Sunday, August 19, 2012

Looking forward/looking back

I’m more sure than ever before that we’re making a mistake, but I feel powerless to stop it.

I’m returning now from a brief visit to Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. There, at the request of my colleague Katarina, I took part in a day of faculty development workshops. That small school’s entire faculty spent two days together in sessions designed to help them craft innovative classroom activities, manage assessment, direct undergraduates in research, and understand the school’s current proposal for curricular change. I’d been invited to give the second day’s keynote, focusing on writing as a means of critical thinking, and to lead two iterations of a brief workshop on mentoring undergraduates in research. Both of these went well, owing more than anything else to Morningside’s very engaged faculty than to anything else. There are a large number of young, as-yet-untenured, faculty at that school, many already making use of progressive pedagogies and eager to learn more.

Most eye-opening for me was the session I attended during the time I wasn’t busy leading my own. The session was led by several faculty who were charged with describing their work in crafting proposals for specific curricular reforms. One faculty member spoke of the school’s new plan to enhance students’ critical thinking. Another spoke on their plan to more intentionally develop students’ communication abilities through a sort of CAC (communication across the curriculum) program. A third focused on the plan to build students’ quantitative literacy. I should note that here, the word “plan” should not be read simply: these plans are robust and elaborate. They include careful vertical integration, course design methodologies, articulation of learning goals, and plans for appropriate multi-stage assessment.

It was the last presentation that struck me most, for it is in stark contrast with particular components of my own school’s current plans for curricular reform. Among the several specific changes the summer working group (SWG) of the Curriculum Reform Task Force (CRTF) has put into its proposal is the out-and-out elimination of a pair of the intensives, including diversity-intensive courses and quantitative-intensive courses. (The information literacy-intensive courses and writing-intensive courses are sliding out from under the axe, receiving a shave but not a grisly end: both of them survive as assessment-driven departmental competencies and not courses approved and overseen by faculty committees.) These intensive programs are victims of our desire to reduce faculty members’ quasi-administrative functions (functions which we see contributing to extraordinarily heavily service expectations) and our attempt to reduce the complexity of the Integrative Liberal Studies (ILS) curriculum, which is indeed very convoluted.

Yet…though I’m all for reducing ILS’s complexity, I worry that the SWG’s strayed too far from our liberal arts ideals. As my wonderful colleague Lexi (also a member of the SWG) pointed out in an email I received while taking part in the listening session at Morningside (oh, irony!), our removal of the DI and QI courses, coupled with our elimination of the ILS’s Topical Cluster requirement and our scaling back in the longstanding Humanities program (requiring only 12 instead of 16 hours of this core common experience), moves us closer to a more generalized model for general education which brings us more in line with the UNC system’s non-liberal arts member schools. What is to distinguish our core curriculum from that of, say, Western Carolina University, or Appalachian State University, the two much larger schools with whom we share the mountainous western region of our state?

Though our move might leave us open to criticism that the new curriculum will too closely resemble that of more “comprehensive” institutions, I’m not sure the political climate at UNC Asheville is such that we could “sell” anything less drastic. The faculty in several of the departments whose majors require a substantial number credit hours have lobbied strongly against the restrictions on majors which would have been necessary to free up the time to save some aspects of the ILS curriculum. Our ultimate decision to cap the size of majors at 60 hours is still unpalatable to members in four or five departments. (Their continued insistence that this number of hours is simply necessary for students to receive a robust disciplinary education is wholly unfounded, in my view, but that’s fodder for an entirely different post.) Mix these faculty members’ objections together with an overall sense that ILS is overly complicated, and you’ve got a recipe for dissent: any attempt to take more hours from the majors and give them back to ILS would send about a third of our faculty into open revolt.

So here we are, bobbing about between Scylla and Charybdis. We’ve got a couple of more details to hammer out (regarding the current and proposed requirements for health and wellness and for foreign [second] languages), but once those are forged we’ll be putting the proposal before first the full CRTF and then the full faculty. Buckle up, y’all. It’s gonna be bumpy.

Coming soon: the skinny on my first day of classes, tomorrow!

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