A Conversation About General Education at Temple: Past, Present, and Future
By Peter Jones (Senior Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies and Professor, Criminal Justice); Istvan Varkonyi (Director of Gen Ed and Associate Professor, German); Julie Phillips (Associate Director of General Education); Deborah Stull (member of the GEEC and Assistant Professor of Biology); Vallorie Peridier (member of the GEEC and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering); and Steve Newman.
Five years after its launch, Temple’s General Education program recently went through an External Review as part of a larger assessment. Of course, faculty are already heavily involved in Gen Ed—overseeing it through the General Education Executive Committee (GEEC) and teaching so many courses in it. But it’s crucial that more of us get informed about and get involved in the discussion about this crucial program since I think some consequential changes are in the offing that will affect all of our students and faculty. On September 23rd, I sat down with down with a group of administrators and faculty at the heart of Gen Ed: Peter Jones (Senior Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies and Professor, Criminal Justice); Istvan Varkonyi (Director of Gen Ed and Associate Professor, German); Julie Phillips (Associate Director of General Education); Deborah Stull (member of the GEEC and Assistant Professor of Biology); Vallorie Peridier (member of the GEEC and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering).
I am very grateful to these colleagues for engaging in this discussion, which covered the following topics:
The External Review: Strengths and Areas for Improvement
Resources: The Effects of RCM, Class Size, and Pedagogical Quality
The Staffing Mix in Gen Ed and Promoting Faculty Buy-In
Fostering Competencies, Gen Ed’s Relationship to Majors, and The Ends of Gen Ed
Gen Ed and Online Learning
Steve Newnan (SN): Thanks so much for assembling on such short notice. I really appreciate it. My hope here is to have a record of this conversation in The Herald because I think we’re at a really important moment in Gen Ed’s history, and I want to make sure that as much as possible that there’s a discussion about it in which the faculty play a substantive role along with the other stakeholders. So where I want to start is with the current review you all have been engaged in. The external review is only a piece of the various modalities you’re engaged in, but I want to begin with that. I understand that this is not a document that can be circulated, but could you offer me the highlights of the review—what it identified as the strengths of the program, where the reviewers think the program needs improvement and what resources the reviewers think that the program needs to build on those strengths and make those improvements?
Istvan Varkonyi (IV): I guess I’ll jump in. First and foremost, the report overall is quite positive. There are a lot of strengths within the system that we’ve got in place; they see it clearly as an in-credible improvement over the Core curriculum. In essence, the tone is very positive. Here some of the positive things they point out: it’s much more streamlined with 34-36 credits; all of the areas seem to touch on key elements of building certain abilities and competencies; the course re-certification process, a major improvement over the Core; as members of the GEEC can attest to, this is really our first go-round with re-certification. We had a pilot the previous year. This past year, 30-odd courses came in, and they were really eye-openers, revealing how certain departments and colleges are committed to Gen Ed philosophy and those competencies. Of course, there are always places where we can improve but the report on the whole is quite positive.
One thing the report does say is that they were very impressed with our students. They did meet separately with our students. They met 15 students for about an hour, an hour and a half. The reviewers found them remarkably articulate. These were students from across the university; we did not hand-pick these students. We put out the call; the area coordinators and the GEEC Members went out to the instructors and asked them to make sure their students knew about this opportunity. These were students who voluntarily came to the door. They were all very positive, actually. They say they like the Gen Ed program; they want more of these skills-building courses. After all, they are the key stake-holders in all this; they are the audience.
Having said that, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas needing improvement. We need to be more articulate with the faculty about how we do assessment; we need to communicate this to the faculty. Assessment isn’t just one event but a series of things. We need more conversations about the overall picture of assessment.
The other thing that came up in the report that speaks to areas needing improvement has to do with the way Gen Ed was set up as a response to the Core. We saw the Core as a Chinese menu of courses all over the place, no logic. We now have these areas, but they have become silos that are a bit restrictive. For instance, take World Performances. That’s in the World Area, but this is clearly an Arts course as well. The reviewers argue for some porousness, some flexibility built in the program. So that a student could also satisfy an area also because of the content of the course. They wanted us to be a bit more creative and a bit more at ease now that the program is five years old, more mature. We can create more flexibility in these areas.
Deborah Stull (DS): The external reviewers noted that they were not singling out Temple’s program. Assessment is something that pretty much all Gen Ed programs find challenging.
Peter Jones (PJ): They did point out that the program’s requiring a re-certification was a real strength of Gen Ed. At many institutions, it’s left up to separate departments to do rather than the Gen Ed program; or if it is given to the program, they don’t have the ability to bring about any change even if the assessment suggests that things are not going well. They felt that we had gone a good job in the way we had designed the requirements for re-certification and the fact that, because Gen Ed is embedded in a faculty committee, it can say, “This isn’t good enough. We’re going to in another direction.”
