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Humanities or Self-Help?

February 11, 2014

Lectures on “putting first things first” and “beginning with the end in mind” could soon replace those on world civilizations and logic for some students enrolled in San Antonio area community colleges.

Bruce Leslie, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges, is hoping that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will approve his bid for a course heavily influenced by the popular self-help book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to become part of the core curriculum, in place of a humanities course. But faculty and administrators at one of Alamo’s five colleges are opposing the proposal, raising both curricular and procedural concerns.

“We understand that the district administration is proposing the inclusion of EDUC 1300 to replace the additional humanities requirement” in the core curriculum, the Northwest Vista College Faculty Senate said in a letter to the state coordinating board, which will either approve or deny the course's place in the core by March 1.

In addition to faculty, a handful of administrators, including President Jackie Claunch, have signed on to the letter, which continues: “We are writing to inform you that the faculty and administration at each of the five colleges were effectively left out of the process of creating the proposed changes."

The letter says select faculty and staff members were invited to discuss the proposed course in the fall, but that there were “no formal discussions about the [the course’s] placement in the core. Decisions about the final content and direction of this course are still under way.”

Beyond procedural concerns, faculty members also are worried that the proposed course, called Learning Framework, would replace one of only two, three-credit humanities requirements in the 42-credit core curriculum for Alamo Colleges. Instructors say that those six credits were one of only a few places left within the curriculum for students to explore such topics as philosophy, English and history.

“When you look at the humanities courses that are offered, there are logic classes or a world civilization class or language courses,” said Charles Hinkley, chair of Northwest Vista’s history department, which would be deeply affected by the change. “Even if the [proposed] course is a worthwhile course to take, it’s still not clear that it’s more vital to students’ development than these other courses.”

But Leslie said students need the new course to help them “do college” – something for which many students fresh out of high school or returning to the classroom after years away are unprepared. Alamo colleges already offer a similar academic preparation course for remedial students, but among those involved in conversations about the new course, he said, “there’s generally a consensus that turning this into a for-credit course would really have value for a lot of students. And other community colleges and universities are also exploring the same things.”

Leslie said the proposed course is a measured response to calls from local and national business leaders to ensure that students graduate with “soft skills” – leadership, knowing how to shake a hand, how to manage time effectively – and from his own personal experience. Several years ago, during a graduation ceremony, Leslie realized that some graduates hardly looked him in the eye or knew how to shake his hand as they were accepting their diplomas, causing him to wonder how they would ever land the jobs for which they were about to interview, he said.

His interest centered on the 7 Habits as a framework for a soft skills course when he visited a local kindergarten class that follows the Leader In Me program. The junior leadership curriculum is a product of FranklinCovey, the training and consulting business behind 7 Habits. A little boy greeted Leslie at the door, shook his hand and showed him a “data book” about his progress on individualized learning goals.

“That’s what I want,” Leslie recalled thinking.

A spokeswoman for Stephen R. Covey, author of 7 Habits, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the course might be adjusted for college students.

The book, originally published in 1989, developed a near-instant cult following for its practical approach to self-improvement. Followers focus on integrating seven core principles, such as finding "synergy" between themselves and the other entities in their lives, one at a time. Leslie said he’s been in talks with the company on developing materials, a mix of print and online resources. The chancellor said the district has spent about $700,000 so far on the endeavor, but added that the investment is front-loaded, since much of the money will go into training faculty who will teach the course. Other faculty will be versed in the 7 Habits as well, Leslie said, as he hopes instructors across disciplines will begin to “embed” it in their courses.

The course won't be entirely focused on the book, however, he said.

Leslie said he’d received a copy of Northwest Vista’s letter to the Texas board. He responded with a lengthy letter explaining the history of faculty and administrative involvement in the project across Alamo’s five colleges and saying, “it would be enormously beneficial for you to be explicit both to your colleagues and to me in stating the reasons for your opposition and why your approach would be better for our students, rather than simply arguing about process.”

The chancellor said he had heard some faculty were concerned that the humanities requirement was being cut for the course. But he said the new course will benefit “all” students as part of the core, rather than “some” who would take it as an elective. And as part of the core, it would be automatically transferable toward a four-year degree at a Texas university, he said.

Leslie said he hopes to start offering the course in the fall.

The Alamo Colleges district isn’t the only district to see value in EDUC 1300, as it’s listed in the state board’s manual of approved courses. Cross-listed as a psychology course, it’s supposed to focus on learning strategies and cognitive processes. The Dallas County Community College District has required the course since 2009, but as a pre-core elective (waivers are available to veterans and others who presumably have learned soft skills elsewhere; at Alamo, they would not be).

MaryAnn McGuirk, an instructor of human development at North Lake College who helped design Learning Framework for the Dallas district, said that the course has made a documented difference in key student success measures, but that her district had determined it shouldn’t “take up" space in the core. And 7 Habits isn’t in the syllabus.

 

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