Gen Ed on My Mind

AGLS will invite a series of association officers, members and guests to write short essays on current general education issues and matters of the day. Our aim is to have a new essay every 6 weeks. Past essays will be archived online for a year, then in association offices. Have something on your mind? Contact us at execdir@agls.org to find out how to share your ponderings.

Creating a State GEM - Revisited

Joyce Lucke - Monday, May 04, 2015

Creating a State GEM – Revisited

Vicki Stieha, Ph.D. Director, Foundational Studies Program and Asst. Professor Curriculum, Instruction and Foundational Studies.  Boise State University.

Last year at the AGLS Conference in Atlanta, a team of presenters from five Idaho public colleges and universities shared our statewide plan for general education which provides consistency across institutions while allowing institutional variety.  We call our program the Idaho General Education Matriculation (or GEM) Plan

The move to create commonality in the general education core for our institutions came from the faculty and leadership of our institutions.  In 2011 it was clear that the time had come to update our statewide general education and transfer policy to be more consistent with national models and with the changes happening at Boise State University and the University of Idaho.  As our 2014 presentation  explains, our statewide general education leadership collaboratively designed a framework that would provide common elements (Ways of Knowing in Mathematics, Social & Behavioral Science, Arts & Humanities, and Science; and Integrative Skills in Written and Oral Communication).  In addition we wanted to provide the freedom for each institution to emphasize courses and experiences that were aligned to its own mission and values.  These “Institution Specific” credits were left up to each campus with the guidance that they should reflect “high impact practices” (AAC&U, 2013).  The Ways of Knowing and Integrative Skills areas were modeled on the AAC&U LEAP Framework. 

Since our presentation in September 2014, we have continued to revise our GEM policy and each campus has now submitted the courses that we offer in each category to a statewide portal which will be publicly available later this year. The review and submission process required the faculty on each campus to create, revise, or review their general education courses – we called that process “GEM Stamping.” In some cases the faculty deliberations raised contentious issues that had to be reconciled by our statewide general education council (e.g. what if a course is general education on one campus, but not on another? What if a course on one campus is offered at a higher level on another – are they equivalent?).  When needed, we gather the disciplinary faculty representatives in one location or via teleconference to help solve stalemates so that we can move forward. 

Although not perfect (is it even possible to have a perfect statewide plan?) we have a plan and associated courses which recognizes that students can and will “swirl” (Albertine, 2011) between and among our campuses.  Students’ work in any campus’ Ways of Knowing or Integrative Skills GEM stamped course will transfer to satisfy general education credit requirements when they transfer from one public state institution to another.  While requirements for completion of a major remain the domain of departmental faculty on each campus, the step we have taken provides an outcomes-based system to accept credit where previously the course number, name, or description was the determiner between earning credit in general education or elective credit. 

Our work on the GEM plan continues with our first Annual Gen Ed Disciplines meeting in December 2015 to continue building connection and coherence into our statewide general education courses.  Our next step…statewide agreement on a learning outcome assessment plan. 

One enduring lesson learned from the several years we have spent getting to this point is that we must continue to attend to general education, asking questions and creating paths through our degrees if we are to meet our Complete College goals for Idaho higher education.  We believe the policy, the practices, and the structure that we have created in our GEM plan provides the mechanisms we need to do just that.  

If you are interested in knowing more about the Idaho GEM Plan or our process, please contact Vicki Stieha (vickistieha@boisestate.edu).

Why Join AGLS?

Joyce Lucke - Thursday, April 09, 2015

Why join AGLS?
Michael J. Kolb, Metropolitan State University of Denver

In an early 20th century response to Thomas Edison's statement that attending college is a useless endeavor, Albert Einstein replied that “the value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

Yet, almost 100 years later, with college costs on the rise and most institutions of higher education employing a market model increasingly defined by the narrower needs of the today’s economy, the liberal studies are being squeezed out of the curriculum. Consequently, a liberal studies education is becoming less accessible, even threatening to widen the gap between the affluent members of society and those of lesser privilege or opportunity.

In 2013, after intense stints as a faculty member, general education coordinator, and administrator, I attended my first conference of the Association of General and Liberal Studies. This event was no accident; in fact it seemed to be a destined rendezvous along my professional journey of becoming the most effective professor I could possibly be.

As an educator who has been faced with straddling the differing pedagogies of the 20th and 21st centuries, I have always experienced some discomfort about following the age-old industrial era formula of bifurcating major and general studies, employing the rigidity of the lecture-based classroom, and using the credit hour to measure performance.

This discomfort, coupled with the facts that most of today’s 1.8 million 2015 graduates will be under employed and incur enough student-loan debt to inhibit financial independence until they are 30, inspired me to seek solutions that I could effectively practice as a mid-level administrator and a public intellectual in higher education.  The term “public intellectual” is important, and I will return to it shortly.

