Climbing a 14’er is one of my favorite challenges, and the view from the top is always worth the effort. It involves much preparation, double-checking my list of essential gear, getting up early and setting off in the early morning darkness, and starting out on the trail uncertain about whether the summit can be reached or whether exhaustion, weather, or injury might turn me back. The most difficult part of all, though, is the final mile above tree line, when I am oxygen-deprived, frustrated by switching back every fifty feet, taking hip-high step after step up the steep rocks. Then, at last, exhilarating success.
Our effort to build a new general education curriculum at Boston University is in that difficult last mile. Our faculty and committees are expending tremendous energy, and the switchbacks of the iterative process of course approval seem like slow progress. The summit is within our sights, though, and we must urge each other forward to reach it.
In the past weeks I have heard concerns about the BU Hub and its implementation from some faculty. I appreciate the feedback I have received, as it helps us to work with the CAS General Education Curriculum Committee (GECC) and the University-wide General Education Committee to resolve problems. At the same time, I want to reaffirm our commitment to the BU Hub as an innovative, inspiring, student-centered, general education program that features our teaching in arts and sciences as the foundation of an elite liberal education for all Boston University students. This is a difficult period in its implementation, but adjustments are being made in light of faculty feedback, and I believe we will soon reach the peak: the construction of a transformative, uniquely BU educational experience for all of our students.
Implementing a new general education curriculum is difficult for any university, particularly when it involves a new way of thinking about teaching. The BU Hub centers on student learning. This requires instructors to begin from and make explicit learning outcomes, and then align content, assignments, and feedback to optimally achieve those outcomes. Making our teaching aims and techniques explicit for students not only helps them succeed in their immediate courses, but will also help them apply those techniques throughout a lifetime of continuous learning. While this is at first an unsettling reversal of traditional course construction, it respects our best understanding of learning and can unleash pedagogical creativity. Still, this “backward design” process itself takes time to learn and can at first be challenging.
Against this background challenge, there is an inevitable period of uncertainty in setting up a new governance process for building a curriculum that spans a large, multi-college university. Such uncertainty creates further concerns, but these will lessen as the committees hone their procedures, develop interpretive rules for adjudicating approvals of the various learning outcomes, and communicate those to the faculty. Some faculty have found the feedback on proposed Hub courses to be confusing or contradictory, and we need to achieve more clarity. The committees seek and appreciate comments and questions from the faculty. These committees are composed, in the BU governance tradition, of a majority of faculty members with the addition of some key functional staff.
Contentious issues sometimes arise in the interpretation of the BU Hub areas, which is to be expected. A balance must be sought between adhering too closely to a particular methodology or discipline and maintaining standards of rigor and the coherence of the overall general education program; yet such balance is not easy to achieve. The general education curriculum is, by its nature, a collective, collaborative product. It can only be achieved by good-faith efforts of committees, composed of our faculty colleagues, making their best judgments, aided by input from faculty and staff. No one of us will agree with every detail of every decision. However, given clarity about process, committee decisions, and their rationale, together we will construct a uniquely Boston University curriculum that we can be proud to endorse.
Many of our colleagues are expending heroic efforts to climb the final mile to reach the summit of the BU Hub. Given this level of effort and goodwill, we are bound to be successful. That does not mean there is no need for critique and revision, nor that the process or product will please everyone in every detail. Yet I do believe that we are on a path to making a BU undergraduate education more distinctive and fulfilling for our students.