Can we go for it?

A couple of developments in recent weeks fill me with hope for — of all places — California.  Sure, the state’s a fiscal mess, and against all odds may have actually found a way to become broker, automatically setting off additional, very dire “trigger” cuts in what the public funds, including (surprise) higher ed.  It’s a funny time for someone in my position to feel hopeful.

Yet hope springs.  Go figure.  Lately I get my fix from two groups of people not found where I work:  faculty, and students.  The students are in a beginning screenwriting class I just started teaching this past Saturday, for the fun of it.  You know, the way other people bowl.  It’s a blast.  First-day-of-class honeymoon phase, maybe, neither side comfortable enough yet to start getting on each other’s nerves.  But it’s also the learning:  this entry-level course is such an eye-opener for people who don’t know how movies are created.

And that’s what education’s all about, of course, that sheer epiphanic rush, and how it feels when you share it with others.  It’s essentially human, this emotional dimension of learning, making us want it.  I think we owe our success as a species to that.  Our collective intellectual curiosity has carried us through plagues, famine, and tyranny, and will survive the trigger cuts.

So, students.

My second wellspring of optimism — one more connected to my day job here in the death star — is the faculty around the CSU system.  In the last couple of weeks it looks like the Compass Project has secured the funding it needs to make real progress reforming our general education transfer curriculum — the coursework required of all students, regardless of campus, major, or whether they start here or in a community college.

In its first phase the project ran for three years, supporting good work on three CSU campuses, one in partnership with a local community college.  That partnership has become the model for the entire second phase:  a linked network of CSU-community college “dyads” up and down California, all testing new ways to embed engaging experiences like learning communities, undergraduate research, and civic engagement into the classes everyone takes.

Ordinarily in higher ed the prospect of change is, oh, off-putting.  University rewards are often rigged to benefit the faculty who prioritize their independent work in the discipline, at the expense of student learning and success.  Proposed changes in education pull that professional attention back into the classroom.  Support too much innovation in teaching and learning, and you can wreck a career.

But for some reason, not here.  Maybe it’s the teaching-centered mission of the state universities and community colleges.  Or maybe it’s just that California’s fiscal freefall invites a certain recklessness.  But so help me the faculty I know in the CSU and community colleges are not afraid to roll the dice.  At least not so far.

For three years they’ve supported and followed Give Students a Compass through its first phase.  At the same time, the CSU was an early and heartfelt adopter of the College Level Examination Program, with our faculty awarding appropriate credit for prior learning not just in the elective area (where it helps students the least), but toward actual degree requirements.  That single policy — admittedly a bit obscure — has made the CSU a national model of higher ed’s shift to an outcomes orientation.  Last year the community colleges followed suit, and — epitomizing student-centered service — matched their policy to ours, providing our transfer students with consistency and clarity.  And the CSU remains the only university system in the country to grant pilot status to a promising new approach to math remediation called Statway, also embraced in the California Community Colleges.

I look at this willingness to experiment, and the foundation support accumulating for the second phase of the Compass Project, and I have to rub my eyes a little.  Am I really seeing this?  Are we going to go for it?

If so, then from the speaking and consulting I’ve done around the country I think our beleaguered state could become a national model in this way, too.  Lots of institutions do amazing things with the general education curriculum of the students who come to them as freshmen and stay put.  But we at the system level haven’t figured out how you do that in an environment of accelerating student mobility.  California’s faculty — those who actually teach in the state’s community colleges and state universities — seem ready to try something better, on a grand scale:  a transfer curriculum that permits local faculty innovation, engages students from the first day of college, yet still facilitates access and transfer.  We want something cool and integrative and cutting edge, but intelligible to our colleagues at neighboring instutitons, where we know many of our students will go before they’re done.

I have no idea what that will look like.  But I think we may be about to find out.

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