This special volume of the Journal of General Education addresses the 25 years of pioneering integrated, interdisciplinary work in University Studies, the general education curriculum at Portland State University including its accomplishments and its challenges. The volume is divided into four separate parts, each addressing a particular aspect or perspective of the program. Rowanna L. Carpenter, the director of assessment and research for the program, served as the managing editor for the volume, and each part had its own section editor who helped shepherd and curate the articles within. Each part also has an invited general education scholar who introduces the articles in the issue and places the discussion in a wider context of trends and research in higher education.
Hannah's may not be a typical general education story, but it does illustrate the power and possibilities of a strong general education experience. Now a college graduate, Hannah considered herself a “freak of nature” when she entered college. Not entirely convinced of the value of a four-year degree when she began applying to university, Hannah not only investigated schools that had the major she was interested in (community development), but she also scrutinized general education programs. Hannah was looking for an experience that would let her explore, grow, and make connections. In researching her options and then making her choice, Hannah became one of very few students who selected her university for its general education program as much as for its major.
Hannah entered university as an 18-year old freshman just out of high school. She joined a living-learning community, residing on the same floor with her classmates. In this community, Hannah found the academic experience she was seeking, one that combined “urban and downtown” with a “supportive, exploratory, collegial” network. In her year-long thematic general education course, there was a peer mentor collaborating with the faculty member to support the engagement of the entire learning community; this peer mentor provided Hannah with a model of faculty-student collaboration. The mentor struck a careful balance between providing support and encouragement while pushing Hannah to understand the demands and expectations of college life. The mentor also helped her sort out her emotional responses to the new environment and the college experience more broadly. Hannah made such strong connections with several of her classmates that they decided to room together the following year in an apartment near campus.
During her second year, Hannah enrolled in three different sophomore-level inquiry courses. These felt more academically intensive than her first-year course had, with group work prominently featured. Not only was Hannah learning from three different professors, but she also had the opportunity to work with three different graduate students who served as the peer mentors for these courses. Having three different mentors from three different graduate fields of study and three different approaches to education offered Hannah insights into the multiple possibilities for her educational path. Initially resistant to engaging in any sort of formal education beyond high school, Hannah found herself much more open to the idea of graduate study now that she had been exposed to this “masters-level thinking.”
Hannah “double dipped” her three junior-level general education courses by applying them to a minor in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies as a complement to her major. As she moved into upper-division general education requirements and within the courses for her major, Hannah relied on the foundation she had built in her first- and second-year courses. She felt challenged in both her major and her general education courses, but always knew and trusted that she could succeed in them. She felt capable, fully able to finish her degree. She viewed this confidence as “a gift” from her general education experiences.
For her senior-level community-based general education requirement, Hannah chose to take a course centered in girl studies, in which she and her colleagues conducted dialogues with adolescent girls and co-created a zine with them. Hannah had such a great experience in the course that she keeps in touch with the instructor.
Three years after graduation, Hannah is now working with low-income high school students to encourage college attendance. As she looks back on her college experiences, she sees how the skills and habits she built through her general education still apply in both demystifying the college experience for high school students and in her professional life more broadly. Hannah finds that value continues to emerge from her general education experience, through which she developed her capacities to engage in group work, took advantage of opportunities to practice communication skills, enjoyed the positive benefits of numerous supportive relationships, and reveled in the provocation to think differently and to act effectively across difference.
Hannah's journey through general education was not typical: she was intentional from the beginning about what she wanted to get out of it and made choices along the way to maximize her experience. Although Hannah's story is not typical, it illustrates that the ideals universities set out for coherent, meaningful, even transformative general education programs are possible to achieve.
Why A Special Volume on University Studies?
In 2019 Portland State University's signature general education program, University Studies, is 25 years old. In 1993 the Portland State University Faculty Senate voted to completely overhaul the general education program. In a bold move, they chose not to pilot the proposed program, but immediately discontinued the previous distribution model and moved directly into offering an integrated, interdisciplinary program focused on learning outcomes rather than an array of unrelated courses. In 1994 the first year-long Freshman Inquiry (FRINQ) courses were offered, and Sophomore Inquiry (SINQ) and senior-level Capstone courses followed in 1995. The implementation of courses was accompanied by significant support for the development of pedagogical and assessment approaches of this innovative model.
Current calls for reform of general education reflect some of the same concerns that were expressed when University Studies was proposed. A model that requires students to take a few credits across an array of disciplinary areas is still the norm at many institutions in the United States (Hart Research Associates, 2007). However, some question whether such distribution models can provide a coherent experience for undergraduates and if they result in the learning that is essential for student success (Gaston, 2015). At Portland State, similar concerns were addressed by White (1994) when he documented the rationale for establishing University Studies. He noted that the committee that proposed the program could find no explanation of the benefits students should derive from the distribution model. Furthermore, large, disparate introductory courses did little to engage students as agents in their education.
Moving into the twenty-first century, we see much discussion about general education and what the University of California chancellor's office calls the tension between content-centered general education and general education that promotes habits of mind (University of California Commission on General Education in the 21st Century, 2007). Given accrediting requirements for general education outcomes, there is also an emphasis on learning outcomes and accountability. While the context for higher education may have shifted, the debate about the importance of general education and an emphasis on coherence and integration continue.
