On Friday and Saturday I joined nine CSU teams at a workshop of the Council on Undergraduate Research, held at Cal State Los Angeles. Of the high impact practices, undergraduate research is both vexing and particularly promising. Its potential is to rescue GE from a losing race with content: instead of trying to run our students through an exponentially widening pool of Intro To Everything, we may be able to walk them through the ways knowledge is created and tested in various kinds of inquiry — literary, scientific, etc. Students might graduate better equipped to continue learning on their own, effectively picking up the content that keeps outrunning our courses.
Yet lower-division courses are hard to teach this way. It’s one thing to conduct research with the hotshots who survived into your capstone; less typical to explore unanswered questions in the opening survey course, including everyonein the work , including those at risk of dropping out. Yet the apparent value for persistence and gap closing could mean it’s worth figuring out.
At the end of the two-day workshop a participant from Monterey Bay — himself a kind of celebrity of CSU undergraduate research — asked representatives from the chancellor’s office how we might better support a research culture in a system of universities that has historically put teaching first. We didn’t really have an answer.
The following day I left for the Provost’s Teaching and Learning Summit at UW Oshkosh. A faculty leadership team there spent last summer developing a new GE curriculum, and this year’s summit — unlike its predecessors — had a political purpose mixed in with the faculty development: to introduce the broader campus to the proposed new framework.
Over lunch with the leadership team, I learned they’re being careful with the roll-out. As on the CSU campuses recently revising GE, Oshkosh reformers want to stay with design principles for as long as possible, building buy-in and getting as close to consensus as they can before letting the discussion turn to “implementation,” and the scramble for FTES. I was there with fellow guest speaker Robert Zemsky to hold the focus on larger, national issues up to the last minute, the day before roll-out of the new model.
The proposed changes at Oshkosh are exciting: as a Wisconsin campus involved in Give Students a Compass, the university is considering many of the same innovations on deck for the CSU. I’m glad their effort benefits from realpolitik.
Yet, like the brain-teaser about supporting undergraduate research, I find the need to defer implementation — read, faculty competition — hard to address.
Shouldn’t we be eager to unleash the innovation of individual faculty members? In well functioning markets, success is its own reward. Create a tablet computer that people want, or a cure for arthritis, or a chain of attractive coffee houses, and that’s that. You’re ready to roll it out, and don’t have to cool your jets first, while policy makers like me try to downplay everyone else’s incentives first.
But in higher ed, it’s apparently not enough to advance knowledge in your discipline while simultaneously improving undergraduate success, nor enough to create an updated, coherent and engaging general education curriculum. Creative, cutting edge improvement is only half the job. The other half, for now, is persuading colleagues it’s worth donating their effort, even if it costs us all a little more, and earns us the same or less.