Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies
Bowling Green Brings "Values" Focus to the First Year of College
BGeXperience (BGeX), a program developed for incoming students at Ohio's Bowling Green State University, has grown over the past five years from a few optional courses into a required part of every student's undergraduate experience. Like other first-year programs, BGeX is designed to ease the transition from high school to college. What distinguishes the program is its focus on "critical thinking about values across the curriculum"—a focus that encompasses the values that students bring with them to college as well as the values that are embedded in the disciplines.
In its current form, BGeXperience includes both curricular and cocurricular components. The program begins with "BGeX Introduction," a three-day orientation in which new students become familiar with the campus, learn about the local community, and discuss a common reading. It continues in the regular academic year with a designated "values" course. Those who are interested can also pursue service learning, take upper-division courses on values in the disciplines, and even become BGeX peer facilitators later in their undergraduate careers.
Although it has grown rapidly, BGeX has raised—and continues to raise—questions about teaching values in college. What is the relationship between values and other course content? Is it possible to avoid either promoting a specific set of values or endorsing all values as equal? Is it even appropriate to teach values in college? Bowling Green's responses to such questions shed light on the limits and the possibilities of incorporating values into the curriculum.
BGeXperience defines a value simply as "a principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable." Under this intentionally inclusive definition, program planners have identified a number of ways of talking more specifically about values. For example, discussing "value conflicts" such as "individual responsibility vs. collective responsibility" can help students understand how different sets of values, each with their own logic and merits, come into opposition in social and political contexts; discussing broad "value questions" such as "What is our place in nature?" can lead students to think about the philosophical basis of values; and discussing "value actions" can demonstrate to students the importance of behaving in accordance with one's values.
This approach to values is nonprescriptive, but it does prompt students to reflect upon their beliefs. George Agich, a professor of philosophy who serves as director of BGeXperience, notes that students do not necessarily need to change their existing views to benefit from such reflection: when students have thought critically about what underpins their values, he says, they are more likely to be able to speak about their views with "authority" and to recognize "the boundary where . . . knowledge begins to get fuzzy and get limited by [their] own experience." Agich adds that students who are thoughtful about values will better understand how the views of others, too, are shaped by values—even when those views are opposed to their own.
Values in the Disciplines
To create continuity between orientation and the academic year, faculty and peer facilitators remain with the same students throughout BGeX Introduction and the first-semester values course. Students are introduced to the language of "values" during orientation; in the first-semester course they begin to think about the role of values in the disciplines.
The values courses themselves are modified "intro" courses. The program has been able to quickly create values courses in the campus's many academic departments by offering incentives and holding workshops to help faculty redesign existing classes. Faculty integrate values into these courses both by examining value conflicts specific to their fields and by focusing on the core academic values of honesty, integrity, and accountability. Many courses also are informed by a deeper philosophical understanding of how what we see is affected by what we believe, and of how knowledge itself—even in scientific fields—is shaped by values.
The courses thus take into account the role of values while still providing conventional introductions to the disciplines. The geology values course, for example, covers all of the essential content of a geology survey, from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic era, but at the same time considers how values inflect debates about global warming, the theory of evolution, and the compatibility of science and religion. Similarly, students in the computer science values course learn the basics of working with computers while also exploring problems of access to technology, ethical concerns such as privacy and piracy, and the values questions that arise from how technology is used.
Framing course content in this way does not detract from how well students learn core subject matter in the disciplines, Agich says. On the contrary, studies on Bowling Green's campus have shown that, when the performance of BGeX students is compared to that of students in comparable introductory courses without a values focus, BGeX students actually have "a slight edge." Faculty, too, have benefited from the focus on values, which in many cases "renew[s] their enthusiasm for their subject matter," says Agich.
In the coming years, Agich expects that BGeXperience will increasingly be defined as a program that facilitates critical thinking about values throughout the undergraduate years. He currently is encouraging the development both of service-learning opportunities tied to BGeX and of upper-division courses that examine the role of values in more advanced contexts or serve as "capstones" to work in the major.
As Agich notes, expanding the reach of BGeX in advanced courses is especially important because many of the value conflicts that students will encounter in their future careers simply cannot be addressed in the first year of college. As an example, he cites clinical trial design: it is essential for a student who is entering medicine to understand the "deleterious consequences in terms of the distribution of risks to the study subjects" that accompany increased statistical power in a clinical trial, he says. Such a topic, however, can only be covered adequately in a biostatistics course or an advanced bioethics course.
Perhaps the most significant benefits students take with them from the BGeX program are those that will contribute to their personal as well as their professional lives: openness to differing viewpoints, the ability to think critically about values, and the integrity to act upon values. These ideals underlie Bowling Green's recent efforts to integrate values into the curriculum. "The opportunity to have free expression and to welcome diversity and even opposing viewpoints on campus is something that public, liberal institutions should be committed to," Agich says. "Certainly we are committed to try to convey those values to our freshmen from the start."