When new general education models are proposed, they often look very much like University Studies. Organizations like AAC&U (Hart Research Associates, 2015) and the University of California chancellor's office (University of California Commission on General Education in the 21st Century, 2007) as well as scholars such as Wehlburg (2010) advocate an approach to general education that include many of the characteristics of University Studies at Portland State University. They emphasize the need for shared learning outcomes as the core of a program and then suggest thematic “bundles” of courses related to broad themes or important problems, such as sustainability or race and society. They emphasize the need for student agency and engagement with real-world projects.
In 1999 the Journal of General Education (volume 48, issues 2 and 3) dedicated a double issue to the then–five-year-old University Studies program. The articles in those issues laid out the circumstances that facilitated such a bold curricular move, described the new curriculum, discussed the challenges of putting an idealized vision into practice, and reflected on the impact of the mentor program. We have made headway on some of the challenges identified in those issues. Meaningful assessment was identified as a challenge and, since then, we have built a robust, award-winning assessment program. Supporting faculty in effective pedagogy, articulated as a need then, has become an integrated part of University Studies' practice. Other tensions remain. Faculty still experience a tension between prioritizing disciplinary scholarship and work and the hard work of interdisciplinary teaching; and there is still a tension between the scale of our enterprise and the relational aspirations of our curriculum. After 25 years, we have experience with both success and mistakes in managing and growing interdisciplinary general education in a large public institution, with promoting and supporting a community of engaged educators, and with using data to improve our program. While University Studies has changed and adapted over the years, it retains its core commitments to engaging students through inquiry-based pedagogy and integrated, interdisciplinary courses. At a time when there is a great deal of focus on general education reform, we look back to share our learnings with others who are interested in promoting similar models. We also discuss our challenges and our future as we look forward to growing to meet the needs of tomorrow's students.
What Is University Studies?
University Studies is the signature general education program for Portland State University, an urban, near–open enrollment research university (Carnegie “High Research” or R2) with almost 28,000 students, 22,000 of whom are undergraduates. Overall, the curriculum consists of 45 quarter credits (which is typical for general education programs), with those credits being uniquely scaffolded over four years of interdisciplinary education. Rather than a distribution model of unrelated general education courses, the University Studies curriculum endeavors to bring meaning to general education through a thematic approach. Students may not use their University Studies courses toward their major requirements but may count them toward minors.
The University Studies faculty is made up of approximately 50 full time tenure-related faculty and faculty on or eligible for “continuous employment” (Portland State's term for nontenure-related full-time faculty). The tenure-related faculty are “shared” lines, or faculty that are employed by University Studies and teach University Studies' courses but are housed across the various Portland State colleges and schools, earning tenure through their respective departments. Faculty on or eligible for continuous employment are teaching-focused interdisciplinary faculty (the program's “core faculty”), who are collectively housed in University Studies. The program also employs over 100 adjunct faculty and over 50 student peer mentors to deliver nearly 70,000 student credit hours per year. Beyond its own budget, University Studies partners with over 36 departments to offer general education courses through faculty housed in those units but teaching at least some courses in the Program.
University Studies brings a strong sense of meaning and relationality to general education through its curricular structure. All University Studies courses align with the program's four learning goals: communication; inquiry and critical thinking; diversity, equity, and social justice; and ethics, agency, and community. First-year students choose from 11 different themes for a 15-credit Freshmen Inquiry (or FRINQ) course (five credits each in Fall, Winter, and Spring terms). Examples of themes are “Race and Social Justice,” “Design and Society,” “Portland,” and “Health, Happiness, and Human Rights.” With a few exceptions, FRINQ courses are taught by full-time faculty who stay with the class of 36 students for an entire year, thus allowing incoming first-year students to form a consistent long-term relationship with their instructor. Each course is also assigned a peer mentor, an upper-division undergraduate who meets with the students in 12-person “mentor sessions” twice each week. Peer mentors are not teaching assistants: their role is expressly to provide students with the resources and assistance needed to be successful in their transition to college. They do attend class with students, but they do not grade. FRINQ combines a student's writing, social science, humanities, and natural science requirements into one course and is transcripted and transferable in that manner. Courses are taught through a pedagogical philosophy of student empowerment and the development of agency, stressing engagement both in the classroom and in the community.
Sophomores, who at PSU are made up of a high percentage of transfer students, take three four-credit Sophomore Inquiry courses (or SINQs). There are 15 different SINQ themes for students to choose from, including “Design Thinking/Innovation/Entrepreneurship,” “Gender and Sexualities Studies,” and “Leading Social Change.” These interdisciplinary courses also have a maximum enrollment of 36 students and are also assigned a peer mentor who is, in the SINQ, a graduate student. SINQ courses also contribute to meeting a student's writing requirement and are thus writing-intensive courses.
