Curriculum

College doubles down on its residential liberal arts mission with new core curriculum

College doubles down on its residential liberal arts mission with new core curriculum.

Worldwide threats demonstrate why human rights scholarship is needed (opinion)

The daughter of Bhutanese refugees to the United States, Richa Sharma came to the University of Minnesota to complete a master’s degree in human rights out of a desire to improve the treatment of persons fleeing persecution. This past spring, Sharma was one of the inaugural group of students to graduate from our program; the master of human rights degree program is offered jointly by the College of Liberal Arts and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and distinguishes itself by its combination of professional training and interdisciplinary critical analysis focused on advancing human rights protections.

We launched this human rights degree in 2016, a crucial moment in national and global politics. The international movement to protect rights is under threat from both sides of the political spectrum. The emergence of nationalist populist regimes and their efforts to weaken international institutions and norms has brought about an ominous increase in violations against dissenters, minorities and their defenders. Brushing aside international commitments to “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” as promised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, governments feel justified in carrying out full-scale assaults on rights in the name of “security.”

At the same time, academic critics like Yale University professor Samuel Moyn are busy pointing to the inadequacy of the human rights movement to cure global inequality. They suggest that the human rights project is “not enough” because it has not generated economic and social equalities and is instead merely a byproduct of neoliberalism during “a golden age for the rich.” Others complain that nascent institutions such as the International Criminal Court are ineffectual and overreaching. As academics we have the responsibility to evaluate and critique the institutions and norms that shape our lives. But we reject the paralysis among students and faculty that these criticisms sometimes engender.

This era is characterized by the shift of power from a bipolar world, in which the Unites States and the Soviets dominated geopolitics, to the postcommunist unipolar world of U.S. control. In the past decade, we have entered a multipolar terrain, where no single government controls the international normative or economic environment. This new and more unpredictable geopolitical climate gives more space for national governments to ignore previously negotiated treaty commitments or political pressure.

Thus, as we see in countries as diverse as the Philippines, Poland and Turkey, governments are adopting nationalist policies and practices that heighten the challenges to protect the rights and dignity of all human beings. Among the first targets of these repressive governments are students, scholars, artists, journalists and intellectuals -- the crucial core of our academic project.

It is precisely these challenges that demonstrate the need for more study and practice of human rights. We must train and support emerging human rights leaders who can draw upon many types of knowledge and experiences in a field that demands innovative responses to complex challenges.

Today’s students of human rights are as diverse as the subjects they study, and they analyze every situation with an eye to the power and privilege embedded in it. In addition, they are already contributing to the effective practice of human rights as they prepare to join the ranks of activists, scholars and diplomats.

Our student research teams, for instance:

  • Worked with Human Rights Watch to survey the perceptions of U.S. citizens regarding current human rights issues;
  • Prepared a draft policy for pediatricians working to prevent the separation of children from their families in U.S. immigration detention; and
  • Designed a strategy to remove hate speech targeting the Rohingya, a marginalized Muslim group, from Facebook.

The University of Minnesota has a decades-long record of scholarship on human rights, led by pioneers in the field like David Weissbrodt and Kathryn Sikkink, who have educated generations of human rights practitioners and activists and shaped the practice of human rights locally and globally. In her book Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century (Princeton University Press, 2017), Sikkink reminds us that one of the successes of the human rights movement is drawing attention to an ever wider range of violations around the world. If today we learn about a new crisis displacing refugees or a new victim of police abuse, it is because people are now conditioned to bring these violations to public attention. That was not always the case.

For instance, hundreds of thousands of deaths in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s did not cause a blip on the public’s radar screen. Ironically, says Sikkink, “we think the world is worse off because we care more and know more about human rights than ever before.”

In this era of dangerous backsliding on human rights principles by our own government and demagogues around the world, our students will be front and center in the fight to demand fundamental freedoms and protections for the rights of all human beings. Now is not the moment to abandon human rights protections. We are celebrating the fact that our graduates, eyes wide-open and prepared for what awaits them, are stepping up to fight for rights.

