Controversial university studies program to come under review

Written by | June 7, 2012

Future of general studies at Portland State unclear

Portland State Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Roy Koch is set to retire at the end of June, and, pending in-depth review, PSU’s University Studies program may undergo big changes in his absence.

The program, implemented in 1993, falls under Koch’s purview and has weathered criticism throughout the years, but it has yet to come under serious external review, according to Koch.

“We have not yet had an external review that I’m aware of,” Koch said. “However, UNST receives on-going oversight by a standing University Studies Council, a committee of faculty appointed by the faculty senate.”

PSU President Wim Wiewel recently offered an indication that the program is due for serious review, and his comments suggest that faculty will have an unprecedented opportunity to critique the program.

“Based on comments I have heard over the years and my continuing concern with the freshman retention rate, I have asked the provost to work with the faculty senate and the University Studies Council to initiate an in-depth review,” Wiewel wrote via email. “Ultimately curriculum is under the purview of the faculty, and I look forward to their review and suggestions for possible improvements.”

UNST, a unique model for general studies, consists of one year of required freshman inquiry courses followed by a year of sophomore inquiry, junior cluster courses and, finally, a senior capstone. No aspect of the interdisciplinary model has been more harshly and consistently criticized than the FRINQ component, which is required for all non-transfer students who aren’t participating in the PSU Honors Program.

These courses are instructed by faculty from various departments throughout the university and also include a mentor session led by an undergraduate mentor. Some faculty have protested the use of undergraduate mentors as well as the interdisciplinary nature of freshman inquiry, which often requires instructors to teach outside of their area of expertise. Departments throughout PSU have signed a memorandum of understanding, under which they agree to teach a given number of University Studies courses in exchange for the creation of tenured track lines within their department.

The review of UNST will be welcomed by PSU Professor of anthropology Sharon Carstens, who is critical of the program.

“I’ve taught FRINQ before, and it’s a tremendous waste of faculty time,” Carstens said. “You spend an enormous amount of time developing a course that you teach twice. I have a huge stack of materials that I developed to teach FRINQ for two years, because we cycle in for two years, and it’s just sitting there.”

Carstens added that these two-year rotations present serious problems for small departments, such as anthropology, which must hire adjuncts to fill in for departmental faculty on FRINQ duty. She also believes that these rotations stunt the growth of faculty focused on research, which then becomes an obstacle for PSU’s ascension as a research institution.

“For those of us who continue to be active in research and writing, those two years are a stall in our careers,” she said.

Carstens also noted that those in charge of the FRINQ program re-hired a peer mentor whose work Carstens found to be unsatisfactory—without bothering to ask her for any evaluation of the mentor’s work with students.

Professor of history David A. Horowitz has also taken issue with peer mentors in the FRINQ program.

“I taught one year in FRINQ,” Horowitz said. “I found that as hard as I tried, I was just not able to excite these students about the discipline of history, as they were too self-absorbed in their own peer groups, their mentor sessions and the feel-good aspects of university studies. The mentor sessions just seemed like a waste of time.”

Koch and other supporters of UNST argue that to FRINQ’s undergraduate peer mentors are a success story.

“Based on the best current research, peer mentors are effective bridges for freshmen and sophomore students to navigate academic and social resources on campus to support their learning,” Koch said. “Research at PSU shows that students in UNST consistently report favorable experiences with their peer mentors, resulting in an increased sense of connection to academic resources and student life. Student connection is also one of the known top predictors of student success in large institutions, and PSU supports this with the use of peer mentors in the UNST program.”

Part of the research that Koch refers to, however, comes in the form of graded self-assessments of learning. Students are required to report on their experiences in FRINQ through an e-portfolio project, which is framed not as a tool for critical evaluation but as an assignment worth 5 percent of their final grade. It remains unclear to what extent these can be taken as evidence of program success.

Horowitz, Carstens and some other PSU faculty remain unconvinced of the value of undergraduate peer mentors, citing a lack of content in favor of socializing students through the peer mentor component of FRINQ.

“The premise of the program is not much of an emphasis on content, and you can’t teach historical inquiry without an emphasis on evidence, and you can’t have evidence without content,” said Horowitz. “You can’t broaden yourself as a person engrossed in humane learning. The compulsive multiculturalism in freshman inquiry has always offended me. The idea that someone who is a part of a minority or ethnic group might know more than someone else is offensive. Student journals and these other ways of student learning all strike me as self-indulgent and sound much better than they actually work.”

A key rift between program supporters and critics seems to be feelings on the efficacy of interdisciplinary education. University Studies Program Director Sukhwant Jhaj is a supporter of the model.

“To ensure PSU students are not academically adrift, I suggest: innovative interdisciplinary programs that focus on big questions; a genuine focus on assessment of student learning and teacher effectiveness; meaningful online learning experiences; engaged scholarship; and robust undergraduate student participation in research, engagement and creative action,” Jhaj said.

Horowitz, however, feels that historians provide a good model for more traditional methods.

“Interdisciplinary education doesn’t work. It doesn’t really become a conversation between faculty from different fields. It’s not integrated,” Horowitz said. “It’s true in some sense that the old disciplines are somewhat antiquated, but to be honest, historians, we have to function in a variety of disciplines. Ethnic studies, cultural studies, literary studies, geography; a good historian is interdisciplinary in many ways. Just throwing three people together doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be able to combine their methodologies in an effective way,” he added.

Professor of history Linda Walton is critical of the notion that interdisciplinary education requires educators to teach outside of their field of expertise.

“‘Interdisciplinary’ has become this code word that the current administration of UNST and the core UNST instructors seem to hold up as something that only they can do and that we in specific departments just don’t understand,” Walton said. “I think that there are a lot of pedagogical and intellectual problems with that. The beginnings of UNST, which I was very enthusiastic about, wasn’t so against the idea of teaching within your field. Somehow expertise is identified as being resistant to this interdisciplinary model.”

Jhaj has broad, ambitious plans for the future of university studies.

“In the coming years, Portland State University will be more racially diverse, more likely have a higher number of first-generation and ESL students, and more likely to serve an even higher number of students coming from economically disadvantaged background,” Jhaj wrote in an email. “These changes are going to have a profound effect on Portland State University. Our curriculum and our student services must respond to these changes. We must do all we can to improve student experience at PSU.”

These plans, however, fail to address lingering criticisms on specific issues, but Koch believes critics are the minority. “There have always been some faculty who have been at least skeptical and at most outright opposed to the program,” Koch said. “However, in my experience based on a longstanding interaction with a reasonably large number of faculty and service in various faculty governance roles, those faculty do not represent a large number.”

Wiewel’s commitment to open the program up to serious critical faculty review may finally present an opportunity to find out whether or not Koch is correct.

Linda Walton is just one faculty member who thinks it is long overdue.

“When Sukhwant Jhaj took over, he said, ‘Trust the faculty,’ and I don’t think that has happened as much as it should have, though it has been better since he took over,” Walton said. ■

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