• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Should a College Success Course Carry Gen Ed Status?

Students have changed, and we need to change for them.

October 7, 2019

Should a “college success” course carry gen ed status?

In a community college setting, this is a very big deal. If a class gets “gen ed” status, and the student completes the associate’s degree, then the entire degree transfers as a whole, and gen ed requirements at the receiving school get waived. In other words, the credits count. Courses that don’t get gen ed status and aren’t specific requirements for a given degree often go underenrolled (and therefore get canceled) or don’t transfer well. That’s even truer now than it was a few years ago, because New Jersey recently passed a 60-credit cap on associate degrees and a 120-credit cap on bachelor’s degrees. Those caps tend to squeeze out courses that either aren’t required or that make the math wonky (like one-credit classes).

Historically, “general education” was intended to fill in the cultural gaps noted among the sons of the upper classes. (I’m thinking here of Columbia University’s program in the early 1900s.) Gentlemen needn’t be bothered with “vocational” education -- they had graduate programs for that -- and given that many of them had attended prep schools (and that the “gentleman’s C” was a real thing) they could be assumed to understand the rules of school. Instead, general education arose as a sort of guarantor of a shared cultural heritage.

I’m old enough to remember the “canon wars” of the 1980s, when certain campuses would engage in spirited debates over whether, say, to replace Philip Sidney with James Baldwin in the survey course. The assumption underlying the canon wars was that the project of introducing students to a canon was crucial; the wars were about what got in. The debates consisted of an odd mix of literary theory and interest-group politics, but everyone involved agreed on the stakes.

In the community college world, gen ed took on a different meaning. Rather than serving as an introduction to the canon, it quickly became a sort of common denominator. Given the curricular expansiveness of community colleges -- very much including vocational programs -- there had to be something consistent in every degree. Rather than defining excellence, it evolved into a sort of floor: whatever a student may have studied, they should be able to communicate well in writing, understand quantitative reasoning and the like. Instead of a canon of texts, we looked to a set of skills. If a student wanted to go on to study the great books, more power to them, but most wouldn’t, and that’s OK.

But even as the meaning of gen ed changed, the underlying assumption that certain skills were properly “academic” and others were not carried over mostly unchanged. What Tom Bailey, Shanna Jaggars and Davis Jenkins refer to as the “cafeteria” model of the curriculum is built on the assumption that students know what they want and know the written and unwritten rules of school; they’re capable adults whose autonomy needs to be respected.

The great contribution of the “guided pathways” movement and its allies has been to show that the autonomous gentleman of the old Columbia model didn’t much resemble most community college students. We can’t assume that students have picked up the folkways of the professional middle class at home or in high school. We can’t assume that they come in knowing exactly what they want and/or that they have infinite time to figure it out. They’re too embedded in the realities of daily life where the rules are often different.

If that portrait of the typical student is substantially true, then learning the folkways of higher education specifically, and the professional upper middle class more broadly, is often a sociological challenge of a high order. It’s the sort of challenge that requires study, and that merits credit.

I’m intrigued by the Ethnographies of Work model developed by JFF and adopted by CUNY and the New Hampshire CC system, among others. Brookdale is running its own version this semester, and early reports are encouraging. Spelling out the rules of what has become a sort of alien culture, and having students do actual research and fieldwork in that culture, is exactly the sort of transferable skill that has come to be the model of gen ed. It acknowledges that the students of today are different from the students of 100 years ago, because they are.

The kind of course I have in mind isn’t the old “do a scavenger hunt to find the library” model. This is more like applied sociology. But it starts with the assumption that students are located in a political economy and that they’ve been isolated from certain kinds of knowledge.

If a class like that can get gen ed credit, it can enroll enough students to make a meaningful difference, and the four-year schools would have to take the credits in transfer. We could arm students with the knowledge of what they’re in for and allow them credit for learning it. It might make the folks at Columbia 100 years ago blush, but the CCRC is at Columbia, too. Things change. Students have changed. We need to change, too.


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