A Open Letter to Art Goss and the BC Curriculum Advisory Committee

I expect you and the CAC are quite busy approving new Gen Ed ratings for transfer courses as part of our ongoing Pathways work. I can understand the desire for expediency with a workload of this scale. And so I do not relish the role I’m about to take on.

Our world is becoming an increasingly unreasonable place. I don’t think this point requires a great deal of elaboration. Our unreasonableness is manifest in multiple crises from climate change, to racism, to the decline of democracy. People generally are not very amenable to reasoning and this is perhaps what we should expect given an education system that makes no systematic effort to equip people with general reasoning skills. I think of this as a national intellectual health crisis of pandemic proportions. What especially pains me is that we have a decent enough vaccine in well developed Critical Thinking curriculum, we simply lack any sense of urgency about getting into the minds of our students.

Our students arrive at BC and then leave with paltry defenses against the overabundance of manipulative rhetoric and BS their world has to offer. I think it is time for us as educators to take some ownership for this situation. We do not do enough to equip our students with the reasoning skills required to be more reasonable people. Currently, our failure on this front is baked into how we operate the infusion model for Gen Ed outcomes at BC. We do have a reasoning requirement in the DTA, but it is completely dominated by math. Reasoning more generally, beyond the realm of numbers, is covered by our Critical Thinking Gen Ed outcome. But we have no coherent, systematic approach to teaching reasoning skills on the infusion model as we run it. There is no infused Critical Thinking curriculum. Instructors teaching classes that claim Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed outcome rarely talk to each other about just what this means or how to teach it effectively.

Fourteen percent of the courses on campus currently claim Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed outcome. That number is no doubt much higher among transfer courses that serve the DTA. And it will grow higher still with the current push for all transfer courses to claim Gen Ed outcome as part of Pathways work. These claims will be approved by the CAC on the strength of a paragraph or two linking some aspect of Critical Thinking outcomes language to course outcomes language. There is little transparency across campus concerning the curriculum on which claims to teach Critical Thinking are based. We have no measure of how many instructors teaching courses that claim Critical Thinking have ever taken a course in Critical Thinking or engaged in any significant professional development in Critical Thinking. I suspect that number is very small. In short, we don’t appear to be doing what we say we are doing concerning this vital and foundational Gen Ed area.

So at this point, I have two recommendations that could go some ways towards addressing a serious pedagogical failure on our part. First, I’d like to see the CAC ask for more evidence of instruction in Critical Thinking skills for courses claiming Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed outcome. Ideally, programs should be transparent and share their Critical Thinking curriculum. Philosophy already does this as you will see here among other places.

Second, and I suspect this goes beyond the purview of the CAC, the office of Academic Affairs should expect faculty who teach courses claiming Critical Thinking as a Gen Ed to engage in professional development on Critical Thinking. To this end, philosophy has just run a Critical Thinking workshop in the Faculty Commons. A couple of philosophy faculty shared how we teach critical thinking and we heard from other faculty how they teach critical thinking. The conversation was quite fruitful. One key point that emerged is that an eleven week quarter is not really enough time for students to develop and practice the reasoning skills that are central to Critical Thinking. More extended cultivation of reasoning skills will not happen if faculty teaching courses rated for Critical Thinking are not talking to each other, sharing curriculum and methods, and coordinating their efforts.

Critical Thinking is not merely one among 18 Gen Ed outcomes. It is foundational in many ways. For example, philosophy has as much of a stake in Ethics as it does in Critical Thinking. The only reason the campus community hears more about Critical Thinking from the Philosophy Dept. is that doing Ethics requires some well developed critical thinking skills. Similar things could no doubt be said for Critical Thinking and several other of our Gen Ed outcomes.

As long as we have an infusion model for Gen Ed outcomes, I will be committed to making it work. This requires acknowledging its current failures. We currently have no good understanding of how Critical Thinking is taught as an infused Gen Ed outcome, or indeed the extent to which it is taught at all. This is something the CAC can address. And this failure is entrenched by our failure as faculty to communicate with each other about how we are teaching critical thinking in an infused manner across campus. Remedying this will require much broader participation.

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