Soundings and Connections: What are they?

Here at Castleton University, every member of the student body is aware of the changes that our school has made over the past year or so. From virtual learning to masks, we have all learned to work together to accept and appreciate the differences we now face as a community.

But one thing that is harder to understand than most is the changes made recently to the university’s General Education program—or Gen Ed.

Over the past few years Castleton University has been making a lot of changes to the way that it educates its student body and while a lot of them have been positive, it does make it hard for the upperclassman here at the school to understand the way that their younger peers are being taught. Two of the biggest changes of them all are the changes to the Soundings program and the addition of the Connections seminars.

Incoming freshman now what these things are and what they entail, but for the upperclassman who either didn’t have these classes at all or simply had similar ones with different names, these words bear no meaning to them. So, what exactly do the Soundings program and Connections seminars entail, and more importantly, how do they benefit the student body as well as the community here at Castleton?

A couple of individuals who have both worked very closely with and on the recent Gen Ed additions are Professor Rich Clark and Mrs. Melissa Valent. Clark is a Professor of Political Science while Valent is the Soundings Manager as well as the Director of the Fine Arts Center here at Castleton.

“Soundings is part of the General Education program at Castleton, everyone who comes to Castleton participates in Soundings, and it is an introduction to the liberal arts through diverse, cultural, and artistic opportunities”, Valent said. “It’s a chance for students to see things that they’re interested in, participate in things that they’re interested in, but also to step outside of their comfort level and to experience new things.”

This is what the Soundings program has always been about here at Castleton. Everyone who has come to school here for over twenty years now has known that, but in the areas that it’s changed, it has certainly changed a lot.

“If you are ever talking to our upperclassman and you hear them say something about Soundings 1, Soundings 2, or Junior Soundings, those are courses that incoming freshman no longer have to take. There was a change in the Gen Ed program, and the First-Year Seminars were reworked, revamped, and renamed. They are Connections seminars now and your Connections course is linked directly to Soundings. It’s very different from Soundings 1, 2, and Junior that the upperclassman are taking as part of the old curriculum,” Valent said. “In the past you took a different number of events each semester, so Soundings 1 you would go to six events, Soundings 2 you would go to five, and Junior Soundings you would go to three. Now for

Connections, it’s going to stay the same, you’ll take it three different times but each time you’ll go to four events which is a lot easier to remember.”

Valent also said that the cumulative “Junior Soundings Essay” will be worked into the Connections program as a capstone project and will be graded by Connection professors, rather than the Soundings board.

These changes have been made in order to “streamline” the Soundings courses as a whole, which happens to include three entirely new courses, which are referred to simply as “Connections courses”. Dr. Rich Clark, who has been on the Gen Ed committee for ten years, said he and a number of other professors and Soundings staff attended a workshop with the American Association of Colleges and Universities on the topic of Gen Ed programs.

“I’ll just never forget this – we sat down with a professor who has been instrumental in designing curricula in Gen Ed programs all over the nation and we showed him what we had here at Castleton at that time. And he looked at it and he said ‘This is…’ I don’t think he used the word a mess… but he basically said that it’s just too hard to comprehend,” Clark said. “I mean, we had Soundings happening over here and that was governed by people who weren’t part of Gen Ed, and you had these frames of reference which most students didn’t understand and there was no means to tie them all together, nor were these classes in anyway connected all together by a program. And Gen Ed, like your major, is supposed to be a program.”

So clearly, the changes made to the old Gen Ed program were necessary, but that still begs the question of why the Connections courses were chosen to replace the old way of doing things.

“Students were told that they needed to have all of these requirements, and nothing ever brought it together, and the Connections course is where we say, ‘let’s pull it together and make sure it fits in with what else you’re doing,’” Clark said. “There’s so much data out there that tells us that kids who get connected–who find their people, so to speak–are far more likely to finish college in four years, graduate, and call it a positive experience, so hopefully we’re building community here, because that’s another objective of all of this. It’s easier and more rewarding to learn together when you develop a safe community that people feel a part of.”

A lot of first-year students here at Castleton have had a lot of trouble understanding what the past seminar courses looked like. They were very different with what used to be called the “First Year Seminar” being the closest thing to the new Connections courses.

“We had nothing for second-year [students], and so they were kind of adrift. But learning doesn’t happen like that, it’s a constant process. So, we had something like the Connections courses—this is just an improvement on it. The First Year Seminars were great, we just didn’t think it was enough. And that’s why we’ve changed it,” Clark said.

Clearly there have been a great many careful and considerate changes made here at Castleton over the past year or so and although they have been mainly positive, one can’t help but wonder how all these changes are impacting upperclassman here at Castleton. Seeing all your younger peers start these programs that are ultimately revered as “better” can’t be easy. Professor

Clark commented on this when asked if there was anything that he would like the upperclassman to know.

“I don’t want the upperclassman to think that they had this inferior thing and that we’re bringing in the top program here, but we are reforming it with the idea that we can make it better,” Clark said. “When you’re in the classroom with professors who aren’t constantly thinking about how to make it easier on themselves, but rather how they can make it better, I think all of the students benefit from that. It takes a lot more time and a lot more energy, but we hope that it makes it a richer experience. So even though the others didn’t get this program they’re benefitting from it as we start to think differently about general education, and I want them to keep that in mind.”

There’s no telling how upperclassman truly feel about this topic, but one thing is for sure—Castleton and its faculty are certainly doing their best to make the school a better place for everyone involved, and I think that we can all appreciate that no matter what year we are in.

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