Inside Higher Ed is reporting that UT-Austin's Task Force on Curricular Reform has issued its report on the kind of first-year experience that might dop good things for the undergraduates (in terms of making general education more coherent and so forth).
The faculty are commenting on the report. Apparently, the science and engineering faculty are less than enthusiastic.
From the IHE article:
The report calls for a mandatory interdisciplinary course in each of the first two years, and the establishment of University College, a new division that all freshmen would enter before going on to discipline-specific colleges.
Ben G. Streetman, dean of the College of Engineering, said that "it would be disastrous for us if we lost our freshman class." Streetman said that administrators in the college spend a lot of time recruiting, doing things like hosting dinners for students who have high SAT scores and their parents. Those students, he said, want to go straight into the College of Engineering, not University College, which wouldn't have its own exclusive set of faculty members.
The task force anticipated Streetman's concern, and recommended that colleges be allowed to grant "pre-admission," or reserve a spot in the second year for students who want to enroll in a specific program. But he isn't sold. Students who look to Texas for engineering "will say, 'I'll go somewhere where I can be admitted right away,'" Streetman said. "In a field like engineering, a student has to get started right away. It seems to me the proposal would inevitably add a year to graduation time."
Students would be able to take some courses toward a science or engineering major, but would have to save room for the "signature course," large, full-time faculty member taught, interdisciplinary courses with discussion sections. Evan Carton, a Texas English professor and a member of the task force, said that such courses would be a great way to introduce students fresh out of high school, who are used to discipline specific courses, to a higher level of intellectual exploration. Linda Henderson, a Texas art history professor told The Daily Texan that the first-year signature course - "Inquiry Across Disciplines: Nature" - will "wow" freshmen with some of the university's most esteemed professors.
John Durbin, a Texas math professor and former head of the Faculty Council, said he's "a little dubious" about the "wow" factor. "Are people who are doing serious research going to teach these courses very often?" he asked. "And the top teachers around ... are going to be teaching anyway."
Durbin said that the emphasis in defining a curriculum shouldn't be on impressing students or creating a new college - which some faculty members have lamented as just another layer of bureaucracy - but on "what the content of the course should be," he said. "There are certain things you want students to know, and that's what the emphasis should be."
I feel the pull of some of the worries raised by the scientists and engineers here. At the same time, I feel the attraction of some of the objectives the task force is trying to accomplish. I don't know what the optimal way to balance these competing interests might be (which is fine, since it's not like UT-Austin is calling me to ask me how to fix their curriculum). But here are some of my thoughts on the broader question of how to deliver a good college education:
- Science and engineering majors benefit from good instruction in the humanities. Yes, there are many, many courses they must complete in the major, and, if one really wants to get through college in four years, that doesn't leave terribly many "extra" units for exploration. But being able to appreciate a symphony, or the composition of a photograph, or the historical context of an event unfolding in the news -- that's nice in real life. Reading novels during long experimental runs helped me stay sane. Interacting with professors outside of your discipline wards off the Science Quad Cabin Fever. Besides, writing well and being able to construct coherent arguments (not to mention having thought a bit about ethics) are important skills for the professional scientist or engineer.
- Humanities majors benefit from good instruction in science and engineering. Not every drama major needs to get to the point of conducting undergraduate research in a chemistry lab, but scientific patterns of thought are pretty important. Given the role of science and technology in our modern society, knowing something about how it works is another useful skill for living.
- First-year students don't always know what's good for them. Leaving choice of courses completely in the hands of incoming students might produce some bad results. Some students might choose only courses that are "safe" rather than challenging. Others might go the other way, choosing courses that are too challenging. Humanitarians would wuss out of math and science, techies would chicken out of classes with actual reading (as opposed to those with textbooks full of what amount to sample problems from which one extrapolates one's approaches to the homework problems).
- Task forces don't always formulate policies that give individual students what they need. Curricular policies aim for conditions where most students get most of what they need, but attempts at "one-size-fits-all" requirements generally don't fit all. And, they feel kind of paternalistic to the students who must deal with the requirements. And, frequently, they add so many required general education units that there's not much room for exploration -- especially in high-unit majors in science and engineering.
- A common side effect of imposing lots of general education requirements is the watering down of the material in the general education classes. If you designate specific courses as general education, you spawn "Physics for Poets" and "Poetry for Physicists" and other courses of their ilk. Not only does this strike me as patronizing (both physicists and poets are intelligent, after all), but the watered down content undercuts the whole point of asking students to deal with content outside of their major fields.
- Maybe detailed and numerous general education requirements are not the best way to give students a broad education. There are colleges that do rather less micromanaging of the broad educations their students receive. Rather than presenting students with the laundry list of general education requirements that must be completed (in addition to the major requirements, of course), these schools instead require their students to take, for example, three courses in the sciences, three in the humanities, and three in the social sciences. Often there's a required writing class as well (and perhaps a foreign language requirement). As well, there is sometimes a requirement that a certain minimum number of units be completed outside one's major department. But the choice of which humanities, science, or social science classes to take to fulfil the broad distribution requirements is left entirely to the individual student. And, while many science departments at such schools will offer a course aimed at folks who are scared of science, most of the folks will choose actual science courses -- aimed at actual science majors -- to fulfil the science distribution requirement.
- We ought to put some discipline back into interdisciplinarity. Surely students benefit from an education that gets them familiar with the methodologies of different academic disciplines. But somehow "interdisciplinary" courses have come to be viewed as good for their own sake -- even when they're taught by people who really don't have a firm grasp of the disciplines they are purporting to straddle. This is a problem. It encorages shallow thinking rather than real engagement. This is more watering down of the goods a college education should be delivering. But better than glorifying half-assed instantiations of interdisciplinarity would be for colleges and universities to create conditions that would foster real engagement (in the curriculum and in research) between folks in command of their own disciplines. Want to put together a serious class about the development of biological theories about the evolution of life? The philosopher and the science-man (or woman) should be friends.
Reducing a college education to a checklist makes me sad. Making a college education more of a serious engagement with material from different disciplines -- where the students gets to choose which disciplines to engage but can't weasel out of serious engagement with something beyond the comfortable boundaries of the major -- is much better, not just for the students, but also for those of us offering our disciplines for engagement.
Looking back, if I was told during first year orientation that I'll likely have to add an (expensive) extra year of courses because the humanities department doesn't think that I would be getting a well-rounded education, I'd find a new school. Instantly.
A common side effect of imposing lots of general education requirements is the watering down of the material in the general education classes... and ... here the students gets to choose which disciplines to engage but can't weasel out of serious engagement with something beyond the comfortable boundaries of the major ...
This is the result of adding pre-reqs to everything that's not a 101 course. So, that science/engineering major, looking to choose a challenging and/or interesting literature class doesn't get to take the 300 level course, but gets stuck having to take four or five different intro courses to fulfill the requirement for each of those different departments. Intro courses outside of developmental mathmatics and sciences, frankly, suck.
If there really is enough "WOW" in the course, you don't have to make it required. Back in MY ERA (the stone age), with distributional requirements that allowed course selection, students FOUND the courses in each area with the "WOW" factor.
Back then, there was that art history course, a music appreciation, and poli sci. too, that provided breadth and excitment for a math/astonomy major.
Does UT need to make the course required to get the "WOW" profs to teach it? And how long will that last?
And do you need a new layer of administrative hoops (University College) for students to navigate. Just as they have learned the ropes there they will have to learn all new ropes in an academic college (e.g. Engineering) of their (1st) choice. Some will have to do this repeatedly to reach a full major and sufficient graduation credits.
If a course is good, and adequately described, its reputation will fill it. Required courses generally sink to a lower level of performance, because they can get away with it and endure. (Or maybe its the students required to take them doing the enduring.)
p.s. check typo in 2nd line: dop for do.
I think Professor Durbin's comments hit the mark: you need to determine what you want to teach before you go to how to teach.
I've run into similar problems before in working on curriculum issues. Usually it is those in the humanities who are reluctant to address the issue of what students should know, while those in the sciences are more open to that kind of discussion. I'm not sure why that is, but I suspect the influence of post-modernism and the fact that humanities courses are less linearly related.
But I would add another point to your list: Science departments (as a group) should design courses that are specifically intended to introduce students to the scientific method, the roles of experiment and theory in science, and the use of confirming and disconfirming evidence. Those courses could be interdisciplinary (with the requisite discipline), and could encourage students to get involved in experimentation (of the scientific kind).
All too often, a student who takes a year of chemistry doesn't come out of that experience with any better sense of the scientific method as a form of inquiry. If he continues on in chemistry, he probably will glean that information by being in the company of scientists. But if that's the only science course a history major takes, how does he have a better appreciation of what goes into being a scientist? (There are the labs, but (I think) these often are aimed more at training students to be better technicians than addressing the larger, more interdisciplinary nature of doing science today.)
In the end, general education courses in all disciplines should give a non-major a sense of what it is like to do that discipline. Often, intro to philosophy courses do that for philosophy, literature courses do that for literary analysis, and sociology courses often include activities that encourage students to become little sociologists.
Introductory science courses should do the same thing: give students a sense of what is like to be a scientist, even if they don't grow up to become one.
I think that some universities and colleges are becoming more major-focused, while some are retaining an emphasis on liberal arts education, and students should consider which type of education they want to recieve when selection a school.