I also want to echo what Istvan said about the reviewers’ comments on the students. They said that the students were remarkable, and each one of them said that they doubted they could get a group of students at their own institutions who could articulate the vision and philosophy of what their Gen Ed program was the way our students can. In fact, they said that we should do videos. “We went online to your Gen Ed program and not one of your students could be found, and you should have them on there because they really made an impression on us.”
SN: This does get us to the question of resources. I wonder how you all are imagining the effect of Responsibility Centered Management on Gen Ed since the revenue initially stays with the academic units and you’re not defined as one of those and will be dependent upon the money pulsing back to the center. It’s rare to hear someone say, “We’re doing fine with what we have. In fact, please cut our budget.” But I do wonder how you imagine acting on your own internal reviews and the external review, where are the pressure points where you might need additional resources.
Julie Phillips (JP): What we’re seeing in this vein is that some departments are trying to engage in credit grabbing.
We’re getting departments calling us and asking, “We see this or that department teaching a course. We think we could offer that. How do we get it on the schedule?”
We’re also seeing course caps increase. The external team acknowledged that this pressure was going to happen and that without adequate protection, Gen Ed was going to be at the mercy of the system. One of the recommendations they made that I thought was phenomenal was that they recognized that colleges and department shouldn’t be making unilateral decisions about course caps in the absence of pedagogical rationale or evidence and really encouraged the colleges and schools work with Gen Ed to make sure that course caps are appropriate to our goals, which they do indicate are quite ambitious.
SN: This is a point tied not only RCM. One thing I found interesting about then-Interim President Englert’s White Paper from 2011 was that almost everybody focused on his proposals for reorganiz-ing colleges and schools, and those were important. But I didn’t hear many faculty pick up some-thing that seemed to me as consequential in that document, which was that it explicitly gave Deans the authority to set class sizes on Gen Ed and Writing Intensive courses. RCM hasn’t happened yet and you’re already starting to see pressures; are you starting to see class sizes move up. Do you have a sense of the specific numbers?
JP: Certainly. All sections of Intellectual Heritage have gone up by 2 if not 3. They started out at 25 and now they’re at 27, and there’s a suggestion that they may go up to 29. English 802 in First Year Writing have gone from 18 to 20 and they’re talking as high as 22.
SN: I’ve seen as high as 26 for First Year Writing.
JP: Depending on what budget model that CLA is using to address workload issues, they present a range of scenarios. It’s fantastic that Rich Joslyn has done a lot of the planning I’ve seen, and he really tries to describe what the impact will be financially, but he also points out, “Look, this is a service we do for the university as a whole.” I think CLA has experienced a drop in credit-hour generation this Fall, which does not bode well for lower class sizes in the future.
PJ: They’ve seen a drop in their non Gen-Ed courses; Gen Ed credit-hour generation has gone up by almost 5%, so their non Gen Ed credit-hour generation has gone down significantly. That means that the extent to which Gen Ed is housed in CLA is even more important to that college than it has been in the past.
SN: And are you seeing this in other colleges as well?
DS: Not just Gen Ed and not just Writing Intensive. And not just in CLA.
JP: Right. We’ve seen class sizes go up by 15 or 20.
DS: There seems to a move more toward different configurations of classes. Our initial proposal was for small classes; but more of them now are big lectures with small breakouts. In general, there seems to be a shift not only toward having a few more students in a section but also in the overall presentation—more lectures, fewer smaller classes.
JP: And some recitation sections have been eliminated. So the more intimate individual contact that students would have with faculty has been eradicated, as has support for TAs.
SN: And the TAs themselves are having to mind more students.
JP: That changes the nature of the assignments.
DS: Because Gen Ed is competency based, it’s not well-served by relying too heavily on multiple-choice exams. While these exams can be designed to test critical thinking, problem solving and other competencies that Gen Ed (and major courses) emphasize, they are not always designed with this in mind, and we should be careful as to how they’re used in Gen Ed.
PJ: You were right to identify that statement by then-President Englert. But the context of that statement was that I don’t know if there had been any explicit policy on the matter. It had just been common practice that a Dean could set caps wherever they wanted, and it so happened that the Dean in CLA had set that cap on class sizes. I think what Dick was saying that he didn’t want to have any university policy, including a Gen Ed policy, telling Deans how large a class should be. The decision about the quality of the delivery of a course should lie with the Deans. However, imagine they take a writing-intensive course and, say, present it with TAs or undergrad assistants. Would you say that class sizes couldn’t change to allow for that? But it doesn’t take away from the fact that someone has to assess the quality of the course, and given that GEEC has the ability to assess these courses, if we can identify that, say, a writing-intensive course above a certain level is not fulfilling the goals we have for those courses, then we should bring those numbers down. Absent that, he didn’t want a limit imposed. But I was in a discussion with a number of the deans around this issue, and they did recognize the fact that the research out there is quite clear, that when you get to about 25 or 26, the effectiveness of writing-intensive courses goes down. The other thing that’s interesting is that when you look at the Student Feedback Forms for our students, they start to become quite negative when you get beyond 24 or 25 in a Writing-Intensive course.