Educators and researchers cannot stand aloof in these times when circumstances require us to double down on our advocacy for supporting human rights in this country and across the globe. It is time to recognize the distinct value of hiring and engaging professionals with interdisciplinary human rights training and background. It is also a great moment to join one or several organizations that are working to protect the rights of scholars, artists, journalists and human rights defenders.

Stand up for your rights and the rights of our colleagues who are under threat. Either we stand up for our rights or we watch them further disappear.

Barbara Frey is director of the Human Rights Program in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. Laura Bloomberg is dean of the university’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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The Need for Human Rights Scholarship

Houston colleges and universities team up to boost student success

Houston area colleges and universities are working across sectors and sharing information and data to improve student outcomes.

A critique of the debate over medieval studies (opinion)

Higher education has not been a comfortable habitat for the humanities in the 21st century. Many of the causes for their steep decline in student enrollment, faculty members and reputation are external: conservative legislatures, economic pressures, technology and the ascent of STEM disciplines. Sometimes, as if there weren’t enough external strains, colleagues in the humanities turn their formidable arsenal of critique and suspicion against their own.

This time, the organizers of the world’s largest annual meeting of medievalists, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, or ICMS, at Western Michigan University, stand accused of “a bias against” or “lack of interest in” sessions dealing with “decoloniality, globalization and anti-racism”-- allegations that made their way into Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Forbes and CampusReform and were summarized in a “letter of concern” medievalists were asked to support. Members of the steering committee of the BABEL Working Group, an innovative scholarly (para-institutional) collective of colleagues in premodern studies, are the authors of the letter. This letter was preceded by a Facebook post too undignified to be quoted here.

Normally, I would sign such a letter without hesitation. It promotes goals such as diversity, inclusion and metacritical scholarship for which I have advocated throughout my academic career, as an individual and together with the adherents of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. But I did not sign because I know more than most observers about this specific congress: I attended for the first time as a student in 1986 and, with few interruptions, as a participant since 1990; I also served as chair of the English department at Western Michigan and was an affiliate faculty of the Medieval Institute between 2007 and 2012.

I know the Western Michigan medievalists and reject the dotted line the letter of concern insinuates between the faculty of the Medieval Institute, on the one hand, and the racist neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., on the other. That line was even more than dotted in some of the simultaneous social media posts about the issue.

The letter of concern also charges the organizers with a “lack of transparency around the process by which ICMS programming decisions are made” because they do not publish the names of their program committee members. Considering the volume of questions and complaints about the roughly 600 conference sections and close to 3,000 participants, the ICMS policy is reasonable. It protects faculty and staff members from angry and entitled senior colleagues as well as the harassment common in online culture.

In addition, Western Michigan is unionized and boasts a proud history of faculty self-governance: hiring, curricula and processes regarding the ICMS are determined by faculty members, not administrative fiat. However, that may not satisfy the members of BABEL. Their credo is that higher education is moribund, and all one can do is work “in the ruined towers and rubble of the post-historical university.” To BABEL, the ICMS may well be such a rubble: valuable enough as a public platform to demand access or control but undeserving of civility.

As one consequence of BABEL’s attacks, Western Michigan administrators may think twice about supporting the Medieval Institute in the future, as it exposed the university to negative worldwide attention. Moreover, graduates of the Medieval Institute may have to answer for the unwarranted accusations when applying for doctoral programs. Finally, it should be noted that the ICMS volunteered information about this year’s proposed and accepted sessions to those unhappy with the decisions. The organizers have nothing to hide, and their official response to being slandered on social media (beyond the letter of concern) is collegial and rational.

In contrast, all we know about BABEL, except for the names of those who compiled the letter, is that it is “a pack, not of subjects but of singularities without identity or unity, looking for other roaming packs and multiplicities with which to cohabit and build temporary shelters for intellectual vagabonds.” Is “multiplicity” the same as “transparency”?