Juniors select one of the themes they explored in their SINQs and take three Junior Cluster courses (for a total of 12 credits) for greater depth in that arena. These courses are taught by faculty in departments across campus but retain the same learning goals as all University Studies courses. Cluster courses often serve as the entry point to University Studies for the majority of Portland State students who transfer as juniors. The courses support majors as well as students pursuing upper-division general education credit. Cluster Coordinators are faculty whose role it is to maintain consistency and integration across Junior Cluster courses.
The culmination of the University Studies experience is the Senior Capstone course. This interdisciplinary course is capped at 15 students and is explicitly a community engagement experience. Students engage with regional community partners to address real-world issues through completing projects of genuine use to the partners. For example, the Juvenile Justice Capstone brings youth incarcerated in a detention center together with Capstone students. In “Street Roots: Exploring Issues of Homelessness,” Capstone students work with persons experiencing houselessness and with relevant agencies to write articles for a local newspaper catalyzing social change. “Learning Gardens, Community Engagement, and Sustainability” takes students out to community gardens to explore issues of food insecurity and community activism. “Learning from Persons with Disabilities: Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp” engages students in a local camp for individuals with significant disabilities and their families. There are hundreds of Senior Capstones for students to choose from, and all center on the four University Studies learning goals and require students to work together to create something of value to the community partner.
All of University Studies' courses maintain high standards for learning outcomes with ongoing assessment, analysis, and adjustment. There is a full-time assessment and research director who leads this effort. Faculty coordinators support University Studies faculty in areas of such as diversity, equity, and inclusion; writing, and digital pedagogies.
Students and faculty who are not accustomed to University Studies are sometimes initially put off by the complexity of the program's structure—but once the rationale is explained, many find it an attractive and elegant model for general education that simultaneously cares for students and treats them like adults. The articles throughout this volume will explore the structure, scope, and scale of University Studies; the assessment and faculty support processes that ground the program; the critical reflection and community-engaged approaches that are the foundation for the program; and the perspectives of the transformative teaching and learning that happens here through the perspectives of faculty, peer mentors, students, and administrators alike.
The Journal Issues Comprising this Special Volume on University Studies
This special volume on University Studies is divided into four separate parts, each addressing a particular aspect or perspective of the program. Rowanna Carpenter, the director of assessment and research for the program, served as the managing editor for the volume, and each part has its own section editor who helped shepherd and curate the articles within. Each part also has an invited general education scholar who introduces the articles in the issue and places the discussion in a wider context of trends and research in higher education.
This first part is intended to provide an overall introduction to University Studies, as well as focus on the student experience. Here we offer an overview of the structure and operation of University Studies. The focus on students reflects the first part of the program's mission statement, addressing how University Studies' “inclusive, interdisciplinary, and inquiry-based pedagogy provokes students to build self-efficacy through relational learning across difference.” Articles in this part address improving student communication, making students feel welcome and included in our learning communities, and understanding the student experience. Introducing this section is Jean Henscheid, who has been a fellow with the National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition for 20 years. Since 2017 she has been the principal policy analyst for the Idaho State Board of Education. The editor for this part is Óscar Fernández, University Studies core faculty member and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator for the program.
The second part centers faculty, again drawing from the University Studies mission by addressing how the program “encourages a community of educators to practice engaged teaching for transformative learning.” Articles in this section address faculty collaborations in high schools, faculty vulnerability and positionality, how assessment supports faculty professional practice, and the transition from roles as peer mentors to roles as faculty. The part is introduced by Chad Bebee, who is the director of assessment at Vincennes University. The editor for this section is J. R. “Jones” Estes, core faculty and director of the Freshmen Year Experience in University Studies.
Inclusive, interdisciplinary, and inquiry-based pedagogy that, per the program's mission, “advances civic engagement, reflective practice, and the scholarship of teaching and learning,” is the focus of the third part. Articles in this part address service learning during the first-year experience, critical reflective practice, and the utilization of liberatory pedagogies of critical decolonization in a Senior Capstone course. Introducing this part is Amy Koritz, professor of English and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Drew University. With George Sanchez, she is co-editor of Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina (University of Michigan Press, 2009), and she has written about civic engagement in the humanities in Diversity Digest and the Modern Language Association's Profession. The editor for this section is Vicki Reitenauer, assistant professor in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Portland State and faculty support coordinator in University Studies.
The fourth and final part endeavors to address how University Studies “makes it all work” with articles that take a big-picture view of the program. The articles in this part address how University Studies has evolved, using the example of the rewriting of the program's diversity learning outcome; how University Studies has approached online learning; and the lessons of leadership over the past quarter century. Introducing this section is Susan Albertine, senior scholar in the Office of Quality, Curriculum, and Assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). She previously directed the Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) States Initiative and led the Faculty Collaboratives project. She has also served as vice president of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success at AAC&U. Vicki Reitenauer again served as the editor for this section.
University Studies represents much of what many of the calls for general education reform highlight as important for twenty-first century learners. The program has 25 years of on-the-ground experience delivering interdisciplinary integrated education that supports a broad range of students. We invite readers to find in these sections the stories of our approaches, experiences, successes and challenges as we continue to try to realize our vision and mission in service to our students.