Academic Rock Star
Academic Rock Star: New GE Pathways Program
By Kathleen McPartland
A revamped general education (GE) program was launched this semester at California State University, Chico. Now students choose a “pathway” that comprises all their GE requirements in one interdisciplinary, thematically linked series—and they can pick up a minor along the way.
The GE Pathways program has been under construction for the past four years—two in creation and two in implementation. It is seen as a solution to problems that plague GE programs everywhere: students who don’t see the point of GE classes when they are pressed to move through school quickly, and a lack of coherence in the program itself.
The new program, with 10 pathways and a designed-in minor, was created through an open process that included students, faculty, and staff. There is nothing else like it in the CSU system. And according to William Loker, dean of Undergraduate Education, it may be unique in the entire country.
Kate McCarthy, professor of Religious Studies, is chair of the curriculum advisory board and was on the GE Pathways implementation team. “We are a little like rock stars when we go to systemwide GE conferences,” she says. “Everyone is interested in the program and its design. Most impressive to me, however, is the process that got us there—how inclusive and how intellectually authentic it was.”
The reform of CSU, Chico’s GE program grew out of a desire for something that made intellectual sense to both faculty and students, and that would engage students. Up until the program’s reinvention, students had to take a certain number of lower-division GE classes and choose an upper-division theme to complete their requirements. In evaluations, students indicated that the process felt random and that it didn’t seem like their GE classes were necessary for their degree.
On the other hand, says Loker, students often identified a GE class as a favorite class. “So the classes were often excellent; they just didn’t make sense as a program,” he notes.
The primary goals of the design team were to make GE more coherent and the value of it more transparent to students. This was accomplished by extending the idea of “theme,” which became “pathway,” to include lower-division courses. Prompted by a student’s suggestion, the team also designed a minor into the program. Now students who complete 18 units within a pathway graduate with a minor.
Most impressive is the process that got us there—how inclusive and how intellectually authentic it was.
The new GE Pathways program makes sense to both students and professors. Students can experience a coherent general education throughout their academic careers and still get the breadth that characterizes a liberal education.
And the program is measurable—another reason for the redesign. The learning outcomes, based on the values articulated for the Pathways program, are measurable and will be assessed over a five-year period.
“To assess a program you have to have a program,” Loker says. “Before, the GE courses were like bricks lying around. Now, we have a building made out of the bricks.”
The 10 pathways are designed to foster active inquiry, personal and social responsibility, sustainability, diversity, creativity, and global engagement. The student learning outcomes include these values along with oral and written communication, critical thinking, and mathematical reasoning.
One of the risks of trying something so completely new is that it is impossible to predict which pathways students will enroll in. A pathway needs to have adequate enrollment to justify its existence, and it is possible, says Loker, that some pathways may go away.
CSU, Chico is committed to doing the work of supporting the GE Pathways program, including giving pathway coordinators one course release time per semester. “If you are going to say that we take GE seriously, then you have to do it by telling faculty that their GE work is important,” says McCarthy. “Course release for coordinators is a vital way that is being communicated.”
How did a mid-sized public university become a national innovator in general education? “Two main reasons,” says Loker. “The process was open and participatory and happened over two years’ time. And, our faculty rose to the occasion; they saw the potential, were inspired to act, and were willing to invest their talent and a great deal of time in an important and cooperative project.”
(BA, Recreation Administration, ’82), a former firefighter/EMT, is an insurance agent with New York Life in San Diego.
(BA, Journalism, ’01) is a partner at FSB Core Strategies, a public relations firm in Sacramento.
(MA, Kinesiology, ’06) is the head athletic trainer at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.