The letter of concern and social media conversations claim that “traditional” sponsoring organizations are somehow less deserving (intellectually, politically) of receiving congress space than “progressivist” ones. The letter mentions some of those less-deserving sponsors: Cistercian Studies, affiliated with Western Michigan since 1973 and one of the Medieval Institute’s research areas, adds two dozen members of religious houses to the conference crowd; De re militari (Society for Medieval Military History) attracts a portion of the roughly 100 Kalamazoo community members who attend conference sessions for free; the Pearl-Poet Society hosts well-attended sessions on complex medieval poetry.

Once a session proposal from those and numerous other organizations has been accepted, the conveners may accept “progressivist,” “traditional,” pastist and presentist submissions. Thus, the topics requested by the letter’s authors cannot only find inclusion in a BABEL-sponsored session but may also compete for a space in one of the numerous other sessions, as hundreds of us do every year. It appears BABELians do not want to be subjected to external evaluation. Since they believe their work is more relevant, they want guarantees that everything they propose will be accepted.

The reason why the ICMS’s confidential selection process functions is that the organizers balance matters evenhandedly. While not all sessions proposed by all sponsoring organizations may be accepted every year, the faculty-led process is effective over time. Therefore, the participants trust the organizers and return every year. Instead of gatekeeping, the organizers have been inclusive of diverse topics and methodologies for more than 50 years. While other medieval conferences make highfalutin statements about their inclusivity and exclude those not employed by well-heeled institutions via unreasonable registration, hotel and banquet fees, I’ve found that the ICMS has kept costs low: registration rates for the four-day event are at $160; students pay $95; on-campus all-you-can-eat meals range between $12 and $18; single (dorm) rooms are available for as little as $38. These prices make it possible for more colleagues from community colleges and comprehensive universities to attend than at any other international congress I know.

And the ICMS has been inclusive of issues of disability, gender and race long before this year’s social media assault, as even a cursory look at past programs proves (1962 through 2018 are searchable at the congress archive). The 2018 program, for example, features the term “race” nine times, “disability” nine times and “gender” and “feminism” 48 times; the plenaries are focused on racial minorities (William Chester Jordan) and gender (Sara Ritchey). Were BABELians in charge, I fear certain groups, topics and scholars might be banned or ousted (as happened when the founder/moderator of the [unofficial] Facebook site, International Congress on Medieval Studies, felt obliged to resign due to social media pressure), and the congress might institute secularist and “progressivist” litmus tests.

For more than half a century, the ICMS has provided an inviting and equitable public space for students, amateurs, Kalamazoo residents, members of religious orders and independent scholars and academics, regardless of rank. Close readings of Averroes, feminist critiques of scribal mouvance, the military strategies for the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa and the role of racism and ethnonationalism in the history of medieval studies have all been welcome at ICMS meetings. And the ICMS belongs to all these persons, groups and topics equally because all of them -- organizers, participants and sponsoring organizations -- have invested precious resources and work in co-creating and sustaining the event.

To subject this precious polyvocality to the kind of “social sorting” that has turned Republicans into the party of white, evangelical, rural, conservative voters and Democrats into the party of nonwhite, nonevangelical, metropolitan, liberal voters over the last 30 years would be a grievous mistake. If we brand our colleagues our enemies and make winning a social media altercation more crucial than the common good, then collegial compromise, negotiation and tolerance will be stamped out. Such an intra-academic “lining up of identities,” as our colleagues in the social sciences remind us, promotes “emotional rather than rational evaluations of policies and evidence.” More important, it further alienates our most important constituents: the citizens whose often enthusiastic interest in medieval culture sustains public support for research and teaching in medieval studies. Because some of this public interest (and some scholarship) is imbricated with some of the problematic traditions in the history of the reception of medievalia in postmedieval times (for example: nationalism, racism, toxic masculinity), we need more occasions during which the academic drawbridge is lowered so that real and difficult conversations with nonacademic publics may happen.

