Undergraduate Council
October 10, 2007, 4:00 pm

Brian Colle (chair), Kane Gillespie, Norm Goodman, Sarah Fuller, Beverly Rivera, Scott Sutherland, Arlene Feldman, Emily Wren.

1. Minutes of October 3, 2007
Since the minutes weren't complete, approval was deferred until the next meeting.

2. Discussion of the DEC
The primary purpose of the meeting was to focus the discussion of the D.E.C.    Joe Mitchell and Mike Barnhart, who were unable to attend, contributed via email (attached at end). 

Norm distributed the final report of the General Education Task Force from 1997.  The task force consisted of 5 faculty, 5 ADPs, 5 campus presidents, 5 campus provosts, and 5 staff members from the SUNY Provost’s Office.  The original suggestion by the Board of Trustees was for 10 required courses, which later became a set of “learning objectives” after modification by the Task Force and accepted by the SUNY Provost and the Board of Trustees.

A central question as posed in Mike's email:  “Is the DEC broken?”

Sarah stated that one difficulty is the number of courses, with too much variability of standards.  There is a perception that some of the DEC courses are an “easy A”, which leads students to seek those out rather than a course that might better serve the objectives of the DEC for that student.

Kane suggested that after courses are approved for the DEC by the curriculum committee, evolution of the content over time may cause the course to drift from its original design.  Scott said perhaps this tendency could be reigned in by having the CC re-evaluate DEC courses every five years or so.

Rick: students view the DEC as a checklist/letter of the alphabet, not as a learning objective.  The DEC is roughly designed that students should do the earlier letters (A-E) first, and the later letters as upper division.  However, there are many students who don't do this, taking their writing (DEC A) as seniors.  This defeats much of the purpose of this requirement.

Because there are “too many” DECs for many student programs, students often try to find DEC courses which count for both major and DEC requirements.  This is sometimes amplified by the fact that many DECs have significant prerequisites.

Norm asked “What is General Education?” and quoted from the task force report.  Being a college graduate implies a certain amount of academic breadth.

Rick raised the question of a common core curriculum or common set of classes.  Norm pointed out that implementing this is almost certainly politically impossible.  Emily noted that while the honors college has a common core, this works because there are only a small number of students.  Finding faculty resources to supply a common core (as well as deciding what it is) is a real difficulty.

Students who don't take DEC A/B/C/D early in their career lead to real issues.  Could we require this?  Kane pointed out that it would be administratively difficult to enforce.  Perhaps block scheduling of some of these courses could help (we already do that with a lot of the DEC C courses).

The “alphabet soup” of the DEC is viewed as a distraction for students.  The large number of DECs makes presenting a coherent intellectual theme difficult to get across to the students.  However, there are serious consequences to reducing the choice of DECs, not including the serious issues with classroom availability.

Rick asked, “Why this particular set of DECs?”
The answer (Norm) was the choice was primarily political, balancing FTE while still enforcing spread (for example, to understand certain ideas reasonably, you need to visit them from several different disciplines).  It is also structured to cover basic skills and also modes of intellectual inquiry.

We again returned to the the question of whether there were too many DEC courses and whether there should be a review of the courses individually.  However, there would be some problem with this, since the curriculum committee has already approved them for the DEC.  However, the content and focus of courses often will change over the years, and a course which was approved for a certain DEC ten years ago may no longer be appropriate.  Currently there is no mechanism in place to re-review courses.

Norm pointed out that the UGC could suggest that the curriculum committee could review specific courses.  Or we could insist on limiting the number of courses in a given category.

Two real concerns that arose were

  • There is nothing to enforce (or, in many cases, even encourage) students to complete the basic DEC courses (A/B/C/D/E) early in their career.  While these courses are intended to give students skills that can be used in more advanced courses, a number of students defer these until late in their college career. We should think about ways we could change this.
  • There is a feeling that certain DEC courses are modal-A courses, and many students gravitate to those because they are “easy”, rather than taking courses which might be more relevant for them. Such courses should at least be identified, even if changing this situation may be impractical.

Limited numbers of available seats in certain categories causes significant problems for many students.  A brief discussion of whether block scheduling would help ensued, but ultimately went nowhere.  It was noted that originally, the writing courses were block scheduled, and currently 100-level math courses are.

A question of whether the DEC A courses are effective was raised, as well as the relationship between DEC A and the upper-division writing requirement.

We then returned to a discussion of whether gen-ed should provide a common experience (for example, a core curriculum).  Several people felt that a core curriculum would indeed be desirable, but that it would be politically very difficult (or perhaps impossible) to put into place at Stony Brook.  It was noted that we already have some programs which build common experiences, such as the undergraduate colleges.

Brian agreed to ask Institutional Research to generate a list of the modal-A courses and corresponding enrollments, etc.

Meeting adjourned 5:18 pm

Respectfully submitted,
Scott Sutherland


Subject: Re: UG Council Meeting Wed 10/10 at 4pm
From: mbarnhart@notes.cc.sunysb.edu
Date: 10/10/2007 10:17am


I've tried without success to move a conflicting obligation, so I'll have to miss today's meeting. My regrets. For what it is worth, I have attached some preliminary thoughts on DEC.


Thoughts on DEC:

Core: “If it ain’t broke…..”

Is DEC broken?
--Mechanically: that is, are requirements impossible to fulfill in four years of undergraduate study?
--Pedagogically: is DEC failing to provide a really “diversified” program of exposure for undergraduates?
--Philosophically:  Is the entire idea behind DEC wrong or outdated? Should SB move to a different sort of GenEd requirement altogether?

--Do we know how many (if any) students delay graduation to fulfill DEC requirements?
--Do we know how many waivers to DEC (especially the must-take-at-SB) we grant per year to students to permit timely graduation?
--Do we know how both of these question will be affected if undergraduate enrollments rise to the administration’s desired targets?

I probably should term this section “Pedagogy and Politics.” The DEC is a product of two forces: the original thought to ensure that students were exposed to disciplines and perspectives outside their majors, and the compromises necessary to ensure faculty approval of (and cooperation with) the various DEC categories that emerged.
We all likely have our own preferred lists of DEC categories. Listing them is one thing. Determining which courses fit is quite another. As a rule, the fewer courses qualifying, the greater faculty resistance is likely (either from low FTE departments objecting to their courses’ exclusion, or from departments already burdened under DEC wary of seeing those burdens increased).
Other factors to bear in mind are those beyond SB’s control. Any adjustment of Category K, for example, will have to consider its (currently very strange) link to Skill Four.

Too broad to summarize, but I would simply ask this: The real test of a common curriculum ultimately is whether it brings together students who would ordinarily not be in a common class and gets them to think with each other. 


Subject: Re: UG Council Meeting Wed 10/10 at 4pm
From: Joe Mitchell <jsbm@ams.sunysb.edu>
Date: 10/10/2007 3:34 pm

I too have a conflict today (a midterm I give at 3:50).

I read through Michael's thoughts and agree on many points and ask some of the same questions.

I represent Engineering   (yes, Brian, Applied Math and also Computer Science are in CEAS).
As such, I feel I need to reflect the sentiment of my colleagues in CEAS, who would likely prefer that DEC be even less "onorous" than it is currently. (Note that CEAS already has a 13-course instead of
15-course DEC requirement, if I recall correctly.)

Thus, while I am generally in favor of "If it ain't broke....", I would like to add "If it is not absolutely necessary, don't include it." The challenge in the CEAS curriculum is getting through a rigorous
set of engineering and science courses, considered vital to one's profession, while also satisfying the general education requirements imposed by DEC. CEAS will resist more constraints being placed on their students. (recall the news literacy discussions...)

So, in reviewing the DEC, I would like to see a minimalist's approach.

I am reminded of how higher education is done in Europe, Israel, and likely elsewhere (India and China?):  One goes to university to become well educated (in depth and breadth) in a field.  The "general
education" requirements most US institutions have here are considered courses that one takes in high school for education breadth. Then, at university, if one is majoring in mathematics, one takes
3-4 years of courses that the math dept considers to be vital to the well-rounded education of a mathematician -- physics, statistics, economics, and, yes, lots of mathematics.  They typically are not
taking 25-30% of their courses in areas not related to the major, as we do here.

We have a common set of skills we want all students to have (writing, reasoning, quantitative literacy, etc).  Start with those and build a minimalist DEC.  It may be we end up right where we are right now ("If it ain't broke...").