It’s difficult to believe now, but not so long ago, I looked forward to making up syllabuses.
Once the grand meal of the course had been structured and I’d chosen an exciting title, the syllabus design was my dessert. I took the word “design” quite literally, having fun with frames and borders, trying out different fonts, fiddling with margins.
Then, after printing out the final document, I’d sit at my kitchen table and add images saved for the purpose from old magazines, vintage catalogs, pulp advertising, obscure books, and other ephemera. Fat cherubs blowing their trumpets would announce Thanksgiving break; a skull and crossbones marked the spot of the final exam. My masterpiece was a course on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose syllabus was a gothic folly with a graveyard on the front page and cadaver worms crawling up the margins.
Over time, my syllabuses grew less creative. I still gave my courses what I hoped were enticing titles, and I’d usually add an image to the front page, but nothing more. In part, I was afraid my quirky designs might make the course seem less serious; I also had far less free time than I used to. But mostly, it was the number of disclaimers, caveats and addenda at the end of the syllabus that made my designs seem out of place. All these extra paragraphs made the syllabus seem less personal, and more institutional -- but then, I realized, perhaps it was time I grew up and began to toe the party line.
Those were the good old days. Now, at a different institution, I teach in a low-residency program whose courses are taught, in part, online. The institutional syllabus template is pre-provided: Times New Roman, 12-point font, 1-inch margins -- and don’t forget the “inspirational quote” at the top of the page.
The Course Description is followed by the list of Course Objectives, Learning Outcomes, Curriculum and Reading Assignments, Required Reading, Assessment Criteria and so on, all the way down to the Institute’s Plagiarism Policy and Equal Opportunity Provisions. Colleagues tell me it’s the same almost everywhere now; the syllabus is now composed mainly of long, dry passages of legalese.
I no longer design my own course titles -- or, if I do, they need to be the kind of thing that looks appropriate on a transcript, which means “Comparative Approaches to the Gothic Novel,” not “Monks, Murder and Mayhem!” There’s an extra plague in online teaching, however, in that -- at least, at the institution where I’m currently employed -- all course materials, including weekly presentations, must be submitted months in advance.
This, I’m told, is not only to ensure that books are ordered and copyrights cleared, but also for the various documents to pass along the line of administrative staff whose job includes vetting them in order to be sure no rules have been violated, then uploading them in the appropriate format. Moreover, a syllabus, we are constantly reminded, is a binding legal document; once submitted, it must be followed to the letter. Omissions or inclusions would be legitimate grounds for student complaint.
Gone, then, are the days when I could bring my class an article from that morning’s New York Times. Now, when I stumble on a story, book or film that would fit perfectly with the course I’m currently teaching, I feel depressed, not excited. I can mention it, sure, but I can’t “use” it in the class. Nor can I reorient the course in mid-stream once I get to know the students; I can’t change a core text, for example, if I find they’ve all read it before; I can’t change the materials to meet student interests or help with difficulties, as I once did without a second thought.
This is especially perplexing in online teaching, where it’s so easy to link to a video, film clip, or audio lecture. We have an institution-wide rule that such materials may not be used unless accompanied by a written transcript for the hearing impaired. When I object that there are no hearing impaired students in my small class of six, I am told that no, there are currently no students who have disclosed such an impairment. The transcripts are needed in case any of them should do so -- in which case, they would be immediately entitled to transcripts for all audio-visual material previously used in the course. Sadly, those who pay the price for this assiduous care of phantom students are the six real students in the course.
In brief, what used to be a treat is now an irksome chore.
Instead of designing a syllabus, I’m filling out a template, whose primary reader is not the student, not even the phantom potential-hearing-impaired student, but the administrators and examiners who’ll be scanning it for potential deviations from standard policy.
Sitting at my kitchen table with scissors and glue, I always felt as though the syllabus -- and, by implication, the course -- was something that came from within me, something I had literally produced, at home, with pleasure and joy.
Now, by the time the course is finally “taught” months after the template has been submitted, it feels like a stillbirth from a mechanical mother.