Therefore, instead of adding more “socially sorted” sessions for intra-academic questions among those who already share a similar identity, I would encourage the ICMS to continue to expand its offerings to groups and topics that specifically provide engagements of scholarship with the public, to exemplify research that reaches out. This kind of public medieval studies, similar to the public humanities, is the best way of ensuring the relevance and inclusiveness of our field.

Richard Utz is chair of the School of Literature, Media and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology and president of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism.

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Facebook partners with community colleges to help students with digital literacy

The world's largest social media company is partnering with community colleges and sharing a curriculum for digital advertising and media training.

Colleges should consider halving the gen-ed curriculum requirements (opinion)

On my campus, as very likely on yours, we’ve recently emerged from a difficult if not well-intentioned struggle over deep general-education revisions. Raised on a Midwestern farm, I confess to being of a don’t-fix-it-if-it-ain’t-broke mind-set, but even I can admit the old-fashioned distribution model baked into our gen-ed curriculum had grown a bit moldy around the edges. While we ultimately decided on a new nexus model more relevant to a digital age, the battle left me asking why gen ed itself wasn’t on the cutting board.

It sounds heretical, perhaps especially to me, a faculty member based in the humanities, but it’s been my observation over the years that the unquestioned and often outmoded fixtures that institutions fight to preserve are sometimes those that have the weakest rationales, which may explain our sensitivity and defensiveness where they are concerned. Just as travel agents once fought bitterly to keep their monopoly against the rising threat of internet-based travel bookings, and defensive real estate agents brought out the heavy artillery in an attempt to defeat the creeping threat posed by online for-sale-by-owners, it’s worth asking if America’s colleges and universities need struggle so desperately for the 40 to 60 gen-ed credit hours they often require.

Even a 40-credit-hour requirement, for example, amounts to one-third of many students’ total required credits, or roughly the equivalent of one to one and a half years of tuition. Given the College Board’s calculation that average tuition and fees for the 2017-18 academic year averaged $34,740 at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, the cost to complete a general-education program could be in excess of $50,000.

The math is imperfect, but it still raises the question: As important a contributor to civil society as gen ed may be -- and as emotionally tied to its long-standing virtues as many of us are as teachers, scholars and mentors -- can we adequately justify its hefty price tag to our most financially needy advisees, many of whom are working one and sometimes two part-time jobs to help foot the tuition bill, to say nothing of room and board?

A product of a humanities education and a liberal arts professor myself, I can easily articulate the time-honored virtues of general education: it creates better-rounded individuals, develops more engaged critical thinkers and citizens, builds common cause and community around a shared set of concerns, and so on. But during an era of record student debt and continuing retention and demographic challenges, it’s worth asking whether we might find ways to reduce gen-ed mandates by half. Putting gen ed on a diet may enable some students to graduate a term, if not a year, early, thereby lessening the debt load they carry into a difficult job market.

Making gen ed lean wouldn’t necessarily mean surrendering our most sacred outcomes -- writing, critical thinking, scientific and mathematical literacy, physical education, service learning, and community engagement -- but better incorporating those outcomes into existing majors. For example, suppose a new, streamlined gen-ed package required one rather than two composition classes, while asking students to enroll in a writing-intensive course within their major or minor to make up the difference. Granted, such hybrid intensives may prove more difficult to administer and staff, but their necessary economies would no doubt stimulate and incentivize interdisciplinary invention.

For example, I know a senior mathematics professor who piloted a course in the mathematics of square dancing. While even he would admit the course presented students quantifiably more mathematics than physical education, its innovative transdisciplinary curriculum got students moving, thinking and quantifying, all while tapping their toes.

While far from a panacea, and problematic in their own right, internships, co-ops, student-faculty research, undergraduate theses, student teaching, study abroad and other substantive outside-of-class commitments could, if properly sanctioned and supervised, help students acquire core competencies in areas like writing, communication and quantitative reasoning. Why couldn’t more established internships with proven corporate and nonprofit partners be preapproved to meet a gen-ed requirement? Rather than charge students a full three or four credit hours of tuition for an internship taking place off campus that requires little if any on-site faculty supervision, low-overhead credits like these could be offered at a discounted rate. Or, as an alternative, corporate internship sites could compensate students for a portion of the tuition cost incurred in return for their labors.

