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Beautiful Ideas: Reinvigorating General Education at Hostos Community College
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4th Nov, 2009 | Source : AAC&U News

By: Laura Donnelly-Smith, Associate Editor/Staff Writer, AAC&U

  Hostos Community College designated the 2007-08 academic year as the "Year of General Education."
In 2005, Amanda Bernal-Carlo, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, was leading a committee charged with motivating faculty to reenvision their pedagogical practices and improve student learning outcomes. So Bernal-Carlo, who is now acting associate dean for faculty development and curriculum, posed a question to the committee members: What are your dreams as educators? The responses delighted Bernal-Carlo with their creativity and innovation. “About 58 percent of our Hostos faculty have at least fifteen years of service, and they have an incredible sense of creativity and joy in being educators,” she says. “We wanted to reward them and offer them opportunities to implement their ideas.” Bernal-Carlo and Provost Lucinda Zoe and their colleagues at the Center for Teaching and Learning started a Committee on Beautiful Ideas to solicit and review grant proposals from faculty and award mini-grants, using federal Title V funds Hostos had been awarded. Faculty members could submit their “beautiful ideas” in teaching and learning, and winning proposals would receive funding and release time to put the proposals into practice.

Four years later, the Committee on Beautiful Ideas (COBI) has developed into a larger grassroots movement at Hostos, a two-year school in the City University of New York system that is also a Hispanic-serving institution. In addition to the beautiful ideas to invigorate pedagogy, many of which have already been implemented or are currently underway, the college has overhauled its general education program, focusing on learning competencies and the principles of excellence outlined in AAC&U’s report, College Learning for the New Global Century, and published as part of its LEAP initiative.

Rethinking Pedagogy, Remaking Institutional Identity

Because general education is at the heart of Hostos’ mission as a community college, the COBI focus on innovations in teaching was targeted at general education courses. The Office of Academic Affairs at Hostos had already been working for several years to develop competencies for learning and move students away from the distribution model that simply lists required courses. In order to highlight the focus on general education as a collegewide project and not simply an administrative affair, in 2007, Daisy Cocco de Filippis, who was then provost, declared 2007-08 the “Year of General Education” at Hostos. She issued an official proclamation that called for collegewide exploration of questions like, what does it mean to be human?, what is culture and how do we understand it?, and how do we cross linguistic and cultural borders? Many faculty members developed “beautiful idea” proposals around these and similar questions. To help publicize the Year of General Education and to encourage informal discussion among faculty and students, each month in the academic year was designated to highlight one of the principles of excellence from AAC&U’s LEAP initiative, as interpreted by the Hostos community. February 2007, for example, focused on the principle of “connecting knowledge with choices and action.” For each month, the principle was displayed on posters on campus, and faculty were asked to contribute their best practices in pedagogy as they applied to the principle. These ideas, along with faculty members’ talents and specialties, are collected into a COBI bank to provide resources for faculty members and help them collaborate.

Cynthia Jones, a professor in the English department, changed the format of all her class syllabi to incorporate the principle, “Teach the arts of inquiry and innovation.” Rather than using the syllabus to tell students what they will learn, Jones now presents her content organized around the areas of inquiry she wants students to consider. “For my expository writing class, we start with the question ‘Why does writing matter?’ They know they’ll be charged with trying to find that answer on an individual journey throughout my class,” she explains.

Jones also submitted a proposal and won a grant for her “beautiful idea,” called Collation-Convite, which she translates roughly to “conversation bites.” Jones worked with professor America Trinidad of Hostos’ education department to design a narrative framework incorporating the storytelling (usually over food) that is common in both African American and Hispanic traditions. The goal of Collation-Convite is to open up a safe, supportive space for dialogues about contemporary social issues, students’ questions about these issues, and plans for action. Through a series of brown-bag lunches, focus groups, and forums that began in spring 2009, students have discussed films, including Whale Rider and Rabbit-Proof Fence, poetry, including Sherman Alexie’s “Indian Education,” and shared reactions and personal stories. Some Collation-Convite sessions have also focused specifically on faculty and staff, including a session in which each participant was invited to talk about his or her “first contact” with higher education. “They started by talking about what it was like when they were students, and identified some of their early impressions. Later the group moved on to discussion of the characteristics that would make a successful first-year experience for a student. It was extremely useful,” Jones says.

