About SAGES -1: The genesis of the program

As might be expected, some people at Case are all of atwitter about the snide op-ed in a newspaper supposedly called the New York Times by someone supposedly called Stephen Budiansky. (Note to novice writers hoping to develop their snide skills: Putting words like ‘supposedly’ in front of an easily discernible fact is a weak attempt at sarcasm, by insinuating that something is sneaky when no cause for suspicion exists. Like the way Budiansky says “SAGES (this supposedly stands for Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship)” when he has to know this for a fact since he says he has been reading the SAGES website.)

But my point here is not to point out the shallowness of Budiansky’s article and make fun of it, although it is a good example of the kind of writing that uses selective quotes and data to support a questionable thesis, and uses a snippy tone to hide its lack of meaningful content. My purpose here is to articulate why I think SAGES has been the best educational idea that I have been associated with in all my years in education in many different institutions. It is clear to me that many people, even those at Case, have not quite understood what went into it and why it is such an important innovation, and this essay seeks to explain it.

I have been involved with SAGES from its inception in the summer of 2002 when I was appointed to the task force by then College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sam Savin, to investigate how to improve the college’s general education requirements (GER). American colleges have these kinds of requirements in order to ensure that students have breadth of knowledge, outside their chosen majors. Case’s GER were fairly standard in that they required students to select a distribution of courses from a menu classified under different headings, such as Global and Cultural Diversity.

While better than nothing, the task force felt that these kinds of requirements did not have any cohesive rationale, and result in students just picking courses so that they can check off the appropriate boxes. The task force wondered how we could make the distribution requirements more meaningful and part of a coherent educational philosophy. In the process of studying this question, we learned of other problems that were long standing but just lurking beneath our consciousness. Almost all these problems are endemic to many universities, not just Case.

One of these was that students entering Case tended to come in with a sense of identity that was identified with a specific program rather that the school as a whole. They saw themselves primarily as engineering students or nursing students or arts students and so on, rather than as Case students. This fragmented identity was aided by the fact that in the first year they had no common experience that transcended these disciplinary boundaries. So we wondered what we could do to help create a sense of oneness among the student body, a sense of overall belonging.

Another problem we identified was that it was quite possible, even likely, for a first year student to spend the entire year in large lecture classes where they were largely passive recipients of lectures. This could result in students feeling quite anonymous and alone, and since this was also their first year away from home, it was not felt to be a good introduction to college life, let along for the emotional and intellectual health of the student. Furthermore, we know that first impressions can be very formative. When college students spend their first year passively listening in class, we feared that this might become their understanding of their role in the university, and that it would become harder to transform them into the active engagement mode that was necessary when they got into the smaller upper division classes in their majors.

Another problem was that students at Case did not seem to fully appreciate the knowledge creation role that is peculiar to the research function of universities. While they had chosen to attend a research university, many did not seem to know what exactly constituted research, how it was done, and its value.

Another thing that surprised us was when even some seniors told us that there was not a single faculty member they had encountered during their years at Case whom they felt that they knew well, in the sense that if they walked into that faculty member’s office that he or she would know the student’s name and something about them. We felt that this was a serious deficiency, because faculty-student interactions in and out of the class should play an important role in a student’s college experience. We felt that it was a serious indictment of the culture of the university that a student could spend four years here and not know even one faculty member well.

Another very serious problem that was identified was that many students were graduating with poor writing and presentation skills. The existing writing requirement was being met by a stand-alone English course that students took in their first year. Students in general (not just at Case) tend to dislike these stand-alone ‘skills’ courses and one can understand why. They are not related to any of the ‘academic’ courses and are thus considered inferior, merely an extra hoop to be jumped through. The writing exercises are necessarily de-contextualized since they are not organically related to any course of study. Students tend to treat such courses as irritants, which makes the teaching of such courses unpleasant as well. But what was worse was that it is clear that a one-shot writing course cannot produce the kinds of improvement in writing skills that are desired.

Furthermore, some tentative internal research seemed to suggest that the one quality that universities seek above all to develop in their students, the level of ‘critical thinking’ (however that vague term is defined), was not only not being enhanced by the four years spent here, there were alarming hints that it was actually decreasing.