Before we devote scarce faculty and administrative resources to building a bigger, better, more enlightened mousetrap, perhaps it’s time to set students free by reducing gen ed’s appetite for increasingly expensive credits. Yes, we must be careful, lest, like the travel agents of yore, we argue ourselves right out of a job, but surely we can acknowledge that enlightened self-interest has limits. The credit-hungry gen-ed revision packages under consideration at so many campuses this academic year may be giving faculty a free pass on necessary innovation and needlessly harming students’ pocketbooks while damaging something far more valuable: their good faith.

Zachary Michael Jack is an associate professor of English at North Central College, where he is a member of the Leadership, Ethics and Values faculty.

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Cornell College of Arts and Sciences considers new general-education program

Will proposal for streamlined general-education program at Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences give the curriculum new life? Can new approaches to language and diversity engage students who might otherwise lose interest?

Colleges should more regularly kill academic programs for underperforming (opinion)

My first real job was a triumphant lesson in unplanned obsolescence. I landed a paid internship at a New York PR firm called Creamer Dickson Basford and was assigned to the Pizza Hut account. It was an auspicious summer for Pizza Hut public relations. Not only was Pizza Hut launching a 3-D campaign for its Chunky-Style Pizza -- I was responsible for assembling a 3-D press kit, complete with 3-D glasses and 3-D photo of chunky toppings bursting from the pizza -- but Creamer Dickson Basford had convinced its client to run a national blimp tour to draw attention to the launch of the Bigfoot Pizza: a 21-slice rectangular pizza, or two square feet of pizza.

As this wasn’t just any old pizza, it couldn’t be just any old blimp. The Bigfoot Pizza Blimp was the first with a fiber-optic night sign, permitting 24-7 promotion of gluttony. On July 2 it was scheduled to fly from Boston to New York to provide a magnificent large-pizza-themed aerial spectacle alongside the fireworks over the Hudson River.

But on the morning of July 4, as the blimp flew over the Hudson River, it began losing air. A lot of air. Seeing no other choice, the pilot of the dirigible I had promoted to Sports Illustrated for Kids as “safe and fun” crash-landed on the roof of a squat seven-story apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen.

Images of the deflated blimp pancaked down the side of 410 W. 53rd St. dominated the New York tabloids for days. All the attention being paid to the Pizza Hut Bigfoot Pizza Blimp was astonishing. Fortunately no one was hurt, so we kept the blimp in the news with stories like how much we were paying to store remnants in the parking lot across the street. The front page of the New York Post later that week: “At Lee’s Parking on 53rd and 10th, it’s Cars $5, Trucks $10, Blimps $75.” The nonstop coverage drove Bigfoot Pizza awareness and sales through the roof.

Some things just aren’t made to last, like high-tech blimps. But what about programs of study at colleges and universities? They’re intended to last forever, and most do. In a 20-year period between 1978 and 1998, my alma mater offered 97 distinct academic programs or tracks for undergraduates. During that time, only three programs were discontinued, and two of the three were reorganized (engineering was split into various engineering tracks, and economics and political science became ethics, politics and economics). Meanwhile, over one-third of these programs and tracks -- including German studies-- failed to attract more than 100 undergraduate course registrations per year. And yet the only program to receive a Viking funeral was organizational behavior. That’s a generational obsolescence rate of 1 percent.

What other kinds of products have no expiration date? Physical infrastructure and industrial goods can only aspire to last this long. In contrast, knowledge- and technology-based products -- much closer to academic programs than to roads, buildings and airplanes -- are designed for a limited useful life with the expectation that they’ll be surpassed by new and better products, or fundamentally transformed by regular iterations.

This is what’s happening in India, where, facing massive unemployment and underemployment among its 750,000 engineering graduates each year, the government is now demanding that universities update all course syllabi “annually … per requirements of industry.”

