Episode 64 - Radically Rethinking General Education with Guest Megan Fromm

Dr. Megan Fromm, journalism teacher at Grand Junction High School, joins us on this week's podcast to discuss the rethinking of general education requirements in education. Dr. Fromm penned the article "How We Could Radically Rethink the Core Curriculum in Higher Education" which the group references throughout the episode.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again, everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I’m joined in-studio today, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you? 

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, Steve. Thank you very much. 

Meredith: It’s...I think maybe we have the best weather anywhere in the United States today. Perfectly clear, 75 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, low humidity...it’s pretty spectacular. 

Wyatt: And up in the tops of the mountains, the leaves are just starting…

Meredith: Just starting to turn a little bit. So, it’s a nice time to be in Southern Utah. It’s always nice to be here, but especially nice today. So, President, you and I are continuing to talk about innovative thoughts and innovative ideas, and we had last week a discussion about competency-based education in General Education with some leaders from our State Office up in Salt Lake City, and today we have somebody with some new and interesting and, in the very title of her article, “radical” ideas about how we could change. 

Wyatt: Provocative, yeah. 

Meredith: Yeah...about General Education. So, I’ll let you introduce her. 

Wyatt: Well, we’re delighted to be joined today by Dr. Megan Fromm who is presently a teacher at Grand Junction High School. 

Meredith: Yeah, teaching journalism. 

Wyatt: Teaching journalism. Welcome, Megan. 

Dr. Megan Fromm: Thank you so much for having me, this is wonderful. 

Wyatt: Well, thank you for joining us and thank you for being willing to throw out ideas that we can talk about. 

Fromm: Absolutely. 

Wyatt: So, you have an idea about General Education and what we have discovered is, is that General Education isn’t the same everywhere. There are a number of schools that have no General Education. 

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: I think in our region, it’s mandatory by our accreditors. 

Meredith: Right. 

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: But some schools that are very prestigious schools don’t have General Education. 

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: But you think that we should look at it a little differently. Tell us how you came to this and...but first of all, tell us your story. We need to start with you. 

Meredith: Yeah, you have an interesting career arc. We’ve been reading a little bit about you and we’re fascinated by somebody that would choose to go from higher education to high school. Very often, the pathway is the opposite direction. 

Fromm: [Laughs] That’s so true. Well, I went to school to be a journalist and when I graduated with my bachelor’s, it was right at the crux of really of what we think of as the digital media age, and I had worked a little bit as a journalist, and ultimately, I decided that I was more curious about where journalism was headed and what we should be thinking about. And so, I went back, and I got my Ph.D. and then about 8 years after that in higher ed, in various facets. And then ultimately, [inaudible] and transition to high school. I’m a scholar of the First Amendment and one of my passions is really looking at how we teach students to use their voice first, so they can...good and for purpose in society. And in my time in higher ed, I just kind of wondered, “What’s happening at other levels? Why are my students coming into my classroom with certain dispositions?” And I was just really curious what that looked like. And so, you kind of knock and fate knocks back, and this position opened and it was the perfect one to explore that. And so, this is my second year at the high school level and it’s been just eye opening on all sorts of levels. Awesome. Just invigorating, but also I think has left me with more questions than answers so far. So, we’ll see what we can discover today, but I’m really excited to talk about it. 

Wyatt: Well, congratulations for being willing to do something that is authentic to you and that might be considered as being backwards for progress in a career. 

Fromm: Thank you. I was...I will say, I was surprised...there’s definitely I think a perception in higher education about the different camps of education in different levels, and the more I think they work together and understand each other, we will all just be so much better educators. So, I’m excited to be part of the conversations that are being had. It’s been a lot of fun. 

Wyatt: There’s some discussion that’s been going on nationally about General Education. Perhaps not enough. 

Meredith: Right. 

Fromm: Yeah. 

Wyatt: But you’ve come to the conclusion that General Education is broke. 

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: What led you to that feeling? 

Fromm: So, in my adventures in higher ed, I worked in a variety of positions and partly it was moving around a lot, my husband was in the Air Force at the time, I was able to experience General Education at a variety of institutions. The University of Maryland as part of my Ph.D. program and teaching there, Calvin University, Johns Hopkins, Boise State, and then later, here in Colorado, and everybody has their own version of General Education. And what you mentioned at the state, General Education and core requirements are different everywhere. Some places don’t have them, and when we think of them just in theory as a uniting, foundational experience for our students, my perspective was we just weren’t getting there. I was getting students who couldn’t see the connections between a class, this General Education core biology requirement that they felt like they didn’t need to take or they felt like didn’t apply to their major, and I was getting just frustrated by the lack of perspective with my students and really [inaudible]. They didn’t design their education this way, they didn’t design the degree path this way, and so we kind of needed to step back and see, “What are we ultimately hoping to accomplish with this general core? And are we meeting that?” And to me, the answer in those cases, especially at state universities and state colleges with accreditation, to me, the answer was, “We’re just not doing that yet.” And so, I think a radical change is coming and I think it’s necessary, and so I hope that’s where we’re headed. 

Wyatt: What do you think we are most missing? 