And finally the quality of first year advising that the students received was highly variable. While some advisors were conscientious about their role and tried hard to get to know their students, others hardly ever met them, except for the minute or two it took to sign their course registration slips. Even the conscientious advisors found it hard to get to know students on the basis of a very few brief meetings. This was unsatisfactory because in addition to helping students select courses, the advisor is also the first mentor a student has and should be able to help the student navigate through the university and develop a broader and deeper perspective on education and learning and life. This was unlikely to happen unless the student and advisor got to know each other better.

Out of all these concerns, SAGES was born, and it sought to address all these concerns, by providing a comprehensive and cohesive framework that, one way or another, addressed all the above issues.

The task force decided on a small-class seminar format early on because we saw that this would enable students to engage more, speak and write more, get more feedback from the instructor and fellow students, and thus develop crucially important speaking, writing and critical thinking skills.

Since good writing develops only with a lot of practice of writing and revising, we decided that one writing-intensive seminar was not enough. Furthermore, students need to like and value what they are writing if they are going to persevere in improving their writing. In order to achieve this it was felt that the writing should be embedded in courses that dealt with meaningful content that the students had some choice in selecting. So we decided that students should take a sequence of four writing intensive seminars consisting of a common First Seminar in their first semester, and a sequence of three thematic seminars, one in each subsequent semester, thus covering the first two years of college.

The need for a common experience for all students was met by having the First Seminar be based on a common theme (which we chose to be on The Life of the Mind), with at least some readings and out-of-class programs experienced in common by all first year students. The idea was that this would provide students with intellectual fodder to talk about amongst themselves in their dorms and dining halls and other social settings, irrespective of what majors they were considering or who they happened to be sitting next to. The common book reading program for incoming students was initiated independently of SAGES but fitted naturally into this framework. The First Seminar was also was designed to get students familiar with academic ways of thinking, provide an introduction to what a research university does and why, and provide opportunities for them to access the rich variety of cultural resources that surround the university.

The decision that the First Seminar instructor also serve as the first year advisor was suggested so that the advisor and student would get to know each other well over the course of that first semester and thus enable the kind of stronger relationship that makes mentoring more meaningful

The University Seminars that followed the First Seminar were grouped under three categories (the Natural World, the Social World, and the Symbolic World) and students were required to select one from each category for the next three semesters. Each of these areas of knowledge has a different culture, investigate different types of questions, use different rules for evidence and how to use that evidence in arriving at conclusions, have different ways of constructing knowledge, and develop different modes of thinking and expression. These seminars would be designed around topics selected by the instructor and designed to help students understand better the way that practitioners in those worlds view knowledge.

By taking one from each group based on their own interests, it was hoped that students would learn how to navigate the different academic waters that they encounter while at college. Taken together, we hoped they would complement each other and provide students with a global perspective on the nature of academic discourse.

In order to prevent the risk of content overload that eventually engulfs many university courses, it was decided that the University Seminars would have no pre-requisites and also could not serve as pre-requisites for other courses, thus freeing instructors from the oft-complained problem of feeling burdened to ‘cover’ a fixed body of material and thus cutting off student participation. Now they were free to explore any question to any depth they wished.

For example, in my own SAGES course The Evolution of Scientific Ideas (part of the Natural World sequence) we explore the following major questions: What is science and can we distinguish it from non-science? What is the process that causes new scientific theories to replace the old? In the process of investigating these questions, I hope that students get a better understanding of how scientists see the world and interact with it. And I do not feel pressure to cover any specific scientific revolution. I can freely change things from year to year depending on the interests of the students.

A senior capstone experience was added to provide students with an opportunity to have a culminating activity and work on a project of their own choosing that would enable them to showcase the investigative, critical thinking, speaking, and writing skills developed over their years at Case.

Next in this series: Implementation issues

POST SCRIPT: Talk on Monday about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo

On Monday, May 1 at 4:00pm in Strosacker Auditorium, Janis Karpinski, who was a Brigadier General and commanding officer of the Abu Ghraib prison when the prisoner torture and abuse scandal erupted and who feels that she was made a scapegoat for that atrocity and demoted, and James Yee who was U.S. Army Muslim Chaplin at Guantanamo, was arrested for spying and later cleared, will both be speaking.

It should be interesting to hear their sides of the story.

The talk is free and open to the public. More details can be found here.

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