• 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.


Some Eds Are More Gen Than Others

Challenges for community colleges.

January 6, 2019

Shenandoah University has apparently adapted Chico State’s version of a “town hall” gen ed class, in which students work with faculty in their areas of expertise to tackle current policy issues. It sounds like a terrific model for student engagement, democratic citizenship, and renewed teaching.

Too bad we can’t try it.

I’d love to build interdisciplinary seminars into the gen ed bloc. They can be great fun to teach and to take, and they can lend themselves to all sorts of subject matter that standard classes don’t.  Done well, they can bring together people who don’t always come together, to the benefit of all. And as an erstwhile poli sci guy, it warms my heart to see that format used in the service of public issues and democratic engagement.  It’s good stuff.

But in the two-year sector, gen ed has to transfer.  In practice, that means that our offerings have to match everybody else’s pretty closely, and each class has to fit cleanly into a pre-defined slot.  For instance, a course can count as a social science or a humanities, but not both. (History gets its own category, but it also counts as humanities.)  Courses that don’t fit cleanly either don’t transfer at all, or transfer with “free elective” status, which is effectively the same thing.

It’s possible to do more ambitious classes, but they either have to fit in an existing gen ed slot, or fall into the major. The latter allows greater specificity, but also necessarily limits applicability. Within, say, an English major, we could try something more specific, but only English majors would take it.  That’s a far cry from what Shenandoah is able to do.

The recent push to reduce “wasted” credits has had the semi-intended effect of limiting innovation. Innovation within the gen ed bloc is rapidly becoming a prerogative of wealth. At the cc level, we have to hew pretty closely to transfer guidelines or risk having our students’ credits denied; four-year schools can offer what they want.  Over time, we’ll see pedagogical innovation become more of a class privilege than it already is. That means more training in democratic citizenship for those who are already more affluent, and more standardization for everyone else.

That seems backwards to me. At this level, where teaching is the coin of the realm, we could -- if we so chose -- favor pedagogical innovation.  After all, pedagogy is what we spend most of our time doing. And it happened now, within individual departments and pre-existing disciplines. The Accelerated Learning Program, for instance, came from the English department at the Community College of Baltimore County. But what made that possible was that it was working within widely accepted, pre-defined English courses.  

My last college had a strong Learning Communities program, in which faculty from different disciplines came together around common themes.  For instance, an environmental scientist teamed up with an English professor to do a course on the science fiction around climate change (“cli-fi”).  The students who were able to take it enjoyed it, and I was proud to be able to offer it.  But scaling something like that requires gen ed status. Four-year schools don’t have to think that way, because they don’t have to build for transfer.  

(There’s an argument to be made that they should.  Some of our biggest “sending” schools are local four-year schools.  But the default system only runs in one direction.)

I’d love to see four-year schools, and statewide systems, allow community colleges more leeway within gen ed blocs.  Four-year schools have that leeway now, and sometimes they use it to terrific effect. We could, too. Innovation shouldn’t be a privilege of rank.


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