Mikita Brottman is chair of the humanities program at Pacifica Graduate Institute.
At a recent gathering of junior faculty, convened by the Teagle Foundation to discuss the future of liberal education, a remarkable fact appeared so clearly that it went unremarked. Discussions about the value and purpose of higher education had lost the acrimonious and partisan tone that defined the culture wars of the '80s and '90s. To be sure, those present (myself included) were no doubt fairly homogeneous in our political and academic backgrounds. And we were a self-selecting group, as all had expressed interest in the value of liberal education, even if we did not agree on (or even know for sure) what exactly it was. It was nonetheless an encouraging sign – no doubt prepared by such reasoned criticisms of the academy by the likes of Derek Bok – that liberal education no longer appeared as a minefield of partisanship, but rather as the site of constructive and rational debate.
One reason, I suspect, for this development may be that some of the institutions most committed to liberal education have transformed the way in which it is taught. At Chicago, Harvard, and Stanford, for instance, freshmen are still required to take a version of a "core curriculum." But unlike Columbia’s venerable core, these newer versions all allow students to make their own choices from a selection of classes. At Chicago, students compose a three-course meal from offerings in the humanities, civilization studies, and the arts. Stanford’s “Introduction to the Humanities” (IHUM) program presents students with a slightly leaner diet: they choose from a collection of starters chosen to “demonstrate the [...] productive intellectual tensions generated by different approaches,” before tucking into a two-quarter entrée that “promote[s] depth of study in a single department or discipline.” Finally, Harvard just introduced last fall a "Program in General Education" that is more buffet style: students select courses from eight different groups, roughly half of which satisfy humanities requirements.
While in no way revolutionary, these curricular developments, I argue here, may justly be regarded as harbingers of a third way in liberal education. This new way bypasses the old battleground of the culture wars — the canon — by recognizing the privileged place that certain works and events occupy in past and present societies, without dictating which of these must absolutely pass before every student’s eyes. As opposed to the more common "general education requirements," moreover, the courses in this model also provide students with an intellectual meta-narrative, that is, a synoptic perspective linking different periods, cultures, and even (ideally) disciplines. Finally, this model can offer scholars, administrators and policy makers a new language with which to define the goals and ideals of liberal education, and to help define criteria for their evaluation.
The language currently employed to discuss liberal education has itself proven remarkably apt for avoiding partisan flare-ups. Who can object to a pedagogical program designed to improve thinking, moral reasoning, and civic awareness? Glaringly absent from such skills-oriented definitions is, of course, curricular content. While this strategy of omission has conciliatory advantages, it also carries risks: Discussions about liberal education can end up sounding terribly formalist, as though students were destined to perform ghostly mental operations in a vacuum (“practice citizenship!”). The very idea of liberal education can suffer from such excessive formalism, since, emptied of content, it risks becoming little more than a talking point or sales pitch.
This approach also ignores a penetrating criticism, made with particular (if somewhat hysterical) emphasis by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind. In the absence of any overarching curricular structure, students can easily end up losing themselves in a labyrinth of unrelated courses. These courses may individually belong to disciplines traditionally associated with liberal education, and may each, in their own way, contribute to the development of important and worthy skills. But they may also leave puzzled students wondering how, say, their knowledge of Russian history relates to their classes on French literature. Of course, there are not always clear bridges between disparate subjects. And finding your way from one point to another can itself be an intrinsic part of education. At the same time, teaching students how to integrate knowledge from different fields is a valuable skill, one which we would be rather perverse to withhold from them, particularly when it is requested.
Beneath the geographical metaphors proliferating in the above paragraph lurks, of course, the familiar fault line of curricular content. But this is precisely where the reforms of core curriculum courses at the universities listed above can provide a less contentious framework for discussion. Indeed, the dominant feature of these courses is that they combine requirement and choice; students are obliged to choose from a selection of courses. This means that a) there is a degree of personal tailoring: for instance, hardcore “techies” at Stanford can take a course on the history of science and technology; and b) the emphasis is shifted from a debate over which exact texts every student should read – inevitably a source of heated disagreement – to a debate over which different sets of texts (or historical events, or works of art, etc.) form a coherent and meaningful syllabus.
