The Arizona Desert Lamp

A Galaxy of Modules

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 7 January 2009

Computer for EducationWay back at the last Senate meeting, the Senate (and yours truly) was unexpectedly exposed to a bizarre new plan for general education (in case you’ve forgotten the details, the outline of the plan can be found here). I promised to write more about the plan in the future, because the discussion brought up much broader issues; why, for instance, do we have General Education in the first place?

According to Vice-Provost Burd, there are three components, or goals, to the GenEd program here at the UA: critical thinking, writing, and information literacy (i.e. the ability to use research resources at the library). Certainly, these are all commendable goals, but I think they beg the question — what about the students who already have these skills? Consider, for instance, an incoming freshman who scored a 5 on the AP English test, which (ultimately) earns credit at the UA. This student clearly has demonstrated her ability to critically think, and obviously she can write. Perhaps, somehow, she is unable to use a library search system or JSTOR — but even we accept the dubious assertion that our AP-tester is “information illiterate,” that can easily be remedied in a semester, or even more effectively on that student’s own time. What does the GenEd program provide for this student?

The problem with these goals is that they ignore the importance of subject matter — hypothetically, you can become an effective thinker fed on mere concepts, but a growing mind needs intellectual food. This leads to a second approach, in which the thinking methods come from the subject matter itself — this is the idea underlying the Great Books, or Western Canon approach. Here students are exposed “classic” texts that are universally acclaimed as “great,” and through engagement with these texts become the idealized bright young things we always thought that they were. Sarcasm aside, I have to admit a wistful desire for the implementation of this method; in an alternate world, I would have gone to St. John’s College. Sadly, for a litany of reasons (Derrida, Said, and Lyotard — oh my!), the idea of reinstituting the ‘classical education’ on a wide-scale is pie-in-the-sky dreaming; imposing such a curriculum top-down would be so burdensome, so criticized, and so impossible (imagine the bookstore lines for Aurelius!) as to be risible.

We are left, then, in a conundrum — focusing simply on “skills” isn’t enough, but there’s no shared subject matter worthy of teaching for its own sake.

This brings us back to Burd’s modules, which need to be described in more detail. These courses would be worth one credit each, and would be taken online. Each week, there would be a short reading and a related assignment — a write-up or a quiz, I presume.  While these modules would be taken in conjunction with a full, three-credit GenEd class, they would not be related at all with the actual class, and would be randomly assigned — thus, while you and your friend Joe might both be taking “Dinosaurs,” you would take module “Intro to Etymology” while Joe would be taking “It’s a Gas!” (Poor Joe.)

But why bother with the regular classes in the first place? Suppose you had the option to take all of your GenEds as modules. There would be no issues of availability (there’s really no limit to the size of online-based courses), they offer more flexibility in a schedule, and (let’s be frank) they will be less likely to bore.

What such a system of GenEd further offers is the best possible compromise between the issues of subject matter and Burd’s goals. Students, rather than learning more than they ever wanted to know about Clovis man before promptly forgetting him, would be briefly exposed to wide range of ideas. Some might complain The idea of the GenEd program is to build a knowledge base, not to make every student of “Mind, Matter, and God” a published philosopher.By focusing on a wide-range of shallow knowledge, rather than a smallish range of shin-deep knowledge, such a GenEd system also encourages cross-linkages in thought. (Christ, that’s a horrible term. I am so sorry, George Orwell.) Ideally, a graduate of this system will be marginally conversant in a range of subject wide enough to encourage unique thought and connections rarely considered i.e. the laws of physics and the laws of sociology. This is the stuff that idea generation is made of.

Granted, this sort of general education system is batshit insane. Yet since you’ve come this far, a few final thoughts:

1. This system would initially, and perhaps indefinitely, be administered through the Honors College, for Honors Students and the few non-Honors kids who applied for the program for particular reasons (with every regulation, come exceptions to said regulation). This system could be used as a way to lure high-achieving kids to the school, as it would provide a very feasible way for a motivated student to graduate in three years (a perk that I predict will become increasingly popular).

2. We could also do with a reorganization of the categories. Thus, I propose Science, Arts/Literature, and Social Sciences. Each department would offer a minimum of one module. Students would then have to take eight modules in each field, with modifications being made for majors and incoming credit.

3. In designing these modules, it would be nice to see some of the school’s more PR-friendly departments get pimped. For example, the astronomy department could offer a module on the Phoenix mission to Mars, while the Tree-Ring Laboratory could do a module on . . . well, tree-rings, I guess. Nothing like a little UA propaganda for the undergraduates.

4. One of the problems the Senate expressed in response to the online modules is a lack of instructor contact; this fear, I think, is safely held by a wide portion of students. I wonder, though, how hard it would be to offer a professor contact guarantee. Students taking an online module would be given the contact info and office hours of a sponsoring faculty member — ideally, someone closely connected with the material in the module. Students who need contact with the professor would be able to do so, just as any student in a “normal” class would.

5. The other option, which I’ve left unsaid, is simply eliminating general education altogether. I definite have a visceral reaction against this, and it is definitely unseemly. Yet somehow, I’m having difficulty conjuring up a coherent reason as to why.

Image courtesy of Flickr user BALLISTIK!

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3 Responses

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  1. […] 28th, 2009 The first step towards module-based General Education (which I wrote about at length here), will be implemented in the field of “information literacy”: One of the first […]

  2. The Arizona Desert Lamp said, on 25 March 2009 at 1:07 pm

    […] but putting the two in direct opposition seems too simple. We’ve explored several ideas for increasing quality without affecting price, decreasing price without affecting quality, and doing both with […]

  3. […] this is a really good start – in fact, it sounds like an argument one might use to push for a module system of general education. As a result, students whose major coursework does not fulfill this […]


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