CUNY Pathways: "Reform & Rigor"?

Yesterday, a slick 8-1/2×11 brochure arrived, Pathways Ahead: Reform & Rigor. With lots of pictures, testimonials, and white space, it devotes little room to the details of its putative content–but it is worth responding to here, given the continuing controversy over the new CUNY Pathways initiative.

The brochure was accompanied by a letter from Alexandra Logue, the Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost who, last month, convened the meeting of the Pathways committee I am serving on. She opens the letter, dated March 29, “Dear Colleague,” though neither the letter, the brochure, nor the committee meeting made me feel that Logue and I are on any sort of collegial level. That would have required real faculty involvement in development of Pathways and in its implementation, something I see nowhere.

Instead, we faculty members continue merely to be told what the initiative is. Rarely have we even been consulted and certainly we were not involved in the conception. Now, we are simply instructed on our role as cogs in its wheels. We are condescended to, given “a brochure that outlines the initiative in greater detail and explains how our faculty have shaped and are implementing its components” when we have done nothing of the sort.

The truth is that we, on the faculty, are being shaped by the administrators for the Pathways initiative, becoming nothing more than tools of implementation.

Because, as a member of the CUNY faculty, I feel it is my responsibility to try to cooperate with system-wide initiatives, I will continue to serve on, as the brochure describes it, the “University-wide committee of approximately 130 faculty [which] will evaluate each course proposed for the Common Core to ensure that it meets the standards of the new core.” I will do what I am told. But I will not pretend that we on the faculty have developed this program, have devised ways of implementing it, or support it. I am doing my best as an employee, though I know I should be seen as more of an independent (though contributing) member of a somewhat more autonomous faculty with real governance powers.

The brochure claims that the initiative was “developed by a task force… composed of 47 distinguished faculty from college and disciplines across the University.” That may be so, but that committee was selected by the provosts at the behest of the central administration and acted on instructions from the administration. It had nothing to do with the vast majority of faculty members and reflects little of the day-to-day realities of CUNY teaching or even of individual college administration. This is a top-down initiative showing little understanding of realities of instruction on most CUNY campuses.

It is much the same in the committee I serve on: We’ve been instructed that we are to evaluate courses to see if they meet ‘learning outcomes’ for the particular Flexible Core area of our particular subcommittees. Another committee created those ‘learning outcomes,’ and we have no input on that, on what is presented to us, or on how it is presented. Even our means of responding have been designed for us. We are expected, simply, to see if what we get from the colleges matches what we were given by the administration. We see a syllabus and entries on a data form. Beyond that, we have no real knowledge of the course we are considering for inclusion in our Core area. We don’t even know if similar courses from other colleges are being presented in the same way. So, an introductory Economics course from one college might end up in Core one area while the same course from another college might be in a different one, depending on how the particular colleges decide to present their courses. In other words, there is no broad vision, at this point, simply a pigeon-holing of course descriptions that already have been tailored to the particular Core area.

The point of the administration is that it doesn’t want the Core areas defined by discipline. The result, again, will be that the same course will end up in different places, depending on how the particular college wants to present it. The brochure claims that Pathways will clear up “the transfer maze,” but I suspect the Registrars of the colleges are cowering in their offices. If the faculty had designed Pathways, as should have happened, we would not have created this odd situation of circumvention of disciplines while leaving them in place. We know better.

Clearing a maze? What we have now in this initiative is a maze masquerading as multiple pathways. The example of the Economics course is but one of many confusions now appearing.

Perhaps this is why, though the brochure claims to provide detail, it gives almost none. It speaks of the Flexible Core, for example, but doesn’t define it.

Only by ignoring the details and the possible consequences can this initiative be imagined as a clear pathway to anything. I am reminded of a road on a map, where it seems straight and clear, the map itself the pride of those who designed it. But the road itself? Well, the map-makers have never visited it, have never seen the potholes, the washed out bridges, the washboard where the pavement long ago disappeared, the sandy shoulders. But they don’t care. Their responsibility is the vision. Let others take care of the road.

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