The advantages of this system are numerous, but I would like to emphasize two ways in which it offers a valuable framework for liberal education. First, in addition to the benefits gained from studying individual texts or topics, these courses provide students with an overarching narrative. It is not necessarily a teleological or master-narrative, nor need it even be a story of progress with a happy end. But it is a narrative that allows students to perceive how events or ideas transform over a considerable stretch of time and space. The IHUM course that my department offers, for example, takes the students from the Mesopotamia of Gilgamesh to the Caribbean of Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove. Our syllabus is primarily literary, but the lectures draw heavily on each text’s historical, religious, cultural, and philosophical context. In this way, such narratives also illustrate how frontiers between humanistic disciplines are not closed borders, but can be freely crossed.
Ironically, the narratives transmitted in these classes are ultimately destined to fade away, or at least be significantly transformed, over the course of a student’s education and life. Their purpose is primarily structural: to borrow a hallowed metaphor, they allow students to attach the ideas they will later acquire onto different, yet connected branches of a single tree of learning. But this metaphor is somewhat misleading, since narratives are far less wooden frames. Subsequent coursework will complicate or contradict episodes of the story students began with; and at the end of their college education, they will ideally have written their own narrative with the knowledge they have gained. But even if the initial story they were told disappears in the process, it will have served its purpose, and taught the students a valuable lesson along the way – namely, that to be persuasive citizens and scholars, we need to know how to tell a compelling narrative. The ability to piece disparate facts and ideas into a coherent whole is a critical part of liberal education. We are always putting Humpty Dumpty together again.
Second, an important criterion for composing the syllabus of these courses is that their contents be sufficiently authoritative. Here we brush up again against the touchy subject of the canon, which cannot be completely avoided, even if the model under discussion does not advocate including specific books at all costs. But the inclusion of “authoritative” works or events – and I choose this word deliberately – does strike me as a necessary part of liberal education. This is not because some works contain The Truth and others only pale reflections of it. This argument of Bloom’s, and of his predecessor at the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, is more likely to puzzle than to offend today (how do you teach Homer as "the truth"?). But as John Guillory pointed out in Cultural Capital, certain texts simply have (or had) greater authority in our societies: not to engage with at least some of them leaves students at a social disadvantage.
I would also argue that understanding these authoritative texts is key for achieving what Montaigne identified as the ultimate goal of education – the ability to challenge existing authorities, an ability we would today call critical thinking. If students are to challenge authorities, they must begin by knowing who those authorities are and what they argued. Only in this fashion can the students acquire both a better understanding of how and why our societies came to be the way they are, and the ability to counter authoritative accounts in a knowledgeable and evidence-based manner.
It is to be hoped that liberal education will always remain a fertile topic of discussion, and the model that the universities discussed here have adopted – with a number of differences, to be sure, which I did not address – is certainly not the only solution. Indeed, I hope that other colleges will experiment with different models, so that our collection of experience continues to grow. But the promise of the current model is that it does offer a way past the opposing camps of the canon wars, and in this regard, may come to be regarded as a third way in liberal education.
Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.
One of the main thrusts of what has come to be called "the undergraduate student success movement" is misguided. Yes, we did mean to use the term "misguided." A strong word and a strong assertion, but we have equally strong evidence. Simply stated, higher education institutions in the United States focus heavily on student success programs, but rarely do they have a comprehensive plan to guide those programs. In the absence of a plan, redundancies and gaps occur, and retention stagnates. In short, a program or programs do not a successful plan make.
Of course, making this assertion means that John Gardner, one of this essay’s authors and a key architect in the national student success movement, has to admit that over the years he may not have given the best advice to all people at all times. For about three decades, Gardner has gone around the country telling college educators that their institutions need to adopt or adapt one form of student success program or another. Drawing from his experiences, the recommended program was often a first-year seminar -- a contemporary staple in the American college curriculum that dates back to the 1880s. And, in fact, research does correlate participation in first-year seminars with positive differences in student retention and graduation rates.
