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A Revised Gen Ed Debuts

9.3.19

Professors Douglas Melton and Michael Sandel prepare to launch their new Gen Ed course, open to students from across the University, at Klarman Hall.

Professors Douglas Melton and Michael Sandel prepare to launch their new Gen Ed course, open to students from across the University, at Klarman Hall.
Photograph by Lee Hopkins


Professors Douglas Melton and Michael Sandel prepare to launch their new Gen Ed course, open to students from across the University, at Klarman Hall.
Photograph by Lee Hopkins

After a years-long redesign, a reformed version of the College’s program in General Education launches this fall. The new Gen Ed intends to focus on “urgent problems and pressing questions”—to equip students for life outside of the classroom more explicitly than departmental classes might. The new program features a total of eight requirements:

  • one departmental course from each of the three Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) divisions: arts and humanities; social sciences; science and engineering;
  • one quantitative reasoning with data requirement; and
  • one Gen Ed course—all of them either new or refreshed—from each of four different categories: Aesthetics & Culture; Ethics & Civics; Histories, Societies, Individuals; and Science & Technology in Society.

The latter courses significantly distinguish the new Gen Ed from its predecessor: they are intended to have a unique pedagogy—prioritizing experiential, hands-on learning with real-world applications—and the content is intended to be interdisciplinary and case-study-based.  

During the 2019-2020 academic year, about six dozen new Gen Ed courses will roll out. In conversations, instructors for a sampled five of these courses shared their experiences in developing their curricula, and explained how they hope the classroom contents and pedagogies will fulfill the goals of the reformed program. Their common experiences included a newfound sense of flexibility: teaching outside of departmental divisions means courses do not have to equip concentrators with certain knowledge that can in fact be unnecessary and burdensome for non-concentrators. The faculty members also said their courses benefit from having students come to them on level playing fields, as well as from enabling students of all disciplines and backgrounds to give insight on content that may be outside of their intellectual comfort zones. 

With today’s official start of the semester, the fall’s Gen Ed courses will also debut, and the years and months of preparation—both for the relaunched program and for these new classes—will finally transform into teaching and learning.

 

“Making Change When Change Is Hard” 

A decade ago, nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage seemed like a remote goal—but today, it is the law of the land. From 2006 to 2016, federal efforts to reduce U.S. carbon emissions proliferated—but the advent of the Trump administration has brought these efforts to an abrupt standstill. How did social change occur so rapidly in the first case—and end so suddenly in the second? More generally, what factors catalyze rapid social changes, and what others bring such changes to a stop? 

In “Making Change When Change Is Hard: The Law, Politics, and Policy of Social Change” (which counts for credit under both Ethics & Civics and Histories, Societies, Individuals)Lindh professor of the practice of global leadership and public policy Samantha Power and Walmsley University Professor Cass Sunstein hope to give students insight into these questions, so they themselves can create the social change they want to see in the world. And Power and Sunstein are perhaps some of the best-suited instructors at Harvard to do so: both worked in the White House during the Obama administration—Power as the ambassador to the United Nations, and Sunstein as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. “How many times do you get to take a course from someone who was a member of the president’s cabinet, and also her husband?” asks Sunstein. (They are married). Their combination of practical, real-world experience, combined with their knowledge of the theory and analytics of social change, align with the new Gen Ed’s goals of connecting the classroom to the outside world. 

Sunstein and Power hope to give students what she calls a “tool kit” to create social change. Each week, students will analyze a case study—“from climate change to the state of the criminal-justice system to the use of child soldiers in Central Africa to discrimination against LGBT people,” she says—and how activism to create change succeeded or fell short. Although students may not be passionate about every issue they study, Power and Sunstein hope that by analyzing a series of case studies, students will gain the ability to create social change in whatever context is important to them. “They will have a lot of flexibility in what they can dedicate themselves to exploring,” Power says, “and the idea is that they will apply what they have learned from the other cases to the issues that consume them personally.” 

 

“Loss” 

The first assignment for “Loss” (Aesthetics and Culture), taught by Loeb professor of the classics Kathleen Coleman, will not be a paper, a worksheet, or a problem set. Instead, it will be a condolence letter written to a mother elephant who has lost a calf. Coleman’s class will focus on loss in a variety of contexts—including death, or loss of a loved one; amputation, or loss of limb; and exile, or loss of country—and of course, she hopes to equip students with the ability to deal with their own losses when the time comes. But she also wants more. “I want people to not only arm themselves with some way of handling their own losses, but to develop empathy,” she says. “Because one of the hardest things in life is to know how to react when someone else has suffered a loss.” 

