Maybe It’s Time to Stop Thinking About “Turf” and Design Meaningful Gen Ed?

woman who has achieved success looks towards the future

To begin with a statement that will surprise absolutely no one: one of the major challenges of general education reform is turf anxiety—the concern among various departments and disciplines that a new curriculum will not adequately represent their fields to ensure class enrollments that justify their professional existence.

The particulars of this anxiety vary from institution to institution and have changed over time. Twenty-plus years ago, when I was leading my first curricular revision at a small college, part of the impetus for the conversation was the desire of STEM fields to be more effectively represented as a part of the “liberal arts.” Many members of the English department, meanwhile, voted for a curriculum that reduced the number of courses staffed solely or largely by the department. Fast-forward to 2023, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an English or history or philosophy department comfortable with giving up any gen ed requirement that ensured that nonmajors appeared on their course rosters. Many STEM fields, meanwhile, struggle to offer enough classes to satisfy their majors, let alone students looking to check a box in the graduation requirements.


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To begin with a statement that will surprise absolutely no one: one of the major challenges of general education reform is turf anxiety—the concern among various departments and disciplines that a new curriculum will not adequately represent their fields to ensure class enrollments that justify their professional existence.

The particulars of this anxiety vary from institution to institution and have changed over time. Twenty-plus years ago, when I was leading my first curricular revision at a small college, part of the impetus for the conversation was the desire of STEM fields to be more effectively represented as a part of the “liberal arts.” Many members of the English department, meanwhile, voted for a curriculum that reduced the number of courses staffed solely or largely by the department. Fast-forward to 2023, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an English or history or philosophy department comfortable with giving up any gen ed requirement that ensured that nonmajors appeared on their course rosters. Many STEM fields, meanwhile, struggle to offer enough classes to satisfy their majors, let alone students looking to check a box in the graduation requirements.

Hidden in all this is a huge assumption that often goes unquestioned: that the best way—indeed, some seem to believe, the only way—to protect one’s department is to stake out designated courses. Following this logic, if, say, the political science department wants to guarantee butts in seats, it best advocate for a gen ed model that requires all students to take a POLI course—or at least a social science course, of which the study of political science is one option. Similarly—and still embracing this assumption—the best way for the art history department to ensure enrollments is to embrace a gen ed curriculum that requires all students to take a course in the fine or studio arts.

Underwriting all of this is the sincere belief—shared by almost every faculty member I’ve ever met—that each of our fields really does matter: that students will live better lives for having studied mathematics or sociology or chemistry or (to include myself here) literature. The knowledge and skills and ways of thinking that occur in our fields—in my field—is essential to living a meaningful, impactful life—indeed, to living a life of freedom and agency. The term “liberal arts,” after all, derives from the Latin ars liberalis—the arts relating to free persons.

One problem with this argument, as Richard Detweiler points out in The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs: Lives of Consequence, Inquiry, and Accomplishment, is that what have and haven’t counted as “essential” arts has shifted almost continuously. For the Greeks, being truly free meant studying rhetoric, logic, and grammar. The Romans added mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy (38). The current plat du jour of social science, mathematics, natural sciences, and arts and humanities is relatively young and a consequence of factors ranging from the Islamic Golden Age to the tradition of the Grand Tour to the rise of land-grant universities. Underpinning every historical assertion about what was and wasn’t “essential” were an array of educational goals and assumptions, surprisingly few of which addressed the implications of social media, fake news, artificial intelligence, globalization, and climate change. Zero, to be exact.

Detweiler further disrupts the ability for any one field to stake a claim to its own essentiality by pointing out that it’s context, not content, that has an impact in university learning. Surveying 1,000 university graduates one, two, and four decades after graduation, Detweiler gathered data that indicates that

it is primarily the broadening aspects of the content of study that is more important than the specific courses taken (e.g., taking more than half of one’s courses outside of one’s major, discussing issues of significance to humanity in most classes, and taking a nonvocational major). (23)

Indeed, Detweiler writes, “the disproportionate focus on content that is typical of discussion of what college study would involve is a significant mistake if we wish to have a higher education with a life impact” (23).

My point here is to not to dismiss departments or programs or disciplines that, for whatever reason, depend on students taking general education classes for their livelihood. Rather, what I’m trying to argue is that the approach of using general education revision conversations to stake out turf is perhaps a little short-sighted. For one thing, though such an approach might guarantee struggling departments a seat at the table, it also limits them to a single seat—two at most. By contrast, were a campus to embrace, say, a blended model that has some distributional components but also things like first-year seminars, writing-intensive requirements, and senior capstone courses, it’d be possible for a single department to now have four opportunities to draw in more students. And worth noting: first-year seminars, writing-intensive courses, and capstone courses are all designated “high-impact practices” by George Kuh. Consequently, we know they lead to better learning and greater outcomes—and disproportionately so for historically and structurally marginalized populations.

Or consider curricula that are based on integrative pathways like those found at Connecticut College or themed certificates like those offered at Drury University: there is no limit how many pathways or certificates a program can participate in. So instead of having a single entry point to the curriculum, a department could have dozens. What’s more, in contrast to designated requirements, which essentially tell you what you should take but not why, general education programs built around structures like pathways and certificates nest courses in meaningful contexts. Not sure why Greek tragedies matter? Let’s examine them in the context of explorations on peace and justice. Not sure why you should take a course on Asian ethics? Let’s think about that as we explore the relationship between ethics and leadership. Perhaps all this is what Detweiler is referring to above when he mentions “discussing issues of significance to humanity”? (Hint: it is.)

So yes: getting students into our classrooms—all our classrooms, in all disciplines—matters. What we have to offer them will make a difference in their lives, changing the way they think about the world, changing the way they go about solving problems, changing the way they think about themselves. And that can’t happen if we can’t get them into the room. But maybe we can be a little more intentional about how we get them into the room. Especially since how we draw students in might actually change the way they think about our fields—and about the purposes of college in general.

Reference

Detweiler, Richard. 2021. The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs: Lives of Consequence, Inquiry, and Accomplishment. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and the author of General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty (about to come out in a second edition) and Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World