Saturday, October 22, 2011

A somewhat schizophrenic conversation

[Note: this post includes a homework assignment for my readers, toward the very end. If you're a teacher, student, or alumna/alumnus, please take a moment to respond when you're done. Thank you!]

A few years back we graduated one of the brightest students I've yet to work with at UNC Asheville. Sedgwick was a soft-spoken and deep-thinking environmental studies major with whom I had only one chance to work, in a Calc II course he enrolled in just before he graduated. He and I shared some pleasant conversations during his studenthood here, but we've shared many more (often from afar) since his moving off to broader pastures.

He wrote a few days back indicating that he'd had some thoughts (which he'd written down) about my CRTF-related posts, and wondered if I had any interest in reading them. Knowing his perspicacity, I knew they'd be well worth the read, so I told him to send them along, by all means, asking if I might repost them here, as I've done in the past. He's granted permission.

Sedgwick's comments concern the ILS Topical Clusters in particular, which are considered by many (myself included) to be the weak point of ILS as a whole. Here's what Sedgwick has to say:

I will preface these comments by saying that I was one of the last students to graduate under the old General Education requirements, so I have no first-hand experience with ILS, despite being a recent alum.

I did take a look, however, at the clusters on offer. Currently, a cluster appears to be nothing more than an arrangement of existing courses that fit some nebulous theme. This situation seems to be the functional equivalent of forcing all students to declare a 'mini-minor,' albeit less useful because the promise of interdisciplinary depth seems hardly fulfilled, given how little time one can commit to a cluster relative to other requirements.

The main part that confuses me is the fact that there is a theme at all; it seems like a needless restriction. The structure of a student's education comes from their major, which offers the technical, career-focused classes they need. Asking the liberal arts portion of the curriculum to follow a cluster's pre-determined path is like asking a journey for directions: clusters rely on the false premise that students can (or should) connect the dots in the present.

To illustrate that last point with an example (that will no doubt become cliche): the reason that the original Macintosh debuted with multiple fonts and typefaces was because Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class at Reed College years earlier, a course that interested him but had no real-world usefulness to him at the time. My concern is that by requiring students to adhere to a theme in the 'liberal arts' part of their studies, they could be missing out on experiences that may be of use one day, in a manner that's impossible to conceive of while still in college. The way Steve put it: "you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards." UNCA's advantage, as our state's liberal arts institution, should be in providing the broadest array of dots for students to connect in the future, as they need them. In this light, restricting the ILS experience to a small subset of available courses does not make much sense.

If all ILS wants to do (or can do at the moment) is force exposure to other departments, then get rid of clusters and just say that students should take X number of courses outside their major. However, I think UNCA's goal is to emphasize the 'integrative' part of ILS. Clusters were an important first step, but I believe the 'integration' was too high-level to have the intended effect. Ultimately, integration needs to permeate the coursework itself, which why I would suggest 'cross-up' courses instead of clusters.

A cross-up course would be a deliberate collaboration of at least two departments. What would these cross-up courses look like? It's hard to say: I trust faculty to have a better eye for how their chosen discipline can interact with another. I know the synthesis of mathematics and writing is an important part of your teaching, so that seems to be a natural fit. My own background and interests can easily see collaborations between Computer Science and Environmental Studies. I think the possibilities are only limited by the interests of faculty and their willingness to work together.

There could be a simple rule that each department must form a cross-up with at least X number of departments. With a pool of cross-up courses available, just have students take X number of them to fulfill the ILS requirement. That's it. With the Intensives requirements still in place, the curriculum would not suffer in rigor. Like custom clusters, cross-ups could also be student-initiated with proper coordination. What better way to give UNCA students an edge in cross-disciplinary work than by taking classes that are actually cross-disciplinary by design? I cannot help but imagine that this type of setup would also confer a degree of market separation from peer institutions.

In short, exposing students to several unique instances of cross-disciplinary work seems to be a more pragmatic use of the limited time students have to devote to ILS electives. Cross-ups can also align faculty more towards collaboration than rivalry, encouraging departments to think about what cross-disciplinary experiences will work for students once they leave the academy and face an unforgiving job market. Of course, given the fiscal situation up there, asking faculty across the campus to design and teach a dozen or so new courses is likely a non-starter. But doesn't it sound exciting, something that really fits with the purpose of UNCA?

My open-letter response (which is almost identical to the response I had to Sedgwick's last letter to me, linked to above): I agree...ideally. I actually think the cross-up courses are a great idea, and if implemented would lead to a much more flexible, manageable, and student-authored learning experience that would replace (and substantially improve upon) the current system of topical clusters. The primary problems I see (as does Sedgwick himself) are logistical.

Namely, cost, in person-power and faculty time, if nothing else, is a prohibitive factor. Given our current budgetary climate (if I had a dollar for every time I've typed that word in the past few months...), we quite literally can't afford to ask all faculty to take time out of their schedules to design new interlinked courses. Moreover, we lack the administrative power to begin giving faculty appropriate credit for leading the many team-taught courses the cross-up system would entail...

...But wait a minute...Even as I was typing those last two sentences I began thinking to myself..."what?!?" As Sedgwick pointed out in the post I linked to above, universities are, though many who staff them would be loathe to admit it, among the most conservative of institutions around today, and change comes very slowly to them...I often think that we often make up excuses (too expensive, too time-consuming, administratively infeasible, etc.) for doing things we, institutionally, simply don't want to do.

