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Telling Our Story of General Education Reform
Prior to our attendance at the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ 2015 Institute on General Education and Assessment, Longwood University’s general education reform committee was pleased with the progress of our efforts to revise our program, yet uncertain about how best to move forward. Late in the institute, our team met with institute faculty member Yves Labissiere to share our concerns. He recommended that we design a model that reflected the identity and spirit of our institution and encouraged us to tell the Longwood University story. This advice synced well with that of institute mentor Kathy Wolfe, who had recommended that the Longwood team scaffold a more sequential approval process for our general education reform efforts. First, we needed to gain faculty approval of student learning outcomes in the program and then design multiple curriculum models for faculty consideration. She reinforced the importance of engaging the faculty as a whole rather than through departments alone.
We were inspired to build upon our strengths and leverage our resources—an institutional commitment to the reform initiative, a strong culture of faculty leadership and engagement, and a cadre of faculty who embraced integrative learning—but also to be mindful of the entirety of our institutional context. Initially, our timeline projected approval of the new curriculum in spring 2016, with implementation in fall 2017. That is not how it turned out. Consistent with the wisdom shared at the institute, we found faculty were not ready to move quickly. We delayed approval of the curriculum and engaged in a more inclusive, iterative, and deliberative process that emphasized explicitly including faculty as experts and learners in the program design. That process also capitalized on our current strengths and strategic initiatives. This focus on faculty engagement and context served us well and resulted in a new multitiered core curriculum—Civitae—that centered on inquiry and integrative learning. The reform process also initiated broader and more fundamental institutional changes that continue to unfold.
Building on Our Strengths
Our commitment to general education reform came from both faculty and administrators. Faculty had recommended revising the general education curriculum in an academic strategic plan developed in 2011–12. In 2013, new presidential leadership spurred the reform process, ensuring that general education revision became an institutional priority in the university’s strategic plan for 2014–18. Sensitive to the nature and rhythms of faculty work, the president also did not impose a timeline on curriculum development but encouraged faculty to dream big and develop an innovative curriculum that truly reflected Longwood. The president, along with the provost, empowered the faculty to drive the reform process and, most importantly, provided financial support consistently during development. The administration’s commitment to funding the new curriculum was critical to overcoming pockets of faculty skepticism.
Longwood’s strong shared governance model also ensured that faculty expertise would be at the center of the revision process. The Faculty Senate, composed of representatives from each of the sixteen academic departments in our three colleges, holds monthly meetings and biannual faculty meetings. In addition, department chairs convene monthly as an advisory group to the provost. The senate leadership meets regularly with both the president and the provost and participates in quarterly board of visitors meetings. This governance structure, as well as the commitment to transparent and frequent faculty communication, created opportunities for continuous dialogue about the new curriculum design.
In fall 2013, the faculty senate appointed the Academic Core Curriculum Committee (ACCC), thirteen faculty members from across the three colleges, to lead the reform process. In addition to broad departmental representation, the committee members ranged from relatively new tenure-track faculty members to others with extensive experience in program or departmental leadership and faculty governance. This group included two former faculty senate chairs and six former or current department chairs. The breadth of representation and the stability of the committee proved valuable in building stakeholders’ trust in the reform process. Early on, the ACCC committed to a substantive redesign of general education and recognized that this would require a significant amount of time and energy, as well as a slower-paced, deliberative process. The committee met twice a week for seventy-five minutes over four semesters and for multiday meetings over two summers.
The current general education model featured one course with unrealized potential. Active Citizenship: An Advanced Writing Seminar was a capstone course that assigned interdisciplinary groups of students to use disciplinary knowledge to understand an issue represented in public discourse, research the issue through many lenses, and produce successful written communication for an intended audience. Some ACCC members saw students profoundly transformed by their experiences in this course. Those students gained the confidence to address the town council about walkways around town, join a citywide debate about relocating the minor league baseball team in our state’s capital city, and give talks to local community groups about predatory lending practices. Other sections of the course produced oral history magazines from citizens affected by our county’s public school closings during racial segregation, or visited Yellowstone National Park to study the stewardship of public lands. Despite these pockets of success, the faculty struggled to support and engage students in integrative thinking. Students could be led to integrative projects, but the on-ramp for this kind of learning was at times quite long and uneven. The strengths and weaknesses of this course shaped the reform process, inspiring faculty to design a curriculum that supported student practice with creative inquiry, writing, speaking, information literacy, and integrative thinking.
Gaston and Gaff (2009) identify general education reform as one of the challenges in higher education that have particularly high need for broad and collective faculty involvement. Based on the institute’s advice, one of ACCC’s goals was to foster an active committee-to-faculty feedback loop; how this process would unfold was less predictable. The goal was to facilitate rather than predict and control the entire process. As Rao (2014) points out, reform efforts often adopt an iterative structure without an explicit acknowledgment of the value of such processes. Through careful reflection, the committee came to recognize the value of a contemplative process for facilitating change. At times, outcomes were intentional; at other moments, we were building the ship while we were sailing.