Fromm: I think we are most missing an interdisciplinary approach. I feel like we still have, and when I was writing this piece, I reference sort of this idea of, “What would a new core look like?” And I was looking at the core requirements, mostly at different Colorado Universities, and they’re still pretty siloed. You still have a class in humanities or history, you have a health and wellness, you have maybe government politics, and there just wasn’t a lot of crossover, and for students who are increasingly coming to universities looking for that specialization, it was hard for them to make connections. And then I also felt like because of the structures of K-12, students were coming to school not knowing that they can and should make their own decisions. So, there’s so much noise in the atmosphere with my students about these General Education classes and what worth they offered my students, and so, I think part of it is an articulation problem. I think sometimes schools don’t articulate their philosophy and their vision behind these classes and that that doesn’t trickle down to the students and they don’t feel that. And then I think part of it is just those two silos. We really need to look at ways to connect them and ways to root them, I think, in communities and ways to root them in the places where our students are at now. 

Wyatt: So, you’re talking about moving us from...or you’re proposing or trying to get a discussion going about moving General Education from being these series of subject matter courses to something that is not really discipline based, but rather skills in very important areas? Social, community sort of areas?

Fromm: Yeah, absolutely. I think that when I think about what the new core can look like, I think in terms of skills and I also think in terms of what think of citizenship and sort of this idea of, “What is a global citizen?” I think there’s a danger in that too, because we want our students to be rooted in their communities and in the civic life and in the civic processes that impact them, so I think you want to have that balance, but I do think that instead of this departmentalized approach or a college approach, that we really want to start thinking about how we can kind of cross paths and I’m thinking really maybe one of the things that drove me to think about this is a class that I co-taught with somebody in political science. And coming from a mass communication background, we came up with classes from totally different positions and it was the most fun teaching and the students got some much out of it because we really were strangers to each other in the true sense, I didn’t know the professor that well, but we were strangers in each other’s lands and we were strangers in each other’s fields, and the students got to observe what it looks like intellectually to be curious and to be a stranger to this new, intellectual landscape, and then we got to take them on that journey with us. So, we co-taught a class that mixed media and politics and I think really modeled what curiosity should look like after the university level. And so, that kind of got me thinking, “It’s more expensive, you have to have more faculty, you have to have the space for it,” there are all these barriers to doing it that way, but it was sort of one sign to me of, “Ooh, this could be really cool.”

Wyatt: [Laughs] Yeah. The...thinking about what you’re discussing reminds me of an experience that...well, reminds me of an experience that I had when I took General Ed. I had my major and then I had to take these other classes and sometimes it was interesting, and sometimes I didn’t see the relevance. But to bring it to more...I didn't see the relevance until later. 

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: And then 10 or 15 years later, I thought, “Oh, wow, I wish I had paid more attention because now I see that it’s important to me.” But I remember one of my daughters was taking a research education class, part of General Education requirements, the core requirements, and she was assigned a topic that the whole class was assigned so that the teacher could talk about the research and where to go look and then could have discussions about the topic to help everybody build a good paper, it made perfect sense. But it ended up being a topic that she didn’t like. 

Fromm: Hmm.

Wyatt: And she came home and she said, “This is what it is” and I said, “Oh, that is awesome because we’re going to be able to have some great father-daughter time here because I’m fascinated by that topic and I know a lot about it, so this is going to give me a chance to show you how smart your dad is, how fun this is going to be for us…” And she said, “No, dad, I’m not interested in this topic. I’m going to do the minimum amount of work…

Meredith: [Laughs]

Wyatt: These aren’t her words, but this is what she said, “I’m going to do the minimum amount of work I need to do to get the grade I have to get to pass. This is not interesting to me.” And that’s when the light clicked on for me that the more relevant it is, the more effort we spend and the more we learn. 

Fromm: Right. Yeah, I think that was my experience, too. As a faculty member and somebody who was advising students on their degree plan and helping them pick the classes that would speak to them, I didn't have the answer either. I was not able to say to my student who wanted a career in broadcast television why these options that are core were really going to be relevant to them and I always try to say to them, “The processes that you use when you’re curious and when you’re solving problems and when you’re discovering things about yourself and about the world, those processes span all sorts of disciplines.” And we want to, I think, as educators encourage students to see, “We don’t have to know what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like yet to still believe that is a worthwhile journey.” And so, you need to try to articulate that with your students, but you also  want to be very confident that you’re saying to them, “This is going to help you in these specific ways and I know that because I know a lot about the curriculum and I know a lot about what our university offers.” And so, I think there just is some leg work that we have to do on the administrative end with schools of communicating that among our faculty and among our staff and really sharing that mission and sharing that buy-in and I think that’s really helpful, too. 

Wyatt: I’m looking at something that you wrote that has a list of the topics, the areas, for a new core curriculum, a new General Education...I don’t see biology. I don’t see physical science, I don’t see life science…

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Meredith: [Laughs] Them’s fightin’ words, President. 

Wyatt: I know. 

Fromm: Yeah, it’s true. 

Wyatt: There’s a...I don’t...I’m looking for math, I don't’ see math. 

