Abolishing the check mark mindset

St. Olaf’s general education (GE) requirements are in the midst of an overhaul. On Thursday, Oct. 19, the General Education Task Force, formed by the faculty Curriculum Committee, held a student forum to give a progress report to the community. 

Religion Professor David Booth, who represents Interdisciplinary and General Studies on the Task Force, shared two of the main motivations behind changing the GE structure now.

“The faculty observed that the current GE, which is a distribution of requirements, encourages what some of our colleagues call ‘the worst box checking tendencies of students,’” Booth said. “It encourages people just to say ‘well I need one of those, check,’ and to end with a bunch of check marks but with no coherent education.”

The second reason Booth mentioned was the changes in faculty and student diversity, because the current GE system was implemented 25 years ago.

 “The college has changed in a lot of valuable ways, particularly our faculty and student body whose community is a lot more diverse than it was 25 years ago,” Booth said. “This diversity involves religious diversity, racial diversity and diversity of sexual orientation and gender identities.”

The GE Task Force was also influenced by the protests last spring, even though they began their work before those events.

“The college was engulfed in a lively conversation about diversity on our campus and how to live justly, well and equitably in a diverse community,” Booth said. “It is not that the GE renewal process was just a response to the events last year and the just protests of the Collective. But certainly those increased the sense of urgency for what we are thinking about right now.”

Over the summer the Task Force created three experimental models.

“At the end of this year the faculty will probably cast a vote to focus on one of those models, and spend the following year working out the details about what exact requirements will be defined in what way for that model,” Booth said. 

The first model is the course attribute model, which is a revision of the current GE system. Professor Jason Marsh serves as a representative of the humanities and reviewed the goals of this model. 

“We want to reserve what’s valuable in the current model. We agree that it needs changes but also has some value,” Marsh said. “The clarity of what you have to do is a virtue, and preserving that is great.” 

This model would cut the number of courses needed to finish GE requirements, while also introducing a hypothetical system of swipes for attending events, similar to how Wellness Swipes currently work. Another aspect of this model would be a wild card GE requirement, that would have students take a course outside of their major in their junior or senior year. Professor Donna McMillan, a representative for Natural Science and Math, explained further. 

“Even when you are specializing in your major you can keep curiosity alive,” McMillan said. 

The second proposed model, the common curriculum model, focuses on shared learning experiences. Professor Ariel Strichartz, humanities representative, provided details on how the common curriculum model works. 

“The common curriculum model shares some of the characteristics of the other models,” Strichartz said. “There’s increased integration and reflection. But what we really wanted to get at here was the opportunity for all students to get into learning communities in their first and senior year.” 

These learning communities will provide many GEs, while others will be obtained in a similar format to the current GE system. One goal that Sarah Freyermuth ’19,  a student on the GE Task Force, emphasized was inclusivity in the classroom.

“One of the big things is recognizing that every student comes to St. Olaf with a different background and cultural capital,” Freyermuth said. “So we want to make sure that is addressed in the first year experience and making sure that everyone can explain their background and understand others backgrounds.”

One significant difference from the current system would be to separate the GE requirement and the respective course grade.

The third model is called the reflective/integrative model. It puts the emphasis on student reflection and is the most radically different of the three proposed models. Professor Matt Richey, representing the math department on the task force, explained its unique aspects.

“A reflective portfolio would be a way to compile the experience in some formal way for an ongoing assessment by the student perspective and the faculty perspective to reflect on the GE curriculum,” Richey said. 

Richey brought up the possibility of a reflective essay each year that looks at a student’s experience in the GE curriculum over the course of four years. Another addition to this model is the idea of an artifact. With the artifact, GEs could be awarded outside of taking a course, through  an experience like an internship or project. 

As the GE Task Force continues to evaluate each of the proposed models and determine the pros and cons, they are seeking more student feedback through events similar to the forum. Freyermuth hopes that students will find more meaning in the future GE system. 

“[Students should] feel ownership of the GE system, since the current system is lacking,” Freyermuth said.