Monday, June 05, 2017


The Sampler Platter

The guided pathways movement has made great headway in community colleges, and rightly so.  It’s based on the notion that students don’t necessarily arrive knowing exactly what major to pick or how to get through it on time, so they need legible signs and advising to know what to take.

In some colleges, the pathways start with a “meta-major” course that introduces students to a range of options in the same general area.  The idea is to reduce the number of options that confront a student upon arrival, and then to give them a fighting chance to make more fine-tuned choices based on actual information.

At Brookdale, we have a great course in the allied health area that serves this purpose.  Students who identify nursing or any allied health field as a career goal take a class that introduces them to the range of careers in the health field, along with some study skills applied to the material.  When they discover options like occupational therapy, community health, and epidemiology, some of them peel off into those fields.  The ones who still want nursing are at least solidified in their choice.  When we did a course like that at Holyoke, it worked on two levels.  Applications to the nursing program went down -- a good thing, given the shortage of clinical placements -- but the pass rate on the NCLEX went up.  Students self-selected based on actual information.

But allied health is a relatively straightforward case.  I’m thinking about what a course like that might look like in, say, the social sciences.  

I’d guess that many students arriving at community college don’t have a clear sense of what, say, sociology is, or how it differs from anthropology.  Most have never taken a class in political science or economics, and their sense of psychology comes largely from popularized versions.  They might have a general sense of wanting to study people, but to expect them to arrive with a fully-formed idea of what that means is usually unrealistic.

So here’s the concept.  (This is very much a “what if..?”  I’m looking for thoughtful feedback.)  I’m imagining a team-taught course with a thematic focus: the family, maybe, or hierarchy.  It would be split into modules, with each module featuring a different “lens” on the theme.  For instance, the first module might show how psychologists look at the family, the second might be economists, the third sociologists, and so on.  Faculty from the various fields would cycle through, so the modules would have to be in different order for different sections.  Each module would be identified, so the students would know at any given time which lens was being used.  At the end of the semester, they’d be presented with something like this: “which one made the most sense to you?  That’s your major!”

It’s a sort of sampler platter, or taste test.  It’s based on the idea that students may not realize that disciplines differ not only in topic choice, but in ways of looking at the world.  

The approach has some risks, of course.  It would require a high level of coordination, for one thing.  And maintaining continuity across the modules would take some doing.  But these both strike me as manageable.  And with each module a bite-size topical chunk -- “topical chunk” would be a great name for a band -- the class would lend itself well to OER, just as our health careers class does.

So, wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Does the sampler platter concept make sense, or is there a better way to do a meta-major for social sciences?

I think it's a great idea, even though I'm generally critical of the practice where students in the United States take so many courses that aren't related to their majors. For example, I've developed my skillset so that I will never have to teach non-majors courses because I don't think they help students accomplish their goals in life.

But this idea is completely different; it allows students to try out a wide variety of disciplines at a much smaller opportunity cost. I would be happy to team-teach a course like the one you've outlined. It's hard to think of a more interesting problem than introducing students to all the good and bad of biology in just two weeks.

The only downside I see is transfer. It definitely won't transfer at first, and it probably won't transfer ever. But the reason we're concerned about transfer is wasted credits. If you can save students more credits in the long run by helping them find their path it will be a net positive.
I'm not a sociologist, and even my dog couldn't play one on the internet, so no direct advice on the content.

I look at this as something that should be data driven. What I know is more a collection of advising anecdotes than data, but what I see isn't very fine grained. You should already be collecting information about planned major or interest area at orientation; that should guide this project.

I also look at it as something that has to be scalable, and I don't see how your idea will work at scale. We may have a hundred freshmen who want to be nurses, but hundreds are interested in everything from social work to criminal justice. Our study skills with career info course is almost entirely taught by adjuncts. Heck, I'm sure our social science classes are half taught by adjuncts. How to shed some of that load to free them up for this? Doesn't seem possible.
By not fine grained, I mean that I only see a handful of social science majors named by a large number of students. Psych and social work are high on that list, enough that I don't have to look much up to advise students on required courses. What I don't know, and they need, are what the other options are in nearby fields because some social science majors are hard to get into.