Fromm: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Where’s algebra? 

Fromm: Throw them out. Umm...right. And I think that that…

Wyatt: I mean this tongue in cheek, but I have used algebra every day of my life. 

Fromm: Right, right. 

Meredith: And I will say I’ve had the exact opposite experience, so there you go. [All laugh]

Fromm: Never used it. 

Meredith: One of my favorite internet memes is, “Yet another day where I didn’t use calculus.” [All laugh]

Fromm: Right, right. But I...that’s one thing, for example, that I really understand, I feel like, a lot more in the short amount of time I’ve spent at the K-12 level. At my school in my district, for example, they are switching back to a different math framework from the math framework that they’ve had for, I don’t know, the last few years and it’s the same math, but we’re calling it something different and we’re framing it differently and we’re structuring it into the day differently and we’re scaffolding it a little bit differently, so those things are different but the concept is the same. So, for me, when I think about those core subjects and where they fit, they should be discipline specific. I could not think of any logical reason to offer my students why they should be in a core math class as opposed to a media and data class. If that’s their major, let’s teach them the skills through a lens that’s going to be useful to them in the future, and let’s start there so that they can start to see that relevancy and they can start to build curiosity and engagement with their content and with their degree. And I think that doing that off the gate kind of gives kids a sense of ownership. They’re here, they’re at the university level and they really need to own every step of their journey from the day they walk into the door. So, the ways that we make connections for them or help them make those connections I think pushes them towards that empowerment instead of, “Go sit in your calculus class.” 

Meredith: And we, of course, were joking about including math, we don’t want to get crossways with our math faculty here, but in your particular thing—which, by the way, we will post to our website, so listeners, if you are wanting to see Dr. Fromm’s writing, you can check that out on our website—but you don't call it “math” you don’t call it “computation,” you call it “data fluency” and it allows us to tailor it so that it is math that would be useful to a musician, which is what I am, by the way, or to tailor in such a fashion that a student doesn’t necessarily have to have the same experience that President Wyatt’s daughter had where they come home and they said, “I don’t see how this applies to me in my life.”

Wyatt: Therefore, I’m not going to work at it. 

Meredith: Therefore, I’m not going to work at it, yeah. 

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: I think it’s one of the reasons why people don’t succeed in math is that they…

Meredith: They can’t see how it applies. 

Wyatt: Their fault, our fault, whoever’s fault it is, they just don’t think that it’s relevant. They don’t need it. 

Fromm: Right. And I think...and maybe you’ve both had this experience as well, but I think that especially with things like math and science, we can try to teach them an entire universe of mathematical concepts and skills, or we can try to instill a confidence in students in an area that resonates with them. And my experience tells me that confidence is going to carry them so much further in their life in dealing with mathematical applications then a survey of all of these skills that they don’t have comfort with and that they don’t see a relevance with. So, I think that that’s also part of it is that confidence that we can build that allows them to feel like they can take these concepts and these subjects and really dive into them in other areas of their life. 

Wyatt: Let’s run through, because I think this is really interesting, you’ve got six areas that you propose that we shift General Education to; let’s just run through them one at a time if that’s alright. 

Fromm: Yeah. 

Wyatt: I think I’m counting them correctly.

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Six. 

Meredith: Six, I think. 

Fromm: Yeah. 

Wyatt: The first one will make a bunch of our faculty super thrilled. I mean, all of these...somebody gets really excited about some things and some get less. 

Fromm: Good. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: But the first one is media literacy. 

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: That’s...why don’t you tell us what you’re looking at here? 

Fromm: Definitely. I think in the last five or six years, this has become a real buzz word and a buzz phrase I think, better than catch phrase, I kind of like the connotation of that, but it's this idea of the impact of media in our society, media as the driver of culture and a reflection of culture, and you can see how it also crosses into some of the other categories that we’ll talk about, but technology and device usage and what we’re starting to learn about that usage on our brain and our social emotional wellness. And so, all of those things to kind of help students think about the media world that they live in knowing full-well that they’ll experience a media world that’s different than ours. I mean, we’ll all be long gone before we can teach them everything they need to know because it’s going to change in their lifetime, but just building that foundation of what these things look like and algorithms and privacy and data I think is really important. 

Wyatt: Well, to help understand the role of journalism in a democratic society and what seems to be, and I’m not sure because I’ve got great examples from history that are as bad as today, but it seems like it’s hard to figure out what you can believe. 

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: Even in the...especially in the media. 

Fromm: Oh, yeah. I’m teaching a social media class right now for the first time in this school and I think for the first time in this district, and I just showed my students a video about a Mexican bot board who essentially is responsible for creating all these twitter bots in Mexico that make things go viral and promote local agendas and things like that, and my students are savvy, they’re in media all the time, but this was new to them. And this whole concept of artificial intelligence and what’s going to be really and the fundamental definitions that we’ve used in our lifetime to determine if something is credible is changing. Those will no longer be useful metrics for our students, and so, helping them to start to grapple with that I think...I’m pretty passionate about media literacy, so I would say, I tell people, “Media literacy is a basic human right. It is no longer optional.” If we are not teaching it, to me, it’s...get your money back. It is a basic human right, we have got to be teaching this and we’ve got to cover it every day and in as many ways as possible. So, I definitely love that one and I put it first because I do. 

