General Education Reform and the Art of Listening

By the time we took the stage as the final panel of the day at the 2013 Schreyer Conference on General Education at Penn State, we had heard the voices of expert educators, faculty, administrators, employers and alums speak about the value and importance of general education. Now it was our turn.

As members of the General Education Planning and Oversight Task Force, we were charged in March of 2013 with “developing a process for revisiting and revising general education” at Penn State.

Throughout the day, we’d heard insightful and often inspiring suggestions about what general education at Penn State could and should be:

Two themes that emerged as particularly important from my perspective as a philosophy professor and as an administrator were captured in this tweet from Michele Kennerly:

Developing a sense of the common and a capacity to listen – these being intimately interconnected – have over time become central concerns of my recent academic and administrative work both. More specifically, I have sought to put digital modes of communication to work in ways that attempt to cultivate community and attentiveness.

Administration, despite its caricature, is rooted in the practice of service, which I take to be closely connected to the capacity to listen. The word “administer” comes from the Latin “administrare” – to serve.

These two themes were foremost in my mind as I rose to frame the final panel of the day. This panel was to be different from the others – it was to be a reverse panel in which we asked questions of the audience and listened attentively in response to their insights. Here is how I framed it:

The structure of a reverse panel captures beautifully the spirit in which we have undertaken to revise the general education curriculum at Penn State. As a Task Force, we are seeking to embody the values of general education we want to integrate into the curriculum. One value about which we heard a lot today is the capacity to listen.

So, we panelists are here to listen to you, the audience. Although we each have a perspective to bring to bear on general education, we do not presume to have the requisite expertise to make decisions about the structure and nature of general education at Penn State independent of the Penn State community itself.

So we are here to listen, to listen and to learn from you what you value in general eduction, what you think is important to retain, what ought to be changed, what works and what doesn’t.

At first there seemed – at least from my perspective – to be a bit of skepticism about the whole idea; but as we progressed, working hard to listen conscientiously, people began to respond to our questions in ways that were thoughtful, creative and tremendously valuable to those of us charged with trying to bring about substantive general education reform at Penn State.

In the process, however, I hope those gathered at the conference felt heard and left willing to continue the conversation on the GenEd@PSU blog and over twitter as the process progresses. (

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Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Daniel Estrada says:

    As just a gut reaction from my sleep deprived brain it seems to me that one focus perhaps should be on working with the high schools in the area to influence their curriculum. I understand that Penn State attracts students from all over however, as a senior teacher, I would appreciate an opportunity to work more closely with local colleges to work on transforming general education as a whole. The task IMO should not solely be undertaken by colleges alone. Fostering discovery as an essential component of education from the very beginning would be a good thing.

    • Christopher Long says:

      One of the issues we discussed at the conference was the need to “teach the students we get” as opposed to lamenting their preparation and the state of secondary education. A yet more proactive approach would be to engage in more discussion and collaboration with HS teachers like you. I have often thought that a collaborative MOOC between a HS teacher and college faculty would be an interesting way to bridge the transition between HS and college.

      • Daniel Estrada says:

        At the high school we also lament the preparation of our students. I really believe that a more top down approach, taking the expectation of respected universities as a guideline, would be beneficial to everyone. There are large swaths of students not able to even apply at certain schools because they have not been prepared. I would argue we need to listen at the secondary level.
        As far as the common, I fully support a language and practice in place across the board. I like where this discussion is headed and appreciate that a major university is willing to think.

  • I share hope that the conversation re: GenEd @ PSU will continue to be constructive and include the opinions of an increasing cross-section of Penn Staters, especially students.

    I additionally share the opinion that listening is the most important virtue of administration. As someone who is new to leadership, I often find that I have to make the conscious effort to reach out and listen to seek opinions beyond those of my closest confidants. While I’m working to make it part of my natural leadership style, I find that the best decisions (and the ones that others are most comfortable with) are made in this way.

    The two ideas crossed paths in my recent conversations with members of the UPUA re: GenEd @ PSU.

    At first, I tried to blindly defend some of the discussed changes (i.e. themes, etc.) without really listening to the concerns. As concerns multiplied, I was able to take a step back, soak in the concerns, and foster a discussion towards productive efforts going forward, which I look forward to sharing in the coming weeks…

    • Christopher Long says:

      Anthony, it is great to hear that you are thinking about leadership style in this context. As a student leader, you have a special role to play. I know what you mean about trying to defend things before listening. I struggle with that too, which is why I wrote that post – to remind myself as much as anyone about the importance of listening. Of course, listening is not something passive, but takes a lot of active effort. Also, it is important to respond, having heard the concerns, in ways that address them and move the process toward the outcomes we all desire: a more rigorous, imaginative and academically interdisciplinary general education curriculum.

  • dmfant says:

    is the “listening” to be done/taught a specialized skill and if so how does one acquire it? Also not sure what the “common” is that one would get a sense of, is there a working definition that people (faculty/admin) already share and if so how did that happen? thanks, d.

    • Christopher Long says:

      I think listening is a specialized skill that can be learned through intentional practice. Part of the practice involves confirming with those to whom one is listening that one has, in fact, understood what they have said. Understanding, of course, is not agreeing – and the two are sometimes conflated. (Sometimes I have the sense that people think you are not hearing them when you are, but you just disagree with what they are saying.)

      As for the common, I think that emerges in the conversation, rather than being imposed upon a group prior to the discussion. There is, however, already a common sense of what it means to be part of the Penn State community, even if that means different things to different people. So perhaps that can be the common ground for a specific common vision of general education.

      • dmfant says:

        that kind of emphasis on mutual understanding seems like an important but new development in higher-ed and I’m looking forward to how it gets incorporated into classrooms which all too often seem to be heading towards ever less face to face communication.
        I must say I’m more than bit suspicious about the degree to which valuing “commons” is a general/agreed-to interest, especially after the Republican presidential convention/campaign against such values, and the related following efforts to defund/delegitimize the humanities and push education into a buyers market set by industries, so how to avoid the current traps/trends of left vs right that rule our days?

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