Another beautiful idea, Grand Concourse 100, exemplifies the LEAP recommendation related to real-world applications of learning. Developed by faculty in the library and behavioral sciences department, Grand Concourse 100 focuses on celebrating the centennial of Grand Concourse, the street in the Bronx on which Hostos is located. An archival event series and an urban studies seminar using the history of the Concourse as catalyst are planned, with discussions on the different traits the Grand Concourse has come to signify in its one-hundred-year history—from achievement for some to exclusion for others.

  Faculty at Hostos are working to ensure that students are exposed to liberal learning competencies at all stages of their education.
Working Together Collegewide

One of the significant challenges Hostos faced in revamping its general education curriculum was bringing general education to the forefront of college awareness, and ensuring buy-in and commitment from various groups in the university—including faculty, student life staff members, and administrators. In order to make understanding and using the general education competencies more natural for faculty, the Office of Institutional Research developed an online competency mapping tool. The tool allows faculty to input course information and helps them recognize what competencies—such as “Use precise vocabulary to describe abstract and concrete ideas,” or “Find, evaluate, and use information from different sources effectively”—their courses are already covering, and how they might cover additional competencies in the classroom.

In addition, Hostos faculty and administrators are striving to ensure that voices from all parts of the college—including nonacademic staff—are represented when making plans for the future. At a planning meeting for another federal Title V grant, every sector of the college was invited. “We had a massive brainstorm session at that meeting, and we challenged everyone to see what others were doing in their own areas,” Jones explains. “We determined that everyone in the college has a responsibility to be a model in demonstrating our learning competencies and the principles of excellence. The electricians, the locksmiths, the cafeteria workers—they’re all models, and we recognized that as they were carrying out their duties, they were modeling the behaviors of our school.” One example, Bernal-Carlo says, is how, during a student assembly with 6,000 people, a student’s baby would not stop crying. “One of our ‘peace officers’—what other schools often call ‘public safety officers’—took the baby and started walking it back and forth, calming it down. That’s just one example of how we work as a family at Hostos,” she says.

In coming months and years, Hostos will continue to work to strengthen its general education program. The college’s general education committee is currently developing a list of criteria that a course would need to meet to be designated a capstone course, explains Sarah Brennan, assistant director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. The committee is also working to turn some 100-level liberal arts courses into general education core courses by redesigning them around the core competencies. “Our goal is to ensure that the students are exposed to the competencies at all levels—not just as incoming students, and not just later—but all throughout their education,” Brennan says. The college is also testing versions of a set of rubrics, designed as part of AAC&U’s VALUE initiative to assess key learning outcomes and, in this case, adapted for the Hostos community. This semester, faculty members are evaluating the rubrics, which will be implemented collegewide in the coming academic year.

Bernal-Carlo says that Hostos has long been viewed as the least significant of the CUNY colleges, and focusing on general education and the principles of excellence is helping to make over the college’s identity from the inside out. “We’re making a heroic attempt to transform this institution,” she says. “We’re going back to the departments and renewing our commitment to the college. Five or six years ago, we didn’t have the passion that we have now.”

Learn more about Hostos College’s work on innovation in general education, and the LEAP Principles of Excellence.


Citation is:
Donnelly-Smith, L. 2009. Beautiful Ideas: Reinvigorating General Education at Hostos
               Community College. AAC&U News 83.

Article Permission
Reprinted with permission from AAC&U News, issue 83. Copyright 2009 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.



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