The Psuedo-curriculum

I know this will be provocative for some of you but lately when I’ve heard people use the phrase “co-curriculum” I’ve silently translated it in my head to “psuedo-curriculum.” I’ll explain more below but understand that I am not devaluing out-of-class activities but expressing frustration that we don’t really value them.

My frustration here has been long simmering but two strands of experience and thought are mingling and bringing things into focus for me.

First, I’m teaching another graduate course in pedagogy this semester. Last semester we focused on smaller details of teaching and learning largely by examining teaching methods (e.g., problem-based teaching, service learning, team-based learning) and lesson plans using the Decoding the Disciplines approach. This semester, we’re focusing on larger details of teaching and learning using a problem-based learning approach to build a course using backward design and the principles in How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Specifically, my students are building a first-year experience course. (I chose that as the central problem because it’s one of the few courses that cuts across all disciplines so everyone could work on the same thing.  I’ve taken and taught similar classes in the past where students each created their own course specific to their discipline and I want to see if this pedagogy course turns out any better if I have everyone creating and working on the same kind of course.)

Although our pedagogy classes have traditionally been aimed at graduate students, my colleagues and I have made a concerted effort to open them up to post-docs, university administrators, and others who have the interest and drive to fully participate throughout the entire semester.  This semester, I reached out to my colleagues in residence life and two of their staff are in this class.  The course is still primarily geared toward graduate students who will pursue tenure-track positions but the ideas and principles are widely applicable to human learning and teaching which of course is the aim of the co-curriculum, too.

Of course, my residence life students have brought unique views and ideas to the course.  Among those views are reoccurring ones that they (a) don’t have enough time with students for them to master – be introduced to, practice many times, and receive feedback about – skills and knowledge (as compared to courses that meet several times a week for several hours during a semester or degree programs that span many courses over many semesters) and (b) students don’t value or understand the skills and knowledge they should be acquiring and practicing in the residence hall co-curriculum.  Those are legitimate points and I understand and share their frustration.

Second, general education reform is in the air at my university. There are plans and rumors, some of which have a very firm basis in reality, that we’re about to make a serious run at updating, changing, or otherwise tackle general education.  Some of this is probably motivated by issues that we’ll have to address next year when we write our Periodic Review Report, the document we write midway between each of our regional accreditation reviews that occur at ten-year intervals.  Some of it is probably motivated by our provost who is relatively new but has been here long enough to begin to build and carry out his agenda.  In any case, it’s got me thinking a lot about our general education requirements and the other things that we require students to successfully complete before we award them a degree.

Here is where these two strands of thought coalesce: If the so-called co-curriculum were really as highly valued as the curriculum, students would (a) have to successfully complete – with measurable goals and evidence that they’ve attained them – co-curricular requirements and (b) be able to meet graduation requirements such as general education requirements not only through coursework but also through rigorous co-curricular activities.  In other words, if we valued the co-curriculum then it would genuinely stand alongside the curriculum and be part of the credentialing process that is modern higher education.

Yes, that does happen to some degree even at my university.  Most first-year students are required to live on campus and all first-year students are required to complete a First-Year Experience Seminar, a one-credit pass/fail course.  But I imagine that like many colleges and universities that require students to live on campus that the requirement is driven as much by financial reasons (we have huge bills to pay with those large buildings!) as by educational ones.  And I can’t really argue that our FYS course is part of the co-curriculum since the vast majority of those courses are taught by faculty especially for the 60% of students who take specialized FYS courses offered within their major department and taught by their major faculty, often for 2-3 credits instead of the 1 credit of the “default” FYS course.

There may be other ways that the co-curriculum is genuinely valued at my university and I’m simply unaware of them.  I know that some other institutions have parts of the co-curriculum strongly integrated into their graduate requirements.  For example, a few universities such as Drexel and Northwestern have integrated cooperative education into their undergraduate experience in ways that make me very envious.  Some universities like Stanford have wonderfully advanced systems that allow and encourage students to add co-curricular activities (and artifacts!) to their official transcript.

Until we meaningfully integrate the co-corriculum into the undergraduate experience by (a) requiring students to measurably master some skills or knowledge through out-of-class activities or allowing students to meet existing requirements (i.e., general education requirements) through successful completion of rigorous out-of-class activities and (b) including those activities on transcripts and in degree audits, I will continue to mentally translate “co-curriculum” to “pseudo-curriculum” in my head.  Unless we meaningfully substatiate those activities by holding those who participate in them accountable for meeting genuine, realistic educational goals those activities will remain a false curriculum subordinate to the real one that we value with recognized metrics and credentials.



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