Coleman is a scholar of Rome by training, so she plans to incorporate the Greco-Roman world into most lectures—but the content will also extend beyond, to requiem masses and Joan Didion essays. She also plans to stretch across disciplines: one lecture, for example, will consider the psychological and physiological effects of grief on the body. Through field trips, students will also experience firsthand the effects and consequences of loss: an early trip involves visiting the Widener Memorial Room, to see how “that terrible tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic” was transformed into Widener Library, which is now “a monument to learning." The building was originally a way for a mother to “process her son’s death”—and now the students in the class “benefit as the heirs to someone else’s loss.” The course will feature additional field trips to various Harvard museum collections that feature objects through which people dealt with loss in the past. 

Because “Loss” is a Gen Ed class, Coleman says she has greater flexibility in establishing its the goals than she would in a departmental offering. “There’s no common store of knowledge, nor is there any assumption that students are—or will be—Classics concentrators. This is a course for everyone, with no prerequisite except a desire to learn,” she says. For their final assignment, students will not research the experiences of great emperors or artists or scholars, but rather their own: they will write a paper about a prominent loss that happened in their own communities. 

 

“Tech Ethics: AI, Biotech, and the Future of Human Nature

Bass professor of government Michael Sandel is no stranger to the philosophy of General Education. “Justice,” his wildly popular course on moral reasoning that fulfilled a prior Gen Ed requirement, ran for decades at the College and eventually was offered online, expanding its reach from about 1,000 Harvard students per semester to people across the world. But “Tech Ethics” (Ethics & Civics)—the new class he will be co-teaching with Xander University Professor Douglas Melton (a leading stem-cell scientist) this fall—will be a little bit different. The focus of “Tech Ethics” will be on the moral, social, and political implications of new technologies, including artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. It will explore questions such as whether algorithms can do a better job of deciding cases than juries, or whether parents should be allowed to select traits like sex or intelligence for their children. 

“Tech Ethics” will also be held in a new, tech-enabled venue, constructed well after “Justice” took up residence in Sanders Theatre—the traditional room for very large College lecture classes. With a maximum capacity of 800 students, “Tech Ethics” is slated for Klarman Hall, a new auditorium on the Business School campus that allows for in-class discussion and debate for events with as many as 1,000 people. This locale reflects another innovation: the class will be open not only to undergraduates, but also to students from the law, business, medical, and other schools across the University.

“We believe there is pedagogical value in bringing together students from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds to debate these questions about the ethics of new technology,” Sandel says. “It’s in line with the Gen Ed goal of connecting the classroom to the world, by including students from the professional schools along with students from the College.” By enabling medical, legal, and business perspectives, the “real-world implications” of the debates are brought out—central to the new Gen Ed’s philosophy. 

The class will include readings that describe ethical controversies about new technologies, as well as writings by philosophers whose work provides principles for understanding those controversies. Each class session will feature student participation and debate, which, Sandel says, “serves the goal of equipping students to reason together in public, to argue with one another and with the professors, about these hard but fascinating ethical dilemmas.” He also expects the wide array of students participating to enable new perspectives and answers to emerge. “Part of the excitement for the instructors in teaching Gen Ed courses is the opportunity to engage with students from every concentration and discipline,” he continues. Gen Ed teaching “provides an experience to reach across the different academic disciplines and engage students in debating some of the fundamental questions that we confront as democratic citizens.” 

 

“The Science of Happiness”

In the spring semester of 2018, Yale offered its most popular course, which enrolled about 1,200 students, or nearly one-quarter of all its undergraduates: “Psychology and the Good Life.” Unlike Harvard’s most popular courses—Economics 10 and Computer Science 50 usually contend for the top two spots—“Psychology and the Good Life” was not an introductory course for a popular concentration. Rather, it promised students a different kind of knowledge: the science behind happiness and well-being, and steps they could take to increase their own happiness. 

