Monday, October 8, 2012

General Education at Penn State--Responses to the Gen Ed Report

Penn State is beginning what may be an exciting discussion relating to the revamping of general education at the university (e.g., Designing General Education for the Future: Penn State Report on General Education).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2012)

This post includes a reaction and set of suggestions to get the discussion going.  My thanks to
Bernadette A. Lear, Behavioral Sciences and Education Librarian Coordinator of Library Instruction and Outreach, Penn State Harrisburg Library.

Thank you for sending me the Gen Ed report a few weeks ago. Many Penn State library faculty collaborate with gen ed instructors, so I forwarded the report to all LFO members and asked them to provide feedback by Oct. 1. I heard from an Associate Dean, several University Park librarians, and librarians at 4 other locations. Below I will try to summarize everyone's comments, with the most common and trenchant concerns listed first. 

*In current and future discussions about Penn State's curriculum, librarians should have seats at the table. We request that librarians be appointed to the study group (if it is continuing), the gen ed program faculty cohort (if one is created), and other bodies that discuss or generate policies regarding the University's curriculum. Librarians are assets for many reasons: 1). their professional development activities often include pedagogical best-practices; 2). they often assist and observe students who are completing course assignments; 3). the libraries' information sources, technological equipment, and other resources are vital supports for educational activities; and 4). particularly outside of University Park, librarians work with faculty from many different programs and thus could help facilitate cross-departmental and interdisciplinary conversations.

*Evidence-based, timely information is a necessity for the "discovery, analysis, integration, and thoughtful decision-making" that would be the underpinning of the revamped gen ed curriculum. Yet there is little mention of "information," "literacy" (such as information literacy/data literacy/media literacy), or "research" in the report. We believe that student research -- the gathering/using of both scholarly literature and primary data -- should be an important part of college-level courses. Also, the abilities to acquire, analyze, process, and communicate information as appropriate to the discipline should be important outcomes.

*Within the library profession, there are "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education" (see which parallel the goals of "discovery, analysis, integration, and thoughtful decision-making" described in the study group's report. We feel that such standards should be considered in formulating and meeting the goals of a retooled gen ed program. FYI -- the Association of College and Research Libraries is developing standards for specific disciplines as well. There are currently standards for:
 --Anthropology and Sociology (
--Journalism (
--Literature (
--Political Science ( --Psychology (
--Science and Technology (
--Teacher Education (
--Visual Literacy (

 *Several librarians expressed concern about discontinuing "critical thinking" as a focus of Penn State's gen ed program. They believe critical thinking to be just as important as discovery, analysis, and other proposed program goals. One stated a belief that the study group was developing and testing some kind of "critical thinking assessment instrument" and would like to know the status of that effort.

 *In general, there is agreement with the study group's finding that the purpose of the general education curriculum isn't clear, and that many students do not recognize the benefits of gen ed courses which appear to be "outside" their majors. However, there is some dispute about the finding that gen ed courses lack academic rigor. Several librarians at non-UP locations state that rigor varies by program, course, or even by instructor. There are certainly instructors that simply "read-and-test," but there are others, even at the 000-100 level, that involve the "discovery, analysis, integration, and thoughtful decision-making" that is ideal. Therefore, some librarians encourage future study groups and committees to include more representatives from non-UP locations.

 *One librarian stated that reading widely and deeply is an important method of attaining the rigor, context, and interdisciplinary linkages that Penn State's gen ed program currently lacks. Therefore, she encourage all gen ed curricula to require students to read beyond their textbooks as part of course assignments and outcomes. I would agree with that myself!

*While agreeing that problems with the gen ed program stem from the lack of academic leadership and a cohesive body of gen ed faculty, one librarian stated that poorly-defined purpose, absence of learning goals, and lack of rigor may also stem in part from a lack of pedagogical training for academics. In other words, graduate training doesn't always include coursework on how to teach. Another possible source is an overly-broad notion of "academic freedom." In the particular librarian's opinion, academic freedom pertains to the *content* of courses, but the university should develop firmer guidelines and require more accountability in terms of high-quality *pedagogy*.

I hope this helps the senate and the study group in their deliberations. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.


  1. How to teach is just as important as what.

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