Gen Ed at Four Years: Toddler, Adolescent or All Grown-Up?
-- An interview with Istvan Varkonyi
One third of the Temple undergraduate curriculum is composed of General Education courses, but the faculty hardly spends a commensurate amount of time discussing the program and its development. The Editor of the Faculty Herald spoke with Istvan Varkonyi, who directs the Gen Ed program, after he presented some of his thoughts on the present and future state of the program at a recent Faculty Senate Steering Committee meeting.
Istvan is Professor of German and served as associate director and director of the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple before accepting the directorship of Gen Ed.
What is “re-certification” and why does Gen Ed have to go through it?
When Gen Ed was created, its policy document mandated programmatic review and the re-certification of previously approved courses (even though no other courses or programs face such a requirement). We thus have to look at whether courses and various sections of courses have maintained fidelity to the approved proposal, and how the courses address Gen Ed learning goals.
How are we going to do that?
We’re beginning to collect documentation from departments and instructors – in keeping with the feedback we got from faculty, we’ll be looking at syllabi, student work at varying levels, assignment sheets (where this adds something not apparent from the syllabus), and narrative statements by instructors. We’re having a pilot run of the information collection process this fall with 21 courses, and then, in April 2012, will distribute a calendar of courses scheduled for review in 2012-13.
What are some of the notable trends in the development of GenEd since its launch?
One striking trend is in who does the teaching. We’re slowly moving back to what happened to the CORE. NTTs are leading the largest number of sections, followed by adjuncts. Tenure track faculty participation peaked at 181 of almost 800 sections in the spring of 2009, and has leveled off at closer to 150 out of 800-850 sections per semester.
At the financial level about one million dollars were reallocated from the yearly budget, including control of the “enhancement fund,” which was provided initially for transitions and maintenance of new foundation courses in the Analytical Reading and Writing Program (first year writing), in the In-tellectual Heritage Program (Mosaic I & II) , and in the quantitative literacy area. These funds have been redirected to colleges (CLA and CST).
Isn’t this system fundamentally different than the CORE?
Well, as President Adamany realized, the CORE had become a behemoth with no oversight. Courses had mushroomed as gateway courses to majors; they weren’t necessarily “general and /or broad in nature,” and there was no assessment. Now Gen Ed courses cannot be used as pre-requisites, or required courses for a minor or a major – though there are currently some issues concerning this matter in some colleges, particularly involving the use of writing courses as prerequisites for upper division courses.
Who has oversight now?
President Hart put the program back in the hands of the faculty; now it is in the portfolio of the Senior Vice Provost Peter Jones. The General Education Executive Committee (GEEC), which is made up of faculty representing all areas of the university and appointed by the FSSC, is responsible for reviewing new course proposals, maintaining the policy structure of the Gen Ed Program, as well as assisting in the assessment and re-certification processes.
Is the balance of courses an issue as it was during the recruitment process and the first year?
Not as much as two or three years ago. We’re still a little short or weak in the Human Behavior area. Also, more surprisingly, in Race and Diversity, unless you don’t mind most of the courses being about the United States. It is as if race and diversity issues only exist in the United States. It could be neat to have a course on how Italy and the EU are dealing with immigration from Northern Africa, for instance.
We do want new faculty participation in the Gen Ed Program and are always looking for new courses. The basic objective of Gen Ed courses is ultimately to create a much more connected undergraduate population. Not only with respect to international issues, but also with regard to how such issues affect us on a local level in Philadelphia, surrounded as we are not just by “diversity” but also by new technologies and access to information. The question we wish to ask the Temple student is, how are you learning to extrapolate significance locally yet with broad understanding? How can we connect the local to the international?
This is why the Philadelphia Experience Passport is an integral part of the program. We hope it will build the classroom beyond the walls of the university. It has been very effective and very well received. Different institutions decide what kind of a discount they may offer, so it is very flexible. In some cases, like that of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, we have been able to pur-chase an institutional membership so that anyone with a Temple ID now gets in free. In 2012-13 we’ll go virtual with the PEX Passport: all undergrads will be able to download vouchers with offers from the various cultural partners within the greater Philadelphia area.
What’s the biggest success, or improvement over the old CORE, that you see, and what’s the biggest challenge the program faces that we haven’t already addressed above?
I see as the biggest success our ability to reinvigorate faculty discussion around issues concerning teaching and undergraduate education. By embracing clear and attainable learning objectives as a guiding principle in the Gen Ed Program, we have put into place a strong foundation for the undergraduate student to attain abilities necessary for future success. The biggest challenge facing us is our commitment to upholding and sustaining them. •