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4 Ways Academic Deans Can Make the Core Curriculum More Effective

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by Stanton Green, Professor of Anthropology and Former Dean of the McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Monmouth University

This is the third in my Academic Impressions series on "Things Deans Can Do to Help our Students after they Graduate." This time, my focus is on how deans can use career development to enhance general education.

Academic Impressions' 2013 report, General Education Reform: Unseen Opportunities, reviews several exemplary general education programs that are driving increases in student retention and, to a somewhat lesser extent, graduates' employability. In this article, I will consider more fully how infusing career and life preparation development into general education can support these important measures.

The Tragedy of the Commons

Since the general education core is not owned by any one discipline, it often finds itself without the required faculty champion. General education usually represents about 40% of a Baccalaureate curriculum that is up for grabs.  As such it becomes an academic example of The Tragedy of the Commons, where individual departments compete in a zero sum game. Disciplines capture curricular acreage that can lead to a degradation of the overall quality of educational grazing land. The sum can become less than the whole. This general scheme is reinforced through curricular constraints on using alternative and external educational opportunities to expand the learning commons.  

There are definite reasons why faculty and departments look to fence off portions of the educational commons. First, they proudly believe that all students should take courses in their fields of specialty. Second, they often characterize general education as a means for capturing majors. Finally, faculty often view general education as a way of protecting their faculty lines and department budgets.

However, this compartmentalized model of education is out of tune with students' needs. Students need to develop their ability to solve problems in an increasingly interdisciplinary and global world. To me, general education offers the greatest opportunity to prepare students for that increasingly complex world. What's needed is a course of study that is clearly communicated to the student. Zero sum general education leads to a scattered core that students will complete without knowing how any course fit with the other 3 or 4 dozen courses that are also required. General education needs to render explicit the connections between academic learning, career development, and lifelong learning. The educational commons much be treated as an integrated whole with a focused vision.

4 Ways Deans Can Make a Difference

Let me offer four suggestions for ensuring that your general-education program reduces time to graduation and helps prepare students for lifelong learning and for employability after graduation:

  1. Ensure that general education is leading the curriculum in fulfilling learning and career development goals. Make these goals clear to students, and integrate student life and career aspirations into the gen-ed program's mission, curriculum and pedagogy.
  2. When revisiting the core curriculum, solicit and integrate ideas from career services professionals, alumni, and employers of your college graduates.
  3. Move this vision forward by (a) leveraging faculty more as mentors for students, and (b) recruiting new faculty who hold undergraduate mentoring as a high priority.
  4. Finally, remove roadblocks. General education should facilitate 4-year graduation through more flexible integration of external learning opportunities (such as transfer courses and study abroad programs) to ensure that students can meet requirements and master components of the curriculum without delays.

1. Create a Unified Pedagogy.
Most faculty would agree that general education should be built on the broad knowledge of culture, history, and science. Arguments often begin, however, when there is a call to infuse career development skills within the general education program.

As I have asserted earlier in this series (here and here), resistance to making the liberal arts practical is based on a false divide between education and career development. The liberal arts are inherently practical because they teach critical reading, writing, presenting, and analyzing. It is only a matter of reframing courses to emphasize acquisition of these skills and clarify to students that these skills are what they're here to learn.

A distinctive general education requires faculty, deans, and admissions and career services professionals to work together to form a unified pedagogy that prepares students better for lifelong learning. On the job training, for example, often involves action learning, with employees working in teams and developing the skills needed to accomplish specific projects or outcomes in response to a charge by a supervisor. Academic learning, on the other hand, still tends to stress individualized learning of content presented in a largely didactic manner. If we do more to apply active learning in the classroom and if we require students to learn on interdisciplinary teams to achieve specific interdisciplinary projects or outcomes, we better prepare them for both life in the twenty-first century and for the world of work.

The liberal arts and sciences need to enact intentionally multidisciplinary and active learning strategies that focus on teaching critical learning skills through the study of the humanities, social sciences and science. Deans can provide pivotal leadership in working with faculty to define a core curricular mission (writing, global leadership, e.g.) and doing so within a clearly articulated and simple pathway to life after college. 

2. Seek Broader Input.
Campus professionals from career services to alumni affairs can offer perspectives on what students expect and need when they begin their college careers. Professionals outside the academic departments also need your input -- they need to know what distinguishes the general education program in order to recruit and retain the students who best fit the university mission.

Academic deans are in the perfect position to facilitate conversations between academic affairs, career services, student services, and admissions. And it is in the dean's best academic interest to do so, to make sure that general education maintains and enhances its academic rigor while also integrating lifelong and professional learning skills. (And avoid allowing first-year courses and first-year seminars to fall into the 'careerist trap,' in which a certain percentage of the curriculum or of a course syllabus is devoted to covering "how to become a college student." The goal of general education is not to become a college student; it's to become a lifelong learner. Inviting broader input before revisiting the general education curriculum can help in avoiding this trap.)

There are also opportunities to invite input from beyond the immediate campus community. Alumni and prospective employers are usually eager to discuss what works in life and career after graduation. Some ideas to consider:

  • Develop an alumni advisory committee.
  • Invite guest speakers from organizations such as the Association of Colleges and Employers to meet with your faculty.
  • Send your faculty and deans outside the institution to Association of Colleges and Employers conferences or to events held by similar organizations.

3. Recruit the Right Faculty, and Support Them.
Work with departments to enfold the priority of students' career development in faculty recruitment plans. Departments need to seek faculty candidates who will be enthusiastic mentors for undergraduates - with the understanding that the institution is going to support faculty efforts toward assisting students' career development. For example, initiate funding for faculty development to prepare faculty to focus on the practical outcomes of general education.

4. Remove Roadblocks and Reduce the Time to Complete.
One way in which traditional approaches to general education often delay graduation is the prohibition against transferring general education credit between institutions. This practice needs to be challenged. Students often have opportunities to take summer courses at universities near their home and place of work, but many universities do not allow these to transfer into general education. In fields such as my own - anthropology - there are often tremendous opportunities for students to take courses or complete research projects at other universities, but these opportunities are often cut off by policies concerning transfer.

Similarly, students can deepen their learning and skills development through an array of study abroad opportunities, but study abroad courses are also frequently disqualified from fulfilling general education requirements. This should be challenged, too. Deans need to play a pivotal leadership role in fostering more collaboration between academic departments, study abroad offices and the registrar's office.

Join the Conversation

Has your college seen successful partnership between career services and faculty and academic leadership? If so, we'd love to hear more! Please contact my colleague at AI, Erin Swietlik at erin@academicimpressions.com to share more about your approach.
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About the Authors

Stanton Green

During his 20 years as a former Dean at Monmouth University and Clarion University, Stan has created and implemented university programs that connect academic curricula with career preparation at the undergraduate and graduate level. He gives talks and workshops throughout the United States at universities and career services and academic professional conferences that cross divisional boundaries on how the competencies employers seek in their new employees are embedded in rigorous liberal arts programs and the practical ways to link faculty with career services staff in order to build this connection into professional and curricula development. He is a middle states reviewer and academic department consultant. His anthropological scholarship focuses on generational culture change and higher education and is the author of over 30 major articles and two edited volumes in Anthropology.​