To the first point: how does maintenance of the admittedly flawed and unpopular ILS Topical Cluster system demand any less faculty time and resources than would implementation of a new program that would likely require considerably less oversight and administrative overhead? On reflection, the faculty claim "I just don't have time to sit down and design this course" is wholly ridiculous...faculty are designing new courses all the time. Who among us isn't thrilled and filled with pride when first given the chance (in, maybe, our second or third year on the faculty) to teach a special-topics course related to our research? And how many of us, especially those of us in our first, second, and third years of teaching, find ourselves teaching one or two new preps every year? Though these courses are often not new, they're new-to-us, and take a fair amount of time to tweak and tone as we make them our own.

The last paragraph points out an obvious "in": our newest faculty are likely to be the most willing and able to implement a new curricular component like cross-up courses. Not only do they expect to have one or two new preps any year anyway, they're also less entrenched in their disciplinary positions and are more likely to be open to cross-disciplinary fertilization. I may just have to talk to a few of my younger colleagues about these ideas...

To the second point above: the argument is often made that we don't team-teach much here because it's simply too difficult to give faculty the appropriate "credit" for teaching such courses. The system as it exists, supposedly, allows us only to give credit for teaching half of a course for such courses, and in order to meet various benchmarks for faculty activity (the infamous Delaware study among them) faculty teaching such courses would have to teach far more than an acceptable load to appear on paper as though they're being productive. I can't buy this argument; if I did, I'd be as shortsighted as the folks I've been ranting about in my recent CRTF posts.

I can't buy it because I'm just not sure I've shopped around enough yet: might it be that the problem is one of "vision"? Several of my colleagues on the Curricular Sustainability subgroup have remarked that resistance to change may be predicated on a lack of understanding of other ways we could do things than the way we're already doing them. That is, maybe we're encountering so much insistence on doing things the way we've been doing them because folks just don't know how else these things can be done. Our response on CRTF has been to try to come up with models. Just this past week I asked the folks on my subgroup to identify institutions offering "model" majors and degree programs in their respective disciplines, suspecting that these programs will likely prove more sustainable (e.g., more flexible and less prescriptive) than their cognates on our campus.

Maybe what we need is more models. This brings me to the homework I mentioned at the outset of this post:

1. For those faculty reading this post, it would delight me to no end if you could comment on this post with a paragraph or two (or more, if you wish) about the nature of team-taught interdisciplinary courses at your school. How are they organized? How are they overseen and assessed? How does the administration grant faculty credit for teaching in these courses? How are they received by the students? Are they required, recommended, or simply part of the body of electives students might opt to take? All of this information would give me ammunition I could use to make the case for these courses.

2. For those students reading this post, it would give me similar delight if you could comment on this post with a paragraph or two about how you would receive such courses. Would you be interested in taking them? Among what disciplines would you like to see more collaboration? Would you find it helpful if such courses were required...and would you take them even if they were not? For UNC Asheville students in particular: would you prefer this kind of system to the current system of ILS Topical Clusters? Why?

Obviously I can't require you to respond, but even just a few words would be of such tremendous help to me that I really hope you'll consider writing back.

I realize now that this conversation, once between Sedgwick and me and then just between two mes, has turned out slightly schizophrenic. It's really helped me to get these thoughts out of my skull, though: I'd not before now seen the untenability of the "we don't have time to..." argument. I needed to write it to see it. (It's writing-to-learn, y'all!)

My thanks for those who've read this far! I'll soon be posting on a conversation with another reader, a high school teacher in Boston who's making use of IBL methods in his precalculus course. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

Jack Derbyshire said...

C'mon, Patrick! Homework, and I'm not even in your Calc 3 class yet? Alas, I better get started!

These cross-up courses sound like a brilliant idea. I would be perfectly willing to take them, even if they aren't required. But, rather than have one course focused on a subject that crosses disciplines, I would rather see two courses with the same name that examine a subject from two very different disciplinary perspectives. Suppose, for example, we had a cross course pair on The Science of Music - one side would examine the physics behind the music and the other would involve making music. Students would be required to take both courses in the cross course pairing, sort of a co-req. They would not be co-reqs in the traditional sense, but rather both courses would explore the same topic from a different perspective, leaving students to connect the dots while in and after the course is over.

So, why have a cross course pair instead of one single cross course? I'd rather the faculty teach within their discipline - its what they do best. Asking a professor to relate and explain a specific topic from their discipline sounds like something more enjoyable to them and, therefore, more enjoyable and engaging to the student. I would also like to see professors ask more of us, as students! My greatest fear for the single cross course model is that the professor will be required to emphasize the interdisciplinarity (probably not a word, but you know what I mean!) of a topic. I would prefer students be asked to figure out the interdisciplinarity on their own, or not. Connecting the dots can be encouraged, but shouldn't be something the professor needs to do for the student.

Finally, I've taken a few cross courses in my time. Computer Science 273: Mathematical Algorithms, is one such course. The title sounds beautiful and challenging, but the truth of the matter is the course was simply basic java programming for math majors. To a computer science major, the formulae were somewhat challenging, but the programming was simplistic at best. To a math major, the programming was near impossible, but the formulae were elementary! Such a course attempted to cross disciplines, but did not succeed well. Many students struggled tremendously and came to very few points of insight. Not good!

Perhaps a solemn point to end on, so I'll go on to say...

I am waiting with bated breath to see what you and the rest of the CRTF accomplish, especially in reducing the NIMBY feeling amongst the departments. We're all in this together, eh?