If you’re curious or foolish, and perhaps a little brave, ask your students how many of their college classes they would gladly do away with.

If the students you work with are like the ones I work with, they will say something like 50%, and if you ask which 50%, they will say: You know, all that stuff I don’t need.

“Need” is defined as anything that will help them get a job in the future.

I probe and push back, asking them what about when they get into their jobs and careers, don’t they think they may need some breadth of experience?

Students will admit that maybe this is true, but you have to get the job first, and all those “random” gen-eds aren’t going to be helpful with that.

When I ask if those gen-eds are truly random, if students know why they’re asked to take them, they will pay lip service to needing to be “well-rounded” and to some degree, they do believe this, but up against a world where being well-rounded isn’t worth anything tangible, it’s tough to value it.

Over time, I believe students will come to better appreciate the benefits of non-major courses – just as I did – but entering the courses believing they are nuisances has a detrimental effect on engagement.

I do not begrudge these attitudes even as I lament them. I also cast no stones at other courses. The very one I was asking these questions in was a course students would be happy to eliminate. 

I mean…sure…it’s a decent time and all, but what good is it going to do me?

This brings me to my interest, and even excitement for the University of Virginia’s “New College Curriculum” a recently adopted approach to general education.

The curriculum is a three-legged stool of “Engagements,” “Literacies,” and “Disciplines,” that appear designed to work in harmony to build a general education that embraces all dimensions of “curriculum,” not just content. 

Engagements are seminar-style, half-semester courses focused on “big questions” around aesthetics, empiricism, difference, and ethics.

Literacies focuses on writing, languages, and real-world application of “quantification.” Rather than taking a math course, these appear to be applied courses across a range of disciplines that use quantification as a tool for understanding.

Disciplines as described focus on ways of thinking, the dimensions of a particular “practice” when working in a particular field like history, science, or economics.

I like a lot of what I’m seeing because I view writing through the lens of a “practice,” the skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits of mind of writers. The content or specific focus of the writing I’m teaching matters much less than making sure students understand how that focus fits inside the larger framework of a writer’s practice. 

The goal is to build the dimensions of the practice so students can apply that learning to an unfamiliar future writing problem. By framing general education as an exploration of disciplines rooted in specific practices, we are truly arming students with experiences they should find valuable, rather than see as a nuisance getting in the way of the useful stuff.

Last year I wrote on the gen ed as a problem of pedagogy, not subject matter, meaning what students are learning matters less than how they’re learning. The UVA New College Curriculum seems to tackle both pedagogy and content by giving courses a set of organizing principles, primarily oriented around what students should be able to do, rather than simply what they should “know.”

It checks a lot of boxes in terms of things we know students need, but also struggle with – developing agency, connecting their learning from course-to-course, focusing on learning over grades, tackling big projects and big questions. 

A rationale and framework by itself isn’t enough, though. Whether or not the promise of engagements, literacies, and disciplines is fulfilled comes down to the specifics of the individual courses, but assuming instructor buy-in and sufficient resources, this looks like the kind of thing faculty can get excited about.

About those resources: This is the kind of program that a well-heeled institution like the University of Virginia can tackle. Those engagement courses are taught by “UVA’s premier faculty,” not an army of underpaid adjuncts. No grand vision can withstand treating your frontline workforce as essentially fungible. There’s no chance at coherence when an instructor is there one semester, and gone the next.

Curriculum alone cannot cure what ails most institutions in this area.

Despite my students’ wish to just get on to the important stuff, many of them seem to be enjoying our first-year experience course on humor writing. The stuff they’re producing shows some sharp and unique minds. The other night, they started in on a team project that will carry them through the end of the semester, and the chatter during the in-class work time seemed to demonstrate pretty solid engagement.

Which makes it an extra shame that they still don’t think our course truly matters. I do what I can to try to provide a larger context, but that task would be much easier as part of a curriculum focused on bigger questions than checking a box on the way to a degree.

Maybe UVA has created something worth emulating. I just wish emulation was possible for more institutions.



Inside Higher Ed