Podcast Episode 6 Transcript

From the Office of the Provost

Episode 6: Rethinking the General Education Curriculum at the University of Pittsburgh


Joe McCarthy: Hello and welcome to “From the Office of the Provost,” a podcast that highlights exciting activities and initiatives in the Office of the Provost or University-wide that bolster and enhance our collective vision for growth and transformation. I'm your host, Interim Provost Joe McCarthy, and today I'm joined by Belkys Torres, Associate Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence in Education.

Belkys joined the Office of the Provost in January of 2023 to lead efforts in increasing educational equity. Her focus is on identifying and working toward the removal of academic and structural barriers to student persistence and completion, with an emphasis on those issues that disproportionately impact select student groups.

Aside from her role in our office, she also holds a position of teaching assistant professor of Latinx and Gender Studies for the Literature Program in the Department of English. However, as I think much of our audience likely knows, Belkys is not new to Pitt. She joined the University in 2015, [most recently] serving as the Executive Director of Global Engagement at the University Center for International Studies.

Now she's heading Pitt’s new General Education Task Force, which will work to rethink the University's general education curriculum. And that's primarily the subject of our discussion today. Welcome, Belkys.

Belkys Torres: Thanks, Joe. I'm glad to be here.

McCarthy: So Belkys, before we get to my questions for you, I want to set the tone a little bit here for a couple of reasons. You and I are well familiar with this project to focus on general education reform and building the task force. But I think it's important to really give some context to our audience both why this role fits the project, so your role as Associate Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence in Education, and then also what the history of you know, general education at Pitt looks like. And then from there, you can tell us where we're headed.

For our audience, you know, in my role as Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, I really wanted to focus on, on reducing structural barriers to completion for students, writ large. And one of the things, as we'll talk about in a minute, that we noticed was disproportionately harming some students was, was the disparate nature of our general education curriculum. So while Belkys’s role is clearly much more expansive than just looking at general education topics, this really fits into the overall structure and design for what her role would be long term.

So, so Belkys, you know, as you know, the general learning outcomes were actually defined by what we used to call the Council of Deans back in 2004. And they've really served us well, for a long time. But that being nearly 20 years ago, now, when, when that first came out, they're getting a little bit long in the tooth, if you will. They led to a realization of those learning outcomes across our six first-year admitting schools in different ways.

And while that has served us well over those 20 years, in this new era of collaboration where we launched the School of Computing and Information, and they're partnering with the Dietrich School and with others to build joint programs across schools, and with the increasing intellectual curiosity of a typical Pitt student who really doesn't want to be hampered by barriers between schools.

Having different general education curricula across different units at Pitt has really resulted in some issues in recent years, like extended time to degree, which can lead to increases in debt load, could artificially deflate our graduation rates. And another really important topic for Pitt in the coming years is going to be our accessibility for transfer students. And I think the fact that we have a host of different general education curricula across the campus has caused some difficulty in building articulation agreements, etc.

So you know, when you joined the office, of course, I was excited to task you with, with this long term, very expansive project. But given, given how well known you are across campus, and just your expertise in bringing people together, I think that this was almost a tailor-made project for you. So, can you tell me, how will the General Education Task Force engage with members of the Pitt community? This is a really big project that involves really all of the schools and in fact, all of the campuses. And so, can you tell us a little bit about how you're going to engage with the group around this curriculum project?

Torres: Absolutely. I think there are two really cool things about this project that excite me first and foremost. One is the ability to come together with faculty, staff, advisors from across schools and campuses to imagine our future together. And so part of this project is really asking ourselves the question around: Who and what do our future Pitt graduates look like? What will they be able to know? What will they be able to do after completing our general education program? Who do we want them to be? And how does this curriculum allow them to achieve those goals? So taking a peek into the future is a cool concept, I think, and the ability to craft that I think is interesting.

The other piece is that this task force will have an opportunity to engage in research, as well as dialogue. And the reason for that is we're trying to figure out ways to better align or refresh existing curricula to offer more enriching and integrated academic experience for our undergrads.

So what does that look like? The task force is going to begin the work by conducting an internal curricula review. As you mentioned, there's about nine different general education curricula at the moment across our schools and campuses. And so we're trying to figure out what's the best of all of those worlds? What's really working in each one of those? And how do we get to a more streamline general education curriculum?

We're also tasking this this group of folks to do external benchmarking, right, because we can learn a lot from folks around the country who have already done really good work in this area that can inspire the work that we will do here at Pitt.

And the hope is that in doing this, we'll meet two objectives. One will review and refresh our institutional student learning outcomes. As you said, they're outdated. There's room for growth and innovation in that space. And then it allows us the opportunity to reexamine our general education requirements, so that we can prioritize essential skills and abilities like critical thinking, leadership, data analysis, intercultural global competency, communication, collaboration, right.

The other thing that the task force will be doing soon, as soon as this term, in fact, is to start with a listening tour, where we're trying to reach across schools and campuses to host in-person and online gatherings to solicit feedback from our community and learn from all voices in all walks of life. The student voice and experience is going to be crucial to this work as this is a student-centered project. And so we want to be sure that we provide opportunities to listen and learn from those who are experiencing our curriculum right now.

We're also relying on the expertise of all kinds of established groups at Pitt like [the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Programs] and the Faculty Senate Educational Policies Committee, Student Government, the Provost’s Academic Leadership Team, the Undergraduate Advising Council, and many others to ensure that our thinking is regularly guided by the counsel and advice of these experts. So, you'll see us attend regularly scheduled meetings, you'll see us on your agenda, if you're part of these groups. And if you're not, you also have the opportunity to engage with us online.

So we're providing engagement opportunities for folks through a new [webpage] that will launch really soon, to provide comments to provide feedback to ensure that all experiences and opinions are shared.

McCarthy: Excellent. Thank you. That's really exciting how inclusive that process is going to be. And I think it's outstanding that you're planning on leaning on, really the diverse expertise that we have across all of our campuses and within the Pittsburgh campus. Beyond that, though, how are you engaging nationally to inform what you're doing?

Torres: You know, it's really interesting, as I've begun the work of talking with deans and associate deans and vice provosts and presidents, a lot of times I get asked this question about, "So what is the problem that we're actually trying to address here?" Right? And my response is that we're striving for a level of uniformity across our student learning outcomes and our general education curriculum, while also leaving room for each school on campus to tailor their curriculum in ways that align with offerings across their majors and minors.

As you can imagine, this is a complicated problem at a highly decentralized institution like Pitt that has currently multiple Gen Ed curriculum. And so the opportunity here is to look at what our peers and our aspirational peers have recently completed by way of general education reform, so that we can learn the valuable lessons that they're sharing and we can connect across professional networks to do that.

And so we're seeing reputable professional associations like the American Association for Colleges and Universities, the Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities, dedicate entire academic meetings, conferences, and other publication opportunities, for example, to this work. And so a lot of this will be informed not only by working in isolation here in Pittsburgh and across our regional campuses, but really engaging in what is already a national dialogue, so that we're both following the lead of some while also trying to become leaders ourselves in this particular space.

McCarthy: Excellent, thank you. If we take a step back and think about articulating this vision to maybe a broader audience than just those that are educators, you know, part of our responsibility within higher ed is preparing engaged and informed graduates for the ever-changing challenges of the world. Can you tell us how we might lean on this general education project when it's done to best prepare our students for that?

Torres: You know, I think what's really exciting here is that we have an opportunity to bring faculty, students, staff, and alumni together to explore what it means when we try to create, as Paul Hanstedt is describing, “liberated human beings, meaning people who are independent and flexible in their thinking, and capable of responding to the demands of a changing world in ways that are deliberate and civic minded.” Right? And this is really an important part of this project.

Experts on general education reform also remind us that this work is founded upon one fundamental assertion, and that is the purpose of liberal education is to encourage undergraduate students to develop essential skills, breadth of knowledge, and critical self-awareness that prepares them for an increasingly complex and diverse world.

So what does this mean for Pitt? Well, this means that a well balanced and streamlined liberal arts curriculum is also one that will emphasize an appreciation of the interdisciplinary nature of subject areas, right, and acceptance of persons of different backgrounds or values from one's own, and a deepened sense of self. So the exciting opportunity here is that we get to do this creative work collectively, right? And that we can do so by learning from our own experts, so that we can build on the good work that's already begun, at the schools level and at the level of our regional campuses, to one, modernize our student learning outcomes, and two, create one general education curriculum that helps students achieve that.

McCarthy: Great. So with this initiative, of course, we're bringing together thoughts and experiences and a vision for a Pitt education from faculty, students, staff, alumni, and, and all members of the Pitt community. With that many moving pieces, though, I alluded to early on that I was giving you a pretty big task as one of your first jobs as associate vice provost. Can you walk us through the timeline for the project?

Torres: Absolutely. So as this is a complicated project, but one that will require thought and careful deliberation, and conversation and analysis. So we're expecting a three-year timeline, at least to get us to a pilot concept, right.

So that means that right now, we are launching the task force later this month, and we're really excited about that. The work, the preliminary work ahead for this semester and into 2024 is really about collecting data, doing research, internal and external, engaging with all of our audiences and stakeholders, and getting to a place where we have a sense of our collective thinking, "Where are we right now? Where do we want to be? How do we want to get there?"

In our second year of this project, then it's a matter of using that data that we've collected, as well as the existing research on general education reform, to start thinking about and developing curricular models for consideration. So, what could be some of the ways in which we actually streamline a general education curriculum? What does that look like? How do we modernize our student learning outcomes? What do they look like? How do we achieve those, right?

And the hope is that by the end of that second year, we have some ideas to share with our community, that we start to receive feedback from our experts. And that we get to a place where we start elevating this to the leadership elements of our community that actually have approving responsibilities for this in the end, right.

The third part then in year three is to start planning and triaging and figuring out how do we make this work? Right. So how does implementation look like? How do we operationalize this? How do we make this a streamlined approach, not only for our students, but for their advisors, for their faculty, for the entire community? And then what does it look like when we launch in our pilot year, right?

And so to get all of this done, we're going to be dividing the task force into different thematic working groups to accomplish this goal. So there will be some that will be tasked with curricular design, others that will be focused on operationalizing and implementing the curriculum and the student learning outcome. And then another group looking at the administration of the general education curriculum into the future, as well as the assessment of student learning outcomes over time.

McCarthy: Great, so given how many folks, how broad the interest in this project is likely to be, how can people get connected? I know you mentioned doing some surveys and so forth. How can people get connected with this initiative and really stay up to date on the progress?

Torres: Absolutely. So we're excited to be launching a new section of the Provost website dedicated to the General Education Reform Initiative, so folks can visit provost.pitt.edu and search under General Ed, you'll also see it on the Highlights section of that website.

We are committed to transparency and storytelling throughout this process, so folks can expect to see a full list of our task force, a full list of those who are advising the task force and informing the work, as well as updates and stories on how we're doing, what we're reading, what we're talking about, what events and activities are coming up, and how people can get involved.

McCarthy: Excellent. Well, thank you, Belkys, for joining me today and sharing the great work that you're leading. As you know, I'm really excited about this project.

And as usual, thank you listeners for tuning in. I'm Interim Provost Joe McCarthy and this has been “From the Office of the Provost.”