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Course tags

A few years ago, the Grinnell faculty approved a proposal to encourage faculty to tag their courses with one of a selected set of terms. At the time, the intent seemed to be that we would be able to use course tags in advising [1]. For example, if you had a student who wanted to enhance their quantitative reasoning skills, you and the student would look at the list of courses tagged with quantitative reasoning. While their assumption might be that they would have to take Mathematics, Statistics, or Computer Science, they might, for example, discover a course of interest in Sociology that also developed QR skills.

As you might guess, there was a bit of discussion among the faculty about what appropriate tags would be. We didn’t want to have a free-for-all, but we did want to have reasonably broad coverage. Here’s what the Curriculum Committee finally came up with [2,3].

Course Tags

Faculty may select up to 2 tags per course.

  • The Critical Reading and Writing tags do not count toward the two tag maximum.
  • Faculty may choose to select no tags. [4]

1. Artistic and Literary Interpretation

This course enables students to analyze and evaluate creative works through the interpretation of the work’s structure, context, content, and theme and the use of critical theory. The course can involve the analysis of works of literature, music, or the visual arts.

2. Creative Expression

This course helps students to design, create, compose, or perform creative works and to study and engage in the creative process.

3. Critical Reading

This course emphasizes students’ ability to analyze texts by helping them to summarize, describe, and interpret written documents. The course helps students to explain a text’s significance and contribution and to detail what the author argued, how he or she used evidence, and what the author’s biases and intentions were.

4. Foreign Language

This course enables students to build their proficiency in a foreign language by improving their skills in reading, writing, or oral comprehension and expanding their knowledge of the language’s cultural and literary context.

5. Quantitative Reasoning

This course provides students with the skills to study and interpret measurable quantities, typically appearing in the natural or social sciences. Such studies often require the interpretation of graphs or analysis of data sets and encourage fluency with fundamental quantitative tools.

6. Research

This course enables students to explore how new knowledge is acquired in an academic discipline while building important research skills. These skills may include learning how to formulate a thesis or hypothesis, developing methodological and theoretical competencies, using evidence to support research findings, and communicating the results in an effective manner.

7. Scientific Method and Analysis

This course enables students to understand the processes and methods of the sciences by introducing techniques of observation and experimentation, the relationship of data to hypotheses, and/or the practice of scientific reasoning.

8. Societies, Cultures, and Identities

This course enables students to analyze societies, cultures, or identities within and across borders.

9. Writing

This course teaches students how to express their ideas effectively in writing by developing their ability to construct strong, persuasive arguments; by teaching them to adapt their genre, tone, and style for the intended audience; and by helping them to convey their ideas with clarity, power, and grace.

Approved by the 2015-16 Curriculum Committee on February 9, 2016.

The CS department spent some time reflecting on what tags would be appropriate for our courses. We debated whether quantitative reasoning, at least as described in that document, was appropriate for our courses. While we certainly build fluency with fundamental quantitative tools (e.g., thinking about the meaning of formulae), we don’t often have our students interpret graphs or analyze data sets. We asked ourselves whether Proof Writing falls within Writing. We asked ourselves whether the critical reading of algorithms that students do in CSC 301 qualified for the Critical Reading criterion. And no, we did not discuss whether or not computer languages are foreign languages. They are not. We also decided that none of the nine tags applied to some of our courses. We didn’t think that was a problem since the tags were not intended to be exhaustive.

So, what happened next? Not much, at least from the faculty and student perspective. The tags do not appear on the Search Schedule of Courses tool. More importantly, one cannot search the schedule of courses based on those tags. The tags do not appear on the full list of courses. The tags do not appear in the College Catalog. The tags don’t even appear on [5].

But the Dean’s office seems to have found a reason to use them: They are going to use them as part of our institutional reaccreditation [6]. Now, I understand that we sometimes need to repurpose things. And I know that the reaccreditation asks us to do a lot of jumping through hoops to prove that we make a difference. However, the Dean’s office has now informed us that we must now tag all of our courses for the reaccreditation or they will tag them for us [7]. I don’t appreciate being told that I have to assign tags to my classes, particularly since we are not able to use them for their original purpose and since the original set of tags was not supposed to be comprehensive.

