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  February 26, 2001

Faculty Discuss General Education Proposal

Reaching consensus on any subject can be tough. When the topic concerns the concept of an educated citizen and the future of undergraduate education at the University, and touches upon the lives of every UConn faculty member and student, it's a particular challenge. Yet that is the task that now faces the University.

After the General Education Task Force released its report in November, the Curricula and Courses Committee of the University Senate was charged with reviewing the report and preparing recommendati ons for a vote of the full Senate in April. Since December, the Committee has been holding discussions with the deans to solicit input on a school-by-school basis. On Wednesday, the Committee held an open forum to elicit comments from across the University community.

One of the principles on which the general education requirements are based is the 'concept of universality', Gary English, a professor of dramatic arts and co-chair of the Senate Curricula and Courses Committee, told about 60 participants, mostly faculty, during the forum at the new Chemistry Building.

"It is in the University's interests, and in students' interests, that whatever we call general education be applicable across the University," he said.

English said much of the debate about the task force report arises from the fact that "what the Senate is being asked to approve is not the general education requirements but a system for improving the general education requirements," and this has led to considerable uncertainty.

Other points of discussion arise from differences in philosophy about the purpose of general education, English said. He noted that the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is preparing an alternative proposal that will be presented to the Curricula and Courses Committee on March 7. "Many in CLAS and other areas view the general education requirements as central to the concept of liberal education," he said. "In other parts of the University, they are seen as minimal requirements."

English said the Committee is considering the task force report in three sections: oversight; competencies; and content. Of these, he said, the third is the most controversial.

Regarding oversight, the Committee will suggest that the proposed General Education Oversight Committee, which is to be appointed by the Senate, should consist of faculty members, with some student representation, and that any representative of the administrati on be non-voting, English said.

The intent of the oversight committee, he noted, is to avoid burdening the Senate Curricula and Courses Committee with the task of developing, approving and constantly monitoring general education courses. The Curricula and Courses Committee would still be required to review the actions of the oversight committee and present its recommendations to the full Senate.

One problem the new requirements seek to address is that of 'double-dipping', English said. A student may now take a course that's a prerequisite for his or her major, and also use that course to fulfill a general education requirement. That, he said, was not the original intent of the current system of general education requirements, although there are differences of opinion among faculty as to whether 'double-dipping' is necessarily bad.

Much of the discussion focused on the proposed new requirement for writing across the curriculum that would replace the current requirement for W (writing) courses. There are currently not enough W courses to meet the demand, English said, adding that in the past three years, only 50 percent of students have been able to get the W classes they need.

Robert Tilton, an assistant professor of English who served on the task force that prepared the report and is now a member of the Curricula and Courses Committee, said the goal is to make writing courses more widely available.

Because too few W courses are offered, Tilton said, "we end up with students in our classes in the English department — with absolutely no interest in the course material, but they are seniors and need a course that meets the W requirement. This is not worthwhile pedagogically."

He said many students write as freshmen, then they may not write for two years until they track down a W course as a senior. "The goal is for students to be writing for four years," he said.

Harris Fairbanks, an associate professor of English, said he was concerned that the new writing competency arrangement would place an obligation on some disciplines that have not been teaching writing until now.

Barbara Wright, a professor of German and a member of the task force that prepared the report, urged the University not only to pay attention to getting the most appropriate structure in place, but also to have a commitment to faculty development and support. "I have never seen a successful general education program that didn't contain a hefty dose of faculty development," she said.

Others pointed out, however, that most of the teaching of writing would fall on graduate assistants rather than faculty.

English said that although the task force report does not specify the need for reallocation of resources, it implies it, by prescribing a ratio of one teaching assistant for every 50 to 60 students. Taken together with the new rule that every general education course must include nine pages of writing, and the fact that many general education classes are large, he said, either large-scale hiring of graduate assistants or redistribution of current graduate assistantships will be necessary.

"We all know we're dealing with a zero-sum game," he said. "To many of us, that means reallocation."

Win Smith, a professor of physics, said reallocation of TAs raises problems both for departments and for individual graduate students. For the department that has to accept more graduate students in its master's or Ph.D. program, reallocation could result in a lowering of standards. For a student joining, say, the physics department who is asked to teach writing, the assignment may be unwelcome because it would not contribute to his or her career.

Although the Curricula and Courses Committee is not specifically charged to consider the economics of the proposal, English said, it has developed a statement of concern about the risk of pressing forward with changes in the general education requirements without clearly demonstrating to the Senate how additional courses would be paid for.

"The committee, while supportive of the concept of writing across the curriculum, is gravely concerned about the economic implications of the task force report," says the statement.

Another area of concern centered on what some faculty perceive to be an asymmetry between the treatment of quantitative and writing skills in the proposal.

Jim Hurley, a professor of mathematics, protested the requirement that a score of 600 on the math portion of the SAT would be considered to demonstrate math competency at entry to the University and would eliminate the need for further quantitative courses. "As a citizen of the 21st century, a well educated university graduate needs some active understanding — about technology, computing, math," he said. That a graduate might be considered educated with a math competency at high school level "strikes me as embarrassing," he added.

Hurley noted that the University of California recently proposed completely removing the SAT from its entrance requirements, yet "our university is now advocating total measurement of quantitative education by the SAT exam, which tests high school math."

English responded that Hurley's concerns reflect a philosophical conflict in the University community: "do we want competency or experience?" A similar tension applies to the debate about second language requirements: "Is it seat time or performance level?" he asked.

"Many people at the University believe that competency is sufficient when it comes to minimal requirements for general education," English said. "Others believe it's experience that counts."

A second forum will take place on March 1, from 4 to 6 p.m., in Room 143, Arjona Building.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu