When we set out to revamp our general education program, colleagues at other institutions warned us that the task would be about as easy as moving a graveyard. But dedicated to improving the student experience, we were not deterred.
It was 2015 at American University (AU), and many students were uncertain as to why general education requirements existed at all. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and I, as provost at the time, sought to change this. Our goal was to move from discipline-based categorical introductory courses that students perceived as burdensome—even as an impediment to pursuing their academic interests—and shift to an integrated set of foundational inquiry-based courses that would captivate student interest.
We knew this would be a difficult task. Faculty have a long tradition of embracing a classical general education array of discipline-based courses. Further, any changes to the gen ed program could have resource implications for departments, as such a change could affect students’ decisions on which majors to pursue. But in the end, we successfully restructured AU’s general education program to challenge students’ thinking with courses that place a strong emphasis on learning outcomes, including through a new capstone requirement.
So, what was the secret to making such a large curricular change? We committed to a collaborative approach.
As the first step in our process, in summer 2015, we invited a talented cadre of administrators, faculty, and other campus leaders to serve on our Reimagining General Education Committee. After undertaking a national review of liberal arts core curricula, the committee recommended, with my support, that AU revamp its gen ed program to include three major components. First would be an inquiry-based Core Curriculum that would expose students to different “Habit of Mind” perspectives inclusive of natural scientific inquiry, creative-aesthetic inquiry, ethical reasoning, cultural inquiry, and sociohistorical inquiry.
Second, the curriculum would have first-year foundation courses that, in addition to writing and quantitative literacy courses, would include a two-part first-year seminar course and “complex problems” seminars, limited to twenty students and designed around a multifaceted problem to engage students with difficult intellectual challenges. For example, the Tactical Urbanism seminar examines the contemporary city, considering its vibrancy, resilience, power dynamics, economy, and contested spaces.
The third core component would involve integrative sequences of courses focused on diversity and equity, advanced written communication/information literacy, and higher-level quantitative literacy. All students would undertake an integrative capstone project.
To introduce the Core Curriculum to the rest of the university community, we held eighteen town hall meetings, coffee hour sessions, discussion panels, and workshops. The Reimagining General Education Committee gathered feedback from these events and adjusted the plans for the new program. In addition, the committee chairs and I routinely presented our progress to the AU faculty senate, student government representatives, the provost’s operational council, the president’s council, and the board of trustees.
After two years of planning and revisions, we presented the draft of the proposed Core Curriculum to the faculty senate for comments and an opportunity for the senators to take the draft plan back to their home departments for further discussion. Upon request, members from the committee participated in individual department discussions. The review process continued through the following academic year.
Finally in 2017, after nearly three years of work, the new gen ed curriculum went before the faculty senate for an up-or-down vote. As the senate chair called for a “yes” vote for approval, I watched with a pounding heart. Every senator raised a hand.
The new gen ed core curriculum had passed unanimously.
After the approval, we established nine different Core Curriculum subcommittees involving more than a hundred faculty members. We also hosted fifty-one learning outcome development workshops with more than 650 faculty members taking part. Staff from the admissions team, academic advisement, and the registrar’s office all contributed to the process. Residential life administrators allocated space and green-lighted construction of academic offices for the new program in a first-year undergraduate residence (previously, no academic personnel offices had been integrated into residence hall student life). In addition, multiple residential classrooms were constructed for the first-year complex problems seminars—and paid for out of the residential life budget.
Today, five different Habit of Mind Committees, composed of faculty from relevant areas of inquiry, review courses for approval. The committees examine detailed assignments in syllabi for proposed Habit courses for their ability to demonstrate and reinforce intended learning outcomes. If insufficient, the syllabi are returned for revision. Courses can be regularly added to the curriculum.
Now that the new Core Curriculum has been in operation at AU for five years, I believe certain key factors helped us achieve such a significant curricular redesign, which has won the favor of students and faculty alike.
1. A vibrant and exciting opportunity for teaching and learning.
Fear of change and anxiety over possible additional work and loss of resources can hinder faculty support for large curricular changes, particularly if they come in a top-down manner. A process of inclusion and control by the faculty in curriculum design and approval is essential.
For example, we did not do away with substantive general education requirements like advanced writing and higher-level quantitative proficiencies; instead, we placed these courses within the major or minor and under the control of related subject-matter faculty. This reassured faculty that students would be well prepared for more advanced work in their fields and provided students with the sense that these more advanced core courses would be embedded in the subject of their intellectual or career interests.
2. Engagement of faculty, administrative, and staff leaders.
In addition to sustained dialogue with faculty, the various academic committees, and the faculty senate, our engagement of administrators, particularly those involved in the eventual implementation, was a must. The frequent flow of information and discussion about the implications for university operations and resources paved the way for change and reduced tension.
3. Flexible choices for students.
Unlike first-year foundation courses, Habit of Mind courses can be taken throughout the undergraduate experience. The flexibility allows students to take required courses as they prefer, with room in their schedule to pursue experiential learning opportunities.
4. Preparation for a long timeline and initial disagreements.
Patience and responsiveness to criticism is part of the art of making change. We resisted definitive deadlines, allowing the process to evolve organically. Getting to yes with the support of the faculty, staff, and students was an explicit part of the design from the start.
5. Awareness that challenges will arise.
No change at this scale is without its problems. For example, some distinguished faculty members were chagrined when their proposals for new Habit of Mind courses were returned for revision—occasionally several times—by the review committees. The process caused unintended delays.
In addition, the limited enrollment of complex problems seminars made finding enough small rooms a challenge. Finally, the process placed an additional administrative burden on faculty and staff alike, which was heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and left too many feeling burned-out.
Changing a gen ed program can be difficult. As my former president would often say to me, “This is not the first propeller I would walk into!” Yet, our responsibility as academic leaders is to consistently enhance and deepen the learning experience of our students, even when such changes are challenging. My overall advice is never to refrain from taking on issues that are in the best interest of the institution and its students. There is no reason to shy away from difficult topics if there is a solid plan, goodwill, and a bounty of patience.
This article was prepared in consultation with Cynthia Bair Van Dam, chair of the American University Core Curriculum Committee from 2015–22.
Photograph: Jeffrey Watts