That being said, Having been at two research 1 universities with different approaches to gen-eds, I really hate interdisciplinary programs, and feel that a selection of courses from current disciplines is the way to go. Students I've worked with often see the Interdisciplinary courses, with their vague titles and lack of connection to certain disciplines, as hoops they must jump through. By allowing students to select from a list of approved courses (e.g. take one Poly Sci/history from this list of 25), they can find courses that will catch their interest and help them make links between their majors and other disciplines, making the courses more relevant. I also like the idea of a series of courses, like you mentioned. One of the universities I attended had that as the requirement for the Engineering college, while the Liberal Arts and Science college had 10 thematic areas (e.g. Literature, Physical science, etc..) in which you selected one course from a list of several. Both worked.
I don't know how they do it at other colleges as far as requirements for taking classes outside of your major, but I thought Yale did it pretty well. Every class was put into one of 4 groups: group I was English and other languages; II and III, I can't recall exactly what the designations were, but I think II was things like art and history, while III was more your sociology and psychology, while IV was the natural sciences. We had to take at least 2 courses in each group outside of our major, so you had to get some exposure to humanities as a science major, and vice versa. The only problem I had with it was that it left me little time to take other group IV classes for fun.
But there, the whole structure was different--we weren't divided by our majors for housing or anything, and we had to graduate in 8 semesters or request a special extension. Don't know how feasible it would be to implement elsewhere, but as an undergrad, I really liked the situation.
Prereqs breed 101's breed people who will never be interested in those subjects. Which is no better than people doing the major they entered a college or university for, and is worse if it takes them an extra year. I don't necessarily see this program curing anything.
I was fortuate enough to go to a small college with great teaching, but we had distributionals and I had some completely useless classes. A big chunk is my fault for not seeking out better, but irrespective of subject/discipline, the good classes with the good profs in every department were always in demand. Functionally distributionals end up as a subsidy for lesser profs - let good teaching draw the registrations. It will, even for non-majors.
Has anyone correlated how the suggested course will play with the US News criteria? UT is trying to play the ratings game, or at least a less rigidly quantitative prestige game.
The comments from the college of engineering are so stereotypical of the old-school engineering educator as to make one either laugh or cry. Major engineering universities have spent the past 10 years plus redesigning their curricula to reduce the load of required courses, increase breadth within engineering majors, and generally get away from the impression that getting an engineering degree means having a narrow focus from the first day you hit the campus.
If you're good, you can learn the things in your major field of study throughout your career. Some kind of broad-study requirement in college may be the only time you're exposed to the rest of the universe.
I'm going to have to take a side in the defense of interdisciplinary science education here. Perhaps it's because I am a TA in such a course, but I think the way we teach students about hydrological sciences (for instance) would be nearly useless to majors, but can be beneficial to non-scientists.
Coming from the perspective of a professor or a graduate student, it can be hard to see what is best for the typical non-science student. Do non-scientists like intro. chemistry or physics? Those are classes that they will gather an gripe about over drinks when they're 25, not sit and reminisce about the deep lessons those disciplines had to offer them.
I think that fear of interdisciplinary science from a professor's point of view may have much to do with their willingness to step outside the pantheon of their department and its entrenched thinking. Science is relevant to the public, and perhaps unfortunately, it must be taught that way.
"There are colleges that do rather less micromanaging of the broad educations their students receive. Rather than presenting students with the laundry list of general education requirements that must be completed (in addition to the major requirements, of course), these schools instead require their students to take, for example, three courses in the sciences, three in the humanities, and three in the social sciences. Often there's a required writing class as well (and perhaps a foreign language requirement). As well, there is sometimes a requirement that a certain minimum number of units be completed outside one's major department. But the choice of which humanities, science, or social science classes to take to fulfil the broad distribution requirements is left entirely to the individual student."
My undergrad institution (Mich. State U, Honors College) does this, which worked out very well IMO. The University has standard sets of courses for the requirements, but the Honors College can approve substitutions. I took one of the standard social science sequences, and had signed up for a higher-level but still 'official' history of philosophy sequence for my humanities requirement. Then liked it so much I decided to add philosophy as a second major--and went to the HC to replace my humanities selections. Ended up taking 300-level undergrad courses from the Classical Studies & History departments to meet my 'minimal' humanities requirements, and had lots of fun doing it!
And I finished in four years, too, with a B.S. in physics & a 2nd major in philosophy. It's not impossible to get a well-rounded undergrad education & still get a hard science/engineering degree, if you have someone who knows what's upcoming to help plan it. (Although, come to think of it, I AP'd out of the writing requirement, which saved me some required class hours but probably came back to bite me when my writing skills weren't really up to par in philosophy grad school. I might have benefitted from some specialized training from an English professor, although I'm not sure where I would have fit it in!)