Although the traditional methods of teaching general education courses nationwide are just now beginning to change, Millikin has been ahead of this movement since 1997 with the creation of the University Studies program.
More than 15 years ago, MU faculty and administrators took steps to address what other colleges across the nation are just starting to recognize: The traditional general education courses required by most college academic curriculums are outmoded for today’s students and today’s employers.
An article published earlier this year in Educause Review, “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education,” outlines the need for transformation of the gen-ed curriculum practiced at most colleges and universities:
“[Employers] are looking to hire college graduates with well-developed writing, oral communications, and interpersonal skills and with global cultural awareness and understanding, whatever the graduates’ majors might be. At the same time ... employers have identified a deficit of these skills among college graduates ... there is an emerging sense that general education should focus more on the key attributes that employers value as needed by a generally educated person: critical thinking, writing, speaking, arguing, researching, and mathematical reasoning. In addition to introducing a broad variety of subjects, gen-ed should exercise the skills and habits of the mind.”
“Everything described in the Educause Review article has been practiced at Millikin for years through the University Studies program,” says Dr. Carmella Braniger, the program’s director. She notes that the program is a prime example of the tenets of the university’s unique performance learning attribute, directly related to Millikin’s mission and has been recognized by the Higher Learning Commission (see related article at right for more on her perspectives).
Mandi Podeschi, a 2002 graduate and associate director of development, brings a unique perspective to the University Studies program, since she took classes in the program as a student and now teaches within it. In recent years, she has taught both university seminar courses and U.S. studies.
“I think the greatest aspect of the program is the consistent threads running through it,” she says. “We focus on emphasizing ethical reasoning, reflection and active citizenship throughout the entire sequence of the program, and students practice these skills and learn about different topics from this perspective for at least three years. From my perspective, it is an improvement over the usual gen-ed offerings at other schools because it gives students diverse options in terms of classes, but also emphasizes important skills across the curriculum.
“In my seminar class focusing on World War II, we used Studs Terkel’s book, “The Good War,” as a way to understand the human elements, conflicts, tragedies and opportunities that arose because of World War II,” Podeschi says. “ We took it a step further and created an archives exhibit focusing on women at Millikin during World War II; by focusing on college-age students during the war, the students were able to reflect on the experiences of fellow Millikin students, nearly 70 years ago, and think about the way the war affected our campus and society. I think they came away from the course having more respect for the Millikin students of the 1940s, many of whom were very much active citizens on campus and beyond.”
New University President Dr. Harold Jeffcoat was impressed with the program from his first day in office last April, calling it “extraordinary”: “It gives our graduates a huge competitive advantage as they seek employment, since employers are actively seeking – but rarely finding – talented workers who are not only knowledgable in their field of discipline but also problem solvers who can communicate effectively and are considerate of the ethical and moral issues of our global village ... It’s a bold venture, expertly led by committed and talented faculty.”
Braniger leads University Studies Program
Dr. Carmella Braniger, associate professor of English and named first director of the University Studies program last year, answers some questions about the program.
What prepared you for this new role?
I’ve taught in the University Studies Program since I came to Millikin in 2003, a Ph.D. graduate from Oklahoma State University’s English department, where I served as assistant director to the composition program. Having trained as an administrator during my graduate studies, I instinctively looked for opportunities to help strengthen the University Studies Program through its various stages of development, implementation, assessment and reform.
I served on the University Studies Advisory Committee from 2005-2009 and was a consultant to the 2007 Nyberg Summer Seminar, which established a clear direction for mission-driven and market-smart reforms. As IN150/IN151 coordinator (2005-2009), both interdisciplinary courses, I led English faculty through a self-study, resulting in clarification of learning outcomes and a methodology for assessing student success. My involvement with and service to the University Studies Program through the years have naturally led me to the new challenge of serving as the program’s first director.
How did you approach your first year as director?
