Every semester, I have the same conversations with students:
“No, there is no extra credit…”
“Yes, you have to take the final exam…”
Most of the time, I don’t mind these conversations. In some ways, it’s comforting; students will always have the same questions and concerns, will always challenge faculty in the same ways, will always need the same kinds of support. I particularly love the time of the semester when students come in to share some new revelation, because they just started working on their final papers on earnest and are expanding their knowledge beyond what’s merely on the syllabus. One of the best parts of the job is watching students learn on their own, using their classes as the basis for further education.*
However, there is one conversation I have that always bothers me. It feels like I am having this conversation more often than I used to, although it’s entirely possible that I am instead only growing more tired of having it.**
This conversation always happens in upper-division courses, and always involves the final paper. The student comes to my office, worried about the final paper. He does not know what he wants to write about. The student tells me he doesn’t know how to come up with an argument for his paper, and asks for my help. At this point, I remind the student of our department’s core curriculum, which he has already worked through before getting to this point. The student has taken courses on reading literature through its historical context and through the various lenses of literary theory. The student has learned about genres and patterns. The student has taken courses in argumentative writing and research. In short, the student has learned all the skills he needs to do the work; he only needs to put the pieces together. Although this conversation is easier with students who have taken some of the core classes with me (so I can draw from specific examples from our previous classes), I am (more often than not) able to help guide the student to an idea, an argument, a starting point for a research project. And at the end, the students realize that they have, in fact, done this work in the past, and are capable of moving forward on their projects.
(Note: I refuse to simply give students a topic, at least in upper-division classes. Part of the work, in my opinion, is generating these projects on one’s own. However, I’m happy to help students find those topics that interest them. Sometimes this means rather long conversations about their interests, their other classes, etc. But it always works.)
The reason why this conversation bothers me is that, honestly, I don’t think we should be having it. The reason why we have the lower-division core is so that the students can apply the skills and knowledge base to their work in upper-division courses. And, to be fair, many students do this. But there are many students who do not. Similarly, there are many students who seem to forget what they learned in their gen-ed courses. Every semester, I have students tell me that they didn’t know that I expected them to develop an argument, or work with research, because they thought they only had to do that in their Composition courses (the courses devoted to learning how to write). I have had students who were genuinely surprised to learn that they were expected to retain what they have learned in their COMP courses, because they would be expected to apply that knowledge in other classes.***
The short of it is this: every semester, I work with students who approach their college education one class at a time, and do not connect their classes to one another. And I’d like some advice on how to do a better job of working with these students.
In my own core and gen-ed courses, I forecast to my students the kinds of work they will be expected to do with the knowledge learned and skills developed in these courses. In Literary Analysis and Research, we don’t learn theory for the sake of learning theory.**** Rather, we learn how theory can help us to come to terms with texts, and how different theories shine a light on different dark corners of the texts. And in my upper-division courses, I always connect back to the core: discussions of literary history are always connected back to the work done in Literary Traditions; allusions to theory are connected back to Literary Analysis and Research; etc. Additionally, my syllabi make clear that students are expected to build upon the work they have already done in their previous classes (or, as sometimes happens, are encouraged to bring to their work what they are doing in their other classes that semester; I always encourage my students to try and make such connections).
One of the benefits of teaching at a relatively small university (and teaching a variety of classes) is that I get to work with many students multiple times. This is even true of non-majors, who sometimes take multiple classes with me to fulfill gen-ed requirements, or just get out of their majors for a brief period.^ However, quite often (that is, multiple times every semester), students will approach each class as if it’s brand new, with new expectations and a new foundation to work from. (For instance, this semester, I have had two students come to me and ask what I want from their final papers. I have had both students in previous upper-division classes. Both told me they were not sure if I wanted “the same thing,” because these classes worked with different material as the previous classes. (One student told me that he didn’t know if I wanted the same kinds of papers, because this class was about poetry and our previous class focused on novels.)