Wyatt: I should have looked this up, I forgot to, so this isn’t necessarily accurate, but it’s...my memory is that we feel positively, as a society, we feel generally positive about our own congresswoman or man, but we feel horrible about Congress. So, if we have a congressman whose approval rating is like 45%, Congress itself would get an approval rating of like 15%, but that the media is down in with Congress in terms of the approval or credibility and part of that stems from, “We don’t know how to deal with it.” We don’t know how to find what’s credible and how to assess it, how to hold journalists accountable…

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: And if we could help build this media literacy better understanding, we probably could elevate our ability to collect information from the media. 

Fromm: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I think we now live in a world where it’s easy to weaponize confusion, and that’s what happens every day. We’re weaponizing confusion, and I think in some ways there’s the powers that benefit from that are very happy to continue to suggest that there is no way out but down, it’s just this spiral into a world in which we can't trust anything, and I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s a little...for one, it’s just too scary as an educator, right? I think we’re mostly optimistic people by nature. But I also think it means, “Why would you teach if there’s nothing...if there’s nothing to do about it, why would you teach it?” And I really think that there are tools and just dispositions that we can help our students build that will make it feasible for them to exist in this brave new world. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Fun. Media literacy. Where do we get our information? Your second one is data fluency. 

Fromm: Yeah. This came...you know, really, as somebody who comes from humanities with working mass media and mass communication, I always laugh. Many of my students would complain and explain their frustration over math like, “We don't do math. We’re journalists or we’re media specialists.” To which I, of course, laugh. Because of all the people we need to probably do math with integrity is probably the journalists if they’re going to inform us. And so, finding a way to connect any discipline to the math that’s at the heart of it I think is just really exciting. It goes, to me, hand in hand with civic intentionality and citizenship and being able to see on a ballot, for example, when they’re talking about raising taxes, are they saying one percentage point, or are they saying one percent? Because those are two different things, right? 

Wyatt: That’s a huge difference. 

Fromm: Yeah! And that matters a lot. And we faced that, actually, in my city last year. We...our citizens passed some ballot initiatives that were not actually written correctly, and now we have to think about the intentionality of what was behind it. Do we even know? “Well, what did they really mean for us to vote on?” And it’s created just confusion, and I still think it’s all going to be OK in the end, we’re pretty relaxed here on the western slope of Colorado, but, you know. Just those kinds of things that point you people towards that data fluency is data literacy. And I don’t think you have to take calculus to get that, and so, I think helping students access that at their level is really important. 

Wyatt: Yeah. The General Education math sometimes is statistics if we look around the country, sometimes it’s kind of the pre-calculus, like algebra, but what you’re saying is, is that we do something that helps students understand statistics and data computation. We live in a world that is so full of data it’s amazing. We don’t ever talk about anything anymore without bringing data into it. 

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: Every discussion that we have at the university for...it doesn’t matter what it is. Whether it’s student activities or classes or budgets, new initiatives, I can’t think of a single thing we talk about that we don’t involve data, and data is math. 

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: But we don’t say, “We’re going to talk math.” 

Fromm: Right. Even that language shift is so important, and that language shift brings students into the club. It invites them into the business world and it invites them into the corporate world and into all of these conversations where, you’re exactly right, we don’t talk about the math, we talk about the data and proportionality and scale and we talk about margins of error. And these are the words that we use in the real world most commonly, so let’s bring that into the vernacular of what we’re teaching our students. 

Meredith: And they’re pretty common across the scope of human endeavor. Like I said, I’m an artist in my other life, in my other job, and everything that you just said makes perfect sense to me. I understand data as it relates to the creation of, the distribution of music. And knowing the math about that and understanding how we arrived at that would be terrifically interesting to people who are going to be, for better or for worse, going to be reliant on digital distribution and digital sales and all of the things that we’re expecting the economy to continue to be and get larger at, understanding the data underpinnings of that is useful to everyone from the engineer to the artist. 

Fromm: Absolutely. Yeah, I couldn't agree more. 

Wyatt: Well, your third area is citizenship empowerment in the digital era. 

Fromm: Yeah, this is a big one. 

Wyatt: It is big. 

