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Progress in Implementing the New GE Policy

photo: grads at commencement

Personal Report to the SJSU Academic Senate, February, 1999
Acting AVP and Chair of the Board of General Studies, Lee Dorosz

Implementation of the new policy is proceeding in a timely and I think effective manner, despite the unease that goes along with any major change in General Education (witness recent turmoil at Rice and Duke). Important new courses have been added, faculty whose courses are wrongly placed are working with review panels to move to new Areas, and both Board and Advisory Panel faculty are discussing with course coordinators how best to incorporate the new Guidelines into existing courses. Most importantly, in many departments the new policy has begun to trigger intense and productive faculty discussion about student learning - precisely what it was designed to foster.

Work of the Board of General Studies: Not since the CSU-CC program began in the early 1980's has so much in GE been attempted at one time. The Board, with the aid of Advisory Panels, is charged with examining every course with respect both to newly derived content criteria and also to new criteria on evidence of student learning. In adopting the new policy the SJSU Senate has advanced beyond most CSU campuses, the majority of which are only now starting to address GE student learning. Having just returned from an accreditation meeting, I will also say that in its GE program SJSU has wisely anticipated a critical element of what will likely be called "Institutional Effectiveness" in the new accreditation standards now being developed. At the recent Provost's Forum, Ken Peter noted the Senate's "failure " in not having deliberated sufficiently on how to put the new policy into effect. I respectfully disagree, and strongly so. I prefer to commend the Senate on a foresightful policy, and to offer the services of this office and the faculty of the Board and Advisory Panels in an ongoing dialogue with the Senate on implementation.

Board and Advisory Panel members have taken on their immense responsibilities with care and deliberation, moving slowly, taking few critical actions, debating, discussing, clarifying. Their professionalism has been constant and profound. The campus owes these uncompensated hard-working faculty a vote of thanks. I point out something many do not know: The seven faculty Board members are appointed by the Provost only with concurrence of the Executive Committee, from nominees whose names have been elicited by the Senate. Voting Advisory Panel members are appointed by Colleges and Departments, not by Administration. The overwhelming majority of GE votes are cast by faculty.

Number of GE Courses: In Spring, 1999, there are 236 courses on the GE approved list, counting American Studies (12 units) as four courses, Humanities (24 units) as 8 courses, and including 32 100W's. Number of courses in a given Area ranges from 2 (Composition) to 37 (Self, Society and Equality).

Changes for Fall, 1999: 12 courses have either been added to the existing list for Fall '99, or approved for move into new Areas; all made sound efforts to address the content and learning criteria required by the new policy. Existing courses are authorized through 1999-2000, so there has been absolutely no discussion of removing courses from current placements in the campus Program.

Review of Existing Course Placements: Over 100 coordinators have submitted initial material showing how existing courses plan to meet the new criteria; more proposals arrive daily. Review has just begun, and will proceed slowly and with care. I anticipate that an overwhelming majority of currently certified courses will have authorization extended through 2000-2001. Faculty on the Board and on Advisory Panels envision review as an extension of the abbreviated Senate discussion on implementation. Current review is the opening of an ongoing dialogue. Once this initial review has been substantially completed, by the end of Fall '99, the Board will report to the Senate and may make recommendations about clarifying policy or changes in the timeline for full implementation.

Timeline: The current timeline calls for course coordinators to report initial analyses of student learning to the Board during Fall, 2000, and for the Board to use that information to consider long-term course certifications. The details of this process have not even been discussed yet because there are too many unknowns and too much more interaction needed in order for all of us to understand how to make the new policy accomplish its intended goals. I speak to a few of these issues at the end of this report, and ask the Senate's help in beginning to address some of them.

Analysis of Student Learning and Accomplishment: The new feature of the GE policy is systematic collection of evidence on how well students are accomplishing GE learning goals that the campus and individual faculty have set for them. Time prior to Fall, 2000, and after, will be used in mutual education among Board, Advisory Panels, Senate and faculty regarding how the evidence to be gathered can be used to enhance the learning of future SJSU students in their GE courses. The essence of the new policy is the shift in emphasis from what is offered in a GE course to the learning that is accomplished. Obviously we must proceed slowly, and still there will be false starts and mistakes. There has never been unanimity on any campus on how GE should be taught or on its goals, nor will there ever be. The early stages of such a massively revised plan is fraught with anxiety, mistakes on everyone's part, and vigorous calls for yet more extensive change to the plan, often for retreat to some calmer GE era and process. I wonder if Senators could agree upon just when a Golden Age of GE characterized SJSU.

