A potential change to Soundings and Gen. Ed.

Soundings. It’s a nautical term referring to a technique used by sailors to determine the depth of a body of water. At Castleton University, the term is applied to a General Education program designed to encourage students to broaden their horizons by attending events that they otherwise may not have been interested in – and to cultivate in them both a depth of knowledge and a breadth of experience.

It’s the university equivalent of a parent telling you to try some strange green food because you might like it, and Castleton students are fairly united in pressing their hands tight over their mouths.

“It’s stupid,” says Samantha Sumner, a commuter and an Ecological Studies major in her third year at Castleton University. “I have so much homework to do, I have to take time out of my schedule to go to these events. They’d have to correlate with my major, otherwise I don’t see the point.”

Most adults work a 40-hour work-week, and they usually don’t take their work home with them. College students are some of the busiest people around, commuters typically even more so. The thing is, Soundings isn’t actually supposed to be a part of your major – it’s a part of Gen. Ed. But students don’t really seem to know what Gen. Ed. actually is.

“Their only experience with it is when they go on their program evaluation,” said Phil Whitman, an art professor and the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Gen Ed Reform. Even on the Program Evaluation page, it can be a little hard to distinguish what exactly Gen. Ed. is.

His goal is to change that.

“Right now, it’s a bunch of disjointed classes and tests students have to check off their to-do list the week before they graduate,” he says.

The main goal of the Gen. Ed. Reform Committee is to increase the cohesion between the sections of Gen. Ed. including the Frames of Reference, the First-Year Seminar, the Computer, Writing, Speaking, and Literature requirements, those pesky graduation standard tests, and, of course, Soundings.

“We understand it’s unwieldy,” says Whitman. “It’s confusing to faculty.”

That’s why he and the Gen. Ed. Reform Committee are trying to overhaul the program – but it’s a slow process. The committee is currently in its first year, and no formal proposals have been made – and likely won’t be for at least another year. And after that, it could be another year or two before any proposals are actually approved and implemented.

Whitman is, however, willing to share the current draft with the student body. Bear in mind, however, that this is still very much up in the air, and nothing is set in stone.

One idea being discussed is to reduce the number of events required for first-year students, but to make Soundings a more regular requirement.

For example, instead of having to attend six events your first semester and four events your second semester, maybe you would instead have to attend three events each semester for your first four semesters.

Again, this is pure conjecture and just in the discussion phase.

Aliyah Edmunds, the newly elected vice president of the senior class, thinks it’s a good idea.

“Then you’d get to pick the ones you really want to see,” she says. “Sometimes the panels aren’t the best because they’re not relating to you directly.”

Korey Paquette, who was recently elected treasurer of the senior class, remembers a film about five men in Rutland.

“I liked that one,” she says. “It was relatable.”

But as much as students would love to see Soundings change, it’s small potatoes for the Gen. Ed. Reform Committee. Probably the biggest change being discussed is the concept of “integrative seminar.” Essentially, FYS would be continued for two more classes to be taken in your sophomore and junior years. In these integrative seminars, students would come to experience Gen. Ed. much as they experience their major, in a more linear structure with increasing difficulty and rigor as they progress.

The Gen. Ed. Reform Committee wants to transition away from the current model of a Castleton education in which students experience a well-developed major and a Gen. Ed. program that has the appearance of being cobbled together by 14 different committees that aren’t communicating toward a two-pronged approach to the Castleton experience – your major on one side, Gen. Ed. on the other.

The purpose of the Gen. Ed. program is, by and large, to develop the community of Castleton and to ensure that students leave with an awareness of the world around them, not just with an understanding of their field. And actually, according to Whitman, many alumni say that Gen. Ed. helped them in their careers more than their major did.

Committee members want students to understand the purpose and respect the practicality of the Gen. Ed. program. And to do that, the most important changes will be tying everything in the program together neatly so that students can draw connections between their different Gen Ed studies and get a sense of value from the program as a whole.

Students often say they want sport events to be Soundings events. The problem with that is that students tend to learn a lot more from playing a sport than watching one, so the Cultural Affairs Committee – which actually picks events – finds it hard to see how sport events would serve to broaden the understanding of students. Students also say they want Soundings to be a different number of credits, like 0 or 3, which may actually be on the table.

If you have any comments, concerns, or would like to provide your input to the process of reforming Gen Ed or Soundings, contact Phil Whitman at phillip.whitman@castleton.edu.


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