At the same time that Gardner was advocating for first-year seminars in particular, he was also advocating for a broader philosophical approach to the first year. He coined the term, “the first-year experience,” and meant it to encompass a total campus approach to the first year, not a single program. Upon reflection, it seems that speaking about one program extensively while at the same time advocating for a collective approach may have fostered a bit of confusion. And today the “first-year experience” can mean anything from a single course to a full-fledged coordinated effort to improve the first year. But it was the single course that gained the most national and international interest.
Gardner himself ran University 101, a first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina, for 25 years, and then helped replicate this course type at many other institutions. Colleges and universities often adopted first-year seminars because they increased retention rates, and thus increased tuition revenue. Educators were hunting for the silver bullet -- the “program” that would bring about miraculous student-saving and money-making results. This search for the ideal program also became subsumed under the language of “best practices.” The idea was very simple: there are best practices out there, they can be identified and replicated with minimal thought given to context, and these best practices should yield the same results everywhere. But retention improvements that resulted from one-shot programs have generally been short-lived and, taken together, have failed to move the national retention statistics in a positive direction.
Fast-forward several decades, and this search has been intensified. A plethora of organizations and consultants now exist to feed the hunger for specific programmatic solutions to the retention problem. Clearly it is time for a change.
Beginning in 2003, with support from several foundations, the Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education launched a process, called Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year -- a self-study and planning process designed to help campuses move beyond “programs” and “best practices” to the development of a comprehensive intentional plan for the first year. Participants in the Foundations of Excellence process are encouraged to answer a fundamental educational question: What does our college or university need to do to provide an excellent beginning experience for all students relative to our unique mission, location, and student characteristics? To answer that question an institution first needs to assess how it is currently performing vis a vis standards of excellence for the first college year. The process provides nine such standards. Finally, once the plan has been created, institutions must implement it.
But implementing a plan is more easily said than done. Our own research on the effectiveness of the institute’s work with 197 institutional participants has found that the two most significant variables that interfere with executing a plan are a change of senior leadership with its resulting destabilizing effects, and the impact of unforeseen budget cuts.
We have also learned from successes. Over 95 percent of the campuses with which we have worked report implementing action plans. An independent analysis of Foundations of Excellence found that campuses that implemented the plans to a self-reported “high degree” recorded significant first-to-second year retention rate increases -- an aggregate 5.62 percentage points or 8.2 percent higher over four years as reported by IPEDS. Institutions that did not implement their FoE action plans experienced a 1.4 percentage point decrease in retention -- in other words, if you don’t implement the plan you have, you seem to get attrition. To plan is not enough. The executed plans included a combination of changes in institutional policies, a renewed focus on pedagogy in first-year courses, and particular programs -- yes, programs -- that were intentionally selected to address the unique needs of the institution and its students. For example, institutions connected their learning community offerings with their evolving core curriculums to maximize the success of both efforts; orientation programs were expanded to include and serve previously underserved and/or completely unserved populations such as low-income and transfer students; and oversight offices and/or committees were created to intentionally connect previously disparate pieces so that learning opportunities were not left to chance.
In conclusion, our experience leads us to convey that while programs are necessary, unless they are conceived and carried out as parts of a whole, they are not sufficient. What we believe is that institutions need to undertake a thorough planning process focused on excellence in the first year. Appropriate programs and best practices can then organically emerge and/or be modified, executed, assessed, and refined in context.
Institutions cannot fulfill their potential for improving student success without a comprehensive vision for excellence in the first year. Thus, we encourage you to recognize that the future of our students is too important to leave to chance. Instead, we hope you and your institution will become more intentional and deliberate in the way you commit to first-year excellence. In the process, you will be contributing nationally as you act locally to create the change and foster growth that our students and country require.
John N. Gardner and Andrew K. Koch
John N. Gardner is president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and distinguished professor emeritus and senior fellow at the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, at the University of South Carolina.
Andrew K. Koch is vice president for new strategies, development, and policy initiatives of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.
