Spring, hopes eternal! (a two-for-one special)
Anyone in academia with a mission and a megaphone inevitably wonders from time to time whether they are being heard; and if heard, understood; and if understood, effective. The art of persuasion without the leverage of specific policy instruments to effect action is sometimes called “jawboning” in political or economic circles. In the world I inhabit—the “liberal arts desk” at this comprehensive, research-animated, state-supported institution—it plays out in committee meetings, faculty workshops, reports to the senate, and over countless cups of coffee in one-on-one settings. The megaphone, then, turns out to be something short of an all-campus PA system—more closely resembling cupped hands facing a stiff breeze.
So it is delightful to report two unrelated events this spring that suggest a modicum of messaging success for the liberal-and-general-education mission.
The first may have only a tenuous connection to the jawbone, but it strikes me as something great. Two students approached me separately a few weeks before the end of the semester for help with an assignment in their Advanced Composition (English 302) class: a group project to identify an issue at the university and propose constructive change around it. Two groups, working without knowledge of the other, identified the general education program as their subject and sent an emissary to meet with me about the program itself and their proposed ideas: a restoration of the universal foreign language requirement, in recognition of globalization and American monolingualism, and the inclusion of required education in personal finance, either in a single course or in a distributed curriculum map.
After listening eagerly, I explained the process of originating and approving a new gen ed course and the far more elaborate task of adding a new categorical requirement to our crowded curriculum, injecting just a hint of realpolitik in their idealistic (and interesting) proposals. They were great exchanges, though, and I came away with three reactions: thrilled by the serious thinking by undergraduates about general education; grateful to the instructor(s) for such an engaging and open-ended assignment; and optimistic that the larger campus conversation about liberal arts might be rising above the background noise.
The second (more briefly) involves the application of a bit of real leverage in the form of curriculum development funding to address real, identified shortfalls in undergraduate—principally gen ed—courses. After some colleagues and I spent time last fall with reams of data from various sources including our gen ed assessment portfolios and reports on, among other indices, class size, instructor profile, and failure rates, the Provost set aside some funding and asked us to design a small grant program for faculty willing to self-identify and work on some of these challenges in a focused and immediate way.
After searching for a snappy acronymically-sound name for the program, we are calling it SEGUE, for Student Engagement Grants in Undergraduate Education. The name (aside from some uncertainty about pronunciation and confusion with a two-wheeled conveyance that our police can be seen mounting from time to time) seems to be apt, since each of the eight funded projects seeks to redefine—and materially increase—student engagement and interaction through restructuring of assignments, use of class time, media, or other strategies. It’s a wonderful instance of data-driven, faculty-led innovation on structural issues of real concern to the liberal education effort, and many of the proposals may lead to exportable tools and techniques. Look for more reports (one could fall prey to the pun and say “follow up”) on SEGUE as next year unfolds.
All in all, a good spring for the liberal arts around here. Best wishes for a productive summer, even (especially) if that product includes rest and restoration.