Fromm: Where do we start? [Laughs] Part of me says, “Gosh, we start anywhere.” I was struggling last year, my first year teaching high school, to connect Shakespeare to my students, for example, and I was struggling too. I came from a world of journalist and eight years of higher ed teaching nothing but journalism and media and I had this one class of English and we were reading Shakespeare and we were reading the language and we were talking about rhetoric and strategies of persuasion and it was the same time that this now infamous ballot came out and I just brought the ballot into class and we talked about the way the ballot language disempowered in the same way that Shakespeare disempowered them. [Laughs] And they really felt it. They really were like, “This ballot might as well be Shakespeare for as much as we understand it.” And so, that was just kind of an entry point for them to understand that the decisions they’ll have to make as citizens, the ways in which they’re going to be asked to engage in their communities might not speak to them in the same language that they speak as young people. So, we need to develop a little bit of fluency in that. I think that we need to sort of meet in the middle as well, but we want to push them towards feeling comfortable in these spaces. And those are the spaces of citizenship and big decision making and literally taking a space in their own community. I even see it sometimes on college campuses. I think students love to be there and they're developing their own sense of self and space, but they don’t even know that they have the right to be in certain spaces or that they could have discussions or take a nap on the grass and kind of just this idea of being a part of the community and being a citizen who is willing to talk to the powers that be and make space for themselves. And so, that to me is so broad. I think there are so many places you start with that and it could be digital media, it could be more civics classes or community projects. I see that one as really such a great are for us to build relationships with our community partners, too. So, that one, I think, for universities excites me so much because I could just see how businesses and corporations and city council could really start to build awesome relationships. 

Wyatt: One of the things that worries me is that it seems, and I don’t know that this is true, but it seems to me that the respect our understanding of the importance of the First Amendment, which is one of the topics you have listed in citizenship and empowerment, that respect for the First Amendment is declining. 

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: And I have...you know, there was this...an incident that occurred on our campus a while ago and it was something that was purely a matter of free speech, but somebody was offended by it and I went to the class that I was teaching and just asked them the question, “Should I, as the president of the university, require this student to apologize to someone else?”

Fromm: Mm, wow. 

Wyatt: And it felt like everyone raised their hand, “Well yes, they hurt someone’s feelings.” And it dawned on me that we have not done a good job of explaining the basic liberties, despite how many classes they’ve taken, because I said, “You realize I work for the Executive Branch of government, and so you realized the First Amendment was designed to keep me from saying what you can and can’t say because I’m government, right?

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: And shouldn’t I be helping teach people how to respond and have dialogue rather than just instantly force somebody to stop speaking and apologize for what they said? Just really…

Fromm: Wow. 

Wyatt: It’s really fascinating to me. We had a guest speaker here on campus who talked about the First Amendment and he suggested, and I think he knows what he’s talking about, but he suggested that there’s never been a time in the history of our country where the law allowed for free speech more than it does today. That there’s been a continual expansion of free speech by the law, but then in our social circles, there’s never been a time that we have felt more restricted in speech, more afraid to speak. 

Fromm: That...yeah. That makes so much sense to me with what I’ve seen as well. That very specific topic, the idea of the First Amendment, was honestly one of the most compelling reasons that I switched to high school because I...my experience at higher ed was very similar to that incident that you described just in terms of feeling like, “Oh man, we’ve got to do a better job of explaining what this means and the burden of free speech.” Free speech is not meant to be easy. It is meant to be a burden on society. A burden that requires us to hear things that make us uncomfortable and to see things that make us uncomfortable, and we have constructed it in our social circles as something that is not meant to be a burden and we’ve lost that. And we can look back to how our Founding Fathers wrote about it and they knew that it was that, and we’ve lost sight of that somewhere. And so, I see that in my high school classrooms and just trying to instill in them this sense of, “Well, OK, you’re offended now or you’re insulted...now what?” What comes after that? Because that’s the really important part in our society. And I didn’t see that at the college level at the rate that I hoped for. I saw many students who just wanted to be protected or...and not in this pejorative millennial way that we talk about college students, because I kind of dislike that, I’m sure you guys probably hear that from people, like, “Oh, those millennials,” right? Well, they’re probably not millennials anymore, but we also love our students so much and we just want the best for them. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Fromm: And they’re not special snowflakes, they’re awesome. It’s the best job in the world, but I was finding more and more of my students were coming to me in a media space and saying, “Gosh, people shouldn’t be allowed to say that” or “I’m offended and so I should be protected.” And it just was a red flag to me of where are we doing this at our other levels of education and how can we continue to build on that? 

Wyatt: Yeah, it seems like we have two values that are conflicting, and the one value is, in order to protect democracy, we have to protect free speech, but the value that’s in conflict with that is this emerging value that...I’m not sure how to describe it off the top of my head, I didn’t think about this clearly, but it’s kind of like a social justice, compassion value that says everybody should be treated wonderfully and that we should be kind and thoughtful. And in order to be kind and thoughtful, nobody should ever say anything that’s offensive to someone else. But who defines what’s offensive and who defines what’s political speech and...anyway, it’s a tough...these are the kinds of issues that we should spend a lot of time talking about. 

Fromm: Definitely. Oh yes, let’s do it. 

Wyatt: [Laughs] I used to be an attorney…

Fromm: Oh, awesome!

Wyatt: And I used to...I was a criminal prosecutor for a number of years, and so we would go into court and we would battle. And when the trial was over with and we...the jury went home and everything was done, then the defense attorney and I would go and have lunch. 

Fromm: As it should be, right?

Wyatt: Yeah, and I think that some people would have been amazed because they thought, “These two must not like each other because they’re challenging each other, they’re going after it.” 

Meredith: You were just at each other’s throats 30 minutes ago. 

Wyatt: We were at each other’s throats, right. Yeah. It was a fierce battle. 

