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Course tags and other alternatives

At Monday’s faculty meeting, we will be discussing course tags. For those who’ve forgotten [1], the College has nine tags: Interpretation of Art or Literature; Creative Expression; Critical Reading; Foreign Language. Quantitative Reasoning; Research; Scientific Method and Analysis; Societies, Cultures, and Identities; and Writing. What will we be discussing? The Registrar’s office computed a lot of averages across multiple departments and years. For example, we can learn what percentage of students completed in each division completed at least 4, 8, 12, or 16 credits in each of the nine tags [2]. We can also see the average distribution of tags for each student.

While the people who instituted course tags are among the people I most respect on campus [2], I have difficulty embracing tags as a way to assess the kinds of education our students design for themselves with the aid of their academic advisors and other faculty and staff. Why? Because I don’t find that the tags accurately represent what we do and the tags can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Let’s take my own departmental experience as an example. Conversations suggest that many folks expected that computer science would naturally choose the Quantitative Reasoning tag. But quantitative reasoning is not really what CS is about [4]. There’s a reason that computer scientists talk about algorithmic thinking or computational thinking. On the other hand, we eventually classified some of our courses as Writing because students spend a lot of time writing proofs, which is definitely a kind of writing [5]. But that’s not likely what someone reading the data would expect. So I’m left to ponder what we really gain from the kinds of analysis that we’re supposed to discuss on Monday.

I realize that our primary goal is to provide data [6] to our assessors. And I understand that this is the kind of data [7] they want to see. But the tags seem overly reductive [8]. Core to our identity as academics is a willingness to embrace messiness and complexity. Let’s do so. As I’ve suggested in the past, we can know that a student has designed a good liberal arts curriculum if and only if they can successfully argue that their curriculum meets the goals of a liberal arts education. The implication goes both ways. If the curriculum they designed is successful, they can make a good argument. If they make a successful argument, they (or, more precisely, their arguments) convince us of the quality of the curriculum.

Ooh! Here’s an idea. Let’s take that claim seriously. Just as graduate students in most disciplines must pass a thesis defense, so should Grinnell students pass a curriculum defense. Let’s see … we could require a substantive essay when they declare the major [9] and then a revised version before they preregister for their seventh semester [12]. Why two different deadlines? Because many students would need the extra year of study to develop the skills and background to successfully describe a liberal arts education and to make a compelling case that what they have chosen meets the goals of such an education.

But the two essays are just one step. We could also have them defend their curriculum in front of a panel of faculty members. I’d suggest a relatively short defense; fifteen minutes or so. I’m not yet sure how we should form panels, but my initial inclination is a panel of three faculty members from multiple areas [14], not including the student’s advisor (or advisors) [15]. Let’s see … we have a 9:1 student to faculty ratio. On average, each faculty member would be responsible for between two and three defenses per year. With preparation and follow up, each defense is likely an hour or so of work for the faculty members on the panel. That doesn’t seem like an excessive burden. Of course, I have left off the advising time associated with helping students prepare their essays and defenses. Depending on the student, that could be significantly more.

Of course, we also have to consider the implications if a student does not pass their defense. I expect that we might see some boards ask students to revise insufficiently analyzed curricula and perhaps even to change their plan for the senior year.

The benefits of such a system seem quite tangible to me. Students will reflect more carefully on the purposes, components, and structure of a liberal arts education. Faculty will talk more frequently to each other about what they see as essential. Particularly as Grinnell ponders liberal arts for the twenty-first century, such a requirement could significantly impact out discussions.

I also think it would be an interesting exercise to hand a stack of those essays to our accreditors.

Although Grinnell does not have general education requirements, we find that we are more successful in helping students develop strong and individualized educational programs in the liberal arts. As you will see from this random sampling of required essays on the subject, our students approach the design of their curricula with care and thought.

I’d guess that the bean counters wouldn’t like it. But I think it’s still worth considering.

What’s the next step for this pipe dream? I wonder whether I could convince my department to participate in an experiment in which we require every student who majors in CS to follow that process. We’d also need to find a few faculty members from other departments who would serve as a review panel. I wonder if any other departments would partner with us on the experiment? That might be a good innovation fund proposal.

[1] I discussed course tags in a prior musing.

[2] As I’ve said before, I find it strange to group all Humanities majors together. The experiences of the foreign language students are different than the experiences of the arts students (Studio Art, Music, and Theatre/Dance) are different than the experiences of the other Humanities students (Philosophy, Religious Studies, Classics, Art History, and English). I also find it strange to group the majors in the Science division that emphasize the scientific method (e.g., Biology, Biological Chemistry, Chemistry, Physics, and Psychology) with the majors that do not (e.g., Computer Science, Mathematics, and Statistics). Still, the conglomerating of Humanities departments troubles me more.

[3] Elaine Marzluff and Erik Simpson stand out in particular, but also many others.

[4] Arguably, it’s also not what some branches of mathematics are about, either.

[5] We didn’t think writing code should count, just as we don’t think programming languages should count as foreign languages, even though they are foreign to most humans.

[6] Yes, the implied air quotes are intentional.

[7] I was going to write information rather than data. Although the data have been processed, I’m not sure that they’ve quite reached the level that I’d want to call them information.

[8] Division-level tagging is even more reductive. That’s why the tags appear to split Humanities into four groups (Interpretation, Creative Expression, Foreign Language, and Critical Reading) and Science into two (Quantitative Reasoning and Scientific Method/Analysis).

[9] By substantive I mean about one page. The 200 words we currently require do not permit substantive argument. They barely allow a student to define what they mean by liberal arts education [10].

[10] I am happy to accept that there are multiple models and definitions. I would hope that most students develop a personal definition [11] as they develop their curriculum.

[11] Grounded in the literature, of course.

[12] Or perhaps penultimate semester.

[14] I was going to suggest one faculty member from each division. However, since I find our divisional boundaries arbitrary for other purposes, I should not apply them here.

[15] The Grinnell Style Guide suggests that we spell it adviser. I prefer this spelling. Since official systems at Grinnell use the advisor spelling, I feel comfortable doing so, too.

Version 1.0 of 2018-03-30.