Faculty as Learners
The committee developed a multimodal, learning-centered approach to engage faculty in the design process. An effective, learning-centered design process required careful attention to faculty readiness, a recognition of faculty as diverse learners, an inclusive mind-set, and a dynamic, flexible communication process. Apprehension, fear, and occasional hostility toward the general education reform needed to be taken seriously, recognized, and folded into the design process. This takes time to do well. Moving from a distributive general education program to a cross-disciplinary, integrated model represented a significant structural and pedagogical shift for most faculty. Framing general education revision as a collective act across the faculty, rather than as a matter for academic departments, disrupted established protocol. If the goal was to shift focus away from traditional department-based general education courses to general education centered on learning outcomes, we needed to engage faculty outside their disciplinary silos. The ACCC facilitated interactive workshops, created blogs to record responses and progress, and hosted informational meetings with all faculty.
The ACCC members needed to practice effective communication as a team. A deliberative process is necessary when convening a diverse committee from multiple disciplines, particularly in the context of a high-stakes university-wide endeavor. As is typically the case, collaborative curriculum work requires attention to different communication styles and diverse disciplinary priorities and perspectives. Slowing down the process, listening across differences, and taking time to review, reflect, and revise enabled a more inclusive committee process and built trust and camaraderie—all necessary to lead campus dialogue about this substantial curriculum change.
Our multimodal communication with faculty included a series of regularly scheduled workshops beginning in fall 2014 and continuing throughout the process. In total, we scheduled six faculty meetings or lunches, with at least one per semester from fall 2014 through fall 2016. On average, more than one hundred faculty and staff attended. The level of faculty and staff involvement intensified through the process as the reform proposals took shape and the discussions got progressively more granular. The meetings often involved break-out discussions in smaller groups. On one later occasion, participants circulated among tables engaging in discussions about the new design. In every case, we noted who attended, including what departments and majors were represented, and took copious notes on what was said. Committee members analyzed the discourse to look for cross-group concerns and insights; all of these data were later used to further the revision process. In addition, the committee cochairs made regular reports to the faculty senate, the university administration, and the board of visitors. Senators were asked on several occasions to provide additional updates on our work to their faculty constituents and to forward questions or concerns to the committee.
Critics and skeptics emerged at different stages of the design process. Gaston and Gaff (2009) endorse “deputizing members or small delegations to meet quietly with these critics, hear their concerns, and either incorporate features that respond to their concerns or explain why that cannot be done” (23). When needed, we had informal communication with some faculty members. We engaged the critics and the skeptics but did not nurture the cynics.
We also prioritized meeting with faculty who were enthusiastic about integrative learning, including innovators who had experience with interdisciplinary teaching or creative instructors on campus who had prior experience teaching the existing courses that most closely resembled the integrated, cross-disciplinary courses the ACCC envisioned within the new model.
The regular faculty meetings and email and blog updates fostered an iterative process through which the committee publicly acknowledged the importance of faculty engagement in the development of the new curriculum.
Collaborating across the Academy
During the institute, we realized the importance of opening the process to a broader collective of campus constituents. After establishing ongoing communication and feedback with faculty, the committee fanned out across campus. Cross-institutional collaborations with a variety of campus partners were necessary to the short- and long-term growth of our new program. We valued the student development expertise of our colleagues in the divisions of student affairs and student success. We extended invitations and welcomed discussions about how their student learning initiatives might overlap with and inform general education.
Other important collaborators included our Centre for Academic Faculty Enrichment (CAFE) and the Office of Assessment and Institutional Research. Once the curriculum was approved, they cofacilitated a day long, “train the trainer” workshop for faculty leaders responsible for category areas and assessment in the new curriculum. They focused on effective leadership practices and, using a modified backward design model as a foundation, facilitated an interactive session engaging these faculty in best practices for unpacking student learning outcomes. These leaders are responsible for mentoring faculty and academic departments interested in and committed to offering courses in the new curriculum. Therefore, understanding how to design learning-centered courses is a critical component of their role. In addition, the offices of assessment and faculty development offer experience and expertise in curriculum design and facilitation. CAFE then and now plays a key support role as the process moves from structural design to curriculum and course design.
Capitalizing on Campus Initiatives
We recognized campus initiatives and strategic priorities as opportunities to envision and realize the possibilities of integrative learning and teaching. For instance, Longwood University won the opportunity to host the 2016 vice presidential debate. In anticipation of the potential impact of this campus-wide event and the possible alignment with the new curriculum goals, the directors of General Education and the CAFE developed a grant-funded teaching program encouraging faculty to develop integrative courses focused on presidential elections and/or political debate. In fall 2016, Longwood offered thirty-three debate-related courses across fifteen disciplines. These courses, with more than one thousand students enrolled, involved all three colleges.