From what I can tell, there are many reasons why students might approach each class as an individual, self-contained unit. (OK, I lied; I’m going to assign blame.) “Teaching to the test” has, on the whole, ruined educators’ ability to help students see how all of their classes work to develop a larger intellectual ecosystem of knowledge and skills. When the goal of the course is limited to the test at the end of the semester, the students are not encouraged to think beyond the class at hand. Students who are focused on the test are not considering the variety of possibilities their classes open them up to. Students often come to advising meetings focused on fulfilling requirements, with no notion of how the pieces can be put together to create something more than just an completed advising form. Similarly, I know many faculty who operate in ways that also encourage this approach to education: they are rigid (and at times inflexible) regarding what kinds of projects students can work on, for instance, and (perhaps unconsciously) encourage students to think that there’s only one way to engage in academic work. Or they advise students to rush through their gen-eds, so that they can get to the “real” work of their requirements for the major.
I have also had to witness discussions among faculty – sometimes in front of students – that focus the comparative worthlessness of various university gen-eds. One colleague doesn’t see the value in the History gen-ed; another thinks there’s no need for both Physical and Biological Sciences; entire departments seems convinced that Public Speaking is a waste of time and resources.^^ I can’t even begin to count the number of people who think the Philosophical Inquiry gen-ed should be purged. Part of this comes from the recent efforts at my campus to reduce the number of gen-ed requirements, to bring us more into line with other SUNY schools. But part of this seems to be a desire to stay relevant in a system that is always looking to make cuts. It’s no longer enough to merely serve department programs; we must also serve the larger university. (Note: I don’t have a problem with this; in fact, I support it fully. But I do not agree that we must disparage other offerings in order to make ours seem more important.)
The short-term goal, in this regard, seems to be defending the gen-eds one offers, while pointing to other gen-eds and identifying which ones are extraneous. However, doing so ignores the long-term goal. Doing so ignores the point of the gen-ed program. Far more often than I wish were true, faculty join students in understanding the gen-ed program as little more than hoops one must jump through in order to earn a degree. Gen-eds are taken because they fit into the right days and times, and not because they can usefully enhance one’s personal educational goals.^^^
The long-term goal, of course, is finding ways to incorporate the gen-ed program into the major and minor curricula. Just as the goal of the core curriculum is to build a foundation for students to do the complex work of upper-division classes.
So now I come to my questions:
How do you encourage your students to see their gen-ed classes as building skills they will be expected to use in later classes?
How do you manage these expectations in your upper-division classes?
How do you incorporate your university’s gen-ed work into your classes?
How do your design your upper-division classes to build upon the work in your program’s lower-division/core courses.
In short, how do you encourage students to opt-in to the idea that their education is more than a series of unrelated courses they sit through before being awarded a degree?
*One of my favorite former students, who I now lovingly call Heavy Metal Zak, once rushed up to me and asked, very seriously, “Dr. Donahue, have you discovered Proust yet?” He insisted that we needed to talk about this, even though I had never read him. I love that he didn’t care; he just needed to share this with me.
**I’m also not going to try to assign blame; there’s enough to go around: high schools, the media’s representation of higher education, local issues on my campus, etc.
***My university also has a public speaking gen-ed requirement, and I take advantage of that by having students do oral presentations. There are always those students who think it’s unfair, because they already proved in their gen-ed course that they can do this. Having to do it again is, to them, redundant.
****Don’t get me wrong; I basically minored in Theory For The Sake Of Theory. But I’m a huge fucking geek.
^I honestly love those students. I love when students look for something different, just to be doing something different. One student, who graduated last year, took 4 classes with me, even though she did not major or minor in any program in my department. She thought I taught interesting books, and so took classes with me just to have something fun to do outside of her Psychology major. By our last class, she was writing fairly nuanced analyses informed by psychoanalytic theory.
^^Everybody sees the value of the writing-based gen-eds. That is, until it’s time to teach or pay for them. Then the support disappears faster than students on the Thursday afternoon before Spring Break.
^^^I often see this with the Modern Language requirement. Rarely do students seem to care which language they learn, and simply take what they can get into. This is never true of the students who study Mohawk, of which there are too few.