My yoga teacher tells me, “the way you approach your practice, the way you practice on the mat is how you live your life.” On the mat, I challenge myself beyond each threshold, stretching slowly toward stability, flexibility and balance in each pose. I took the same approach with my responsibility to the University Studies Program this year.
In spring 2010, the Higher Learning Commission focus visit team validated the stability of the University Studies Program, noting its powerful performance assessment practices that create multiple contact points with students, its focus on learning outcomes coupled with meaningful assessments, and its use of assessment analysis to draw conclusions about improving curriculum and pedagogy. Working with my team of coordinators and with faculty across campus, I endeavored this year to maintain stability by strengthening our delivery and assessment processes, promoting the program across campus and recruiting high quality faculty to teach in the program.
Only after you create stability in the pose, can you begin stretching into it. Coordinating a university-wide program is challenging and requires a great deal of flexibility. Faculty and staff from across Millikin’s campus are directly involved with delivering the University Studies program to every Millikin graduate. Not only do faculty from each college teach in the program, but professionals from the Office of Student Success, the Staley Library, the Office of Student Programs, the Career Center, and Health and Counseling provide support both in and outside the classroom. Maintaining productive communications across campus yields positive outcomes for our students. Versatility across a broad spectrum of constituents allowed us to make the stretch.
Some poses require flexibility. Some require balance. Learning how to balance my roles as teacher and director has been exhilarating. As I took on new duties as director this year, continuing to teach in the program has been key. Understanding how the program’s curriculum plays out in the classroom is crucial to advocating for the faculty teaching in the program. In communicating regularly with various colleagues across campus, I gained deeper insight into how we all work together to provide students with opportunities for learning and growth. Understanding what it means to receive a Millikin education from various perspectives helped me to more fully develop as both teacher and director.
Seeking to connect with and create community among various invested parties across the institution, I encountered some of my most demanding moments. Such moments — the most challenging and rewarding ones — required both flexibility and balance. These have been best met in the same way I approach each pose, movement, gesture and breath on my yoga mat: with diligence, perseverance, trust, confidence and hope.
What makes the University Studies Program unique from other universities’ general education programs?
In March, Dr. Larry Troy, Dr. Robert Money and I presented the University Studies Program to the national Association of American Colleges and Universities’ annual conference on best practices in general education. We received recognition from our peers for the distinctive structure of the program as well as for our innovative assessment processes. Peers from across the nation ask us, “how do you do this?” Our answer is always collaboration, transparency and faculty-ownership. The University Studies Program was created, implemented and is assessed by its faculty. Not every college or university allows faculty the kind of ownership of curriculum that we do here at Millikin. Millikin’s culture of collaboration, cooperation, communication and transparency is unique and has provided just the right environment for the creation of our curriculum.
As universities search for ways to transform their outdated general education programs, Millikin’s University Studies Program shines as an effective example of such transformation. Our focus on a skills-based curriculum, which integrates writing, reflection and ethical reasoning, helps broaden students’ minds and prepares them for active participation as citizens. We live in a time when most people will engage in several different professions over the course of their life. Many of the jobs our graduates will hold do not even exist yet. In the University Studies Program, we are helping students develop the habits of mind and lifelong learning skills they will need to be successful in whatever professions they pursue in the future.
The University Studies Program engages students in Millikin’s unique brand of performance learning. At this past spring’s Celebrations of Scholarship, students from various University Studies courses — from IN140 and IN151 to IN350 — performed the knowledge they were acquiring through their research.
We hope to continue recruiting Millikin’s best teachers to implement innovative and distinctive performance learning pedagogies in the sequential and non-sequential courses. We’ll also be looking to involve student leaders in discussions and activities related to the University Studies program. This may take many potential forms, one of which will be to engage interested students as Undergraduate Research Fellows. The more students are directly involved with the University Studies Program both inside and outside the classrooms, the more benefits they’ll receive from the opportunities the program has to offer, including preparation for professions, for global citizenship and for a life of meaning and value. Through the rich learning experiences in the University Studies program, all faculty, students and alumni can live the Millikin mission.