A university program studied

PSU’s innovative general studies program draws acclaim and criticism

Portland State’s University Studies Program, a unique model for interdisciplinary general studies, has garnered much national praise in recent years. Here on campus, however, the program has consistently drawn criticism from some students and faculty.

The program consists of one year of required freshman inquiry (FRINQ) courses, followed by a year of sophomore inquiry (SINQ), junior cluster courses and, finally, a senior capstone.

PSU’s innovative general studies program draws acclaim and criticism

Portland State’s University Studies Program, a unique model for interdisciplinary general studies, has garnered much national praise in recent years. Here on campus, however, the program has consistently drawn criticism from some students and faculty.

The program consists of one year of required freshman inquiry (FRINQ) courses, followed by a year of sophomore inquiry (SINQ), junior cluster courses and, finally, a senior capstone.

Most criticism of the program falls upon the FRINQ courses, which are required for all incoming freshmen not participating in the PSU Honors Program. These courses are instructed by faculty from various departments throughout the university, and also include a mentor session, led by an undergraduate mentor.

Some faculty have protested the use of undergraduate mentors, as well as the interdisciplinary nature of freshman inquiry, which often requires instructors to teach outside of their area of expertise. Departments throughout PSU have signed a memoranda of understanding, under which they agree to teach a given number of University Studies courses in exchange for the creation of tenured track lines within their department.

According to the University Studies program’s creator, Chuck White, the program has weathered such dissent before.

“About five years in, we had a group of faculty who worked very hard to get [the University Studies program] abolished,” White said. “That was very hard on me personally. As a program, working from implementation to institutionalization and stability was very difficult. I think we’re now at the institutional level.”

In fall of 1992, White chaired the General Education Working Group committee that created the University Studies program at PSU, and was appointed as the first associate dean for University Studies in November 1993. While White’s role at the university has changed, he remains one of the programs staunchest defenders.

“Prior to the University Studies program, we had the classic general studies model,” White said. “Many of the faculty could not explain to students the purpose of these 63 credits, except that they needed them to graduate.”

White said that the focus while developing the University Studies program was on student learning outcomes.

“Prior to University Studies, there was no assessment of student learning at this university,” White said. “I created the first committee to develop an assessment program for University Studies. Our assessment activities are based on how our students are experiencing the curriculum, to see whether the learning is there. Much of the assessment impetus at Portland State was done within the University Studies program. We’ve gotten quite good at the assessment level.”

“We have four goals at the program,” said Rowanna Carpenter, the assessment coordinator for the University Studies program at PSU. “Communication, diversity, critical thinking and ethics and responsibility. A big part of our assessment work is to determine how our students are doing according to those goals and outcomes.”

In the freshman inquiry course series, these outcomes are measured primarily by student course evaluation surveys and electronic portfolios, which are required and count against a student’s grade if not completed. These e-portfolios collect assignments from each term of FRINQ, and students are asked to reflect and relate their work to one of the four goals laid out by Carpenter.

Freshman inquiry undergraduate mentors confirmed that they alone are tasked with administering these course evaluations, as well as overseeing implementation of e-portfolio assignments, in spite of the fact that these are said by many within the program to be the key pieces of data for assessing its efficacy.

Former FRINQ students reported being told they could leave their mentor session early once they had finished the course evaluation surveys. The e-portfolios, on the other hand, are worth 5 percent of the student’s final grade for the term, and are therefore open to being interpreted as an assignment rather than a true evaluation of learning.

Freshman Inquiry Coordinator Michael J. Flower responded to questions on the potential impact of improper framing in the administration of course evaluations and e-portfolios.

“I don’t have a good response to that, but I take your point,” Flower said. “I make it clear during the summer workshop that we don’t want surveys to be treated in a cavalier fashion by students.”

University Studies Program Director Sukhwant Jhaj said of the evaluation process, “We ask students about their experiences coming into the program. We ask them, ‘What is your biggest challenge, and what is working, what is not working?’ So it gives us a pretty comprehensive picture. We collect the electronic portfolios and we take a random selection, which are then reviewed by two people.”

The random selection of e-portfolios is used to assess improvements in writing and other rubric specific to the University Studies mission, but only assesses the improvements made by those students who remain in the program for the entire first year. The most recent available data provided by PSU’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning states that PSU’s one-year retention rate for full-time freshmen was 70 percent
in 2009.

The e-portfolios are reviewed at the end of each year by various PSU faculty, as well as faculty from other colleges in the area. Those who review the e-portfolios are not University Studies program faculty, but are trained by them on how to interpret the data, according to Jhaj.

“That focuses on student experience in University Studies,” said Jhaj. “The other thing that we’re doing, which is very unique, is connecting the data between GPA, financial aid, and so on, and identifying under-served populations. Those studies have been incredibly powerful in changing policies at the university. For example, because we ask students about their biggest challenge coming into the university, we were able to identify that students who identified financial concerns as a bigger problem than academic concerns were retained at a much lower rate.”