Most attention is paid at institutions of higher education to the beginning and end of undergraduate studies. Curriculum committees debate the nature and number of requirements that students must fulfill, mostly in their freshman year; and departments spend a great deal of time evaluating the content and structure of majors, which tend to occupy students in their junior and senior years. No one gives much thought to what students do in the middle, when they're generally encouraged to explore whatever topics they wish.
The principal philosophy that governs this middle period of a student's education is of course the elective system. The right for all students to take a class on the subject of their choosing is a hallmark and admirable feature of the American university. It is often through such chance encounters with less common subjects that scholarly passions are born and majors are chosen. No one studies linguistics or anthropology in high school.
But because the elective system is so fundamental to higher education, and because the major is under departmental control, we rarely step back and ask whether this combination of general ed requirements, electives, and specialization actually meets the objectives of a liberal education. Of course, the answer to this question depends largely on how one defines liberal education. For the sake of argument, let’s take the definition offered in the 2009 Modern Language Association Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature. This report identified the acquisition of broad, cross-disciplinary and transhistorical "literacy" as a central component of liberal education (scientific literacy would be another component, but that’s a different story). In other words, students should be sufficiently well versed in an array of humanistic fields, canons, methodologies, and periods, for them to engage with sources (and pursue further research, if they wish) in a large number of areas. To be sure, we expect a lot more from liberal education than this single aim; this is simply a minimalist definition.
Given this definition, it seems fair to say that we place blind faith in the academic virtues of our current system. We simply assume that somewhere along the way, between fulfilling their general education and major requirements, students will pick up enough knowledge about other fields to meet the demands of a liberal education.
It is easy to understand why we place such faith in this system, since there is no obvious, acceptable alternative. Institutions such as St. John’s College, whose curricula are set in stone, will only ever cater to a tiny minority of students; even Columbia University’s two-year core curriculum is highly exceptional. As Louis Menand recently noted in The Marketplace of Ideas, it is virtually impossible to imagine introducing a curriculum such as Columbia’s core today; such highly regimented courses could only evolve under particular historical circumstances. The vast majority of students today desire a greater say about the content of their education. And we must honor this desire, if only because students who do not buy into their educational program are unlikely to be good learners.
There are other ways, however, to think about the middle part of undergraduate education, particularly in the humanities. Let us focus momentarily on students who major in the humanities. Whether students chose to major in English, religious studies, anthropology, or history, there are in fact no structures in place to encourage or enable them to acquire a solid foundation in other disciplines, cultures, literatures, and historical periods. The student writing her honors thesis on Alexander Pope often does not know who Pope Alexander VI was.
Moving now to all undergraduates, I would push this argument even further. Why is it that the vast majority of humanities courses are taught as if we were training students to professionalize in a given field (say, French), when only a tiny fraction of these students – non-majors and majors alike – are actually going to pursue a graduate degree in the field? Whether a student is majoring in engineering and taking a French class out of a love for French literature, or whether she’s a French major and is required to take a French class, chances are that she is not going to become a professor of French. And yet our humanities majors, and our undergraduate curricula more broadly, are designed to produce budding experts in fairly narrow fields. This design is understandable in fields such as economics or engineering, where students often do go on to take jobs in which they need specific skills and knowledge. But why is it so in the humanities?
To be sure, specialization, even at the undergraduate level, has its virtues: engaging with material at a higher level of expertise allows students to hone their research skills and to produce more consequential bodies of work (such an honors thesis). Still, I would ask whether our primary objective, as humanities professors, should be training students as though they will all go on to become scholars, or whether our primary objective shouldn’t be something else – such as offering all undergraduate students a broader and less discipline-focused foundation for their future lives.
This issue seems particularly pressing today, as the humanities have gone from facing an existential crisis, to literally fighting for their existence. If smaller departments (such as those that were just axed at the State University of New York at Albany) continue to justify their academic purpose chiefly in terms of number of majors, then they will perennially fear (and often face) the chopping block. Admittedly, such a change would also require a shift in perspective on the part of the administrative powers-that-be. But if humanists made a stronger case that the chief purpose of a liberal education is not disciplinary specialization, but broad historical and cultural literacy, then universities simply could not make do without Greek epics, French classical theater, German philosophy, or Russian novels.