As I sought to locate information about effectual practices in higher education, I began attending a variety of conferences sponsored by such notable organizations such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.  As a result of this quest I gathered an incredible amount of information!  I learned about pedagogy, administrative practices, and policies; this knowledge allowed me to see the bigger picture, which, over time, helped me to nudge my institution towards substantive 21st century educational change.

Soon thereafter, however, I found myself still wanting as I still viewed myself as an intellectual practitioner rather than an academic. The difference between the two is salient: an academic seeks an audience comprised of other academics; an intellectual seeks a broader audience of academics, students, and the educated public. While the afore-mentioned organizations provide immeasurable service to academe, their audience was mostly geared towards administrative practice as well as public policy. I was more interested in engaging with similar minded intellectuals who knew about “nuts and bolts” of changing: those who were affecting change “in the trenches” and expressing their convictions through practice.

This brings me back to the Association of General and Liberal Studies. I attended my first AGLS conference in Indianapolis in 2013, bearing the burden of how to begin general education reform at a large state institution in Indiana with a program that had not changed in 40 years. There I met fellow intellectuals – directors, coordinators, and faculty members – who felt as passionate as I did, who were not only willing to listen and offer practical advice, but who could demonstrate what they accomplished. 

After the conference, I felt transformed.  I finally discovered a group of colleagues who could help me map out the specific steps I needed to affect significant change.  And with the tools I learned, I was able to more effectively communicate the need for reform at my own institution. I also feel confident that I can do my part to assure the success and longevity of liberal studies and intellectualism through the 21st century.

Higher education is at a crossroads as it fully enters the 21st century. We must serve a remarkably diverse study body in terms of age and background, and we must try to best meet their varied needs and aspirations as well as the requirements of today's economy. But we must also do our best to provide intellectual training in liberal studies. Albert Einstein said it best almost a century ago: “intellectuals solve problems.”

Things that have Worked Before

Joyce Lucke - Monday, February 23, 2015

by Dr. Ted Remington, University of Saint Francis

Last semester, I was talking with students in my section of the University of Saint Francis’s first-year experience seminar about the nature of the course itself.  Several had voiced complaints about compulsory additional sessions held during the first eight weeks of the semester that were intended to provide an “extended orientation” aspect to the seminar (e.g. learning how to register for classes, finer points of financial aid, etc.). 

I understood their complaints—the sessions are held on Friday afternoons and often cover material that, while valuable, students feel they already know.  I explained that these sessions were part of an experiment we were trying to see how to best get this information to students.

One woman said without hesitation, “We’re always getting experimented on!”

Suddenly, the conversation was no longer about lack of enthusiasm for orientation meetings on Friday afternoons.  The swift, firm nature of the comment made it clear this was a thought that went beyond this topic and that had been percolating for a while.

Several other students nodded in agreement.

On that particular day, we didn’t have time to delve deeply into this issue beyond a follow up question or two from me, but the comment stuck with me.  So, a couple of days later, I put this issue on our agenda for the class and we discussed it a bit further.

I explained to them that I was intrigued by this sentiment given that so much time and effort is spent trying to find new ways to “meet students where they are.”  Flipped classrooms, service learning, social media  . . . how many papers and talks have faculty (and not just those of us who deal specifically with general education curriculum issues) given/read/heard about the need to “rethink” what we do and find new approaches aimed at “millenials” or “21st century learners?” I told my students that many of my colleagues, both at our university and in education more generally, were desperately searching for ways to more effectively reach students.  Papers, panels, books, conferences, websites, and whole organizations were devoted to this quest.  Were we wrong?

The responses I got were not univocal or without ambiguity, but they were interesting.  One student mentioned an experiment done at his high school—students were all given iPads to use.  But in reality, this technology was largely wasted on games, not learning. It was, in his terms, a “total waste.”  Other students mentioned attempts to do things online just for the sake of doing them online.

As one student said, “Why keep changing things that have worked before?”

Now, I don’t think for a moment that these students are secretly yearning to have me come in and lecture at them for 75 minutes twice a week.  I’ve seen too much evidence in my own classrooms that students both appreciate and get a lot out of innovative approaches to use nothing but old-school methods.

But I take their point seriously: do we put too much of a premium on being innovative and “outside the box” for its own sake?  Of course, we never actually admit to such an attitude, but if we were being honest with ourselves, do we sometimes not fall into that kind of thinking—fearful that we will fall into obsolescence if we’re not constantly trying to reinvent the wheel? Do we sometimes try things primarily in the hope and belief that doing so will keep students from seeing us as (horrors!) boring?