Might also need one for business, that tells them about a social science like economics that is closely related to business.
The biggest downside is that everyone will opt for the field of the most charismatic lecturer, even if it is a terrible fit for them.
I like the basic idea, but your conceptualization sounds like it would be based on theoretical approaches to some large concept (family, hierarchy, etc.). I'm not sure that would work so well for freshmen. My guess (based on some experience with multi-disciplinary teaching), is that it would work better if it were framed around some particular problem/challenge, and the ways different actors would frame, investigate, and solve that problem. Social problems would, of course, make the most sense, though things like environmental problems could work as well. So, for example, you could look at something like supplemental food support from a variety of different angles--economic, sociological, anthropological, political, historical, &c.--and thus learn about how different professionals think about the same issue. It would also be a way to help students understand how and why, for example, two different economists could come up with opposite conclusions about some issue given the same data. Thus, it's similar to the "big questions" kinds of courses that lots of more exclusive colleges have, but instead of simply discussing them, the goal would be to understand how, in the real world, you actually do something about them.

I can't be certain, but my guess is that none of these would not require a different instructor for each "field". If this is a 101 course suitable for freshmen with no prior knowledge of the respective domains, it's hard to imagine that any competent and sufficiently engaged social scientist couldn't teach it, as long as they had access to colleagues in the respective fields who could help with the design of the course. That is, designing the curriculum would require multiple experts, but teaching it probably wouldn't. One challenge would involve instructional materials. There are not going to be suitable textbooks, open or otherwise, for such a course, and academic articles will be too technical for the audience. It's possible that the resources would have to be written specifically for the the class, which may be a significant barrier.

The issue of transfer could be sticky, but this course could serve as social science credits for, say, a math major or a literature major. That is, in addition to being a course to help students find their interests, it could also be a great way to help students in other areas satisfy breadth requirements.
That's a great idea (and something I thought about for years before I retired. My vision of it was to take an issue/topic, and have the course focus on how the different disciplines would approach the issue/topic. Team taught, with the focus varying depending on the interests of the faculty involved. I got nowhere with it, among other things because such a course didn't fit neatly into any of the pigeonholed we had for meeting a gen ed requirement.
Around 40 years ago I taught on a Foundation Course for Art and Design which had the same diagnostic purpose. The students sampled ceramics, graphic design, photography, 3D design, woodworking skills, etc as well as the general drawing and colour skills common to all. This involved groups rotating around the various studios and workshops, each with its own tutor. The aim was to chose a career direction and to assemble an impressive folio of work.

Around Easter they all went off with their folios to apply for places on specific degree courses. Those who didn't get a place at this first go stayed on into the Summer, working on their folios and applying to other colleges.

It was all very successful.
I have taught a similar Intro to [Area] Studies course. It had units on the "big question" in [Area] studies from history, economics, political science, anthropology, and literature. I designed the course, but with significant input from my colleagues in the fields other than my own. I had one guest lecturer in each of those fields. This was at a selective LAC, not a community college, FWIW. It worked well - provided some direction to students, who typically ended up informally focusing in one or two of the disciplines within [Area] Studies, and introduced them to a range of faculty in the program. We did use themes to help with coherence - one year it was urbanism, another year it was the environment.
I don't know if this makes sense for the social sciences or the humanities. Certainly for professional degree areas (I would include the arts here, as there are distinct paths to performance, teaching. production, and impresario-management). But at their most basic levels, which are the ones you would address with a class like this, how would you differentiate, say, sociology and anthropology? And why would you? In my alma mater, at the BA level, there was huge overlap between sociology and anthropology, and to the extent that those two disciplines as well as economics require knowledge of statistics, significant overlap there as well.

And if, by chance, the student has an eventual goal of grad school, well the dirty secret of many grad programs in the social sciences and humanities is that they don't care overmuch what your BA was in, as long as you have one. They're more interested in your ability to handle stats and/or language.

I think it's fine to program a course such as you describe, but it should be a broad gen ed option. I don't think it will have a pathways effect like you would see in professional degree programs.
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