Jhaj stated that the University Studies program currently works with 40 departments at Portland State, some of which have recently benefited from the creation of 25 new tenure lines, all of which come out of the program’s budget. In a time of university-wide belt-tightening, a Memorandum of Understanding with the University Studies program is one of the few avenues to obtaining new faculty for some departments.

According to PSU History Department Chair Tom Luckett,this was not always the case.

“Freshman inquiry has been through several phases,” Luckett said. “There was an initial phase of enthusiasm in which it was thought that departments across the university would volunteer to teach these courses. It’s generally not difficult for me to get the faculty to teach sophomore inquiry, but getting them to teach FRINQ can be tough.”

One reason for this reluctance, according to Luckett, is the fact that University Studies takes faculty away from their core field, which can prevent them from developing their own research and curriculum for up to two years, the length of a standard FRINQ rotation.

“When you teach in University Studies, your contribution to [your department’s] curriculum is just gone for a couple of years,” Lucket said.

It is a criticism familiar to Flower.

“I’ve been approached by faculty that worry about straying too far from their area of expertise,” Flower said. “They are not confident in the effectiveness of the interdisciplinary model…there are people on campus who are not persuaded. If you look at the arguments, it’s clear that there’s no argument that beats down all opposition. The literature that supports the approach we’ve taken seems pretty substantial.”

Luckett, however, believes that there are improvements to be made, while also making it clear that he has no intention of beating up on the program or its administrators, whom he characterized as being “some very, very smart people.”

“I think it’s irresponsible to criticize FRINQ if you can’t propose something that would be better and that would continue to have the positive achievements that FRINQ currently does,” Luckett said. “A discussion that we’ve recently begun in the history department is to imagine what FRINQ would look like if we designed it.

What changes might we propose that would be better for both the faculty and the students? One idea that we’re looking at developing and formally proposing is offering a course developed around a professor’s field of expertise.”

Such an arrangement, Luckett said, would put less strain on faculty, who wouldn’t be faced with re-training outside of their field on top of the extra work associated with instructing an undergraduate mentor. Luckett feels that this would address faculty concerns with maintaining academic standards while also allowing them to achieve the goals of the FRINQ program, which university studies administrators have consistently stated revolve around improving writing skills and socialization into the university environment.

“This isn’t any kind of rebellion, and we haven’t discussed this outside of the history department, so I don’t want to presume how people will respond to it,” Luckett said.

Another change that Luckettadmits would not be easy to implement, but which he feels might make a more effective use of resources, would be to rethink the way FRINQ mentors are assigned.

“We’d be interested in finding a way to at least have greater control over selecting the mentor of our choice, or even to use them as graduate mentor positions to support our graduate program,” Lucket said.

Assistant Director of University Studies Yves Labissiere defended the undergraduate mentor program.

“As peers, they can be the best model for how to be a good student,” Labissiere said. “They are able to broker the relationship between the faculty and the students. Many of our students are first generation students who come in feeling intimidated, I think, and the mentors can bridge that divide.”

Labissiere added that traditional teaching assistants, sometimes chosen by the professor, are less useful in achieving the goals of the FRINQ program.

“This program is not focused on the acquisition of knowledge and expertise,” Labissiere said. “Many come from the model that uses teaching assistants, who are apprentices, essentially. We de-emphasize the expert as being the only place you can learn in the program, we open up the space where students can learn from each other.”
This lack of emphasis on knowledge and expertise has been the source of one other point of contention amongst some faculty, who call into question the ability of mentors to academically assist freshmen when they themselves are not required to read assigned course materials.

Dana Lundell, director of the University Studies Peer Mentor Program, could not be reached for comment on this issue by press time, but Labissiere refuted the claim.

“Wow, that would be news to me and that would be utterly unsustainable,” Labissieresaid. “We would not have made it to 16 years if that were the case. If mentors weren’t doing the reading, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs. Mentors have to be prepared for class, which means doing the reading.”

Undergraduate FRINQ mentors, however, dispute this claim. Multiple mentors confirmed, on condition of anonymity, that they are not required by university studies to do the assigned course readings and that this is a matter between the mentor and the course instructor.

Labissiere agreed, however, that the mentor relationship is one that requires more time on the part of the faculty member, before touching on what he sees as a philosophical divide amongst educators.

“It’s a different philosophical thought,” Labissiere said. “We have to figure out a way to create meaning within different disciplines. We hire people who are interdisciplinary faculty, so while other disciplines might hire faculty who are straight up disciplinarians, we emphasize a certain commitment to interdisciplinary goals. There are hundreds of colleges across the country who have made a similar decision.”

It’s an evolving approach to education that must cut across a multitude of departments and disciplines, according to Jhaj.

“University studies is not a department, it’s a program,” Jhaj said. “It constantly changes, and so does our understanding of what we need to do to help our students learn.”

Luckett is one of many PSU faculty members who hope to be included in the discussion about how it changes.

“I actually really enjoyed teaching FRINQ, in a number of ways,” Luckett said. “But why not let instructors teach to their strengths? Why not just offer freshman level courses in history instead of having university studies control all of this?”