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: Of words. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: Accusatory, questioning, challenging words. And then...but we were good friends. That’s the key to fixing America, I think, is being able to stop shutting off Facebook friends who say things that we disagree with and find a way to respect people. Well, that’s a fun one for us. 

Fromm: Yeah. 

Wyatt: The next one that you’ve got is political systems, markets, and economies of information. That’s...tell us about that. 

Fromm: It’s funny, I reread this prior to talking with you all today, and even just looking at it now and thinking, “Woah, Fromm, talk about biting off more than we could chew here.” So, I look at this as building an understanding with students about the interdependence of many of our systems in the world. And this is where I think we go, perhaps, from really individual lenses to that global citizen, and so thinking about politics and the networks of society and economics and how these things are linked throughout the world from probably quite a few angles. From power in politics and from algorithms. I mean, just the technology, I think. Are we bound to the technology that’s being derived in our communities or are we more than that and do we need to build ethics into the technology? And if so, whose ethics, when the technology is global, and the ethics are local and these things work together? And those are really important questions that I just think students should start to grapple with. I don’t think we have an answer to that, I don’t have an answer. I have lots of ideas and I’m working on the answers, and that’s what I want my students to think about. I just want them to start to think about these ideas so that when they are confronted with them in real time as consumers, as adults, that it’s not the first time that they’ve ever had to think about it. That they have some tools and they know a little bit about themselves before they face these concepts. 

Meredith: I’ve been interested in...you mentioned artificial intelligence, and whenever we see a film or something that has a view of the future where robots are assisting us or where there’s a significant amount of intervention by artificial intelligence in human lives, I’m always curious in the same way that I was curious about alien movies in the 50s, why do all the monsters always speak English and sound American and have our values?

Fromm: [Laughs] Right. 

Meredith: I’m always wondering what the robots...are the robots that are coming to assist us, are they going to be instilled with the values of the people that built them, and how is that going to work...you know, in a country or in a place that doesn’t share that same value system? And may in fact...that robot may be less useful in conversation or in interaction with a person because it’s recognizing the biases and other things of the person or the people or the group or the company that built them. 

Fromm: Right. Yeah, that’s exactly it. How do we impose Silicon Valley ethics on the rest of the world? And perhaps the first question is, “Do we?” Do we even do that? 

Meredith: Right.

Fromm: And who, if anybody, is asking that question among the people who are capable of actually making that decision? My students, it’s been fascinating. They watch...actually, this week we watched The Facebook Dilemma which was a PBS Frontline Special on Facebook’s role with fake news and the last presidential election and one of my students, at the end, he raised his hand and he said, “I get it. I see where Facebook failed or I see where these algorithms were not in the service of democracy, but at the end of the day, there’s a person behind that post. There’s a person behind the share, and what are we doing about those people?” And that’s the question, that’s exactly it. And so, again, I didn’t have the answer for him, but I was super excited that he was asking questions, that’s exactly where we want to be. And then we need to hold people accountable. We need to make sure and have some transparency that those questions are actually being asked at the highest levels, and so, I think having a better knowledge of those systems will let people feel more comfortable asking those questions and kind of demanding some of those answers. 

Wyatt: Some of these pieces that we’re talking about fit roughly within traditional General Education components. You know, like in American institutions or American history and government class or something…

Meredith: Econ class…

Wyatt: Yeah. But some of these actually don’t, and one of the categories that you’ve got under this for one of the pieces under this category that you wrote was entrepreneurship and innovation. 

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: I don’t think that’s in...at least, I’ve not heard of any General Education requirement that…

Meredith: Yeah, we thought that was very interesting. 

Fromm: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Fromm: Well, thanks. I hope it was very innovative. [All laugh] 

Wyatt: Sticking innovation in here was quite innovative of you. 

Fromm: Yeah, I hope so. I think this came from...I would say this was very much a direct result of teaching in a field that really doesn’t have a lot of direction right now. Journalism doesn’t have a lot of direction. Even media, when we speak of this sort of broad ambiguous media, is sort of without a path right now. And they way in which most of my colleagues talk about student centered learning is through these terms. “We need to build entrepreneurs and we need to encourage them to be innovative in their creation, application, and production of media.” And I’m sitting here thinking, “I’m a pretty smart person. I have experience, I have education, I’ve got a PhD in this,, and I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know what that looks like for our students to just…’I’m going to teach you to be an entrepreneur.’” And as it turns out, really nobody else did either in my circle. We talked about this a lot and at this last university I was at, we did a survey of faculty to just really see, “What does this mean to you? And do you think you’re teaching it? And if so, how? And what can we learn from that?” And the consensus really was, we all want to teach it, we think it’s important, we don’t really know what it looks like, and we’re not totally sure how to do it in our classes. And so, I look at this as an area, perhaps not for confusion with the students, because they want to create, they’re pretty naturally curious, they want to try new things, I look at this more as the administrative mandate, perhaps, of all of my ideas. I think as administrators and educators, we need to get a handle on the types of spaces and the types of pedagogies that encourage entrepreneurship. And I think that looks different at every school. I know for my students and my demographic, it looks like partnering with some media companies in our community and learning about how they work, thinking about audience and using technology, so that was kind of one way we did it. But this is definitely one that I think has to be handled at kind of a higher, more administrative level in order to figure out what that looks like for our schools. 

Wyatt: Your fifth of six categories for a new vision for General Education is social and personal wellness. I think this is one that they average college student would love to see in curriculum. It includes developing empathy, habits of mind and technology for healthy media use, issues of diversity, locally, regionally, globally, social justice and community building. I think that that’s something that our college-age people are hungry for. 

Meredith: Agreed. 

Fromm: Yeah. I think so too, and I think part of it is the narrative that the media, if I can just use that really broadly, I think it’s the way that society kind of talks about our students, about young people. I think sometimes we do a disservice to just how eager they are to be empathetic and to have foundational connections with people in other cultures. And sometimes that’s just perceived as elitist or sort of that special snowflake mentality, some of those terms that get thrown around, and I see it and I imagine that you both do too, I see it as people just trying to find their way in the world. And the media, back underneath has...we do that when we tell stories and we share things and we create spaces that aren’t necessarily safe in today’s political sense, but that are challenging but also empathetic. And that’s where I think schools should also bring in international students in different ways. We get international students on our campuses and we want to engage them, but also, how can we learn from them in ways that are more broad than just putting them in a classroom and our students learn from them and vice versa? How can we empower them to bring some of those things to campus too? A lot to think about with that, and then I think doing that builds some of that emotional wellness that we also want them to have. We are facing a young generation that has more concerns for mental health than I think we’ve ever seen. And so, that really worries me as an educator, so I want to look for ways to build that into our undergraduate foundation. 

Wyatt: So, this category of this social and personal wellness, you’re hitting it directly as the main public point. Typically, we do it indirectly. We say, “You get to talk one anthropology or philosophy or literature” or whatever the class might be, and we hope that...I think the goal is to help develop that social and personal wellness and understanding and communications across disciplines and sort of things, but it’s...as you said, it’s more siloed in a discipline. 

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: At least that’s your suggestion. 

Fromm: Right. Yeah, I think this is one where certainly with history and anthropology, looking back is really important. I, of all...and I talked about this with some of my colleagues and especially this history of professors, we’re feeling that pressure of, “We really still have to know what’s happened in our past” and I couldn’t agree more. I think we just...the connection to what that looks like in our community and the ways in which our history has informed the decisions that are being made now can just be made more real for students. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Fromm: And that community connection can do that. Yeah. That one is...that one’s near and dear to my heart. In western Colorado, we have a pretty high suicide rate and so that’s one that I felt like we really need to focus on. 

Wyatt: It’d be fun to get...so Steve and I have talked about this a lot, but I would be fun to be able to get three faculty members from three different disciplines and then have them teach one class. And we’ve been experimenting with something at Southern Utah University called Jump Start, but if you could get a historian and an anthropologist and a philosopher or literature faculty or member, whatever you get, and you say, “The three of you, your job is to teach social justice, community building, diversity, empathy, those kind of things, that’s the job. So now, from your various disciplines, teach that.” 

Fromm: Yeah. Oh, wouldn’t that be fun? 

Wyatt: Don’t teach history, teach this from a historian’s view.

Meredith: Yeah, from your perspective of your area of expertise. 

Fromm: Yeah, oh, totally. I think...when I think of a class like that, I think, “Let’s put the music professor in that too because what a riot that would be. What a fun, curious, probably totally unpredictable place. You know, you put a poli sci professor, you put a music professor, and a literature professor in a room…” I mean, it sounds like a bad joke, but I think it would be a great class. Put them together and see how they would teach empathy. I think...I can only imagine what would arise from that. I think it would be just so cool. 

Wyatt: Steve and I have talked about teaching a class together. 

Meredith: We have. 

Wyatt: That would be an American experience class and I would teach from the political science/history side and then Steve would teach…

Meredith: The cultural side. 

Fromm: Oh, cool. 

Wyatt: Music. Steve’s wife is a dance faculty member, and she said, “Don’t leave me out.” So, you’ve got all these components, but I’ve always envisioned that class as teaching the American experience through these different subjects. 

Meredith: Different lenses. 

Wyatt: And what you’re suggesting is, is that we teach values from those places, not just teach the story of the country. That’s an interesting way to look at it. 

Fromm: Right. Yeah. I think probably what sparked all this is I think I saw maybe it was at Harvard or Princeton, that somebody got to teach a class about Bruce Springsteen and the American experience, and I am pretty sure that that might have been one of the original interests for this because, wow, what a great way to do it. Music and politics and history and who wouldn't want to teach a class like that? And then I think for students, who wouldn't want to take a class like that? And we can sort of reignite some of the passion for the first couple years of the college experience. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Your final sixth of six is communication across borders, which is technical writing, foundations of communication, power of language and rhetoric, marginalized voices in history. 

Fromm: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: What would you hope that students would achieve from this? 