SN: That’s true of courses across the board when the class size goes up.
PJ: You get that effect somewhat across the board, but it’s much more pronounced in writing-intensive courses.
I would add one other thing, that in the Gen Ed policy document, it did mention a Writing Intensive Course Committee that a lot of people forget about. And they do hold the line. This is a faculty group; it is chaired by Lori Salem. They perform an independent assessment of the Writing Intensive courses. I think it’s vital because what it’s doing is saying that faculty are responsible for the curriculum. We’re not going to control the curriculum through unilateral rules but by quality assessment. We’re going to look at the courses as delivered. If you can teach a good writing intensive course along with an assistant with 27 or 28 students, we’re not going to force you to do it with 21 or 22 IF you can teach it well. But if you can’t show that, if there’s evidence to the contrary, then the burden is on you to justify that higher number. I think essentially passing the responsibility from central administration and unilateral rule to the faculty and telling them, look at the quality of the courses as delivered. You have the authority, you the Writing Committee, you the GEEC, you have the authority to say to the director of Gen Ed or me or the Provost, "We don’t want this."
SN: To follow up on this, there are two kinds of things that might work against this sort of quality control. The first we’ve already mentioned: Under RCM, there is an incentive to generate credit hours and possibly to poach other people’s, which is why we need The Educational Programs and Policies Committee and/or the new committee proposed by the Provost, the Academic Priorities Advisory Committee, to act as a traffic cop to make sure that no other school can simply decide, “I’m going to teach First Year Writing, etc.”
The other pressure gets to a question I have about staffing. The tenure-track faculty with very few exceptions still run departments, and I’m interested in the statistics about what percentage of Gen Ed courses are taught by tenure-track faculty. I remember a debate in the Faculty Senate when we were first looking at Gen Ed, as to whether 65% or 70% of these sections should be taught by tenure-track faculty. And I just started laughing, and said, “Please. We’re not going to get anywhere near that number.” Not because I didn’t want that to happen but just because the worldviews and primary commitments of a lot of tenure-track faculty tend toward the major and graduate education. And thus, it’s no skin off their nose if you bump up caps on the Gen Ed courses that they rarely teach. So what percentage of Gen Ed courses are taught by tenure-track faculty, and I’d want to distinguish between lectures with recitation sections and smaller courses where they teach directly? I understand this might vary significantly by college.
JP: 12-16% of the Gen Ed courses are taught by tenure-track faculty.
Vallorie Peridier (VP): Much less than 65-70%.
PJ: I think we have to be very careful here because we have a large number of non-tenure-track faculty, and as you know well from our discussion of SFFs that there are some absolutely extraordi-nary teachers in their ranks. So I don’t know whether or not 12-16% of tenure-track faculty is necessarily a bad thing if a large number of those sections are taught by full-time NTT faculty.
SN: I should clarify, I don’t ask the question to suggest that a relative lack of tenure-track faculty necessarily means the instruction is any worse. I’m just thinking about where the power resides.
JP: The vast majority of faculty teaching in Gen Ed are full time NTT. They are often teaching a 4/4 load, or, if they are lucky, a 4/3 load. That varies from college to college and different colleges are using different ways to reward folks who are teaching an extraordinarily large number of students. CLA has done an interesting job on that and I hope it continues. Some of the faculty who are teaching large lecture classes upwards of 120 students are getting credit for teaching two courses. But with the pressures coming with RCM, I don’t know if CLA will be able to sustain that.
PJ: I see this as part of a larger picture. In many departments, mine own included, we don’t have anything close to the number of tenure-track faculty to cover the courses our majors require. As a result, I’ve been in a number of faculty meetings, where we have to decide who is going to teach GenEd, lower division courses, upper-division courses, and Master’s and PhD courses. They are prioritized in reverse—tenure-track faculty are going to teach Master’s and PhD courses first, and then the upper-division courses, and by that time you’ve probably used up all of our tenure-track faculty. So by the time you get to lower-division courses, they are probably in the same area as Gen Ed, and I don’t know if there’s any intentional differentiation, to get back to the power thing, between having tenure-track faculty not teach Gen Ed courses or lower-division courses. I do know that there is a sense if you’re out there shopping for majors, the argument for Gen Ed, is that with lower division courses, they’re already committed. If you’re looking for new majors, you should emphasize Gen Ed. I think RCM might increase the attractiveness of that strategy. Of course, some departments might want fewer majors, like Biology.
[Laughter from Deb and others]
SN: I just wanted to share a copy of The Faculty Herald from the archives not yet online, which David Waldstreicher just gifted me with a few weeks ago. You’ll see there that the headline has “The Final Proposal for Gen Ed,” with final underscored.
IV: Those were the days.
[Laughter all around.]
