GenEd Renaissance, Episode II: The redesign continues

College of Arts and Sciences word cloud

As sequels go, this one has it all: Sex, politics and video.

It’s not a big-budget movie; it’s the second round of the General Education Renaissance, a College of Arts and Sciences project to take core “GenEd” courses that are the bread and butter of an undergraduate education and make them a little tastier.

Ian McNeely, the college’s associate dean for undergraduate education, recently announced seven new projects that will be funded in the second year of the three-year effort. Each is aimed at redesigning a course or set of courses at the introductory level and infusing them with cutting-edge techniques or technology, new approaches or a refreshed focus.

The result should be more classes that appeal to students because of what they’re about, not because of which requirement they fulfill.  

"All too often, general education is treated as an afterthought," McNeely said. "But in reality, we see students come alive intellectually from their experience in an exciting general education course. We want to dispense with the checklist mentality and boost the excitement of GenEd.”

Accordingly, the College of Arts and Sciences launched the GenEd Renaissance in true UO style — encouraging interesting mash-ups between various disciplines to invigorate the concept of this core curriculum. In particular, faculty were encouraged to come up with ideas to make learning in large classes more engaging.  Because the College of Arts and Sciences provides about 85 percent of all GenEd courses at the UO, the revitalization of all things GenEd falls squarely on the college.

The effort is overseen by McNeely and Karen Sprague, special advisor for undergraduate initiatives in the College of Arts and Sciences. For the past two years, they’ve invited proposals from faculty teams with innovative ideas for challenging the notion that lower-division, introductory courses are just something to get out of the way.

This year’s list picks up where last year’s left off. Take Anthropology and Folklore Clusters, a project that will tie these two subjects together through two clusters of related courses. Each cluster will examine a core subject — one is sex and sexuality, the second is culture and “otherness” — by offering one class based in the humanities, one in social sciences and a third in the natural sciences.

The format will let students see how each discipline views the same subject, expanding their understanding and opening them to different perspectives.

One theme that emerged in several proposals this year was active learning, techniques that improve learning by more actively engaging students in the process. An example is a remake of the History of Motion Pictures sequence that will add an online student research dossier and a media annotation app.

The dossier lets students gather and organize source material that can be referenced throughout the three-term sequence. The app lets students post comments or analysis of course texts and material.

This year’s proposals were measured against a list of eight goals for improving courses that satisfy group requirements for undergraduates, such as adding more active learning techniques, developing online or hybrid courses to boost capacity and engaging faculty who have active research programs in lower-division teaching. See the full list of measures here. See the General Education Renaissance website for additional information.

The project is funded through the Rippey Innovative Teaching Fund, designed to keep senior faculty involved in general education. All projects are led by tenured professors, but some include junior faculty


Anthropology and Folklore Clusters

The essence of General Education is guiding undergraduates through an exploration of three broad areas of knowledge: humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Often, though, courses in one discipline don’t directly connect to courses in another, even when they address the same subject. This project changes that, creating a pair of three-course sequences that each look at a subject — sexuality or otherness — through one class in the humanities, another in the social sciences and a third in the natural sciences, a GenEd trifecta.

History of Motion Pictures

The History of Motion Pictures sequence starts in 1895 and brings students up to the present, but this project is all about taking advantage of modern techniques. It will bring new active teaching methods to the class by adding online student research dossiers and a media annotation app.  Using these cutting-edge methods to engage with the material, students will collect and study primary and secondary source material (via the dossier) and show how well they understand it by posting comments and analysis (via the app). The project also exploits the Canvas learning management system, which the university recently adopted.

Boosting Active Learning in the Classroom and Outdoors

Active learning gets some exercise in this project, which reworks the introductory course Geography 141: The Natural Environment. Collecting weather data, launching weather balloons and pulling river flow measurements are some of the hands-on activities that will be paired with immediate-response quizzes and tests using the Canvas system. Small-group discussions, clickers and a new online version of the course also liven up the revamped class.

Critical Analysis of Japanese Language: Going Beyond Language Skills

Learning a language isn’t all pronunciation and grammar. By also examining its origin and structure, we learn a lot about identity, culture and society. This proposal will open Japanese 315: Introduction to Japanese Linguistics to more students and help them understand how the Japanese they’re learning in introductory language classes reflects a people’s way of thinking as well as their way of speaking. And by drawing from sources like social media, it will show language changes with the times.

Improving and Enhancing Introductory Classes in Political Science

Sometimes the way to see what works best is head-to-head comparison. This project will create a second version of an already popular online sequence, one with fewer tests but more writing and discussion, and compare the effectiveness of these two online versions with the traditional lecture version of the same course.  It will also redesign another course, on political theory, to use more active learning techniques and to connect fundamental but abstract concepts like justice, race and political boundaries to current debates about criminal justice, the politics of Islam and the societal implications of human migration. 

Rethinking the Environmental Humanities

The humanities have a lot to say about the environment, and this project would use new teaching techniques to help say it. The idea is to add short videos, social media and online media and writing projects to highlight key concepts in Environmental Studies 203: Environmental Humanities. It would also redesign the course’s service learning component to increase its relevance to a wide range of students by strengthening local partnerships and taking on issues such as environmental justice.

Learning English in Physics Class

Math is a universal language, but English isn’t. That’s what international students discover when they take PHYS 101, Essentials of Physics. While their American counterparts use discussion sections to work through difficult math, international students flounder for lack of English skills. This project could change that through a partnership with the American English Institute. Through specialized discussion sections led by AEI faculty, language instruction will be tied to specific course assignments. If this approach works, it could expand to other Gen Ed courses popular with international students. 

—By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications