Last month I wrote (here) about my attempt to liven up my first-year writers' research papers by requiring them to write for a real audience: write a memo to the provost arguing that every Marietta College student should be required to engage in some common experience--take a class, learn a skill, take a field trip, whatever. Now the results are in and I couldn't be more pleased.
The papers are about evenly split between those arguing that all students should take some sort of class (in personal finance, personal fitness, nutrition, or American government) and those arguing that students should share a specific experience (playing intramural sports, volunteering in the community, joining a fraternity, playing Scrabble to aid in language-learning). One student argued that all first-year students should be required to visit an art museum and write about the experience, which demonstrates an unusual awareness of the objectives of a liberal-arts education.
I had hoped that this assignment would inspire students to write with passion about matters important to them, and for the most part, they did. I had hoped that requiring them to write for a specific audience (the provost) would help them avoid the vagueness that enters so many first-year writers' research papers, and for the most part, it worked. (Okay, you really don't need to devote a whole paragraph to explaining the rules of Scrabble. I can guarantee the provost knows how to play.)
But the assignment also achieved an objective I hadn't thought about: all of these students expanded their understanding of how higher education works. I know this because I required them to consider and critique an opposing view, a common requirement for first-year research papers. I encountered the usual "how could anyone disagree with my great idea?" complaints, but I had a ready response: Count the costs. Every change to the curriculum will cost something, but how much and who will pay? I encouraged them to track down some numbers (Some may argue that my plan will be too costly to implement) and then show why the program is worthwhile despite the costs.
For some proposals, estimating costs was not too difficult. If you want to take the entire first-year class to a decent art museum, you figure out how many students can fit in a chartered bus and how many buses you'd need and how much it costs to get into the art museum and feed the students lunch and pay their leaders, and then you compare that number to the amount we spend sending the entire incoming class whitewater rafting and you've got a nice tidy argument.
Others were more difficult. I kept having conversations like this one:
Me: How many sections of the class will we need?
Student: [blank look]
Me: Well, are you planning to pile the entire first-year class into a great big auditorium and lecture at them, or do you need to break them up into smaller groups?
Student: I guess they should be in smaller groups--like 20 or 30 students.
Me: Okay, then you can easily estimate how many sections you'll need. Then you need to think about who will teach them.
Student: Oh, someone from the political science department can teach the class.
Me: Okay, so you're going to take someone from the political science program out of his regular classes to teach a bunch of sections of the class you're proposing. Who will teach the regular political science classes?
Student: Well, maybe we can hire some new professors.
Me: How much will that cost?
That question always stumped them, but fortunately, they were highly motivated to find some answers. I showed the class how to locate data about Marietta College on our website and average salary data on the Chronicle's website (here). Some of them were befuddled by faculty ranks and assumed that "full" means "full-time," and some failed to consider specific disciplines and so assumed that the average incoming Assistant Professor of Political Science would earn the same amount as a tenured full professor of Petroleum Engineering, but those are minor points. I also didn't ask them to consider the cost of benefits or office space or any of the other miscellaneous items; I just wanted them to consider what it takes to hire a qualified person to teach a new class and then muster up evidence that the costs are nevertheless worthwhile.
And they did it. Some of their arguments are quite convincing while others are at least well constructed, showing signs of increased understanding of how higher education works and improved skill in writing persuasively for a real audience. Do any of their proposals have any hope of being approved? That would be up to the provost--and the general education task force and the curriculum committee and the full faculty in its role as keeper of the curriculum. But if I were the provost, I'd fight for some of these changes.
And then when I got tired of fighting, I'd relax with a good game of Scrabble. (Your move.)