Of course it’s true that the vast majority of academic programs (including lousy engineering programs at Indian universities) -- if pursued diligently -- inculcate core competencies, cognitive and executive function skills. A generation ago, the depth of these programs combined with the breadth of distribution requirements was sufficient to launch most graduates onto the first rung of a professional ladder. But unlike our programs of study, the economy hasn’t stood still. And while critical thinking is an unmitigated good thing, continuing to defend the status quo with broad terms like “critical thinking” doesn’t demonstrate great critical thinking.

The key question -- and the most pertinent to students themselves -- is what programs will mean for graduates and their pathways for the next five years.

Curriculum doesn’t become obsolete because knowledge -- when not supplanted by new and better knowledge -- doesn’t become obsolete. Cognitive skills survive the test of time. But for most students, a successful launch into an increasingly technical economy requires a combination of soft skills and digital skills.

Students are flailing about, trying to figure this out. We’re seeing massive shifts from arts and humanities to STEM. Alex Usher recently pointed out enrollment increases of between 30 and 60 percent in STEM programs from 2009 to 2016 at a number of Ontario universities. And the percentage of students who are hedging their bets by double majoring appears to have doubled since 2000.

I suspect that had Yale shuttered more than one program between 1978 and 1998, it would have launched more than two new STEM programs. And although the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has launched six new STEM degree programs in the past decade, including applied computing, data analytics, health information management and technology, and health information management and technology, I wonder if UW-Stevens Point might have done even better had it eliminated any academic programs in that same period (it did not).

A more proactive approach could have boosted enrollment, reduced the $4.5 million deficit the campus faces over the next two years and limited the need for the drastic restructuring plan announced last week to cut 13 majors, including English, history and all three foreign languages.

The near immortality of departments and majors provides a misleading sense of academic plenty. College students may well be getting soft skills and digital skills -- and most do in their extracurricular activities -- but there’s little guarantee it’s happening in their program of study. And there’s no reason why not besides the absurd durability of programs that fall short. Planned obsolescence in designing academic programs -- or at least a systematic review of whether programs are doing an adequate job of producing all the skills graduates require -- would be helpful in this regard.

Yale can afford to be inefficient in a way that few other colleges and universities can. Every week we learn of new nonselective schools forced to shutter programs due to falling overall enrollment and mandatory institutionwide budget cuts. The key to avoiding becoming the next Sweet Briar College -- a school facing a conundrum of fundamentally needing to change, while relying on the generosity of nostalgic alumnae who don’t want change -- is, as Trace Urdan says, “beginning the process long before your back is against the wall.”

At a minimum, programs that fail to attract a threshold number of students should go under the microscope. But we ought to do better than react to student flows. Why not institute a regular, thorough review of whether every academic program is providing the skills graduates actually need, and make clear to all stakeholders that programs that fail to make the grade will be culled?

Such a self-imposed standard would be much higher than accreditors currently require, where the test of stating learning outcomes and demonstrating outcomes are being met ensures that an institution’s accreditation is as long-lived as its academic programs.

The challenge, of course, is facing the fact that curriculum can become obsolete -- or that you can become obsolete -- which is a lot less enjoyable than teaching exactly the same course you taught when you were much younger.

No one enjoys confronting their own mortality. But we die to make room for the new. To really understand this eternal tension, you’d need to take a few courses in humanities or classics. The problem, you see, is that few employers are profound enough to prioritize such understanding over the skills new graduates actually need to do the job.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures and author of the upcoming A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (BenBella Books).

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North Carolina community college's elimination of D's leads to transfer success

Transfer rates at North Carolina's Stanly Community College increased after the college made the simple grading change of no longer awarding D's.

A professor resists departmental attempt to add a female author to class reading list for sake of gender balance

A departmental committee told a professor he had to teach Judith Butler in his class in the name of gender balance. He refused. As for Butler, she doesn’t want her work forced on him.

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