SN: Of course it wasn’t final. One of the issues around Gen Ed has to do with its genesis in what was a presidential fiat; any faculty who were around then might still feel it’s not for them. And because for a lot of faculty members their hearts are in their disciplines. That’s how they see themselves as scholars and as teachers, true of many colleagues I’ve spoken to. I should also second what Peter said about the scarcity of tenure-track faculty for staffing. I’ve actually asked to teach a section of First Year Writing and have been told, “We can’t spare you. If you don’t teach x, it doesn’t get taught.” But I also wonder what incentives might be offered to get more of the most capable tenure-track faculty teaching in Gen Ed so that they really have a stake in this. Because there’s going to be—as I don’t need to tell you—there’s going to be a battle, a contest, a sharp conversation coming up about the shape of Gen Ed, catalyzed by a change in our senior administration.
JP: I’d like to back up a second and mention one thing that happened that was fabulous and helped turn around a lot of faculty who might have been skeptical at first. Religion made a decision about how to staff Gen Ed courses. I don’t know if it was Terry Rey who made the decision when he was chair….
IV: Yes, I think it was Terry Rey when he was chair 3-4 years ago.
JP: So Terry decided that all tenure-track faculty members would teach at least one Gen Ed section a year. The result has been really well-received. Rebecca Alpert loves teaching Religion in Philadel-phia, and I think the faculty members have enjoyed the experience as well. And part of that was their looking at the statistics and realizing that a high percentage of their credit hours were being generated by Gen Ed. And so they made a very conscious decision to staff their courses with tenure-track faculty members as a way of communicating its importance. They’ve been getting emails from Gen Ed and been part of the re-certification discussion and they know that we’re really trying to toe the line when it comes to competencies. I think that sort of self-regulation and awareness is better than any sort of incentive we could offer.
IV: I think that this is the challenge we face as we go into this new phase of Gen Ed. We’ve put into place parameters ways by which we can assess the quality of courses in the program. But there’s only so much the director and the associate director can do. It has to be incentivized for the chairs of the department. As we move forward, faculty development is key. I know there are some fac-ulty members still committed to the old Core, and they are not going to change their minds. But they are a relatively small number, thank God. But then there are a great many faculty members who still don’t understand, “What is this thing called Gen Ed?” Even after all the Town Hall meetings and all the other efforts we’ve made. It’s a PR thing. We need to get to the chairs, even though they are there for 3-4 years usually. We have the Area Coordinators already available to talk to faculty, but there’s only so much we can do that way. I think that we need to create faculty development seminars based around these pedagogical concepts of what we’re trying to do. And it’s this competency-based types of teaching that is at the heart of it. I think it is because we’re wedded to our disciplines because that’s how we were trained, and we’re going to die holding on to our disciplines. If you read The Chronicle of Higher Education, it’s full of what’s happening. I think that in 10-15 years, Higher Ed will be centered on competency-based degree programs. This is coming fast and furious. We have a study, “It Takes More than a Major”—I have a copy of it for you here--that clearly indicates where this is all headed. In essence, we need to rethink what we are doing in higher ed. I think on this campus Gen Ed is on the forefront. We’re trying to trailblaze where we’re headed as an institution of higher education. The thing we have to do is to try and get faculty on board and see the virtues of what a competency-based education is all about.
SN: My last editorial was about competency-based education and who gets to set them and the threats and opportunities involved.
DS: And who gets to assess them.
SN: Right. And I want think about some of the push-back you might get in that effort. I’ve had a couple of interviews with the Provost, and his position isn’t anti-Gen Ed per se. But he seems concerned that our students, especially in the natural sciences, aren’t devoting enough time to their majors. And this puts them at a disadvantage in the job market and in graduate school. I don’t know if you have received similar signals. I know this is a somewhat awkward question, since we’re talking about the chief academic officer of the university and to whom some folks around the table report. But I do think there needs to be a conversation about it, and the faculty need to be part of it. Because that’s the vibe I’m getting from him. I wonder if you think I’m reading it right, and, if so, if you agree with some elements of his diagnosis. You might argue that “it takes more than a major.” But then how would you build a bridge between Gen Ed and the majors, saying that it leads to discipline-specific knowledge rather than away from it?
DS: As a faculty member in biology and a member of the GEEC, I find the notion that thinking about a separation between discipline specific knowledge and competency is strange.
VP: I agree.
DS: I want my majors to be thinking critically, to be solving problems, to be able to communicate clearly and articulately. Yes, they’re going to be critically thinking or solving a problem or commu-nicating data specific to biology. The skills that are emphasized in Gen Ed courses are the same ones that I emphasize in my majors courses—it is just that in those skills are applied more to topics, concepts, and areas that are specific to biology. And since we are at the maximum number of credits in our major, we should be looking to Gen Ed (and rather than other electives) as an opportunity to lay down the foundation of these skills on which we build in our biology-specific ways. In Gen Ed students are being trained in skills that will be helpful for jobs in general and then in our majors courses students are being trained in their discipline, yes, but they are still receiving instruction that emphasizes these same skills. Who doesn’t want their students to think critically or to be good at problem solving? And from a job/profession perspective who doesn’t want people who can think critically or who are good at problem solving?
