Where does general education fit into an undergraduate degree?

I am currently serving on a taskforce which has been given the job of revising our general education program. As a member of this taskforce, I have been reading, analyzing, and using data to design and implement a program that many faculty struggle to explain and that many students often question. This made me think. What do schools mean by general education?

If we look at definitions, most people would say this is the part of a student’s education which is meant to develop their personalities or provide skills and knowledge which will help students succeed not only in their chosen major but also in their careers and life. If we look at this more closely, many faculty members see general education as the place for students to develop some of those soft skills that are often talked about by employers. These soft skills include communication skills, listening skills, critical thinking/problem solving, and interpersonal skills to name a few.

If general education is the place for the learning of these skills, where do we as faculty fit into general education? After all, isn’t it my job to provide the knowledge for Biology classes? That is why I have my Ph.D. and the institution hired me. Surely, there are other members of the campus community that can also guide students on successful acquisition of these skills? For example, I was never taught how to teach writing so why should I teach writing? But is this statement true? I was taught how to write. In elementary, junior high, and high school, I was taught how to construct sentences to ensure that all verbs had a subject. I was taught how to put together an outline so that my thoughts were organized in a logical manner. In college, I was taught how to now take difficult concepts and use them to develop a hypothesis. I was taught how to present the methodology of my experiments. And finally, I was taught how to analyze and present data and then discuss what that data meant. Graduate school asked me to use these skills and bring them to a higher level. I could list similar instances and experiences for thinking and problem solving, collaboration, and other soft skills as well. Are these experiences enough for me to be able to teach writing in our general education program? That is the million dollar question our taskforce is trying to answer. There is a part of me, that says, “YES! I can teach students how to write.” I have had papers published. I write all the time for different committees, classes, and other activities. There is a second part of me that is terrified of the idea of teaching writing in a more general class. Those scary terms like logic and rhetoric seem overwhelming to this Biology professor. Can I even give an example of rhetoric? I know that if I stepped back and took a breath, I could give an example of rhetoric. But this raises another question. Do the students deserve someone better trained (and less afraid of these terms) to guide them while learning these skills? That question is still one our taskforce is trying to answer.

The other question our taskforce has had to face is, “How do we get students to buy into general education?” What can we as faculty and staff do to promote the importance of those skills learned in our institution’s general education programs? Are we so focused on the knowledge and skills of the major that we forget that those soft skills can make or break a successful employee? Knowledge and skills specific to a job can get the applicant to the interview. It is the soft skills that can get the applicant the job. If this is the case, then isn’t it our job as professors and teachers to not only help our students gain the knowledge but also to help them gain those skills that will help them to succeed in their careers and lives? And if that is our job, how do we as faculty support and allow for equal importance of both technical knowledge and skills and these so-called soft skills?

Let me preface, I am certainly not telling faculty that they need to get rid of their grading scales. And I am not telling students they should forget about their grades. But I am questioning how we measure success in today’s academic world and in our global society. If we look at surveys and reports that have been published, employers are having trouble finding students/potential employees with soft skills. Does this mean all of these higher education institutions are failing in their general education of students? I would like to think that we aren’t failing. But I am suggesting we might need to find a better way to illustrate the importance of the skills learned in general education classes. This could be in how we discuss general education to how we define successful completion of general education. Most teachers always ask how to assess soft skills. Is it possible that maybe a grading scale isn’t the only way to define success when it comes to learning some skills? Again, our taskforce hasn’t come up with the golden answer yet.

Serving on this taskforce has been eye opening and I have learned that putting together a successful general education program requires a great deal of guesswork. There have been questions raised that I truly do not have answers for, and I don’t know that answers are available for these questions. But these questions and this process have made me question what the future of general education looks like.  The current generation of students have access to technology and possess skills and talents that did not even exist when many faculty were students. As faculty we learned skills that helped us succeed back when we were graduating and looking to move to the next phase of life. And we have adapted as changes to the world have come. While I cannot say for sure what general education will look like in the future, I can say that we need to be training students for the requirements of today’s workforce and the ability to adapt for the future workforce. And unless we have a crystal ball which can predict the future, what that looks like will remain unknown.

 

Melissa A. Fleegal-DeMotta, Ph.D. earned her BS in Biology from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA. After working at Penn State’s College of Medicine, she then earned her PhD from the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL. Following postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Florida, University of Arizona, and Saint Louis University, she has been a professor at Clarke University in Dubuque, IA for over 10 years. During her time at Clarke, she has developed an interest in how the general education of a liberal arts university fits with the education of science majors.

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