, the social and behavioral sciences. The main area of controversy was the move from the current GenEd's requirement of one math, one science, and one "additional math or science course" to one math and one science in our proposal. Some faculty also objected to the loss of a second social or behavioral science course.
After the open meetings, the GETF read all the comments posted at the meetings and those sent to us via email. We made several changes in the proposal in response to those suggestions. We also went back to our debate about the elective and the value of a second introductory science or math course. Ultimately, however, we decided not to add a second math or science. We found no evidence that two disparate introductory level courses in the same broad field were better than one. Further, it was clear from their comments that the large majority of participating faculty supported the proposal as presented. In the end, the report we submitted to the Committee on General Education (COGE)—representing the end of our responsibility as the GETF by the completion of our charge—was substantially similar to the draft we presented to faculty on March 19 but included many small changes.
Is everyone thrilled by our recommendations? No. Are most faculty mostly pleased? I think so. Whatever happens with the proposal now, I believe the exercise has been valuable. I hope we as a faculty continue to meet to discuss GenEd and to revise it in response to what we learn in implementing it. We shouldn't wait two decades to make changes.
I have served on a lot of committees during my 24 years at RIC, but few have been as enjoyable and enlightening as the GETF. Each of us brought to the task a willingness to listen and to learn, a deep commitment to the institution and to our students, and a determination to devise the best possible GenEd program representing the greatest possible degree of faculty consensus as well as the most current thinking about the aims of general education. We all learned a lot from our shared research and—predictably–we did not always agree on what that research suggested we should do. Our discussions were intellectually stimulating and often so lively that at the end of the two scheduled meeting hours we would realize that we were still on the first agenda item of the seven or eight we had set out to cover in that session. And to be completely clear: "lively" in the preceding sentence is not a euphemism for "angry" or "acrimonious," but really does mean energetic, spirited, enthusiastic. I especially appreciated GETF members' willingness to put aside the particular interests of their own disciplines in order to focus on what would be best for our students, even when what would be best might eventually result in some lost GenEd turf for a member's department. We had some laughs, too, and even some good snacks. We enjoyed visits from one GETF member's delightful little daughter. The whole process brought out the best academic selves of many RIC faculty, both on GETF and at large, with people devoting tremendous time and intellectual energy to this project. It was, in short, a wonderful experience. I would do it again in a minute.
1. Members of the General Education Task Force:
Wendy Becker, Social Work
Teresa Coffman, Music, Theatre, and Dance
Stephanie Costa, Mathematics and Computer Science
David Espinosa, History
Rudy Kraus, Educational Studies
Maureen Newman, Nursing
Earl Simson, FAS, ex officio
Julie Urda, Management