These debate-related courses served as examples of integrative learning, and the grant program demonstrated institution-level financial and philosophical support for integrating cross-disciplinary knowledge. This foundational work helped to build excitement about integrative learning and served as a preview to gauge faculty interest. It was an example of using current initiatives to help faculty and the wider campus understand integrative learning and build further support in the senate for approval of the new curriculum, which occurred in November 2016.
Using Existing Resources
Each year, CAFE hosts a one-day teaching and learning seminar. In May 2017, the ACCC committee partnered with CAFE to design and cohost Integrative Learning and the New Core Curriculum. The seminar focused on defining integrative learning for current and new courses. One concern addressed was how faculty could maintain curricular integrity to their major and the new Civitae core curriculum while adopting integrative learning strategies for all students. We brought in experts that year and the next to provide credibility and a new face to this teachable moment. Our keynote speaker was Paul Hanstedt, author of General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty.
The following year, our seminar was a two-day workshop focused on developing coursework for Longwood’s new curriculum and on assessing and vertically scaffolding the integrative learning experience. Our guest speaker was Ashley Finley, coeditor of Civic Learning and Teaching and Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. We created a program to help participants articulate what integration means at all levels of the curriculum and to understand how to meet the established outcomes associated with courses at each tier. Faculty evaluated course situational factors (Fink 2013), learned about backward design, and considered appropriate course-level assessments or assignments.
The teaching and learning seminars helped to create a positive energy around integrative learning and effective course design along with sequential curricular coherence. The collaborative efforts of the ACCC and CAFE stretched beyond these seminars and were mutually beneficial, contributing to the growth and positive influence of both programs. Faculty development centers serve as a critical resource for effective curriculum design and faculty engagement, and institutional reform helps to strengthen the importance of learning-centered curricula, which is a fundamental best practice for most teaching and learning programs.
Our takeaways and advice to others who are planning general education reform efforts are featured in the bulleted list below.
- Be open to a fluid and transparent process that involves a great deal of communication and listening.
- Maintain a continued pragmatism with an attitude toward experimentation.
- Adopt a stance of confident humility, in which you acknowledge you may not have all the answers or be able to anticipate all the questions, but that you will work together to discover them.
- Recognize that large-scale curricular change is a process involving individual faculty, academic programs, and the larger institutional culture.
- Convene a diverse committee representing stakeholders with varied experiences with general education, institutional history, and leadership responsibilities.
- Understand academic culture, faculty readiness, and external and institutional administration expectations. Then, use this knowledge to determine when it is appropriate to challenge the status quo of institutional culture.
- Recognize and acknowledge the contradictory emotions inherent in individual and institutional change.
- Listen to and do not immediately discount your skeptics. Their unique perspectives represent institutional knowledge that may reveal oversights and potential impacts on major programs.
- Incorporate the expertise of campus partners at strategic points in the process.
- Take advantage of unique institutional opportunities.
- Build on what your institution or faculty does well and identify current practices that provide working models representative of your reform vision.
- Keep student learning at the heart of the reform process.
- Understand that faculty are learners, too. Create professional development focusing on skills and knowledge necessary for integrative teaching and learning.
- Consider new initiatives to provide faculty with experiential learning opportunities to practice or pilot the new curriculum.
- Accept that this kind of learning takes time, practice, and patience. At Longwood, we took three years to build our program and are now in a three-year implementation process.
Our new Civitae core curriculum mirrors Longwood’s mission to develop “citizen leaders who are prepared to make positive contributions to the common good of society.” The curriculum focuses on broad preparation in the liberal arts and sciences, while also enabling students to explore civic engagement and to develop the communication, thinking, and collaboration skills expected of citizen leaders. The deliberative and iterative process enacted by ACCC ensured we achieved our vision—to weave integrative learning throughout the new curriculum.
Fink, L. Dee. 2013. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gaston, Paul L., and Jerry G. Gaff. 2009. Revising General Education—And Avoiding the Potholes. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Rao, Sumedh. 2014. Problem-Driven Iterative Approaches and Wider Governance Reform. GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1099. Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.
Pamela Tracy, Director of the Center for Faculty Enrichment and Associate Professor of Communication Studies; Heather Lettner-Rust, Writing and Rhetoric Coordinator and Associate Professor of English; Larissa Smith Fergeson, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of History; Sharon Emerson-Stonnell, Professor of Mathematics; and David Locascio, Associate Dean of the College of Education and Human Services and Associate Professor of Education—all of Longwood University