In my first few years at Gustavus I served on a number of committees including the Program Assessment and Development Committee for one year and the senate sub-committee for academic planning. Beginning just this fall I was elected and/or appointed to the faculty development committee, the FTS advisory board, and the presidential search committee. In addition to these committees, I was asked by the deans to serve as the Gustavus coordinator (there were a total of 6 Lutheran liberal arts colleges involved) on the critical thinking part of a study of the liberal arts funded by the Teagle Foundation. I would like to talk more in depth about both this work and my year with the group that worked on academic planning.
The academic planning committee was a given a general charge by the senate to discuss and make recommendations regarding academic planning as part of a campus-wide planning effort. This was a daunting task set before the committee and I know that as a relatively recent hire I felt a little overwhelmed at the wide-open nature of our assignment. As a result we cast our net fairly wide and had weekly meetings, often with many emails sent before and after, where we looked at questions such as: What does liberal arts mean at Gustavus? What makes us distinctive? What should our ideal prospective student look like? Our ideal graduate? How can we better support our priorities? What external forces, including changing demographics, do we need to take into account? We established early on that the atmosphere on campus was not conducive to establishing very specific priorities such as picking “winning” departments that would gain greater funding and grow and “losing” departments that would be phased out. It took quite some time however before we eventually came to a consensus that “engagement” was real enough to represent a positive step forward in the academic program, an already present strength we could build on, and a strategy that could pull the campus together.
I accepted the deans’ generous offer to lead the critical thinking phase of the Teagle grant in part because I realized that, although I thought of it as a goal of every one of my courses, I had never really fleshed out for myself a definition of critical thinking. This work began actually with my participation in the writing phase of the Teagle study led by Becky Fremo. I helped grade papers with the rubric her team had developed. At the next meeting my team brainstormed for two days about critical thinking and we eventually came up with several criteria that would make it possible for someone to quantify the critical thinking in a typical thesis-driven, argumentative essay. In order to then actually grade a representative set of papers we needed approximately 120 papers (60, freshmen, 60 juniors/seniors) from each college. I recruited a variety of professors to persuade their students to participate and organized the subsequent collection. I took part in a third meeting where we graded those papers, and a fourth meeting where we discussed the results and what new strategies we might introduce on our campuses to improve our students’ critical thinking. As part of faculty development day this year I showed a surprisingly large turnout of my colleagues how to grade with a writing rubric that was heavily weighted towards critical thinking.