SN: But I suppose that percentage could change so that you don’t have the 1/3 mix of discipline, Gen Ed, and electives.
PJ: What’s happened is that the free electives have disappeared. Prior to Gen Ed, the majors had already expanded into the core. It was a wolf’s in sheep’s clothing. If you view this from a student perspective rather than a faculty perspective, you’d see what problems existed. So for a student in a major, there were lots of requirements hiding as core requirements. Not only that, if you changed your major those core requirements no longer applied to your new major. It was extremely puni-tive. That’s one major thing that’s changed. So there’s more truth in advertising now.
The other point I think is really important. I agree: This separation that a class is either building competencies or it’s focused on content is a fallacy. I’ve been here 28 years, and I remember 15 years ago we did a survey of undergraduates, and we were getting feedback very critical of the grad students teaching courses. We looked at it and realized it was our fault in a way; we were putting grad students in courses who were ill-prepared to teach as primary instructors. So we instituted a two-credit course you were required to take before you were put in the class. I taught that class, and we talked a lot about students who put together syllabi and they’d say “Critical thinking is an important part of my class.” And I’d ask, “Where is it on the syllabus? Where does it take place in the class?” And the fact was that there was no explicit discussion with the students or with anybody else. They hadn’t even thought through it; they had just convinced themselves that was in there. And I think all that Gen Ed has done is it’s taken those principles that Pamela Barnett is teaching all the time—make explicit the skills you’re going to teach, and put them in the syllabus, and make sure they’re there in the syllabus and the course content.
VP: And in the assignments.
PJ: And in the assignments. I think if that principle would seep out into the major that would be wonderful. I’ve been here for 28 years, and I have had more pedagogical discussions around Gen Ed in the past few years than I had in my department before I got involved with Gen Ed.
JP: Peter and I talked to the new students all summer, and among the other analogies he used over the summer’s orientation, is that you don’t just try to walk on to the football or basketball team without practice, practice, practice. And one of the things that was very much relevant in Gen Ed and carries into the upper-division courses but folks aren’t thinking about it, is that Gen Ed is about practicing these competencies over and over again in different contexts at the Gen Ed level so that when you hit the Upper Division courses, you are then looking through a very specific lens but still doing some of the same things, so that when you go out to the marketplace, you have those things that employers are looking for. And it’s intentional and it’s developmental. I think that there’s a perception that that stops with Gen Ed, and I don’t know why.
IV: Peter talked about a departmental teaching hierarchy with the various level of classes. The problem is that there are these artificial barriers that seem to get in the way. It seems that there exists the notion that students in upper division courses already are skillful writers, and that lower-division courses are where “the training” should happen. Here is perhaps where the Religion Dept. model works nicely. When you’re teaching a senior seminar and you’ve also had the experience teaching a Gen Ed course and see the progression of writing skills, you tend to have a greater understanding of writing as a process and that skills need to be practiced continuously on all levels. There is this backward and frontward design, speaking on the different levels.
SN: We’re having curricular discussions in the English department now, and for a lot of tenure-track faculty who are still largely the people who are making curricular decisions. One of the things that would help here is if you could throw down the gauntlet to the faculty and say, “We’re teaching these competencies in Gen Ed. What are you doing with them in the major?” But you’d also want to be able to say, “These competencies feed into what you want to do.”
I think another thing is that, you all can make these arguments and you’re still going to get pressure to cut the number of credits devoted to Gen Ed.
PJ: But they’re already out of free electives in many majors. They’re at zero.
JP: Let’s look at science and technology and engineering. Their Gen Ed curriculum is only 25 hours. This is a result of the fact that, like CST Students, Engineering students do not have to satisfy the Gen Ed Quantitative Literacy (GQ) requirement as well as the two courses required in Gen Ed Science & Technology (GS) based on courses required of the majors. Gen Ed has approved a number of courses—sometimes single courses, sometimes multiple courses—that if any student completes s/he is waived of various requirements. A list of these waivers may be found in the Undergraduate Bulletin in the General Education section. You will need to scroll down the page to get to the lists.
PJ: I do want to go back to the provost’s view. The context for that is Provost Dai is looking at a university where the quality of our students is improving by leaps and bounds. He attributes much of that to the quality of the faculty. We are now attracting a group of students with some new expectations. It’s not a concern; it’s a question he explicitly wants to raise. If we’re improving the quality of our majors and that’s attracting a better quality of student, he wants to be sure that we have a quality general education program to go along with it. That’s the question that he’s asking. He used the opportunity of this review to focus only on what an external group of reviewers say. He wants to know what the faculty groups within the university think of Gen Ed and how they want to change it. He’s as interested in the response of the faculty response to that review. The members of the GEEC have had a chance to read on and comment upon the external review, just as you would with a departmental review.
