What Can Go Wrong When Everything Is Right?

I was on a campus last week talking about general education and the need for more holistic, integrative models that better prepare our students for a complex world, when a faculty member raised his hand and said, “Integrative models sound great and all, but tell us: What can go wrong with this approach?”

I knew he was playing devil’s advocate, but I answered the question the best I could: plenty can go wrong. With integrative models. With nonintegrative models. With any model, really. The administration can fail to provide the support necessary for faculty development; powerbrokers on campus can make cynical attempts to undermine the reform; assessment plans can be left until the last minute, turning an elegant, self-articulating model into a big ugly mess.

I love the AAC&U Institute on General Education and Assessment. It is, no exaggeration, my favorite week of the year (seriously, it’s probably the only time I ever hug my kids goodbye while still smiling). Part of it is the faculty for the institute: they’re all smart, funny, and selfless. Part of it is the work itself: What could be better than helping teams from universities all over the world develop action plans to take back to their campuses with the aim of leading dynamic, meaningful conversations about how to improve the education of their students? What could go wrong?

Well . . . a lot. Teams could develop plans that are essentially marching orders for the rest of campus (because you know how much faculty love to be told what to do!). Teams could return to campus and get mired in politics, losing sight of the ideals and careful research that shaped their experiences at the institute.

And—this might be the worst possible wrong turn—teams, and then their campuses, could get caught up in conversations about structures, about distributions, about how much of this and how much of that, forgetting that it’s not just about what students study, but how and why. Students should have opportunities to work across the disciplines and develop powerful, transferable skills in a lot of different areas. Life after graduation requires multiple literacies.

Even an integrative class in, say, mathematics or literature can fail to achieve its goals if the final exam asks the same old questions, if the papers assigned require the same old research, the same old kinds of thinking. Further, we have ten years of research on proven high-impact practices that transcend simplified disciplinary discussions (www.aacu.org/resources/high-impact-practices). If reform is truly going to happen, if we’re truly going to make progress toward preparing our students for a very messy world that very much needs fixing, then we need to be willing to restructure, rethink, redesign from top to bottom, from our most ambitious institutional goals down to that exam question that asks students to take their learning in one setting and apply it to another. And we need to assess for high-impact learning.

In the end, you know you have a model that’s going to have an impact when professors from across campus are talking about their goals for their students and about how to attain those goals, or when faculty are demanding development and support for new kinds of teaching, new kinds of course structures, new ways of doing things.

So yeah. There’s a lot that can go wrong. But oh, Lordy: Can you imagine what will happen if we can get it right?

Paul Hanstedt, Professor of English and Communications Studies, Roanoke College

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