Students, faculty discussed ideas for new general education curriculum at a town hall Wednesday

Originally published online by the Eagle in January 2015. 

The General Education Task Force co-chairs discussed plans to recreate AU’s general education program via a new core curriculum that will emphasize capitalizing on the college experience, bringing discussions on diversity to the classroom and renewing the focus on learning outcomes at a student town hall on Jan. 13.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Peter Starr and senior professional lecturer of college writing Cindy Bair Van Dam hosted the first of two student town halls in conjunction with AUSG to receive feedback and expand on their draft proposal, titled “Reimagining General Education: Toward a New AU Core Curriculum.” The co-chairs authored the proposal in conjunction with the 11 other faculty members on the General Education Task Force.

The plan follows trends in general education at universities across the country, including building a four-year core program, reducing the total number of required credit hours and reforming the application of AP credits toward general education requirements, Starr and Van Dam said. A small version of the plan will be piloted in the fall of 2016 with about 100 students.

The proposal acknowledges that many students tend to view general education as an obstacle to overcome before moving on to classes in their majors or minors.

“While the number of courses students take varies, their attitudes toward the program cohere around one central idea: Gen Ed is an obstacle, a list of requirements to tick off before they can take courses in their majors,” the proposal reads.

As such, the new plan aims to create a more student-centered experience that improves all facets of student life at AU.

“In revising the program, our aim is to create an intellectual core that all students participate in equally — one that focuses on metacognition, that is, making students aware that learning is a recursive process that happens over time,” the draft proposal read.

The new program would revolve around three broad categories of courses that students would complete throughout their entire career at AU, culminating in a senior capstone project. The categories, Complex Problems, Habits of Mind, and the AU Experience, would centralize the student experience and consolidate University requirements by making the existing math and college writing requirements a part of the core curriculum.

“The [Complex Problems and Habits of Mind classes] are distributions in the sense that our current general education program has distributions, but instead of being based on content, they’re based on intellectual skills — what we’re calling habits of mind,” Van Dam said.

She added that students would have dozens of courses to choose from to complete their Complex Problems and Habits of Mind course requirements, and some of these new courses are listed in the proposal.

An optional list of one-credit or non-credit “Toolkit” classes would also be available for students looking to build upon particular skills.The draft proposal suggests a variety of Toolkit courses for juniors and seniors who wish to build upon career-based or life skills, including Financial Literacy, Step UP! Training, Fundamentals of Web Design, Entrepreneurship, Career Exploration, and many more.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the proposal is the mandatory AU Experience courses, or “AUx,” which students would complete over their first two semesters. The first AUx course would focus on “social, cultural, and psychological adjustment to university life,” and is to be taken by all first semester and transfer students. The second AUx course would serve as the first point in a three-pronged approach to bring ideas of diversity and inclusion into the classroom.

“We know that diversity matters on our campus, and we know it matters in the workplace,” Van Dam said. “When we were trying to come up with the main issues or subject areas to consider in our proposal, along with things like understanding historical context or having ethical reasoning, we also knew that diversity and understanding diverse perspectives was imperative.”

Diversity will also appear in the classroom through exposure to diverse methods of thinking in the Complex Problems seminars that are mandatory for first-semester students, as well as through “D-Suffix,” or diversity-based, courses that will address power, privilege and inequality, Van Dam said.

Van Dam said the D-Suffix courses can be thought of in the way one would think of the current university requirements for college writing and math. However, students would have more flexibility in choosing a class to complete this requirement.

“You would have to take a D-Suffix course, but you can take it in any department, anywhere on campus, and most people would take it for their major,” Van Dam said.

While diversity is woven throughout all aspects of the new curriculum, the Habits of Mind courses will serve as the center-point of the entire program, according to the proposal. These courses are to be taught across disciplines in order to expose students to new fields, but students will be limited in the number of courses they can take from each department, similar to the current general education program.

The final student town hall will be held on Friday, Jan. 22. After this opportunity for public commentary, Van Dam said the proposal will be revised and discussed the by General Education Task Force. She said they plan to bring the proposal to the faculty senate for approval by the end of the semester. If that version of the proposal is approved in a faculty senate vote, it would go into effect for freshmen in the fall of 2017.

During the Jan. 13 town hall, students raised concerns about how AP or transfer credits would be credited in this new core curriculum. The co-chairs said it is more likely that these credits would count as electives rather as general education credits in order to offer students a more common core experience.

Overall, Starr and Van Dam emphasized that the proposed core curriculum would allow students further exploration of topic areas before choosing their major and/or minor and would provide greater flexibility for students pursuing a double major or a major and a minor. They also focused on the idea that a general education program should be continuous throughout a student’s university experience, rather than something of an obstacle for first and second year students.

“We’re really trying to reshape the entire design of the student experience, starting with the student,” Starr said at Wednesday’s town hall.

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