General Education Brain Dump (Part I)

I am writing about some of things I want the faculty in my department to know about in terms of the process we are undertaking in redesigning General Education at my institution.

First, I’d like you to know that General Education (at MTSU and more generally) is more nuanced, complex and multi-faceted than any one person’s, department’s, or even college’s perspective on it. To be sure, I’m not saying that our own perspectives about Gen. Ed. from Physics and Astronomy are wrong or irrelevant, but they can be quite limiting due to our own experience being just one slice of very broad landscape. That is, our limited experience not only affects our understanding of the structures and processes of General Education at MTSU, but also its broader aspirations & goals, and the operating constraints that different parts of the system work within.

Second, it is important to recognize that faculty, students, chairs, and administrators often have very strong feelings about General Education based on their own perspective and experiences, and this can make it difficult for well-meaning people to communicate effectively about both the current model of General Education and any potential changes. For this reason, it is imperative to be a bit modest, humble, and willing to learn in order to be an effective participant in the process.

This first post is intended to be an overview of how to begin thinking about thinking about general education. I apologize for it being so abstract, but I’ll try to make it as concrete as possible.

Beginning: Faculty and Student Conceptions and Perspectives on Gen Ed.

How we conceptualize the question of “what General Education is supposed to be?” influences a lot of our downstream thinking about general education. It is important for individuals participating in this process to recognize that their own views regarding the purpose of general education is not universal and it is likely to be differ from person to person. Certainly, there is a range of views in our own department, but the range of views beyond our department is quite a bit larger. I would be so bold to say the following: our own individual and collective views are quite “naive” in some regards. Most of us have not spent an appreciable part of careers learning about general education in the broad sense. The one thing I have learned is that everyone has a lot of learn.

Common Conception of Gen Ed

I’d like to start with one common conception of what General Education is — which while overly simplistic, is a useful starting place. Consider this: many faculty come to think of general education in terms of requirements that aim to guarantee two outcomes —

(1) that all students further develop certain foundational skills (e.g., writing, mathematics, communication) that ideally should apply broadly across all disciplines,


(2) that all students develop some breadth of knowledge across a variety of disciplines that are different than their primary focus (i.e., major).

[Remember, this is not THE definition of general education. It’s a common perspective]

What about in Physics?

If we are thinking about General Education this way (courses are foundation + breadth), our own courses in Physics and Astronomy tend to fall into the second category — fulfilling breadth in the sciences, specifically. So, how did we end up with the general education courses that we did? It is important to recognize that we, like most science departments, did not seek out to develop courses from scratch as “exemplary general education courses”. Rather, we more so developed courses that could serve as appropriate introductions to our disciplines (often, but not always, for majors). We then modified these courses a bit in some directions to qualify them for general education. This approach to course development made sense. The reasoning might be: our courses, already being high-quality foundational introductions to the discipline for majors (or other science students), should easily meet the lesser requirement of engaging the broader populations of students in the beginnings of science / physics for the purposes of cultivating breadth of knowledge. This approach is practical and efficient, as it required little reworking of existing courses / curriculum.

There are a couple points I’d like to make here:

(1) Even though this approach to Gen Ed course design is efficient, it may not be great for producing courses that actually foster the goals of general education,

(2) deciding whether such an approach (or any other approach) does or doesn’t produce high-quality general education courses requires the specification of goals for general education. That is — we need to able to identify what it is we are trying to accomplish.

(3) which goals each of us chooses to foreground or background for general education is strongly influenced by our unique experience, but also the overall conception of general education we’ve adopted from our own cultural and academic communities.

As a flow chart this might be:

“our overall conceptions of general education”    –influences–>

” goals we choose to foreground for general education”    –provides–>

 “goal we would need to evaluate success.”

You might be able to see both the logic and the problem here. In order for us to know whether general education courses are doing a good job, we need to know what the goals are, but to understand where our own goals come from, we need to understand how it is we conceive of general education. If we believe that are conception of general education is correct and others is wrong or that ours is universal, people are going to talk past one another.

Pause: So what about student perspectives and experiences? (how do they conceive it)

There is certainly a lot more to say about this later, but the main thing I’ll say is this. Students often experience general education courses as disconnected. For foundational courses, students often come to see them as overly “generic”  and thus to students they feel  “disconnected” from any meaning or skills that students see as relevant for their majors, their careers, their lives.  Similarly, students often experience breadth courses as overly “specific” and thus similarly disconnected from their majors, careers, and lives. These common experiences with Gen Ed Courses then serve as the kernel from which students come to see Gen Ed courses as “something to get out of the way” and as “irrelevant and a waste of time,” which actually get reinforced through various cultural and academic communities that students participate in.

