Special to the Southern News
NEW HAVEN – A significant number of Southern faculty share misgivings about the new general education program that will be implemented next fall.
Most, though, are optimistic.
For the next incoming class of freshmen, the Liberal Education Program, or LEP, will replace All University Requirements, the current general education program that has served SCSU since 1970. While this shift is a certainty, whether or not it will be best for the student body is still a topic of debate among faculty.
According to school officials, when the LEP program was voted into action in 2008, it won with only a 55 percent majority, with, in the case of the history, art, geography and philosophy departments, near-unanimous votes against it.
“I think a good number of my colleagues are waiting for the train wreck,” said Troy Paddock, a history professor at Southern.
As described in the LEP document, which is available on Southern’s website, the LEP restructures the relatively wide-open discipline-based AUR into three tiers: the first teaches “competencies,” the second teaches “areas of knowledge,” and the third will act as a capstone class that connects and expounds upon the two preceding tiers.
Tier one classes are intended to instill in students basic skills that are necessary to success in a college environment. These skills include the usual proficiencies in math, writing and foreign language, as well as technology and critical thinking, which will be taught in a smattering of new classes offered by many different departments.
These Tier one classes will need to be completed according to a strict timetable; some incoming freshmen–those who place into lower level math and English competency classes–will not have the opportunity to choose classes outside of Tier one during their first semester, and may have little choice even into their second. As art history professor David Levine said, the LEP, particularly during Tier one, “prescribes a single path.”
Levine, who has served on the Liberal Education Program Committee since 2008, said, “I think it’s going to cause a lot of distress. Students have different learning strategies and ways of learning. And they come to Southern at various stages of development. I think some students may not be able to succeed in this very highly structured program, who would otherwise be able to succeed. And I’m afraid of losing those people.”
Paddock said, “It is a kind of program that would work better at a university where the average incoming freshman was more prepared.”
But Lisa Lancor, a computer science professor and chairwoman of the Liberal Education Program Committee, said that instilling proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics early in a student’s career is, in part, what the LEP is designed to do, and that a lack of these foundations adversely affects students throughout their time in college.
She cited that under the AUR, students can avoid taking math and writing requirements until their final semesters, leaving them under-prepared for other general education, and even major, classes. On the other hand, seniors who have taken these classes and do have these basic skills may end up taking general education classes with freshmen who do not share their proficiencies. In that case, she asked, who does the professor teach to, the prepared senior or the underprepared freshman?
”I really want these people to get this stuff–their English and their math–done right away,” Lancor said. “We’re going to get those skill levels up to par.”
Mike Shea, chairman of the English department and long time architect of the LEP, said, “My hope is, that with dedicated teachers and a structured curriculum, we’re going to get more students better prepared to learn harder stuff sooner than the old [AUR] model.”
And, while Levine and others said that they believe that this highly structured environment may run the risk of marginalizing students with lesser scholastic backgrounds, Shea does not.
“That’s where I think both advising and teaching come in,” Shea said. “I think we’re going to catch them with a good teacher in FYE (First Year Experience).”
The First Year Experience class was implemented as a freshman requisite in the fall of 2007 and is meant to serve as both an introduction to college life and as a synergistic hub for a freshman’s first classes. Shea described it as an important bridge between underprepared students and the possible rigors of the structured Tier 1 environment of the LEP; it should act as a safety net of sorts, a place where teachers will be able to identify and assist struggling students.
Tier two classes represent the most dramatic departure from the current requirement system. As is clear in the LEP document, general education requirements will no longer be defined by disciplines, but by “areas of knowledge.”
These areas of knowledge address broad concepts, having titles like “cultural expressions,” or “creative drive.” So, where under the AUR students would take a history requirement, now students must take a “cultural expressions” requirement, that may be fulfilled by any class offered by any department willing to create a course that fulfills the goals set out by the “cultural expressions” requirement.
For example, a “cultural expressions” course, according to the LEP document, must “develop the students’ understanding of and aesthetic appreciation for influential cultural objects and traditions.” The key elements of courses designed to fulfill this requirement will be “aesthetic evaluation,” “analytical skills,” and “cultural significance.”
However, there are fewer Tier two areas of knowledge in the LEP than there were disciplines in the AUR, meaning, as philosophy professor Kenneth Gatzke pointed out, students may be able to complete their general education without taking, for example, any history courses. And while there are measures in place to ensure that students take as many classes from as many disciplines as possible, Gatzke still finds this fact troublesome.
“My philosophy of ed. students were very quick to see that you could use the new program, as they put it, to avoid the hard department,” said Gatzke.
And as a professor of a discipline that is perceived as hard by students, Gatzke said this prospect is worrying. The University of Illinois, he noted, implemented a system somewhat like the LEP, and the philosophy department was profoundly impacted as a result.
“The philosophy department lost about 40 percent of their size and the number of courses they offer because they can’t compete, because they’re regarded as hard,” he said.
Gatzke, who will offer a class incorporating both philosophy and film next semester, said this is the direction his department will have to go in to survive. Gatzke said as a result of the LEP, more classes will be taught that are, in a certain sense, narrow, because these classes will represent the interests of the particular professors who created them. And while this may make for more interesting courses, general education classes may no longer serve as comprehensive introductions to major areas of study.
Shea said that this kind of overhaul is long overdue. In some cases, professors have been teaching the same classes–virtually unchanged–for decades. He said that forcing professors to appeal to students will be a force for good.
“I think that what our colleagues will do is make it more interesting for our students, and if it’s more interesting, then they’re going to learn more,” Shea said.
Paddock argued that the basics taught in AUR classes are important to a student’s education. He mentioned that he, as a history professor, has taught students in his classes who had never before heard of Hitler. Paddock said that he believes certain facts about the world must be learned before students are ready to parse broader concepts like “cultural expression” or “global awareness.”
“We like to have students try to think outside the box,” Paddock said, “but a lot of our students don’t even know where the box is, or what the box looks like. I’m not sure the LEP gives them a good idea of what the box is.”
One thing that both detractors and proponents of the LEP can agree on is the purpose of a general education. The intended goals of the LEP, according to Levine, Shea, and others, are good.
“I think ultimately the most important thing that a good undergraduate education should do is help train students how to think–how to think critically, be able to challenge assumptions, examine evidence, analyze argumentation, and to be able to present their conclusions in either written or verbal form in a way that other people can understand,” said Paddock.
Beyond the pedagogical discussion of what is best for students lies the challenge of implementation. Professor Leon Yacher, chairman of the Geography Department, said he felt uncertain that now is the best time to implement the LEP, especially considering the tight fiscal situation at Southern.
According to Selase Williams, provost at SCSU, Tier one LEP classes will be capped at 20 students, with Tier two classes ideally having fewer students per class than the current AUR classes.
While Yacher agrees that smaller is better, he said he wonders how the increased demand will be met, especially during a time when no full-time professors can be hired.
Both Paddock and Levine said that they were also concerned that students, especially in fields such as nursing and teaching, may not be able to graduate in four years, or at the very least will be able to take fewer free electives than is possible under the AUR.
But as the LEP draws nearer to implementation, these logistical questions are being addressed more forcefully. A Faculty Senate meeting on Dec. 9 looked to clarify to faculty some of the muddier aspects of the LEP.
“As they see a clearer path,” Williams said, ”I think some of the objections will fall away.”
Williams said that he was confident in the LEP and everyone that has debated so passionately for and against it. He said of the faculty, no matter which side of the argument they fell, “I think they always land in favor of what’s best for the students.”