Today on Teaching & Learning Champions, we’re joined by Matthew Daude-Laurents and Samuel Echevarria-Cruz, Deans of Liberal Arts at ACC. We’re talking about the impact of general & liberal education of Guided Pathways and the foundational role that the Liberal Arts division plays on supporting students in all of the ACC degree plans and Areas of Study.

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Episode Transcript

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[Matthew Evins:] Welcome to another episode of “Teaching & Learning Champions.” I’m Matt Evins, Director of Instructional Technology and Digital Resources in the Teaching & Learning Excellence Division at ACC. Today, I’m joined by Matthew and Sam, Deans of Liberal Arts, as we talk about the importance of general and liberal education on Guided Pathways. Matthew and Sam, thank you for joining me today.

[Matthew Daude-Laurents:] Thank you.

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] Thank you.

[Matthew Evins:] Let’s go and get started. Can either of you or both of you tell me about how the liberal arts division supports Guided Pathways’ work for the college?

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] Well, we can talk about it broadly, and that is our courses form such an important part of most of the associate’s degrees that we offer here. And so from the first time a student steps into our division or even other degrees in science and math and even in Workforce, we have courses that are really important for setting them on the right path. And those courses are like EDUC 1300 as a great example. So in that way, we have to be very cognizant of what Guided Pathways is supposed to look like, how students need to be exposed to it from day one in any of our liberal arts courses.

[Matthew Daude-Laurents:] Yeah, I would totally agree with that. I mean, when you look at the span of the liberal arts, we have everything from ESOL all the way — and, of course, you know, college writing skills in INRW, reading and writing skills, all the way to much more advanced critical skills like, you know, literature and philosophy and sociology and psychology and history. So our division really spans across the whole student range, which makes us sort of the ideal home for a Guided Pathways philosophy.

[Matthew Evins:] Great. Talk a little bit more about the importance that liberal education courses has on student success within the Guided Pathways’ model.

[Matthew Daude-Laurents:] Well, the first thing that I would say about that is, you know, I’ve actually — I’d liked to co-opt our podcast here to make an argument that we stop thinking about Guided Pathways and think of it as Guiding Pathways. In other words, the Guiding Pathways philosophy is a much more student-centered approach that involves our active involvement in the student’s pathway throughout the life cycle of the student here at ACC and beyond. So, if you think about it from that perspective, there are all kinds of opportunities for us, not just to clarify pathways in the sort of superficial sense like what course do I take next or how do I end up with this or that award, but also to have –to engage students in deeper conversations about the way that the experiences they’re having now form foundations for them, not just in their academic endeavors, but also in the rest of their life, their participation in their communities, their family life, their work life, their participation in faith-based organization, churches, synagogues, and so forth. And even ultimately in asking themselves questions about what kind of life they want to live as a human being, as an active and engaged human being. So we really are thinking much more broadly about the role of the liberal arts courses in helping students find and pursue their pathway in that largest possible sense toward a good life.

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] Yeah, exactly. I think what we have in the liberal arts is — are those outcomes that match what a student is learning in the classroom with how they want to grow towards not just professional, but as Matthew said rightly, personal experiences. And so we are the ones who are tasked with, rightly, talking to students about what it means to be a citizen in this society, what it means to be not just a worker but a family member, what it means to work in institutions but also work in the community. And we have those outcomes in many of our courses, in most of our courses. And so this Guiding Pathways model is guiding students towards that sort of growth while we keep them on track for some really important academic goals and professional goals that are going to be important for their future.

[Matthew Evins:] Great. What types of changes have courses within liberal arts undergone as a result of the implementation of Guided Pathways at the college?

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] I think in a structural sense we’ve had deeper discussions about what are important courses? What’s an important mix of courses in many of our associate’s degree programs? And without Guided Pathways, I don’t think we would have had as many discussions. And so we’ve gone back and forth. Faculty, of course, are the most important part of this. And that is with their feedback, with their experiences, what are the simplified menu of courses that students really could benefit from if they’re in different degree programs? I think that’s been important. Also, this Guided Pathways process heavily depends on looking at data in many different forms and ways. And I think we’ve started to look at data in much more complex ways, not just course progression, but now thinking about the different meta-skills that students get in these courses. We want to track that. And so I’m very excited about how we’re moving forward in those dimensions.