What would a curriculum reconfigured along these lines look like? One option would be for humanities departments to join forces to offer genuinely interdisciplinary core courses on major topics of interest. An art historian could team up with a literature professor and religious studies scholar to teach a course on the Renaissance; a historian, political theorist, and Spanish professor could offer a course on the discovery of the New World; or a philosopher, psychologist, and musicologist could lead a course on Modernism. These courses, which would need to be vetted by appropriate faculty committees, would stem from faculty interest, and could vary over time.
This curricular structure presents a number of advantages over the existing one. First, by virtue of having courses team-taught and not placed under the auspices of a single department, they would not have a narrow disciplinary focus, but would open up key events or questions to a variety of approaches. (This is currently the structure adopted at Stanford for the fall Introduction to the Humanities courses.) At the same time, professors could underscore the methodological differences between their disciplines, thereby providing students with a roadmap of how knowledge is divided between the various academic departments (and where to look for classes in the future).
Secondly, by requiring these courses to cover broad topics, they would collectively constitute an overarching panorama of the humanities. This would be a disjointed panorama, to be sure, yet that might be a quality, since it would avoid the problems associated with establishing a grand récit. If this panorama resembles an exploded version of an ideal, inaccessible core curriculum (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”?), this is ultimately a misleading resemblance. Since the various pieces of this series would constantly be changing, it is not a palliative for a "Great Books" curriculum, in an age that has turned against such courses, but rather the product of a different pedagogical philosophy. Rather than valuing certain specific texts more than others, this philosophy places value on the breadth of knowledge, and the ability to synthesize very different forms and genres of information, from plays and paintings to maps and graphs.
The truly thorny issue that every curricular reform faces is that of requirements. If we build a new program, will anyone come, if they’re not obliged to? One option would be to require students to take, say, two or three of such courses at some point during their studies. This arrangement grants students a degree of choice and a good deal of scheduling flexibility. Other incentives could be found to encourage students to take more than the bare minimum of courses: completion of additional courses could lead to some sort of certification, or could form part of an honors program.
Since a central objective of a liberal education is to ensure breadth of knowledge, it follows, to my mind at least, that a significant humanities requirement is needed. In cases where this is impossible for pragmatic or philosophical reasons, I would argue that it is still important to provide students with a curricular structure that would allow them to achieve the goals of a liberal education on their own. This is particularly true for non-humanities majors, who often do not venture into humanities classrooms, not necessarily due to a lack of interest, but because of the highly specialized focus of most courses. They also may simply not know where to look: our courses are not listed in a central place, but buried behind individual department nomenclatures.
Our academic divisions may make sense for research purposes, but are often at odds with our pedagogical goals. The MLA Report to the Teagle Foundation identified four “constitutional elements” that it considered key to liberal education – "a coherent program of study, collaborative teamwork among faculty members, interdepartmental cooperative teaching, and the adoption of outcome measurements" – yet the first three of these four elements cannot be achieved at the departmental level alone. To fulfill the promise of liberal education, we must ensure that students can build “coherent programs of study” that cut across disciplines.
Finally, perhaps we should have more confidence in the wares we’re vending. Wide-ranging courses that combine powerful texts, vivid iconic material, controversial ideas, and dramatic historical episodes, with insightful analysis should not fail to exhilarate students. Of course, good professors, catchy titles, and intriguing perspectives are also needed to invigorate the study of our disciplines; a dry "introduction to X" approach will never be sufficient to meet the goals of a liberal education. But there is also a real thirst for this kind of knowledge, and not only among students in the humanities. Who knows? Maybe if we build it, they will come.
Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.
Today's students have different expectations and skills with regard to technology, and colleges sometimes fail to meet those expectations or understand what those skills mean, according to a new e-book.
The e-book, the first published by Educause, is Educating the Net Generation. It is available free on the organization's Web site.
Diana G. Oblinger, a vice president of Educause and co-editor of the book, answered some questions about its themes in an e-mail interview: