Cluster Progress

One of the (many) difficulties with keeping the campus up to date about what’s going on with clusters is that we (the guides) are doing a lot of work but we aren’t yet making huge numbers of decisions about things. Instead, we’re engaged in a lot of conversations, throwing out lots of ideas, and trying to figure out which ideas we’ll move forward with. That said, I thought it might be useful for me to describe some of the meetings and conversations that I’ve had in the past couple of weeks to give a sense of the things that are happening with the initiative.

The guides have been feeling that our attentions are very divided among all of the disparate areas involved in the cluster initiative. So a couple of weeks ago, we decided to rethink our division of labor. We came up with an idea that each group of guides will still act as the main point persons for their clusters but that the larger, more cross-cluster kind of work could be divided so that we each focus on a particular area. For example, I and three other guides are focused on working with the General Education (GE) Committee to think about revisions to the First Year Seminar (FYS) and the GE program. I’ve written a little bit about that before. But here’s more detail about what we’re doing. The GE Committee has divided into two working groups and the four guides will serve on both. The FYS subgroup is working on a staged approach to changes to the class. We are starting with coming to a common understanding of the goal(s) of the FYS and of GE, especially in relation to the cluster initiative. With President Birx, we discussed the idea of the FYS being the place where students begin to be active architects of their personal educational story, where they begin to be able to articulate the connections between GE and their majors as well as among the individual classes that they choose to take. We also talked about creating “themed” GE courses that help students make connections between those courses and connections with their majors. The working group has also talked quite a bit about the fact that students tend to see GE (and sometimes even their majors) as a checklist of requirements, with one GE course being interchangeable with every other GE course that fulfills that same requirement. Instead, we want students to use their interests and curiosity to intentionally choose their GE courses. We’ve talked quite a bit about the University’s policies and procedures which preclude (or strongly discourage) student choice in GE and how we might change those things. I’ve also begun to think about how we might present the curriculum to students in way that creates a cognitive model of GE (and their majors) as a set of interrelated courses rather than as a check list. More about that in a future blog post. Our idea at the moment is that we will have some changes to the FYS in place for Fall 2017 but these changes are not likely to include major content changes. We may also begin in Fall 2017 to pilot some theming of our existing GE directions courses but again, these changes are not likely to include major content changes for the individual courses and will definitely not involve major structural changes to GE. Those kinds of changes will come in subsequent years.

Other groups of guides are assigned task areas that involve project planning and advocacy, fostering student and staff involvement in the cluster initiative, ensuring consistent and accurate messaging to external groups (including prospective students and their parents), and helping departments begin to think through curricular change related to the cluster initiative. The guides are not taking on all of these tasks but instead are working with groups who are responsible for these tasks, just as my group is not making changes to FYS and GE but are instead working the GE Committee, the part of our existing governance structure responsible for making any such changes.

I and a group of guides and other interested faculty members had a meeting this week with George Epstein, the CEO of The Echo Group, a software development company based in Conway, NH. George is a former USNH Board of Trustees member and is very committed to public higher education in the state. He brought with him a list of potential projects that our students could work on with his company. They are all interdisciplinary projects that involve some really difficult problems. George advocated for the faculty to reach out to local chambers of commerce to find businesses, non-profits, and other organizations that might be interested in the kinds of skills and knowledge that our students have. He thinks that if we did that, we would have an overwhelming response from those organizations wanting to partner with us. The thing I found most exciting about this conversation was thinking about how these organizations might help us identify potential new ways to organize and develop our curricula. For example, I’m thinking about how those of us interested in visual communication and interactive media might create a set of student experiences (probably a major?) focused on user experience design. There is a huge need for people who can do this kind of work (think about our complaints about our experience using PSU’s web site as an example of the kind of work user experience designers can help with) but a quick Google search suggests that there are very few undergraduate academic programs focused on this emerging discipline. I’m planning to go over to The Echo Group with some of my colleagues to explore the work they are doing in computer interfaces, for example, to continue this conversation.

The Arts and Technologies guides held a drop-in session in the open lab in Lamson 031 this week. We had conversations with cluster faculty about some changes to internship and practicum experiences and the courses used to support them, about some linked classes that faculty in English, Communication and Media Studies, and Music are working on, and about an exciting project in which faculty and students from Meteorology, Education, Theater, and Music will collaborate to create an April vacation camp at The Flying Monkey for children in grades three through eight. It was a fun hour and a half with lots of energy.

Finally, the Arts and Technologies cluster is hosting a student focus group next week to get feedback on our mission statement. The chairs of the departments that have programs in our cluster have recommended a group of students for the focus group. Those department chairs had a great experience with a student focus group last spring in which we asked students what they would like to see in a technology-focused lab to allow collaboration and exploration supporting creative work. The lab in Lamson 031 was built using the feedback that we received during that focus group. So we’re very excited about what we’ll learn from our students regarding our cluster mission.

As I said, there is a lot going on although there are very few decisions to report. I will try to write blog posts like this on a regular basis just to keep everyone updated. But if you ever have any questions about what’s happening, please feel free to contact me.

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