Gen Ed Is a Problem of Pedagogy, Not Subject Matter

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Here’s an idea that popped into my head. Tell me what you think about it: Gen ed is a problem of pedagogy, not subject matter.

I’ve been mulling something like this idea since I read a blog post by Jonathan Becker, a professor of Educational Leadership at VCU.

In the title of the post Becker asks, “Are we overthinking general education?”

Writing in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s death, Becker characterizes Bourdain as a “guide to our fascination,” and extends this notion to thinking about what happens in a general education curriculum, where even an attempt to innovate may fall back on “picking courses out of individual boxes and checking boxes to complete a checklist.”

As an alternative, Becker considers a course of 20-25 students organized around discussing the Longreads Weekly Top 5.

No curriculum, no planning. “Learning outcomes?” Becker asks. “How about curiosity, wonder, critical thinking? Those are your ‘learning outcomes.’ I’d bet students would learn more by reading and deeply discussing those 5 articles each week than they would in most other tightly-designed, pre-packaged curriculum-driven course.”

I’m pretty sure I agree. I know I’m not the only one who hears laments from undergraduates about gen ed curriculum, how it seems like a pointless and focus-free burden prior to them getting to the “real stuff.”

One of the things that I think tends to happen in higher ed is that students are treated like junior academics, rather than developing scholars.

On their face, those things may not seem so different, so here’s the distinction I’m making for the purposes of this discussion.

A junior academic is someone who is preparing to replicate the work of academia, primarily the type of scholarship one finds within particular disciplines. Because of the inevitable limitations of the structures of higher ed, the vast majority of students will never approach work which truly passes muster in ways we would accept from full-fledged academics. Even within a major, students rarely achieve this distinction.

To become an academic, one needs to first acquire an incredibly broad range of knowledge within their field and then find a specialty niche within that field. Because of these limitations, students often produce artifacts which simulate academic forms, but which don’t actually reflect the underlying process which genuine academics engage in.

An example of this is how in a first-year writing research paper project, students will be introduced to library databases, but when it comes time to compile sources for an annotated bibliography, they simply choose the first five (or six or however many) listed after a single search. No academic would ever do this, but this often passes muster in the context of a single semester’s coursework.

A scholar – as I’m defining the term – embodies a particular way of thinking about and interacting with the world, embracing those elements Becker champions: wonder, curiosity, critical thinking. We don’t need students to become academics, but we must want them to become scholars.

Put another way, as I’m framing it, an academic is an identity, while a scholar is an attitude.

How’s this? In this formulation, all academics are scholars, but not all scholars are academics.

It is better for students to work on becoming scholars, rather than producing imitations of academic products.

Instead of turning in that annotated bibliography with the first five sources after a single search, students must be tasked with practicing how we chase down an idea from its initial appearance to final form. Writing a research paper may not be the best way to practice those skills.

It’s for this reason that in my writing courses I focus on the writer’s practice: the skills, knowledge, attitudes and habits of mind writers bring to the task of writing.

For example, one of the core skills of all writers is to draw inferences from original observations. This requires one to become both a good observer as well as a good critical thinker. One exercise I use is to ask students to make observations and draw inferences from anti-drug public service announcements. Every PSA has the same message, “Don’t do drugs.” I ask them to observe and infer “why” one shouldn’t do drugs from these ads.

It’s a whole group, in-class exercise, and they never write a word, but this is a skill which can extend to other more sophisticated forms of rhetorical analysis which underpin many of the kinds of writing they will have to do in the course and beyond.

What if general education, rather than a coverage of subjects, was a purposeful pursuit of learning how to think in these different contexts? Almost by default, every gen ed course would become cross disciplinary, the same way an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, involves history, sociology, anthropology and geography while involving something a lot of people love, food.

Becker calls if “field research,” which is exactly right.

How do we make every gen ed course “field research?”

For sure, if we approached gen ed in this way, some coverage of content would be lost. Maybe a lot would be lost. But consider how little content any of us retain from our own undergraduate general educations. I can’t even remember a good number of the courses I took in college, let alone what I was supposed to retain from them.

As one can tell from this post, I still have more questions than answers, but I think there’s something to the notion of considering a gen ed course a chance to try on the kind of thinking that’s expected of people in the field, rather than spending time imitating academics, or worse, temporarily cramming some knowledge into their heads long enough to regurgitate it via an exam..

Practicing thinking will absolutely translate across courses and contexts. It is a base from which other ways of thinking and seeing can be built.

What if we concentrate on the type pedagogy which we want to underpin general education? If we get that right, subject matter doesn’t really matter.

Gen ed can’t be everything. Maybe it should be this thing.

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