Report on the Second Annual Texas Conference on Introductory Courses

By Nancy Baker, Sam Houston State University

Speakers at the second annual AHA Texas Conference on Introductory Courses addressed higher education's "image problem," acknowledging that the value of a college degree is not well understood by budget-conscious state legislators or parents and students fearful of a tight job market and student loan debt. One solution various speakers outlined was to highlight the marketable skills students gain from a college education. Promoting marketable skills features the added benefit of aiding institutions of higher education in meeting the goals of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's 60x30 Texas Plan for 2015-2030. The 60x30 Texas Plan sets as goals that students will leave the academy with marketable skills and low student loan debt, with a target of 60% of all Texans ages 25-34 completing a certificate or degree by 2030. (Currently, approximately 38% of Texans meet this goal.)[1]

Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes spoke frankly to participants about confronting realities with the State Legislature and critics of academia. Paredes warned that higher education is under increasing scrutiny because undergraduates are taking longer to finish their undergraduate degrees than in years past, earning many more credit hours than needed for their degrees, and as a result ending up with higher student loan debt than has been seen before. At the same time, legislators have been known to blame higher education for the citizenry's alleged lack of knowledge about such fundamentals as the United States Constitution.

As a result, colleges and universities find themselves poorly positioned for competition with essentials like K-12 education and infrastructure maintenance when the legislature determines budgetary priorities. Paredes presented two options: academics may seize the initiative to respond to this growing pressure by demonstrating the value of higher education, or academics can wait passively for the State Legislature to require us to do so. The good news, Paredes reassured us, is that most academics are already doing the substantive work that needs to be done, but we simply lack effective communication with our stakeholders. We must make the case that classroom work leads to career readiness, and we must persuade the legislature, employers, and especially our own students and their parents of this.

Other speakers echoed Paredes' sentiments, drawing our attention to resources that would support elucidation of marketable skills in coursework. Focusing on best practices, Sam Houston State University Director of Assessment Jeff Roberts encouraged the use of the sixteen VALUE rubrics (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) created by the Association of American Colleges and Universities' LEAP project (Liberal Education and America's Promise). Utah State Professor of History Daniel McInerney reminded us of the Tuning Project and urged us to examine the Degree Qualifications Profile for help in identifying the skills our students develop in our classes.
In addition to plenary sessions, the conference featured numerous smaller discussion sessions. Stephen F. Austin State University's Randi Cox and I led a group discussion devoted to the use of creative assignments in the classroom. Some participants require students to use technology to create videos (whether a documentary-style piece or a music video) to post online or present to the class, pushing students to acquire technological skills. Other participants suggested instructors complete the steps of their own creative assignments, to evaluate the assignment's effectiveness and cost to students in terms of time and effort.

Wheaton College's John Bezis-Selfa and I facilitated a session focused on teaching the Texas history survey course. Participants uniformly agreed that the challenges specific to this task included a dearth of textbooks to choose from that offered balanced, comprehensive coverage of the entire period. Expanding on this theme, some complained of feeling that certain events or eras dominate the curriculum, and the group generated ideas for how to move beyond "remembering the Alamo." For example, Mylynka Cardona of the Texas General Land Office told us of a wealth of teaching resources available on their website. I described a team-taught course at SHSU that focused on one Texas politician's life and career as a vehicle for studying a number of themes. At the end of the session, everyone enthusiastically endorsed Bezis-Selfa's suggestion that there be a conference on Teaching Texas History.

The centerpiece of the conference was the charrette sessions. In small discussion groups, participants proffered an assignment that they used in class, and the group critiqued the assignment. Informed by the Degree Qualifications Profile and the like, group members suggested ways that the assignment could employ specific language to accentuate the marketable skills involved. In the charrette session that San Antonio College's Jonathan Lee and I ran, for example, one group member put forward a concise assignment that directed the students to write an essay on whether they agreed or disagreed with a quoted scholar; the instructor commented that most students struggled with the assignment, and few did well. After further reflection the instructor blamed his laissez-faire policies for students' poor attendance and lackluster performance. With the group's encouragement, the instructor decided that revising the intent of his policies to inculcate marketable skills, and using language explicitly stating this purpose, could lead to a different classroom culture. He envisioned students better understanding the need to hold themselves accountable for the small steps that would lead to successful results on the essay (i.e., attending the lectures, doing the reading, and/or asking for help earlier in the process). He also chose to change the language of the essay to make visible the stages in the process of writing the essay, so students would have the process broken down into manageable bits and would be less likely to give up due to feeling overwhelmed. New to the idea of crafting assignments via charrette, I am impressed with the potential for transforming not just an assignment, but also a classroom's culture and the course's entire value for students. Individual history departments could host a charrette for their new faculty, or for faculty engaged in the Tuning Project, and achieve remarkable results across their curriculum.

The second annual AHA Texas Conference on Introductory Courses remains a unique opportunity to engage with current debates and issues on the state level. In addition, the conference provides an excellent resource for individual faculty members seeking best practices in teaching what could be considered the most challenging set of classes - those required of all college students, including non-majors. Faculty of all ranks, department chairs, and administrators would all benefit from participating in this conference in the future.    


[1]           Matthew Watkins, "New State Goal: 60 Percent of Adults With a Degree by 2030," The Texas Tribune, 23 July 2015. Available online at: https://www.texastribune.org/2015/07/23/new-state-goal-60-percent-young-texans-degree-2030/  (last accessed 13 September 2016).