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Sunday, October 17, 2021

New GE program topples the status quo

A group of professors from departments such as math and sociology gathered not as teachers, but as students at a small workshop last TuesdaySept. 21. The lesson of the day? How to incorporate writing in courses of all majors – a stipulation of UC Davis’ brand new general education program.

This cross-departmental workshop was a product of a six six-yearlong effort to completely revitalize the UC Davis General Education (GE) program, from one that the Western Association of Schools and Colleges called “too easy” into one that emphasizes writing, cultural appreciation and global understanding.

The changes will go into effect beginning fall quarter 2011, for all incoming freshmen first-year and transfer students.

Chris Thaiss, director of the University Writing Program, was a member of the multi-departmental task force that created the new requirements. For him, the new-and-improved program is a chance to create more, well-rounded students with broader perspectives of the world around them.

“The goal was to design a rigorous and reasonable GE program that would encourage students to gain the kinds of skills and exposure to different kinds of subject matter that they would need to succeed in the United States in the 21st 21st century,” Thaiss said.

The new program consists of two components, called topical breadth and core literacies. The topical breadth requirement remains similar to the current system, but with a few changes. Students now must take 12 to 20 units each in Arts and Humanities, Science and Engineering and Social Sciences for a total of 52 units. The old system required students to take three classes from each topical breadth outside of your major.

Every course students take, including those for majors and minors, may be counted towards the topical breadth requirement.

The core literacies component requires a minimum of 35 total units. Students must take courses identified as fulfilling four “literacies:” literacy with words and images, civic and cultural literacy, quantitative literacy and scientific literacy.

Within the words and images literacy, students must fulfill coursework in four categories: English composition, writing experience, oral skills and visual literacy. The civic and cultural literacy consists of coursework in American cultures and world cultures.

Each literacy has its own minimum number of units required; for example, quantitative literacy requires a minimum of three units. Students can count each GE course toward satisfying only one literacy and one topical breadth category at a time, though many courses are qualified to satisfy multiple literacies.

The GE task force, along with faculty from across the university and two student representatives, wanted to incorporate more varied perspectives and styles of learning in lower-division courses. They hope students will graduate with real-life skills that are necessary for success in their field.

“If there are courses in engineering that meet the visual literacy requirement, then in those courses you have to pay attention to how visual material is being used in the course, and how you have to use it when you’re writing a report or a proposal,” Thaiss said.

Under the new program, writing takes on a new importance, even in scientific majors. Gary Sue Goodman, writing minor and internship faculty advisor and the writing expert on the GE task force, said writing courses will be offered in every department – meaning that even science majors will be composing papers in their classes.

“Before, all the writing GE courses were by definition not what you were going to do for the rest of your life, and were in the humanities if you were a scientist,” Goodman said. “Now you can do the writing actually in your major. Yes, they’re going to be GE courses that other people can take but some are going to be courses that really only majors will take, and they’re going to get writing intensive experience in their major that they didn’t get before.”

The new guidelines emphasize draft, revision and feedback – a far cry from the 10-page term papers students are used to frantically typing the night before.

Faculty Writing Workshops, like the one attended by six professors Sept. 21, are currently being offered to coach professors through the new requirements.

First-year undeclared major Yee Xiong said while she likes the idea of the literacies, she would rather stick with the current GE requirements.

“I’m more of a visual learner so the visual literacy component would help me, and the civic and cultural literacy is important and would be beneficial,” Xiong said. “But if it were to change now I would need more information. It seems more complicated.”

Even though some may regard general education as an obstacle to students’ true interests, Thaiss hopes the new program will get students and faculty thinking about general education in a new way. He said that GE is important not only in helping students decide what to major in, but also in encouraging faculty to teach the societal implications of each field of study.

“The purpose of GE is to broaden the student’s perspective and the way these requirements have been written,” Thaiss said. “They are also intended to broaden the faculty’s perspective. What are the goals I have when I teach this course? I think it’s the idea of making connections across disciplines, and making people more knowledgeable and sensitive to the social ramifications of the courses that they take.”

For more information about the GE program, visit ge.ucdavis.edu.

ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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