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Flexibility Required

January 27, 2006

For many students at large institutions, fulfilling general education requirements amounts to perusing a list of possible courses and making a slapdash selection of anything that can be scheduled around their major. The courses are often disparate in themes, incoherent in their connection, and taught by junior faculty members or graduate students.

In an effort to bring some method to the madness -- while also giving students a shot to graduate in four years – both Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin, two of the largest universities in the country, are considering proposals to change their requirements. And both proposals suggest creating  large, interdisciplinary courses that all freshmen take, while making distribution requirements more flexible, so that a student can pursue areas of particular interest.

The major impetus for change at Ohio State goes back over a decade. The last time general education was overhauled at Ohio State was in 1988, just before the institution changed from open to selective admissions. Some faculty members on the Committee for the University Wide Review of Undergraduate Education say that a sharper student body necessitates new requirements.

Among the significant changes proposed at Ohio State are a reduction in the credit hours required -- from 191 to 180, with 15 credits constituting a typical quarter -- and the establishment of a freshman “cluster” system, based on one already in place at the University of California at Los Angeles. The clusters are interdisciplinary, team-taught -- by senior faculty members -- three-quarter sequences that would fulfill a large part of the non-major requirements. Proposed themes for the sequences include “the global environment,” and “the democratic experience,” according to a report issued by the committee.

“We wanted to give an interdisciplinary experience immediately and exposure to regular faculty in the freshman year,” said Brian McHale, an English professor and chair of the committee. The first two quarters of a cluster would be a large lecture with discussion sections, and the third would be a small seminar, all focused on the same theme. “Right now it’s just piecemeal,” McHale said, “disparate pieces that don’t hang together.”

In a similar proposal, Austin's Task Force on Curricular Reform proposed “signature courses,” large, full-time faculty member taught, interdisciplinary courses -- with discussion sections -- that students would be required to take in the first two years. Evan Carton, a Texas English professor and a member of the task force, said that students are used to discipline-specific courses, and may continue to choose such courses in college. “This will introduce students to the university level of intellectual inquiry,” Carton said, “and authorize them to explore.” Andrew Carls, who graduated in December and is a member of the task force, said that the signature courses would promote intellectual discussion right away by making sure large numbers of first-years, from various disciplines, have class together.  

Beyond clusters and signature classes, the proposals from both institutions suggest giving students greater flexibility in their choices.

The Texas proposal suggests developing themes, or “flag” areas – like “ethics and leadership,” or “global cultures” -- that could satisfy requirements even as part of major courses. For example, a biology major might take a course that addresses ethical dilemmas in medicine, which could be used for the major, but also to satisfy a requirement as part of the “ethics and leadership” theme. Carls said that such “double dipping” could make sure students cover crucial themes without also making sure they chose a course primarily by scheduling around their major. The current requirements are more of a dictate: fourth semester language proficiency, six hours each in U.S. government and U.S. history, three hours from the social sciences, and so forth.

The Ohio State panel made a similar proposal, suggesting brining thematic coherence to courses in many disciplines, and requiring those themes, rather than requiring certain discipline-specific courses. Faculty members at both institutions said that the increased flexibility will give students a chance to delve deeper into their interests without sacrificing the broad ranges of courses available, and that the scheduling flexibility will make it easier to graduate in four years.

Martha Garland, Ohio State’s vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies, said that, currently, many students end up tacking on their requirements second semester senior year. She thinks requiring themes rather than classes will accommodate the broad range of interests at her large institution, and said that allowing students to delve deeper in certain areas may result in more minors and double majors. “Right now, we want students in the liberal arts to explore, but we’re kind of in their way,” she said. “A lot of the [distribution requirement] courses don’t have a focus that fits together.”

The proposals are both currently being reviewed by the university communities, but, already, not everyone is thrilled.

The Ohio State proposal leaves the decision about foreign language requirements (currently the same as Texas -- fourth semester proficiency must be demonstrated by all colleges) up to individual colleges within the university. Diane Birckbichler, director of the Foreign Language Center, said that she was “disappointed and dismayed” by the recommendations. “We’re at a time when, people from the public … to the president himself are recognizing the importance for Americans to have foreign languages.”

The committee report says that, according to a student survey, students find the four-quarter language requirement “onerous.” Birckbichler said the survey was misinterpreted, and that what students really said was that the general language requirement didn’t rank highly in their opinion of things that would contribute to their future career. “We do think student opinion should be considered,” Birckbichler said, “but it shouldn’t be the sole reason.”

At Texas, David Hillis, a biology professor on the committee, appended a “minority report” to the committee report, disagreeing with the signature courses. Hillis wrote that the courses would require a huge influx of resources to create sections for all freshmen and sophomores, and that, even in a quest for coherence, the courses would have “no common theme outside of the vague bonds of ‘nature’ and ‘culture.’”

The task of overhauling general education requirements is often a messy one, as faculty members from different disciplines are asked to find common ground regarding the essential knowledge of an educated adult. At Harvard University, a committee in November proposed increasing students' options by allowing departmental courses, rather than specially designed core courses, to fill requirements. Students, many of whom had complained that the Core Curriculum requirements relegated them to choosing from whichever of the sparse offerings fit into their schedule, were thrilled. But some critics have said that Harvard is inappropriately  retreating from the idea of defining a necessary set of knowledge.

 

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