Restructuring Gen Ed: Notes on a Train

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I think my status update on Facebook said it all: Trains are a little sad. Then again, maybe trains are fine; maybe it's only me that's a little sad. I'm writing this on Amtrak's Silver Service to Tampa, Florida. I'm headed toward the first meeting of the Communication Committee, one of five faculty committees that will help decide the new general education curriculum for all public higher education institutions in Florida. In this series of posts, I'd like to reflect on this process and its implications—not for my school or even for my state but for the ways in which writing, rhetoric, and composition—and education itself—are conceived and conceptualized in institutions of higher education today. The problem is, I'm stuck. Looking out at the monotonous scrubby landscape offers neither inspiration nor direction (Florida, you see, is surprisingly empty in the middle and unerringly flat everywhere). How does one tackle an artifact of this size? Not a paper or a class or a course or a program or a department or a school, but an entire statewide system and bureaucracy legislated into existence? How does one respond when (literally) hailed by the juridical? I suppose the law itself is a good place to start, or better, the reductive summary of the law provided to the faculty committees:
  • Required general education credits statewide lowered from 36 to 30 beginning fall 2014
  • Students must take one course, for a total of 15 credits, in each of the following 5 categories: communication, mathematics, natural science, social science, humanities
  • Each category will have a maximum of 5 courses. Courses will be uniform across all state universities, state colleges, and community colleges
  • Faculty committees to be formed to determine courses offered in each category
  • Remaining courses (15 credits) to be determined by each university or college
For the remainder of this post, I'll focus on that first point: the reduction of the core from 36 to 30 credits. The intent of the law, we have been told, is to ensure that all students have a common experience at Florida schools. Bracketing for now both the wisdom and possibility of such a goal, what's clear is that reducing the credits in the core seems hardly related to that intent. Indeed, when you consider as well a second piece of legislation penalizing students for taking “too many” credits (by radically increasing tuition once they exceed allotted/expected credits), then another motive seems to lie behind this law: getting students to graduate, quickly. Reports from our provost suggest that four- to six-year graduation rates are the new currency in our statewide educational economy. I say "new" currency but it might be more accurate to say "newest."  Graduation rates, while highlighted, circulate with existing currencies including retention rates, FTE (full-time equivalent, a measure of bodies in classrooms), and SCH (student credit hours, which are essentially bodies in course times credits for course). Newer currencies don’t seem to displace older ones; all remain in use. Pointedly, actual currency, the U.S.-dollar kind, rarely enters the system these days. I'm no economist, but I imagine any economy with multiple currencies is subject to tectonic disjunctures or, at the very least, radical fluctuations in wealth and value. Fun times. What does any of this have to do with the teaching of writing?  Well, in the midst of it all I find myself thinking of Cynthia Selfe's call to "pay attention" in Technology and Literacy in the 21st Century. Perhaps it's not just technology that requires our attention, as Selfe suggests, but also the institutions in which we find ourselves. What happens to writing instruction in a smaller core? What happens when it is dumped in the larger category of "communication"? Who serves to gain from these reconfigurations?  And, most of all, how can we best serve our students in a system intent both on expansion and contraction, one that wants higher enrollments with smaller budgets, greater outcomes with a smaller core? Like Selfe, I believe the place to start is locally—with our colleagues, in our departments, in our colleges, at our schools. It's not simply a matter of making sure writing stays in the core (that's already happened as I finish this post in Tampa), but rather a question both of how best to expand our concerns with and for writing throughout the institution and its support systems. It's also a question of how indeed to get blood from a stone. What challenges are you facing locally? Where does writing sit in your school? In the center? All alone? Well supported? And, most importantly, what strategies of advocacy should we engage now? Which have you found successful? Which have failed you?    
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.