SN: Though I assume that discussion would have to spread beyond the GEEC, and the question is what kind of faculty feedback you would get more broadly about Gen Ed. What studies do you have in the works or have you already commissioned to gauge faculty attitudes? Because, again, a lot of this about faculty buy in. You know there is some resistance. “Yeah, the new Gen Ed is all about making connections. Well, sewer pipes make connections, too.” The people on the GEEC have already bought in. So have the faculty in Religion. How do you bring more faculty on board? Even if Provost Dai is doing exactly what you say, it’s still possible that if a proposal comes up to increase major-specific work at the expense of Gen Ed, how will they react?
PJ: I think there is always going to be a tension. I’ll admit to it myself. I am attached to my disci-pline and then I work at a university where I practice that discipline. The first 15-20 years of my teaching, I just naturally assumed that students came here because they wanted to learn criminol-ogy and that they were different from students who came to learn sociology or any other discipline for that matter. And I’d have a lot of parents talk to me and say, “So what do you do with a criminology degree?” And I would always think about how difficult it was to answer those sorts of questions.
Now that Career Services reports to me, and now that I get to interact with lots of people looking to hire, and I’m shocked to see how far away from reality my view of the world was as a faculty member. I realize that I just wasn’t seeing the picture and that is for most employers, not all, they really don’t care about disciplinary boundaries. And frankly they’re sort of shocked about how naïve we faculty are about protecting those disciplinary boundaries. There’s this incredible tension between a world out there that is looking for a certain type of student who has been developed in a certain type of way, and then there are faculty members, and I include myself, who don’t see the world that way at all, and that just like me, these students are committed . . . I still refer to my stu-dents as criminologists, and I say, "You want to be criminologists, right?” That tension, I guess, will never go away. The faculty are not a random subset of society. They are totally committed to the disciplines they’re in and who have difficulty understanding anybody who is not. It’s not how even graduate schools work. Even graduate schools are willing to ignore disciplinary boundaries as take someone presenting a particular skill set.
VP: The same is true in Mechanical Engineering.
PJ: Gen Ed is about: Can we get that presenting skill set right? As opposed to hoping that if somehow you do 4 years in criminal justice—I don’t want to pick on Criminal Justice, this would be true of any major, that somehow magically by some process of osmosis you suck in the skill set. Even when the faculty as a whole haven’t engaged in any explicit discussion of how you’ll do that. This is the fascination other schools have expressed with our Gen Ed program right now. Val and Deb came up to Boston to the Gen Ed meeting; when you go and listen to other people in other institutions, the overwhelming feeling I get is that, man, we’re on the right path. We have a lot of stuff to do, but other institutions look at us and say “we are way, way behind.”
SN: I think that one of the forms of push-back you get about competencies from faculty is “Stop making me into a tool for preparing me for the job market.” The other argument about competencies is that the value of Gen Ed extends beyond making them “world ready” in which “world” somehow gets restricted to mean “job.” No one would want to underestimate the importance of job readiness. But there are other things that we do, and so of course faculty—perhaps a bit more so in the humanities—bridle at that.
VP: I think Dai is a great scholar and really believes in science. I myself worked seven years in industry prior to coming to Temple, and I have the exact same reaction – that learning a discipline really well is an important component of a college education. But, industry believes that they can train you. What they’re looking for is people who can bring disparate notions together, communicate effectively, and adapt quickly, and it’s really important to have different worldviews. And these abilities are what Gen Ed is trying to foster.
PJ: I think it does a disservice to that effort and to Gen Ed specifically to think that its function is just to prepare people for the job market.
IV: These are life skills.
PJ: We are preparing people to be quality citizens.
VP: I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that we also help prepare people for the job market.
PJ: I remember telling university students that my job wasn’t to prepare students for the job market. I would feel the hairs of my neck stand up if people told me that I was supposed to get into this cattle chute, as if my only function was to prepare them for a job, which is why the question “so what job do you get with criminal justice” used to annoy so much. “Why should I worry about what job you get?” I still think like that in some ways. My job is to help prepare you to be the sort of articulate, critically-thinking, enabled person whom I think will make a contribution to society.
JP: But that’s not the dominant discourse about higher education at the state or federal levels.
SN: This is the problem with the competencies discussion—it’s about who gets to define which outcomes count as how. I’ve been saying to my colleagues, saying, “Guys, we need to get in front of this or it’s going to run us over.”
JP: This emphasis that is being placed on rankings and moving up, I think, feeds into this dis-cussion about jobs and getting students placed, and it’s left behind that discussion of the broader human condition and citizenship and what a college education does for you 10-15 years down the road and you’re a PTA member or you’re going into the voting booth. That discourse has been lost.