And if we are truly interested in meeting students “where they are,” we might keep in mind that today’s college students—at least those of “traditional” age—are a generation that have been assessed and tested from their first day in kindergarten.  They are self-aware enough to pick up on the fact that they are often subjected to “flavor of the month” pedagogical techniques as the educational industrial complex throws things at a wall to see what will stick (i.e., raise test scores, increase retention numbers, or produce other allegedly objective measures of student success). 

What I took away from this interaction was not that I should become one of those faculty members who pulls out the same worn manila folder, stuffed with yellowed lecture notes, from the file cabinet at the beginning of every semester, but rather that to the extent I do deviate from “things that have worked before,” I do so mindfully and explain why to students explicitly.  If I can’t provide a sound, easy-to-communicate reason to them for an experiment, I probably shouldn’t be subjecting them to it in the first place. 

Again, I don’t think any of us truly believe that “new” equals “better.” But I suspect we are often seduced into thinking that way by forces both within and outside the academy—talking ourselves into the benefits of trying something out without truly thinking through whether it actually is better.

Since this discussion with my students, I’ve found that I’ve set the bar just a touch higher when thinking about whether a particular social media app, classroom-flipping technique, or wiz-bang technological feature on our course management system is worth trying out.  I still like trying new things and finding ways of engaging students more thoroughly in their learning.  And I don’t assume that the way I learned material years ago is necessarily the best way to teach it to my students today.  But sometimes the best approach might just be to use “things that have worked before.”

The More Things Change...

Joyce Lucke - Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A big box arrived at my office last summer. It was from AGLS Past President Larry Kaptain, and it was full of back issues of Perspectives, the former journal of the AGLS. The oldest one inside dated to the summer of 1987, and that’s the one that most intrigued me because I graduated from college that summer. Wondering what the issues were in general and liberal studies at that time, when I had just joined the ranks of “liberally educated people,” I opened the volume eagerly.

The full conference schedule for AGLS greeted my eyes, and a couple of familiar themes leaped off the pages. Several sessions pointed to a raging debate: should we be teaching the western tradition or non-western, multicultural content? Another set of sessions argued for a feminist approach to liberal education, for transcending racial boundaries, and for the role of general and liberal studies at HBCUs. A third group of sessions explored the way Gen Ed programs were preparing students for the 1980s workforce: one was based on interviews with alumni, for example, while another concentrated on the experiences of non-traditional students, and another addressed the question, what can one do with a humanities degree? There was even one lonely session on assessment.

On the surface, it may seem like we haven't advanced very much from the 1980s. We have old wine in new bottles, perhaps. As a historian, I thought of George Santayana’s famous 1905 aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Is that the case for us in general and liberal studies—or in higher education, broadly? Have we forgotten some important lesson?

The first essay in the volume offered me an answer. Titled, “Liberal Arts, Teaching and Critical Literacy: Toward a Definition of Schooling as a Form of Cultural Politics,” the AGLS published it in advance of the conference so all could read it and discuss at a plenary. The author, Henry Giroux, is now hailed as one of the top educational thinkers in the modern world, a John Dewey for our time, and I can't do justice to the entire essay here. For my purposes, suffice it to say, he noted that the meaning of any education has to be made and remade for each generation, over and over. I was reminded of a colleague’s frequent and wry observation that we faculty get older, while our students remain perpetually aged 18-22. We have to remember that: no matter how much WE grow in experience and wisdom, THEY are pretty much always inexperienced, naive, and young.

So it would be easy to look at that 1987 conference and the debates and challenges it reflected and throw in the towel, to say well, we've tried before, we can't do it. But I’m not at all cynical about the similarities between then and now. I wasn't even that shocked, in fact. From 1987 to 2014 is only 27 years. It’s not long at all if you study the human past. It’s barely a blip. We all know that important changes sometimes happen slowly, over decades or centuries.

In fact, significant changes have happened in general and liberal studies since 1987. The 54th Annual AGLS conference in Atlanta featured sessions on the globalization or internationalization of curricula, for example, a much more sophisticated concern than the old western vs. non-western debate. Similarly, topics about diversity, inclusivity, and privilege have broadened and deepened older discussions about race, gender, and class. Meanwhile, questions about non-traditional students have given way to access, swirling, degree completion, and high impact practices. True, we still worry about preparing students for the workplace, but I have to think that's largely because the workplace has also changed. As Terrel Rhodes of the AAC&U showed us in his fine keynote presentation, the average American with a bachelor’s degree is expected to hold 10-14 different jobs by time she reaches 40.

