March 30, 2008...6:47 am

where gen ed matters

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I was very fortunate to spend some time this week at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, talking with faculty there about learning, general education, and syllabus design, hosted by Provost Daisy Cocco De Filippis. Hostos Community College is just celebrating its 40th anniversary, but its revision of general education is quite new. General education gets varying amounts of attention in different kinds of institutional contexts. We are wrestling with our general education program at Georgetown now, trying to rethink its purpose and shape. I found Hostos’ attention and approach to general education inspiring. Most important is the pervasive sense of commitment. As the Committee puts it, “General education is our faculty’s promise to our students.” You can see this commitment in the gen ed materials that they have on the Web, beginning with the gen ed brochure which spells out the 19 skills and dimensions (“goals”) of the gen ed program that infuse the actual course requirements.

These goals are then identified across the usual general education courses, so students can chart their way. A course is supposed to identify only those goals that it truly addresses. And by addresses means “assesses.” As Carl Grindley (English) told me (I’m paraphrasing), “we are only supposed to include goals that we actually assess; and we are supposed to assess only those objectives which we have identified for the students.” I imagine that happens unevenly at Hostos as it would anywhere (it always looks better to an outsider). But what impressed me was the spirit of transparency: build enough consensus among faculty to have common ground, make your thinking visible to everyone, including new faculty. And then let students in on the secret. Part of the latter includes a multimedia contest for students to do creative work around “What Gen Ed means to me.” It also includes taking seriously the AAC&U principle of liberal education to “give students a compass.” In this case through a “mapping tool” that helps student chart which courses meet which goals. (Obviously, this is only one meaning of the “compass” metaphor–but it is a good start!).

In my workshops there at Hostos we were exploring the idea of general education competencies. It was an occasion for me to further explore the applicability of threshold concepts to higher education settings in the U.S. As an advance reading, the faculty had read Meyer and Land’s 2003 essay on “Threshold Concepts.” Of course in the U.K and Canada, the idea threshold concepts has raised quite a lot of interest; but this work is little known in the U.S. up to this point. I have been exploring the applicability of threshold concepts in my work recently, and have begun to introduce it into my presentations and workshops when I visit places.

My trip to Hostos became an occasion to explore the applicability of threshold concepts to thinking about a general education program and its goals. If one looks at the 19 gen ed goals at Hostos (which look a lot like the “Essential Outcomes” from AAC&U, not coincidentally) one sees a set of skills and abilities that characterize an educated, if not also a liberally educated person. Threshold concepts on the one hand are the conceptual cross-hatch to this list of abilities: liberal education requiring both concepts and abilities. What I find so appealing about threshold concepts the way that Meye and Land elaborate them, and others are exploring them (see for example this year’s conference on threshold concepts in Kingston, Ontario), is the proposition that some concepts are so fundamental that they cannot be looked at merely as “concepts” to be absorbed. Rather, threshold concepts change the way we think about a field, the way we talk about a subject, and in some cases the way we act as a member of a community of practice engaged in a way of thinking. Once you start to understand threshold concepts as “liminal spaces” (as Meyer and Land put it) you can start to see the ways that knowledge (concepts) and skills/abilities (esp as liberal education outcomes) can start to connect.

We only scratched the surface of these possibilities when I was at Hostos. There is much to explore. I believe these connections are crucial to the conversation about improving general education, as they help us past a series of impasses that have characterized gen ed reform for 30 years; and they build, potentially, on a lot of what we know about learning and expertise (to be blogged in future posts). You can only have these conversations where general education matters. I’m grateful to Hostos Community College and their gracious hosting of me to allow the space to begin to explore these possibilities.

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