Strengthening the general ed curriculum

The changing tasks, roles and responsibilities of instructional faculty
By: | Issue: June, 2017
May 24, 2017

No institution can be better than its faculty. An institution can be better than its president, its football team, its library and its food service—but if the faculty are weak, the institution is weak.

We are in an exciting time for faculty in that their roles are expanding with new opportunities in online education, MOOCs, service learning and the increasing need for lifelong learning.

Indeed we are in the era of “learning by all means.” Our knowledge society requires continual learning and relearning, and the course content must be delivered by all means.

The weakest link in the expanding instructional continuum—where we are least successful—is in general education and freshman introductory courses. The general education curriculum orients students to college and lets students know that they are no longer in high school.

The daunting goal of a general education curriculum is to inspire students and have them experience the joy of learning. Its aim is provide students with the tools to learn how to learn, to follow and generate arguments, to witness the serendipity of discovery and the rigors of confirming a hypothesis.

If successful, it will inculcate respect for the rules of evidence, foster rigorous skepticism, and set students on a lifelong course of seeking truth and uprooting falsehoods. In our rapidly changing times, meeting the goals of general education has become especially urgent and challenging.

Inspire at the start

In the past, students who were not inspired and challenged by general education courses still persevered, believing that a college degree was essential to upward mobility and a good life. Today’s students drop out. Increasingly, they come from the lowest socioeconomic quintiles and don’t have the luxury of lingering in college.

Soon they are saddled with debt, harbor doubts about the worthiness of the pursuit, and succumb to a painful awareness of the odds against their realizing the American dream in contemporary America.

While there are notable and encouraging general education success stories, the overall picture across the U.S. is not good—as borne out by the high number of college dropouts, the low graduation rates and extended time to completion, and the well-documented concerns that our graduates do not know how to think critically or how to write persuasively.

Of course, there are many other factors that contribute to these dismal results. But many of them can be traced back to the widespread failure to inspire and motivate in the first weeks of the freshman year—a key task of general education.

Dramatic reversal

To turn this around, we must radically change our thinking not only about the roles of faculty who teach general education courses, but also who among our instructors should be assigned to teach these classes.

Over the past several decades the profile of faculty has changed dramatically. In 1975, 45 percent of the professoriate were full time tenure-stream, and 24 percent were part time. By 2011, 41 percent were part-time, according to The Faculty Factor (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

From 1975 to 2011, the number of tenure-track and tenured professors increased by 36 percent, while the number of part-time professors increased by 305 percent.

From 1993 to 2013, the most striking development has been the increasing reliance on non-career-ladder faculty—both full- and part-time—to do the instructional “heavy lifting,” specifically in general education and freshman introductory courses.

These faculty profile and assignment changes were not by design but were the result of tight budgets, burgeoning enrollments, and outmoded academic and administrative structures. They crept up on us as we continued to function as if no changes in the faculty profile had occurred.

Back to basics

With our success as instructional institutions dependent to such a high degree on our success with general education, we need to go back to basics and rebuild from the bottom up. The foundation for true learning consists of three constants:

1. High touch. As university presidents who seek donations from successful alumni hear repeatedly, what truly makes a difference to graduates is having had faculty members who reached out to them, connected with them, challenged them, and gave them a sense of belonging.

2. Active learning. What Ben Franklin said over 200 years ago remains true today: “Tell me and I forget; teach me and I remember; involve me and I learn.” Active learning is how, over the centuries, apprenticeships have successfully passed knowledge from one generation to the next.

A return to active learning is what lies behind the increasingly popular and effective flipped classroom pedagogy.

3. Intellectual rigor. The goals of learning are mastery and excellence. These goals are achieved only by adhering to exacting standards of evidence and by recognizing the value of careful and systematic reasoning.

As John Adams, our second president, said: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The Enlightenment concepts of reason and disciplined reasoning are what propel learning.

A general education program that does not embody these constants will fail. Yet a successful program requires much more than this. Instructors must be adept at using instructional technology that meets students where they are.

They must have the time and the disposition to be mentors, role models and scholarly exemplars. It is they who must provide the personal touch, the engagement and the rigor.

Unfortunately, this is a far cry from where so many of us are today. We have fallen into the penny-wise and pound-foolish approach of asking our least experienced and non-career-track faculty—faculty we grossly underpay, overwork and fail to treat as full-fledged members of our academic communities—to teach general education courses.

Finding the right instructors

Virtually all institutions of higher education today have invested much in initiatives for student success, retention and timely graduation. Without a course correction in who and how we teach our general education curriculum, these initiatives will have little positive effect.

Nothing less than the futures of our institutions and the future of the American workforce ride on the success of these efforts. Clearly the reasons for radically re-thinking and re-shaping our general education programs are compelling.

Recognizing the urgency for success in general education, we must seek instructors who are able to:

  • be fully engaged with students their first semester
  • be well-versed in how today’s students learn
  • be an effective user of available instructional technologies that enhance the personal touch
  • be a member of the team who facilitates personal learning and early alerts
  • be an exemplar of a scholar who respects the rules of evidence, rigorous skepticism and the quest for truth and uprooting falsehoods

To attract such talent, many things must be done differently. We must bite the budget bullet and offer compensation to general education faculty that’s comparable to faculty with other assignments. We must change the pecking order and make teaching general education as prestigious and honorable as teaching in major or graduate programs.

The faculty who teach general education courses who are part-time and full-time non-career-track must be recognized as full-fledged and franchised members of the faculty.

Changing structures

Successfully staffing the general education curriculum will almost certainly require changing long-standing and venerated administrative structures. For example, we may need to abandon having the academic department be the locus for hiring and assigning faculty to general education duties.

Without such changes, it may be nearly impossible for general education not to remain the stepchild. The problem is not that departments fail to recognize the need for effective instruction in general education. Instead, the difficulty arises because the primary responsibilities of departments lie in ensuring quality and coverage in their graduate and major courses.

With the current paucity of tenure-track faculty, departments are strapped to staff even these courses with full-time, seasoned faculty.

Few vocations can be more satisfying than giving today’s diverse students the gift of reason and the wherewithal to thrive in our uncertain and rapidly changing world. We have many faculty eager and willing to take up the challenge. We need to reverse course and give them the resources and support they need to realize their calling.

James Muyskens is a professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and former president of CUNY Queens College.