Fromm: I look at this as an area where a student at any campus, regardless of that campus demographic, can see themselves and then see the person or the culture that they’ve never been exposed to. Reevaluating this idea of a cannon in our literature and in our history text and who are canonical authors and what that looks like, and sort of embracing the idea of a new cannon and one that we don’t, perhaps, even know how to fill yet with these authors and wit these intellectual communicators. So, I look at that as part of it. I look still at really equipping the students to be concise, grammatically correct writers. I definitely think we can’t take every skill, per se, that’s traditional out of the core and be so innovative that we ignore some of the things that are going to be markers or success and security in our jobs for students, and so I think that that’s definitely still important, and so, I would look at it kind of through that lens. And again, probably also lean back on rhetoric and persuasion and how is the world talking to them? And do they know what they world is saying to them? And do they care? And how should they respond back? 

Meredith: We frequently talk about the gap that exists between what students are learning at the university and what employers are hoping that they will learn. 

Fromm: Oh, yeah. 

Meredith: And I think that in a lot of ways, we could look at the list that we’ve been going through today and there’s one way in which to look at it where it seems very much in keeping with the standard academic thinking of higher ed, but repackages it in such a way that it really helps students be better prepared for life that comes after. Whether it’s being a citizen in a digital world, or in this particular case, how do you write and communicate clearly? Because that’s one of the soft skills that’s maybe highest that employers generally are looking for. 

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: And struggling with having. 

Meredith: Yeah. To....here’s a place where...because very often we hear people say, “Oh, higher ed shouldn't really be involved in job prep.” Well, whether it should be or shouldn’t be, it is. 

Fromm: Right. 

Meredith: It is the expectation of the people who are coming here, it’s the expectation of the people who pay the bills here, whether it’s the legislature or moms and dads or students who are coming here, so this, to me, strikes me as a way of relooking at the communication part of Gen Ed and attaching it to a more tangible, real world outcome without losing the reason that we teach that. 

Fromm: Right. 

Meredith: Does that make sense?

Fromm: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I think when you were talking about the writing skills and what employers expect, I think one thing I wish I had listed under that idea of personal wellness and habits of mind is grit or perseverance or…

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Grit. 

Fromm: Yeah. 

Meredith: It’s one of our favorite words. 

Fromm: I love that word, and I talk to my students a lot about it. We would never show up at the gym and get on the treadmill one day and then wonder why we don’t have a six pack and can’t run a marathon. We understand in certain areas of our life that it takes habit and perseverance and grit to develop proficiency. And so, I wouldn’t want to lose that in our new core, but I kind of think we actually just have to teach it more directionally. I think we have to model for students what grit looks like, I think we have to put them in classrooms where one of the learning objectives is grit and what that looks like, you know? 

Wyatt: What does it look like to work through boredom? 

Fromm: Yes, right!

Wyatt: What does it look like to work through something that you don’t think you can succeed at?

Fromm: Yeah, exactly. What is intellectual discipline look like and how do we apply that to our measures of success, and I think that we don’t model that, often, as well as we should, and then I think that we don’t model it as often as we should. And so, I think that would be something that I would look to the core to really be intentional about and forthcoming with and know that not all of it might be shiny and curious and new and there are still some things that we have to really dig in and get the job done. 

Wyatt: It feels like sometimes the message we give to college-age students is, “Find you passion and pursue it” which can be translated as, “Find the things that are easy and you love and you go after them and make a life of it.” 

Meredith: That’s a sad realization that hits you. [Laughs]

Wyatt: Yeah. What we should say is…

Meredith: How much of life is stuff that you really don’t want to do. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Fromm: Yeah. 

Wyatt: We should stop saying, “Find your passion.” We should say more, “Find those things challenge you and are difficult that provide value to others and then become passionate about it.” 

Fromm: Right. 

Wyatt: What I love about your list is you...it obviously has a little bit of a media bias because that’s where you’re from, but what you conclude is, is that this isn’t the answer, but this is the start of a discussion about, “Can we revision…”

Fromm: Definitely. 

Wyatt: “What people need to be successful in society today.” The society that we live in has changed dramatically, but General Education has changed, if at all, marginally. So, thank you and congratulations for getting us on this topic. 

Fromm: Thank you. It’s been a fun conversation and it’s a fun thing to think about. So, I appreciate the work that you are both doing in this area because I’m really excited to see the ideas that pop up. I mean, let’s just keep pushing forward. 

Wyatt: And Grand Junction isn’t too far from here…

Fromm: It’s not. 

Wyatt: So, next time I’m there, I’ll...hopefully you’re in session and I’ll interrupt your class. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Fromm: Yeah, that would be wonderful. You’d be welcome any time. 

Meredith: Come over here and interrupt our class. 

Fromm: I was going to say, “Right back at you.” I love to camp in that area, so I’ll just have to come down and, perhaps not in my camping gear, maybe something that won’t scare students as much, but…[All laugh]

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had as our guest today Dr. Megan Fromm, who is joining us by phone from Grand Junction, Colorado where she recently moved from higher education to become a high school teacher of journalism. This has been a fascinating discussion, we talk Megan, and we thank you, our listeners, for joining us. We’ll be back again soon, bye bye.