Reforming the reformation?

For all of you who complain about the University Studies program, good news: the UNST Review Committee, which has been operating since late 2005, released their report to the Faculty Senate earlier this month, and in that report they recommended almost exactly nothing.

The committee’s first and foremost recommendation was the establishment of a standing University Studies Council that would keep tabs on the program continually and indefinitely.

In other words, this whole mess is so complicated that we recommend that another committee be formed to deal with it.

OK, so that characterization is not entirely fair. In reality, in the process of preparing their report the UNST Review Committee faced a variety of challenges from many different sources – not least of which was simply the challenge of dealing with the “celebrity” of the 10-year-old University Studies program, which is something of a gem at Portland State for the national recognition and accolades it has won the school. Any suggestions of reform for the program were bound to meet a dozen conflicting counter-suggestions from a dozen different quarters. So, clearly the UNST Review Committee had its work cut out for it.

To their credit, the committee did make some solid recommendations above and beyond their first one: a new assessment structure (actually another committee, the “UNST Assessment Board”), renaming SINQ to “Advanced Inquiry,” working to integrate more full-time, fixed-term faculty in the teaching of the capstones and implementing some more stringent upper-division writing requirements. For the most part, their concrete recommendations make sense and support the goals of a comprehensive, cohesive, multidisciplinary general education experience at PSU, but I chafe at a bureaucratic process that begets other bureaucratic processes.

A little background. The University Studies program was founded over a decade ago in order to reform the delivery of general education at the collegiate level. Some of the impetus for this reformation came from the desire to improve educational outcomes (the previous model wasn’t very effective), and some came from a desire to increase student retention (Portland State was, and still is, somewhat alienating). Since its inception, the UNST program, which is based on solid research on what improves educational outcomes and student involvement at the post-secondary level, has gathered national recognition. Looking at the assessment data, it has done a wonderful job of improving students’ academic and social experience at Portland State.

Anecdotally, the program is the cause of a lot of bitching around campus. Just last week in my upper-division business class, I heard a classmate complain about how the 45 credits of UNST required was a waste of time – he apparently would rather have attended a trade school. I reminded him that, were Portland State to use the distribution requirement (the previous system), he would actually have to take more than 45 credits of general education classes. He allowed as how this was true, but said he still felt “raped” by general education here at PSU.

I told him that, with his attitude, he was always going to feel “raped” by something or someone.

Unfortunately, these sort of narrow-minded profit-hungry automata-in-training are not only found in the business school (although that is definitely where they are their highest concentration). The greatest critique I can bring to the UNST program is that students all over the campus still don’t understand the value inherent in being a broadly educated citizen.

I suppose overcoming the money lust instilled by our hyper-consumeristic luxury economy is a tall order, even for a comprehensive four-year general-education program. After all, the majority of next year’s freshman class will have been able to recognize the McDonald’s golden arches since they were four years old.

So, rather than the committee’s long, politically-minded recommendations, what follows are my own short, politically-na퀨͌�ve recommendations on how to improve general education and University Studies in particular, based on my own four years of exposure to the UNST model and my two years of work within the program as a peer mentor:

1) More integrative training for anyone acting as an instructor or mentor/aid. People expected to teach together should train together and have more time with one another in order to form that important instructional bond.

2) Greater emphasis on the basics, including quality instruction in writing, arithmetic and the classics. A dozen dead guys have written quite a lot about political, social, economic and moral philosophy and theory, and their contemporaries have not added that much that is essential.

3) Standardization and consistency, in content and skill delivery and learning outcomes. I’m talking about finding ways to replicate the best “teaching moments,” as well as calibrating between and among instructors what qualifies as “A,” “B” or “C” level work at a programmatic and university level. Teaching is a science as well as an art, so why haven’t we gotten more sophisticated in firming up the “science” part of it?

4) More simplicity, more transparency. I think the current complexity of the program reflects a wonderful attenuation to the developmental arc of most students, but unfortunately, I also think that high-minded sensitivity confuses more students than it helps. Let’s keep it simple and direct, distill the best parts and repeat them until they have the desired effect. In learning, consistency and repetition is key.

I would love to see the UNST program run more like a corporate training system, because those systems are focused on quality instruction, consistency and optimum results. Of course, within the business world, there is always the profit motive to drive excellence, but why should the profit motive be any more important than the learning motive? Especially when it is pretty clear, at least to me, that well-educated, well-rounded, critically thinking, self-empowered learners are usually pretty damn good for a company’s bottom line.

Despite my griping here and generally anti-committee attitude, I do have lots of respect for the members of the UNST committee and their willingness to tackle this thorny problem in the first place. My point is just that what this program needs right now is, in my opinion, not going to be delivered by committees.