Let’s consider one of my courses that lacks tags: CSC 281, Life Beyond Grinnell: Learning from CS Alumni. It’s a one-credit course (in contrast to the typical Grinnell four-credit course). Once per week, the students meet with an alum and discuss many things: including the alum’s career path, the ways in which they draw upon their Grinnell experience, the choices they might have made differently, and so on and so forth. Basically, it gives students the opportunity to reflect on their own learning, to think about what they might do after Grinnell, and to connect with alums.

As you might be able to tell from that description, the course is designed specifically to meet one of the six core areas of the College’s Strategic Plan: Strategy 4: Post-Graduate Success. In particular, I designed the course to meet particular objectives of that strategy.

  • Provide opportunities for students to make connections between course experiences and other learning experiences (internships, externships, apprenticeships, fellowships, employment, service opportunities, travel, performances, etc.).
  • Guide students to apply, reflect on, and articulate how their skills are applicable to their futures.
  • Develop programs that facilitate networking and mentoring relationships between students and alumni.

So, which of the nine tags should I give to the course? The students are not interpreting artistic and literary works. They are not expressing themselves creatively. They are not analyzing texts. They are not working in a foreign language (other than having to learn some business acronyms). They are not reasoning quantitatively. They are not building research skills, at least not the way I think of research skill [8]. They are not applying the scientific method. They are not gaining skills to analyze societies, cultures, or identities [9]. And, while I ask them to write, developing their writing skills is not a focus of this course. None of the tags apply! Is that a problem? I think not. The course is valuable. Curriculum Committee did not intend the list to be exhaustive. Hence, the insistence that I tag the course and the threat that someone else will is, at best, inappropriate.

But, you know what? It’s more than inappropriate. Curriculum Committee understood that the tags were not comprehensive and wrote, Faculty may choose to select no tags. They not add If faculty choose not to select tags, tags will be selected for them. Enforcing a policy that neither Curriculum Committee nor the faculty as a whole endorsed both undermines faculty governance [10,11]. And, no matter who adds it, adding an inappropriate tag is intellectually dishonest and undermines the whole process [12].

At least my chair supports my decision not to tag the course. We’ll see what happens next. I’m sure that the Assistant Dean tasked with handling reaccreditation will be sympathetic to the opinions expressed in this too-long commentary.

[1] A former chair of the faculty tells me that I’m incorrect. In fact, the point of the tags was to provide some information for assessment. Another faculty member active in the tagging movement supports my view that the primary goal was for advising. In the end, I expect that both issues were at play.

[2] I should note that it’s the Curriculum Committee, rather than the Dean’s Office, that proposed the list of topics. In some areas, shared governance is still alive and well at Grinnell.

[3] I have reformatted the document slightly for this musing.

[4] Emphasis mine.

[5] A.k.a. Web Advisor. I have no way to link to this version of the catalog. As far as I can tell, it’s only available when you are logged in to advise a particular student.

[6] They haven’t told us how. My assumption is that they will randomly sample student transcripts and see what tags students cover over their careers and in one depth (e.g., this student had 7 QR courses: two at the 100 level, three at the 200 level, 1 at the 300 level, and one at the 400 level).

[7] Here’s part of the email my chair received.

As Grinnell prepares for our reaccreditation in the Fall of 2018, the course tags we worked to assign to our courses in 2016 are proving to be more valuable to the assessment process than we previously anticipated. Unfortunately, there are still several courses without tags and the Dean’s Office is asking department and concentration chairs to assist in filling those gaps. We need every course tagged in order to demonstrate to our accreditors that our students are experiencing the disciplinary breadth that is the hallmark of a Grinnell liberal arts education.

If tags are not selected by [September 15], they will be assigned by the Dean’s Office and Registrar.

[8] They are, however, learning a bit about how to do research on what you might do with life.

[9] They are, perhaps, learning a bit about business cultures. But they are not developing deep skills in that area.

[10] A former chair of the faculty confirms this.

[11] Yes, I realize that’s a bit hyperbolic. If this was the only situation, I wouldn’t say that. But it feels like, time and again, the Dean’s office ignores or twists faculty legislation.

[12] Yup, this is hyperbolic, too.

Version 1.0 released on 2017-09-09.

Version 1.2 of 2017-09-10.