My point is, don't feel discouraged if the pace of progress feels slow or if it seems like Groundhog Day, especially if you have been doing general and liberal studies “work” for a long time. I haven't been doing it all that long, myself. I only crossed over to the dark side of administration ten years ago. But I have been living and breathing general education every day since then. To the class of 2018, by contrast, the concept of general education, let alone the ideal of a liberal education, is largely unknown. This fall, my campus welcomed 4,360-some freshmen. The number of Americans seeking a degree has gone up dramatically, and the number of international students coming here to acquire an American degree is also rising. All of them need our help to make meaning of their liberal educations as a whole—and of their general educations in particular. And so will members of the class of 2019 and 2020 and on and on and on. As Giroux said, “liberal education is a way of life that has to be fought for.” That's why the AGLS came into being in 1961, why it still exists today, and why it will still be here twenty years from now.

In short term, I look forward to seeing you in Milwaukee in 2015!

Margaret M. (Meg) Mulrooney
AGLS President

What Will Your Verse Be?

Joyce Lucke - Thursday, August 21, 2014

What will your verse be?

The recent death of Robin Williams shocked the world. 'Heartbroken' is seen again and again in social media posts, expressed in interviews and undoubtedly felt by millions of fans.

Tributes and retrospectives highlight his varied career--featuring routines from stand up, television shows, movies and Broadway performances. Clips from stand-out performances are being replayed repeatedly in every media outlet.

Each of us likely has a favorite performance. Mine is from Dead Poets Society.

Carpe Diem is what many would consider to be the movie’s message, and an often quoted scene of dialogue. For me, another scene hit home, indirectly changing my path in life.

John Keating (Williams) tells his students, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way,” challenging his students to leave their seats and have the courage to view their familiar classroom from a different perspective--setting them on a path that will impact their lives forever.

I remember how I felt watching the film as a graduate student who was about to step into my first classroom as a teaching assistant. I remember wanting to stand on a desk and be John Keating.

Reflecting on why I choose anthropology as my discipline in part stemmed from wanting to see the world from another perspective. After I had a few years teaching under my belt, I was asked to write a teaching philosophy. As I began to write down what teaching meant and my role as a teaching I came to realize I was standing on John Keating’s desk.

How many of us were inspired by Robin William’s performance in Dead Poets Society to become teachers? To go into the humanities or liberal arts? Browsing through the outpouring of tributes on social media, there is a flood of posts from teachers remembering Robin and how his portrayal of John Keating inspired them to enter education.

As I watch clips of Robin Williams, thinking how his performance influenced me, what resonates with me now is the scene of Keating telling the boys what his classroom philosophy is by explaining why poetry is important to these future doctors, lawyers, business mavens and politicians.

In my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. I can see that look in Mr. Pitt's eyes that 19th-century literature has nothing to do with going to business school and medical school. Right? Maybe. Mr. Hopkins--you may agree with him thinking yes, we should simply study our Mr. Pritchard, and learn our rhyme and meter, and go quietly about the business of achieving other ambitions. I have a secret for you. Huddle up. We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

How fascinating to look back and realize how the movie impacted me. Here I am now, as the executive director of an association championing the need to keep in education what makes us human!

Of course, the film is complex and nuanced along many themes. While perhaps narrow in scope, the film can be viewed as a tribute to the profession at its best...teaching not merely of a subject but for the person as well. Isn’t that what we would all like to have -- a lifelong impact on students' lives?

We want our students to be changed for life...to inspire our students to embrace all of life and be changed for life from all the perspectives they encounter while at university. Not only to give them the foundations of a careers but of a life. We want to inspire them so their words, ideas and passions change the world.

John Keating was a maverick whose own passion and skill was focused on teaching his students to not settle for simply becoming a job but to become fully human. That poetry is what makes life worth living. Standing on the desk top would give them the world, as they would be able to see options from there they never would have thought possible.

I think Mr. Keating would agree his philosophy should be extended beyond poetry to all of the arts, humanities and liberal arts. I would even dare to say that Mr. Keating might be a member of AGLS.

Keating asks the boys, what will your verse be?  As we begin a new semester, walking into a classroom of new faces or meeting with a student for the first time, we can affirm what our verse will be. How will I inspire the student before me to appreciate and value how poetry makes us human? Will I be able to convince the student to climb onto the desk so they begin to understand why general education and liberal studies courses will give them wings to soar in whatever job they pursue?

O Captain, My Captain, your fearful trip is done. Your verse has been written. I hope you know how it has and will forever impact those that read it.

Welcome to Gen Ed on My Mind

Joyce Lucke - Monday, May 19, 2014
Welcome to Gen Ed on My Mind!

Our first post goes back to nearly a decade before the origins of AGLS. For more than 50 years the value of a liberal arts education has been discussed. And AGLS has been there as a part of the conversation. We begin our pondering with a short piece by the ultimate STEM scholar.


Education for Independent Thought
from the New York Times, October 5, 1952

It is not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he--with his specialized knowledge--more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to community.

These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not--or at least not in the main--through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the "humanities" as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the field of history and philosophy.

Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kills the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included.

It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects (point system). Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality. Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.


~Albert Einstein