Sunday, April 3, 2011

Who's Afraid of University College?

To step aside, briefly, from my obsession with FA-administration negotiations, I thought I'd address another potentially contentious issue: the Chancellor's implementation of the new University College model.  My initial reaction to this was rather ho-hum.  I don't really care who the director of admissions reports to, frankly; I didn't think that any rearrangements of the administrative flow-chart were likely to result in vast improvements in enrollment, but, hey, if it helps, great.  Some have raised the possibility that a University College could be a sort of Trojan Horse, to be staffed by new faculty, presumably non tenure-track faculty.  But as far as I'm aware there's no evidence of any such plan.  

Yet I'm coming to see that the whole University College experiment may impact our educational mission in ways I hadn't expected, as I've recently become aware of some of the possible ripple effects of the new first year course.   

A cornerstone of the Saluki First Year program (itself a major part of the University College as I understand it) is the new "freshman success course", which is going to become mandatory for first year students pretty soon.  One problem (in addition to the huge problem of who is going to teach all these courses) is that some courses of study here already have students' entire careers mapped out for them, with no space left for an additional three credit-hour course. This seems perverse to me--I would think that any discipline that doesn't allow students a single elective is suffering from some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder--but apparently it is normal practice in some fields.  At any rate, just adding a requirement wasn't feasible.  

To add a campus-wide requirement, then, one has got to cut something from the current campus-wide requirements, the Core Curriculum.  This poses a delicate political challenge.  Who takes the hit to enrollments and credit hours--humanities, social science, the "hard" sciences?  The obvious route of least resistance was to cut the one interdisciplinary course in the core, as that way no college takes a disproportionate hit.  The interdisciplinary course also happens to be the one 300 level core course required and, as I understand it, the one core curriculum class (other than the skills courses in English and Math) likely to be anything other than a large lecture class.  In my experience, the 300 level interdisciplinary offerings are the best sort of core course--I've taught both large core lectures and small 300 offerings, and the 300 offerings have been far more successful.  (For details on the organization of the core, you can start here.)

Technically speaking, these courses haven't been eliminated--in another politic move.  Rather, they can now substitute for the lower level classes.  But I wonder whether students will sign up for a small 300 level class that they'll assume, with some good reason, will be more rigorous, rather than for a large 100 or 200 level lecture hall offering.  And I wonder whether departments will continue to offer these 300 level core courses now that they are not assured to fill, and now that doing so won't win them points for being good university citizens by helping to offer a required sort of course.  Perhaps the courses will offer and be filled nonetheless, but I fear they will be a low priority--especially if departments are being pressured, as surely they will need to be, to provide staffing for the new "freshman success course".  

The likely result, then, is to replace the highest level core course with the new introductory course.  This may, for all I know, be a smart move.  But it is hard to deny that this will result in a dumbing-down of the Core Curriculum.  It may be that our students need a small required course to better acclimate them to college, and that these small "freshman success" courses can capture many of the advantages of the small 300 level core courses.  Let's hope so.

To conclude at last: the Saluki First Year may well be an excellent idea, but it will involve trade-offs.  One trade-off will apparently be the set of courses I regard as the "jewel in the crown" of the Core Curriculum.  

Postscript.  I've shared some of these concerns with Pat Manfredi, head of the Core Curriculum, who has responded in a thoughtful way.  I don't blame him (or the Core Curriculum council) for this move, though I fear calling this a "reassignment" of 300 level core classes is a bit of a euphemism, or at least overly optimistic.  If the core had to cut a course (because of a decision made as part of the University College push), the 300 level interdisciplinary courses may have been the only viable alternative.  

If anyone is interested in seeing the details of core proposal (which have been shared with anyone in charge of any of these 300 level courses, so ought to be public), write me an email (, and I'll send it along.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

I will review and post comments as quickly as I can. Comments that are substantive and not vicious will be posted promptly, including critical ones. "Substantive" here means that your comment needs to be more than a simple expression of approval or disapproval. "Vicious" refers to personal attacks, vile rhetoric, and anything else I end up deeming too nasty to post.