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Pathways Provokes Debate
As Spring semester got underway, faculty across CUNY found themselves grappling with the requirements laid out by CUNY central administration under the Pathways process, the system-wide overhaul of general education. In English, the natural sciences, foreign language instruction and other areas, many faculty members argued that the rules ignored years of hard-won pedagogical experience. As 80th Street issued memos to clarify what was or was not allowed, some questioned whether the administration was exceeding its authority on curricular decisions. And at Bronx Community College, the school’s Pathways committee voted to suspend its deliberations.
A recurring flashpoint has been the general ban on 4-credit courses in the “Common Core Structure” recommended by the Pathways Task Force on December 1 and accepted by Chancellor Goldstein on December 12. A limited exception is made for some Common Core classes in science and mathematics, but there have been faculty objections in these fields as well.
Discontent with the 3-credit limit increased after January 30, when CUNY’s Office of Academic Affairs distributed a set of “Common Core Guidelines.” This document affirmed that “courses must be 3 credits and 3 hours” (emphasis added).
At the start of the semester, CUNY’s English Discipline Council spoke out against “the recent suggestion that composition courses be revised as 3 contact hours/3 credits. The dominant pattern of these courses across the university is 4 hours/3 credits – both current and past practice as well as best practice.”
Four hours a week are needed “to prepare students adequately for the challenges of academic writing in their undergraduate careers” and thus facilitate transfer, the Council said. “To reduce contact hours would be to deny students the benefits of individualized instruction, to diminish the amount of writing they do during the semester, and to undermine established pedagogic practices within CUNY.”
In mid-February, the CUNY Council on World Language Study also issued a statement supporting “the preservation of 4-contact-hour/3-credit courses in foreign language classes” currently offered at several CUNY colleges, and their acceptance within the Common Core. “Such a policy respects both the spirit of the Pathways initiative and the tradition of faculty stewardship over curricular matters,” the council said.
CUNY central administration has defended the 3-credit limit. “Certainly you can’t please everyone with something like a Common Core,” said Associate University Provost Julia Wrigley. But given the overall 30-credit limit, the administration contends that the general requirement for 3-credit classes ultimately provides more flexibility to students and colleges alike.
The Common Core is divided into a “Required Core” and a “Flexible Core.” The latter totals 18 credits, within which students must take six classes – one in each of five categories, plus a sixth in any one of the five areas.
Wrigley told Clarion that an earlier draft of the Pathways structure had some 4-credit classes in the Required Core, but a total of only five courses in the Flexible Core. “That was changed in response to feedback from the colleges,” she said.
“Switching from a model with some 4-credit courses to a model with only 3-credit courses made that sixth class possible,” said CUNY’s Director of Undergraduate Education Policy, Erin Croke.
The credit-hour debate was one of the issues that led Bronx Community College’s Pathways Steering Committee to vote to “suspend our deliberations” on Pathways implementation. “The restriction that all courses are to be 3 hours, 3 credits, was never agreed upon by the Board of Trustees resolution and negates sound and widely accepted pedagogical practices [that] are the purview of the faculty,” the committee said in a January 31 statement. It argued that the “Common Core Guidelines” on implementation, distributed the day before, were internally inconsistent and that the document “circumvents faculty governance.” The statement was unanimously endorsed by BCC’s Faculty Council on February 2.
“I’m hopeful,” said a member of the BCC’s Pathways committee. “Across CUNY, people agree that it makes no sense for central administration to be dictating the number of hours a class should have – especially when faculty at so many colleges, through experience with their own students, have come to a different conclusion.”
CUNY science faculty have also objected to the 3-credit, 3-hour limit, and those concerns sparked an exchange with the chancellor. The Common Core Structure allows for some 4-credit classes to be offered in the Required Core for math or science. However, a college can do so only if alternative 3-credit classes are also available to fulfill these parts of the Required Core.
Allan Ludman, chair of the geology department at Queens College, wrote to Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and other top administrators asking that they reconsider this limit. “The most common model for introductory geology courses required for general education purposes throughout the country is a 4-credit course involving 3 hours of lecture and either 3 or 2 hours of laboratory,” Ludman wrote.
Ludman took aim at 80th Street’s insistence that the number of hours and credits be equal. “There is a reason why laboratory hours are not equated with lecture or recitation hours,” he wrote: students are expected to do much less work outside of class to prepare for a lab. “Following Carnegie and federal financial aid guidelines…we expect two hours of out-of-class student preparation for every hour of lecture or recitation,” but only 20 to 45 minutes preparation for each hour of lab.
If the Pathways requirements reduce the amount of time spent on lab work, this would have a damaging effect, Ludman wrote: “Any experienced science educator knows that after one hour, a lab class is just getting started.” (William Hersh, former chair of the chemistry department at Queens, wrote in his own letter that chemistry classes require three hours for effective lab work: “time for set-up, cleaning, letting a reaction proceed.”)
Ludman asked that the 3-credit/3-hour limit be reconsidered, as it would force a significant decrease in class time that “will seriously erode both teaching and learning success.”
Chancellor Goldstein’s response argued that the Pathways structure was flexible, designed “to give campuses considerable latitude in these matters,” and recounted ten different ways “that science is, or can be, included as part of CUNY’s new general education framework.” One was an option that had not been mentioned in previous Pathways documents: “Colleges can link together one or more pairs of courses…making them co-requisites: for example, one could be a 3-credit lab course and the other a 3-credit lecture course.” But most of Ludman’s specific arguments – for example, the different expectations for student work for lab and lecture hours – went unaddressed.
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