PJ: But in terms of the flexibility of defining what the competencies are, I think one of the nice things about Gen Ed and one of the things that came from the external review is this. If I get this wrong you can correct me, I’m just paraphrasing here. What they said was: When you guys started you drew a bright line between Gen Ed and the majors, and that was because of the history of the Core, and we think you were right to do that. But we’re now five years on, and I think that you guys need to start thing more about the porous and permeable barriers and to think about things like whether a course can exist in two areas.
And the thing to remember is that what’s going on in Gen Ed is being defined by a faculty group. We have a GEEC. So Gen Ed is sitting in faculty governance. And if GEEC decides that they want to add or remove an area of competency. The people on GEEC are not just there as individuals; they’re there to represent the areas of faculty, which is why on GEEC, you can’t have more than 2 people from any one college. The idea is to get as much university-wide representation as possible. I feel that we’re at the point where having established the clear differences between Gen Ed and the majors, we need to start asking, “Do we want to add any Gen Ed areas? Do we want to remove any? Should we change the competencies?” We have to evolve. We have to keep evolving. Otherwise, we’re going to be way behind what industries are looking at. But one of the areas, and I don’t think this has come up before, that they did point out was, and they gave us huge kudos for having an explicit area on race and diversity, one of the very few gen ed programs in the country to include that. And they’re not surprised, given Temple’s history. But the idea they felt was missing was the issue of ethics and whether that would be a course or embedded across courses.
SN: That’s very interesting. Because when I interviewed Provost Dai, and I don’t know whether you read it—in it, he seemed to suggest that ethics could somehow stand in for diversity. I’ll be printing a letter from Rebecca Alpert questioning that proposition. This really needs to probably be a both/and rather than either/or.
VP: Probably the problem is using the word competency. There must be a better word for what we’re doing. I’m trying to think of a term. Mental framework? Competency isn’t quite right.
DS: It lacks the sense of creativity, and it seems too task-oriented.
PJ: And actually I think that if you were to identify a really good course in the major, it would be what Gen Ed is trying to do. We talk about discipline-based content and competencies, but the fact is any good course should have them. I think the only difference is that in Gen Ed, we are articulat-ing it explicitly, and in terms of searching for a course to add a course to the Gen Ed curriculum, we only want to add a course that is explicitly taking these competencies on. But in the major, the good courses whether they’ve talked about it or not, they’re there. They already exist.
SN: What we’re trying to do in English with curricular reform to avoid turf wars is this: Instead of proposing courses to start with, though you can, what do you want them to be able to by the end of the course?
IV: Right. It’s backward design.
SN: Right. It’s reverse engineering. This is what I say whenever I talk with graduate students
about teaching. Of course, whether I always remember to do this in my own teaching is another matter.
SN: We’re past time, and I’m very grateful. But I would like to ask you one more question, if possi-ble, and that’s about online education in Gen Ed. Because one thing I’m hearing is that there are pressures not only in terms of class size but to get as many sections of Gen Ed online. Now some of that just seems necessary. For instance, when I was talking with the Provost, he pointed to the 2+2 program in Japan. The students there need to find some way to fulfill Gen Ed requirements remotely since they don’t have the staff to cover it over there. Of course, this is all happening in the context of a set of standards that are being suggested for online education at Temple, and I’m looking to publish on that soon to put down a marker of sorts so that faculty are fully included in that discussion, too. But am I right that you all are feeling some pressure to get Gen Ed Courses online? And, if so, how does one turn that pressure into a good pedagogical conversation?
IV: Interestingly enough, I was looking just a couple of days ago at the Fall enrollment figures. Two of the Mosaic online courses were cancelled for lack of enrollment. Yes, there are BA programs that are going fully online, and there is demand, no question about it. But thus far, we haven’t seen students breaking down the walls asking for online Gen Ed courses. At least is the picture that I’m getting this current semester. This may change in the coming semesters, but that’s what it looks like right now.
What does RCM do with this? We know that there’s already a formula out there that colleges are going to be charged for the square footage they use. So, in a way, maintaining those classrooms in Anderson, Gladfelter, Weiss, Beury, or wherever, will it be more cost effective if we put these classes online?
JP: The SFF analysis that Peter has been doing indicates that students are not as thrilled with online courses as they are with the more traditional courses. They receive lower scores on the Quality Index scale, at least in Gen Ed. I don’t know about courses outside of Gen Ed.
PJ: To me, what that means is that we improve the quality of online courses. It needs to be as high as the ones that we deliver in person. I think we have to remember the history of online education at Temple. It jumped in with both feet in the 1990s and got burned. The discussions that have taken place around online ed now are not about “Oh, my God. There’s money to be made.” We’re way too late for that.
However, there’s plenty of potential at Temple to create ability for students to graduate in four years. We’re still only at about 40% graduating in four years. Part of the reason is the nature of our student body and the nature of the way we offer courses. One of the things I’ve learned from Banner implementation, is that they have never, ever, and we’re the 300th or 400th university they’ve dealt with, that they have never seen such restrictive prerequisites. So we shouldn’t be surprised that many of our students are struggling to graduate in 4th years.
