My university, Morgan State, is revising its general education curriculum requirements. Obviously, this is an exciting and anxious time, as the faculty gather to share their pedagogical methods and ideals while protecting our turf and trying to fend off managerial incursions on both ideals and turf. When we met last Spring, our president held up a copy of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift and suggested that we should use it as a guide. Though there are serious methodological problems with their research (and troubling substantiation for previous research showing that many students are not and will not be well-served by a college education) the book does help those of us in the humanities and liberal arts make the case for our disciplines.
Arum and Roksa use data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment to demonstrate that the only students who show significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication have taken certain kinds of courses. These courses had three factors in common: (1) more than 40 pages of reading per week, (3) more than 20 pages of writing per semester, and (3) high teacher expectations.
As a result, I have proposed that Morgan State (and other public universities) should require these types of courses at the start so that core critical competencies are available as they go on to their major coursework. (The longer proposal is more specific to Morgan’s needs but also includes lengthy details like book lists.) The best way to do this is the First-Year Seminar. Small liberal arts college faculty are probably familiar with this model, but it is uncommon at large universities.
In general, First-Year Seminars combine close reading of difficult texts with regular and lengthy writing about those texts. Small class sizes cultivate a cohort of mutually-supporting active learners. They can also include a variety of campus orientation experiences for new students, and offer a “campus canon” that provides touchstones for future learning. Finally, they give students an early opportunity to investigate a potential major with permanent faculty from that major.
Faculty members from across the university participate in both semesters of the seminar, including faculty in the sciences and professional schools. Rather than lecturing, expert and non-expert faculty members alike are encouraged to approach the texts as readers. Neither “sages on the stage” nor “guides on the side,” faculty seminar leaders serve as model learners and primarily offer their experience of close reading, reflective writing, and critical engagement to the students.
For the first semester for the seminar, four to eight texts are chosen each year, generally with a few texts serving as a “campus canon” and other texts rotating. Most of the texts in some way count as classics, but are not necessarily part of the conventional canon. All of the texts introduce important intellectual, cultural, scientific, and artistic ideas that serve as a basis for the rest of our students’ education while cementing a sense of place and shared identity. For instance, when I was an undergraduate at Bard we read Plato’s Republic, Montaigne’s Essays, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk. It’s since evolved. At Morgan we pride ourselves on our specialization in Africana literature and philosophy, so we would likely highlight Africana writing.
The second semester focuses students on the reading and interpretation of a specific text. Where in the first semester students all read and discuss the same texts, in the second semester they begin to develop specialized knowledge and to delve deeply into the problems of a specific text or author. Where the text itself is short enough to allow it, professors also teach the works that inspired or are inspired by the text under analysis.
So long as the course meets the reading and writing requirements, faculty are free to design and propose second-semester courses to fit their interests and departmental needs. In fact, for a First-Year Seminar to work, it is important that faculty members from outside the liberal arts offer courses in this second semester. There are endless possibilities, mixing classics with new and noteworthy works of contemporary scholarship and literature.
Compared to the prerequisite writing courses that are usually part of the general education program, it may seem that a First-Year Seminar presents unmanageable scheduling and staffing challenges. However, these challenges are in fact the core strengths of a First-Year Seminar.
Many universities are reticent to demand that their faculties assign such large assignments for simple workload reasons. (Imagine grading thousands of pages of writing each semester while enforcing “high expectations.”) Thus the First-Year Seminar requires faculty across the university to share the load. This is not simply a cost-saving measure: if the First-Year Seminar is taught by faculty throughout the university, then it can serve both to inculcate a culture of writing across the disciplines and to ensure that a wider range of texts are offered. Students can gravitate towards seminars that capture their interests and passions, which will maximize the chances that their motivation will lead to increased skills. What’s more, second-semester seminars can be directly related to their intended major, which allows them an early and in-depth test of those interests before changing majors would require additional time to complete their degree.
In the traditional university, seminar classes are privileges for upper-level students who have passed introductory survey courses. Yet there is a general utility to reasoning and problem solving skills that students cultivate through demanding reading and writing assignments required by an attentive professor with high expectations. Without these skills, the surveys of material specific to a discipline (supposedly required for more advanced work) are largely wasted.
Though it would seem that the inclusion of faculty from across the university in the first semester “campus canon” seminar would replace experts with amateurs in front of our classrooms, this is another example of what makes a First-Year Seminar such a powerful institutional practice. Rather than giving in to the temptation to lecture on familiar material, faculty in the First-Year Seminar help to model an approach to the new and unfamiliar for their students.
I believe that the “liberal arts” ought to teach “techniques for freedom.” Watching passively from the audience, a student learns to sit still, take notes, and regurgitate material. Moreover, they learn to be passive inquirers: the solution to ignorance is to raise your hand and appeal to the expert authority in the classroom. Yet critical thinking and complex reasoning require active engagement with the unknown. The seminar format cultivates the habits that allow one to move from confusion to clarity as an independent learner.
This proposal might end up being cheaper than current practices, but it is not necessarily cost-saving. To place our incoming class of 1600 students in small seminars of 20 each would require at least 80 sections each semester of First-Year Seminar. This is certainly a daunting number. However, in principle this is achievable: we offered 33 sections of Humanities 201 in Spring 2012, all taught by a single department, and the load will be lighter if it is shared. Many hands make light work.
Nonetheless, I think the more important price is this one: according to MHEC, Morgan State spent $3.2 million dollars in fiscal year 2009 on non-credit developmental education. That’s a lot of money, and we owe it to our students to spend it effectively. The data suggests that small classes with high reading and writing loads are what works. Which is more expensive: a university with milquetoast general education requirements and a 68% first-year retention rate, or a university with a rigorous first-year seminar and a 90% first-year retention rate?