This course was the inspiration for “The Science of Happiness” (Science & Technology in Society).“The last time I taught intro psychology, a group of undergraduates came up to me toward the end of class and asked why we don’t have something like [the Yale course] here,” says professor of psychology Jason Mitchell, who has been teaching introductory psychology for the past 13 years. (A similar course, “Positive Psychology,” was offered at Harvard in 2004 and 2006, and had similarly high enrollment: in 2006, its 854 students surpassed the number of students in Economics 10, at the time Harvard’s second most popular class.) When, as a result of the students’ query, Mitchell began to do research into the science of well-being, what he learned was striking: there has been a steady increase in the rates of anxiety and depression among college students for the past 30 years—and within the past six to seven years, there has been an “inflection point” as those rates have begun to increase even faster. “I’ve become very interested in trying to figure out: What is that rapid increase in anxiety and depression coming from?” he says. “And what can we do about it?”

The class will try to answer these questions in three main sections: 

  • considering the definition of happiness;
  • establishing that the things people expect to make them happy—money, celebrity, success in school or jobs—often don’t; and
  • considering the kinds of things that really do bring humans happiness.

The philosophy for the class’s assignments is that “there’s a big distinction between learning about what’s going to make you happier and actually practicing those things,” Mitchell says. Accordingly, students will be asked to spend time meditating, which has been proven to increase happiness, and to spend time away from digital technology, which has been correlated with feelings of anxiety. Mitchell says the freedom of the new Gen Ed program allows him to skip the “canon” of what is typically covered in an introductory psychology course—much of which is unnecessary to non-concentrators—and to focus instead on how to give students tools, firmly based in science and psychology, to improve their lives beyond the classroom. 

 

“Texts in Transition”

In their course (in the Aesthetics & Culture and Histories, Societies, and Individuals categories), Pforzheimer University Professor Ann Blair and professor of English Leah Whittington will pursue different sorts of climate change from those at issue in Power and Sunstein’s “Makin Change When Change Is Hard.” Instead, they will be studying what Whittington calls “climate change in cultures.” Language and written texts make up a “media environment and media ecology,” she explains, and “at certain moments in the history of cultures that use language, there are transition phases where that environment starts to change rapidly.” Whittington and Blair believe one of those moments is now under way, as the vast majority of textual transmission shifts from physical to digital media. “If we don’t watch how we transmit texts, we could have nothing in the future,” Blair says. “That would be a catastrophic loss.”

To illuminate the current era of rapid change, Blair and Whittington look to another one: the European Renaissance, when people realized that they had experienced a massive loss of written culture from Greco-Roman antiquity. An estimated 1 percent of ancient Mediterranean texts survived to the year 1350—but because even that 1 percent was preserved, people were able to respond to those texts and build on that textual culture to create the advancements in philosophy, science, literature, and the arts and sciences that became the Renaissance. The invention of the printing press suddenly enabled faster distribution of texts, in greater quantities and more cheaply—but also contributed to the devaluation of medieval manuscripts: many were destroyed or reused (parchment was redeployed in book bindings or for wrapping things).

By using the Renaissance as a case study, Blair and Whittington hope their students can better understand the challenges involved in planning the preservation of texts today and in the future. “We start in the present and we end in the present, but in the middle section of the course we think about how people confronted questions of media and textuality in the past,” Whittington says. “During these periods of transition, people write a lot about the experience of change. In the European Renaissance, people are constantly asking, ‘Will my book last? Will this thing I’m creating have any future? How can I make sure that it does? Do I care if it does?’” 

In “Texts in Transition,” students will address these questions to today’s world, on scales both small and large. How do they want to preserve the texts they create, the emails and text messages they send and receive, the papers they write? How will society choose to preserve the millions of books in libraries as more and more books become digitized? Students will become active participants in pursuing answers—taking field trips to museums, archives, and libraries, and speaking with experts who are grappling with these questions today. One of their assignments will be to choose a text that they will be responsible for maintaining, caring for, and passing on.

Whittington says the new Gen Ed program is unique in the way it has allowed faculty “to combine their personal and professional fascinations.” She continues, “The Gen Ed program is just us thinking about the ideas that animate our research and our teaching and putting them front and center so we can think collectively with students.” 

“We don’t have to achieve some sort of goal that is defined departmentally,” Blair adds. “It doesn’t have to be a part of a curriculum where certain things have to be covered. So in that sense Gen Ed’s very liberating. It’s been a wonderful experience to prepare this course with the help of terrific professionals at the Bok Center and in Harvard’s museums and libraries. Of course, now it is just beginning.”

Whittington laughs. “Right. We haven’t even started teaching the course yet.” 

 

 

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