For instance, until a meeting last year, English was recommending in its eight-semester matrix that students take its gateway course, English 2097, the second semester of the first year. That’s problematic because many students can’t take Analytical Reading and Writing (802), then listed as a pre-req for 2097, until that semester. This is in part because some students are placed into Introduction into Academic Discourse (701), which they need to pass before moving to 802; and in part because the desirability of some sort of balance between Spring and Fall sections means that some students who are placed into 802 can’t get into it until their second semester. 2097 is now recommended for the first semester of the sophomore year.
There are other situations...
DS: You’re looking at us down here on this end of the table.
PJ: If a student isn’t placed into Calculus, they cannot graduate in four years. In fact, if you’re placed in 701 math and you want to go into Engineering or CIS or Brioche or physics, that one decision is going to cost you.
DS: It’s not a decision; it’s a preparedness issue in some ways, too.
PJ: You have to be absolutely certain that that placement test is correct. And is it not possible where students can get support during the semester?
SN: It seems to me there are all these drivers that are at work here. The point about square footage is well-taken. Anybody who has ever talked to anybody who has taught an online course, says, if you think you’re going to save time and money doing this, you’re insane. The only way you’re saving money, if you’re going to maintain pedagogical quality, is in physical plant.
It does concern me, especially since it gets back to the staffing issue. Because if you have a re-markably large percentage teaching Gen Ed people who feel less empowered to say no to a teach-ing assignment for an online course or at least to ask questions about it, you can see the problem that emerges with the pressure to teach online courses. The chair has the authority to assign me courses; the Director of Undergraduate Studies can assign a course to me and say, “Look. This is what you’re teaching.” But since I’m tenured I’m in a better position to say, “Let’s talk about that.”
DS: “Is this really the best way to go about this?”
PJ: It’s that power thing again.
SN: Right. It gets back to the question of what it means to have a conversation with the faculty. And then there are the complexities of what you mean when you say ““the faculty.””
PJ: I think this is the point where you realize that Gen Ed provides a service. If the Dean in the Fox School of Business decides that he wants to offer an online undergraduate degree, we have to be able to offer an online Gen Ed. Otherwise then this university cannot fulfill its needs in that area. Not all the departments, not all colleges will have that sort of online presence. But we have to accept that some do, and that’s their decision, especially when we move into RCM.
Again, we have to be careful. I’m always aware of this. I always used to think that the rest of the world thinks like CLA faculty think. Obviously, the students are our clients. But we have to recognize that we must enable schools and colleges and individual departments to be able to do what they want. An example: Two years ago Nursing had enormous demand to offer an online program. We used to do Temple work in first two years, clinical work in the next two. We had people who are already RNs and had done the clinicals. They wanted the BSN, but we couldn’t offer that online program because we couldn’t offer an online Gen Ed. So we missed out on that opportunity. I feel that one of the things we have to in Gen Ed is be at the point where we would enable—and these are faculty decisions—but that if a department wants to go down this pathway, we need to be able to work with him.
JP: But there were other issues with the RN/BSN.
PJ: I’m just giving an example of a department or college or even a campus. Take TUJ. Or take Rome. It’s always been a bone of contention for me, I’ve always not liked the fact that so many students take credits there that they don’t need for the degree. Part of the reason is that we have a wide array of majors going there, but a very narrow array of courses that we offer. Gen Ed is the perfect answer, and we don’t offer Gen Ed courses there.
SN: I’ve just started up a Study Abroad program in London, and one of my hopes in the future is
that we can offer Gen Ed courses there.
PJ: Good. Which is why the flexibility of Gen Ed in having a course living in two areas might really help.
So a student could go now and say, “You know, that course you’re offering in London that sits in two areas, I’ve already taken courses in one area, but not in the other.” It creates more flexibility for our students, and that’s why I’m fond of it. And that’s also where the online option can come in. I’d hate to go to Rome and do an online course, but....
SN: This also speaks to our vision of Temple, and specifically to what we call the Conwellian Mission of Temple. I think for Provost Dai, we are increasing the quality of our undergraduate population, which in his case is tied significantly to SAT scores, though by no means exclusively. But the data we have on online education suggests that the students who struggle most who come from backgrounds that have not prepared them as well for studying at a university. One of the things at stake here—and Gen Ed is the front line—one of the things we have to be sensitive about as we raise class sizes and increase our online presence, there is a risk that we are moving to educational modalities that make it harder for the students most at risk for not getting out in four years. So on one hand, you can make things easier for them in terms of what sorts of gates they do and don’t have to pass through. But if the nature of the delivery of the education is such that it alienates them or makes it harder for them to grab in and stick, then it becomes self-defeating.
Well, I’m happy to keep talking, but I’ve kept you here an hour and twenty minutes, and I know you have other things to do. Thanks so much for engaging in this conversation. •