Cluster Curriculum is General Education

After a busy summer, today is the first day of classes at Plymouth State University. The lead up to this new semester was full of meetings and presentations as we continue to move forward with the cluster initiative. I helped plan several sessions related to General Education during our University Days and was particularly excited about the positive response to the work that the Gen Ed Outcomes Task Force (GEOTF) did this summer. In one of the sessions, my good friend Mary Cornish said something that made me think about “cluster curriculum” in a new and helpful way.

We were talking about the fact that President Birx has identified the four tools of integrated clusters and that three of the four tools are components of the General Education program. In particular, the president has said that the First Year Seminar is where students will start to learn how to work on real problems in interdisciplinary teams and that the Integrative Connection (INCO) course, which was designed to be a General Education capstone, is where students will pull together all that they have learned in their time at PSU to work on a meaningful project with their peers. These two courses form “bookends” to the students’ General Education experience at the university. In between these two courses, the president envisions that students will take “themed” courses, Gen Ed courses that are connected to each other in some way. I like to call these “pathways” to indicate that we are suggesting to students that they will get a longer term, meaningful experience if they take a particular set of courses. The fourth tool that the president identified, open labs, is also related to Gen Ed as a space where students from many disciplines can come to work together.

As we talked about the fact that three of the four tools were components of the Gen Ed program, Mary pointed out that we often talk about “cluster work” as though it is separate from General Education. But it seems that cluster work cannot be separated from Gen Ed. In fact, Mary said, for our students, cluster work IS the Gen Ed program. “Cluster curriculum” is the Gen Ed program.

Of course, some of what we’re doing with integrated clusters is not about curriculum. The administrative reorganization around clusters, for example, is not about curriculum. But most of our students will not be directly affected by our administrative reorganization. They will all be affected by any changes we make to the Gen Ed program. So for students, clusters equals General Education.

I have talked about this with many people since Mary said it. Lots of people are talking about the kinds of changes we can/should make to our major programs to create cluster curriculum. I think those changes will be great! But if we want to reach EVERY student on campus, we need to focus on General Education. Every student (well, except transfer students–we need to figure out that issue) will take a First Year Seminar to begin to learn how to engage in multi-disciplinary projects that touch the outside world in some way. Every student will take an INCO course to cap off their Gen Ed program. Every student will take Directions courses that could be put together in pathways. In addition, Gen Ed is the one place in our current curriculum that we can ensure that students of different disciplines will be in the same classes. These classes can engage students from those different disciplines in the kinds of projects that we’ve identified as central to cluster work. So although we’ve typically talked about “cluster curriculum” as it relates to majors, I think the real “cluster curriculum” is the Gen Ed program.

I’m excited about this idea that, for students, “cluster work” is the General Education program because I’m passionate about the importance of a strong General Education program for all students. Burrett McBee made an interesting observation at one of the sessions I was helping with. He suggested that “General Education” is a bad name for what is such an important part of the university experience. It sounds generic and irrelevant. He suggested that we change the name to something that more accurately represents its central importance to what we’re doing. I am completely in favor!

2 Comments

  1. Riding Burrett’s wave, I wonder how we might also reconsider the word “capstone,” with all its attendant metaphorical baggage. Are students in a “capstone” course putting a lid on something, or reaching the “highest” point? Or are students perhaps doing something more volatile, more energizing, more integrative, more tentative — not (only) completion, but “commencement” in the sense of new beginnings/connections? Maybe it’s not a capstone, but…something else? Lodestone? Catalyst? Launch pad? Hub? _________?

    1. Excellent point! In another session, someone suggested that “First Year Experience” be renamed to “Foundation Experience” or something like that to encompass transfer students. Maybe we have a house metaphor with the INCO being the front steps or front porch leading out into the world?

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