So what about Faculty? How do faculty feel about general education?

Out of this common conception of Gen Ed. (again that general education is foundation + breadth), faculty in physics and other disciplines may find themselves falling into one or more of the following specific judgments toward general education courses and teaching.

  1. General education is a structure that dilutes and waters down (to varying degrees) what would otherwise be rigorous introductory courses.
  2. General education consists of a few (slightly annoying) “hoops” we have to consider, but it doesn’t influence much (if any) of our decision-making regarding curriculum and pedagogy.
  3. General education consists of remedial courses in the sense that they are filling gaps of foundational and breadth knowledge that students should have acquired already. If students were better prepared, we wouldn’t need general education.

I’d like to step back again and recognize that everyone’s actual ideas about general education are much more complex and nuanced than any of the above. I’m not accusing anyone of having any particular view above. My hope is, instead, that as you read the above perspectives and judgment, you can recognize them. Perhaps you will recognize them in yourself or perhaps so in others. And I do hope that you recognize them whether or not you agree with them. And finally I hope that you can recognize them even if you think I haven’t perfectly described all their nuances.

Trying to Wrap up things up in this First Post: What the big idea?

I am hoping to help draw a line between these specific judgments that we often hold about general education (i.e., that Gen Ed. may be see as damaging, inconsequential, or remedial) and the common conception of general education as having a primary purpose to provide foundational and breadth knowledge. That is, foundation and breadth are both things that we can perceive to be damaged, in need of remediation, or we can choose not to worry the foundations outside our immediate community.

Flow Chart:  

our conceptions of general education –>

color our experiences of general education –>

together our conceptions of and experiences with gen. ed. –>

result in judgments, judgments that can be powerful.

So, when most people start talking about or thinking about general education, these judgments are often the first thing that comes to mind. People *feel* strongly one way or the other about general education. But they are often much less aware of what conceptions of general education they even have that give rise to those judgments. Furthermore, even if they can articulate a conception of general education, it is often tacitly assumed that this view is universal (i.e., “this is what general education is”).

Thus, for any of us to begin productively engaging in conversations about general education, we will need to strive to distance ourselves away from our immediate judgments and experiences of general education; and instead strive to become more curious about and aware of two things — our own conceptions and others’ conceptions of general education. Often times this will at first involve recognizing our own judgments (and emotions) and then trying to set them aside. We may need to hear about the judgments of others people, and not initially react to them based solely on our own judgments. The broad goal needs to be to get to the point where we can see general education more objectively and multidimensionally — to recognize different perspectives on general education (different from our own), and to try on these different perspectives in order to getter a better understanding of the beast that general education is.

Thanks for hanging in there on the abstraction.

In the next post, I hope to invite the reader into different view points of what general education is (or might be) and to compare and contrast that with the common view point. I do not, at this point, want to advocate for any particular view. The goal will be to explore different view points that will allow us to expand the possibilities of how we imagine general education. It will also, in turn, help us to better understand some of limitations and liabilities of the common conception of general education.


4 thoughts on “General Education Brain Dump (Part I)

Add yours

  1. This has some great framing, even though I’m not the target audience of this post. For those of us who want to follow along, would it be possible for you to give the bare bones description of what MTSU’s gen ed requirements are currently?

    1. Good point. it’s 41 credits all of which must be lower division courses, mandated by state law. Only other state law requirement is that 6 of those 41 credits must be US / TN history. From there, MTSU very much has a developed a distribution across the disciplines model: 8 science credits, 6 social science credits, 6 fine arts, 6 history, 6 english, 3 communication, 3 humanities / literature, 3 mathematics). Students can “place out” of some courses like english and math with high enough ACT scores. Students can place out of other courses like history by demonstrating knowledge on a placement test. In Physics, Astronomy lecture and lab is our big general education course. Intro physics count as Gen Ed, but its not typically chosen for being a Gen Ed. Compared to other institutions, we don’t have a crazy amount of offerings — maybe 60 total courses that are designated as Gen Ed.

  2. I just had a conversation with someone whose conception of gen ed was exactly what you have described here, but who got very excited thinking about the possibilities associated with freshman seminars or pathways. I look forward to reading part 2!

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