Issues affecting GE that will require attention:

a. GE courses with multiple sections. This Board, as others before it, has already had difficulty with this issue, one that has not been addressed in depth by the Senate. Departments differ markedly in how, or even if, they control and monitor content, pedagogy, and measures of student performance in multi-section GE courses. Some have regular meetings, make expectations clear to all, and use common measures and common teaching materials. Some that can afford it give assigned time or other support for faculty to act as course coordinators. At the other pole, some programs permit enough latitude that it is sometimes not apparent that two sections are variants of the same course. It is not feasible for review panels to examine proposals for every section, and it will be equally impossible for them to review student learning data from every section - or for course coordinators to do so with confidence where department oversight is not strong. Variation in department policies on multi-section courses is expected and appropriate for courses in the major. But in a campus-wide GE program with common learning goals, widely varying policies for multi-section courses make evaluation and review problematic at best and meaningless at worst. Some departments forward a "typical" green sheet or syllabus during the approval process, and then permit instructors to vary markedly from that standard once approval has been secured. Others provide as much information as possible about multiple sections, and thus run the risk of being criticized or disapproved when one or a few sections fall short of GE criteria. Complete honesty has been known not to pay. Some faculty raise questions of "academic freedom" regarding individual section control by departments, and in almost all cases coordinators who try to bring some level of consistency across all sections have only limited authority (and time) to do so. Discussion of this problem - and it is not trivial - should begin in the Senate as part of its long-term authorization to the Board. I offer to help, but have no quick fixes.

b. Multiple Instructors within the same course. This item is closely related to the first. Multiple GE sections involve many faculty, often a mix of regular and temporary. Expectations regarding GE criteria are sometimes well explained, and the attention of faculty to such criteria well monitored. In other situations explanation and monitoring are lax, sometimes virtually non-existent. Occasionally the lack of monitoring is said to extend even to the policy-specified qualifications of individual instructors. It is far beyond the scope of the Board to act on such concerns. Yet the problems that do occur affect the GE program because every section of a loosely monitored course carries identical certification. Within the major field, inconsistencies are a College's problem. But within GE inconsistencies become University issues. These concerns reach the Board anecdotally, and the Board has absolutely no authority to act. But this issue is frequently voiced during deliberations as a point of frustration. This is an incredibly sensitive issue for any Senate to address. From abundant experience I know it is at the heart of some of the most contentious dissatisfaction on this campus regarding the local GE program.

Perhaps the most critical reason why departments are not always as forthcoming as they might be about their monitoring of multi-section courses or the instructors thereof is the need to capture the GE FTES that funds major programs. Solution of the FTES problem that forces departments to compete for large enrollments in GE may well be the only answer to this "truth in reporting" issue.

c. Number of courses in the total GE Program: The new policy calls for the Board to engage the whole campus before placing restrictions on numbers of courses in an Area or in the program as a whole. The Board is simply not going to have time to conduct campus discussions on numbers as it addresses the policy's emphasis on evidence of student learning. Currently there are no limits; unless the Senate chooses to initiate campus discussion that is how things will remain for the foreseeable future. I argue neither for nor against.

d. Requiring and/or restricting Area E to freshmen: In the absence of mandated campus orientation it was the intent of the framers of the new policy to have courses in Area E play such a role. The Advisory Panel handling this Area has chosen wisely to see to it that "learning how to use campus resources" is in fact a part of Area E courses, but the Panel at this time is not close to ready to recommend requiring Area E for new students, nor to restrict it to them. This is not a request for Senate deliberation, just a statement of how matters stand on an issue in the policy that is a little confusing. The new advising and registration days for first time freshmen may have some impact on the role the Senate expects Area E courses to play in increasing the retention rate for new students.

Summary

I agree that more effort went into developing important new Area guidelines and expectations for student learning than went into how this all might be achieved. The Fall semester was, not surprisingly, chacterized by fits and starts as a new team of administrators and Board members grappled with loose ends and tried to intuit the intentions of the policy's designers where the wording left those intentions awkwardly defined. But I have already begun to see much more awareness on the part of an increasing number of faculty that the goal of measuring student learning in a systematic fashion, especially as we find ourselves ever more concerned about student writing, lack of awareness of historical and global contexts of important social issues, inability to articulate ideas sufficiently to engage in effective team efforts, lack of appreciation for and support of the arts, and failure to grasp the implications of technological advances. These "general education" concerns, and others, were much in the minds of the framers of the new GE policy, and I submit that it is among the highest goals of this particular Academy for us to continue vigorous collaborative efforts towards ameliorating these concerns. That all sounds very lofty in the face of FTES competition, but in fact it is precisely such laudable goals that are in the minds of every single faculty member who sits on the panels that are trying to help the campus achieve the intent of the new guidelines. As always, I invite comment. We all learn important things from one another in this process.