[Matthew Daude-Laurents:] Yeah, I’ll second that. I’m excited too. I think when you look at other institutions that are in some way involved in implementing — again, I will use the word Guiding Pathways — you see people talking about progress in terms of decades, right? So clearly, we are pretty new in the process. We’ve accomplished a lot, but what we’ve accomplished has been largely at a somewhat superficial level. And you know, I use that word sort of with hesitation because many of the structures that students experience are anything but superficial, meaning they’re not trivial. Like what is my degree plan? How do I know what I’m supposed to do? That kind of stuff. But what I do mean by superficial is that we have in no way reached the end of our conversations about the ways in which the Guiding Pathways philosophy could transform the way we think about our mission as educators and as a community college. So let me just give you one example sort of building on a point Sam made. If we look at our courses not as specific sort of dishes on a menu, where you order this one and then you’re finished with it and you move onto something else, but as collections of skills that form foundations or that expand the foundations that one has experienced in a previous course. And you start looking at the ways in which component skills are also pathways for students. So let’s take one example, writing, being able to write, communicate well in writing, to be able to write for different audiences. That’s a collection of skills that is literally a pathway through our curriculum where students achieve certain sorts of skills in what you might call earlier courses that they build on later. And we’ve only just begun to reflect on the ways in which we can think about those kind of pathways — maybe like academic skill pathways through the curriculum. And then the natural thing after that would be to make those connections more explicit for students so that they understand that their courses are not just sequences in the sense like, you know, first you have an appetizer and then you have a main course and then you have — but rather these are sequential in the sense that they build skills through a series of experiences that are related to each other in some way. And that we’ve only just barely begun to implement. But the potential is huge for the student experience and the student growth.

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] Yeah, and I’ll add that Guided Pathways also, with the way we are trying to make these connections, actually frees us up to think about equity more deeply than we ever have before. And so one of the driving forces with Guided Pathways is to have an equity lens. And as we look at these, our degrees and the student experiences, now we get to really investigate and get students’ voices about the equity journey that they’re on and where we can do a much better job supporting students from all different kinds of backgrounds.

[Matthew Evins:] You both had mentioned that the idea behind liberal education is helping build the foundation, right? And so do you find that building the foundation for students that are going through a degree plan in a different area of study is different than helping build the foundation for students who are pursuing a degree plan within the liberal art education area of study?

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] I would say generally no. No. What we do cuts across all sorts of, you know, academic goals from — again, from workforce to transfer, from health professions and welding to philosophy and sociology. Many of our courses stress this types of skills that everyone is going to need to navigate an increasingly complex world professionally, but also increasingly complex world personally. And so in our communities, we need to be able to think well, think clearly, think slowly, and then write well. We need to be able to communicate well in multiple forms, multiple mediums. So in that sense, we want all of our students, right, we want –we don’t even like thinking about Workforce versus academic transfer. We want all of our students here exposed to rich experiences in the liberal arts, so that wherever they go, where those highways lead, they all have that common set of experiences and skills.

[Matthew Daude-Laurents:] Yeah, if you don’t mind, I’ll add to that. I know I’m going to sound like a philosopher here. But so, you know, the word that we’re batting around here, liberal arts. That comes from a Latin phrase, ars liberalis, and these are the sets of skills that a human being needs to engage productively in civil society leadership. So those — as Sam said — those skills always were conceived as the skills that are conducive to living a fully human, fully engaged life. And they cut across every pathway that a student might choose for herself or himself here. And I want to pick up one theme that Sam had put on the table too. This is a huge opportunity for us to sort of re-envision the curriculum from the perspective of equity, because if we’re engaging students in reflecting on their lives lived through their communities or their faith-based organizations or families, then that’s a tremendous opportunity for us to see the ways that we are doing reasonably well at including students of various trajectories, backgrounds, races, ethnicities. And it also allows us to understand the ways in which we are failing our students so that we can improve. So this is a huge opportunity for us to sort of reengage in that age-old task of asking what do human beings need to live successful, genuinely human lives.

[Matthew Evins:] I know the Guided Pathways model is fairly new at ACC, but have you received any feedback from instructors who are teaching these foundational courses on how Guided Pathways has influenced student success at the college?

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] I think, again, like we’ve all said, we’re in a new part, a new phase of this process, and that is the college is fully committed to Guided Pathways. And for many of our faculty this is — this is an additional framework or a new framework to understand how their teaching is connected. I think most faculty, when they start working with other faculty, for example, in other divisions or in other courses as we’re trying to do more of that partnership through our co-requing models, through our co-requisite models and other types, they understand that they’re part of a bigger whole. But many of our faculty are still using a model that has been effective to some degree and that is, “I’m a content expert. I’m a discipline expert.” And Guided Pathways has allowed us to take a step back and go, “Oh, I’m also a teacher of a set of skills, of a set of experiences that are very similar to other sets of skills and experiences in other courses.” How can we leverage that? How can we contextualize, meaning how can our curricula fit the experiences of our students that they’ve had, that they’re having now, and that they’ll have in the future? And so that makes everything more real, you know? And so, you know, instructors that I’ve talked about want simple ideas that we stop talking about college-ready students, and we start talking about being a student-ready college. That’s a very important Guided Pathways type of philosophy. I’m not even a philosopher, but it makes sense to me. And so that’s exciting when we start really understanding how what we offer the students is life changing, and we need to think of ourselves as part of a bigger project, a bigger whole.

[Matthew Daude-Laurents:] No, I agree with that. I’d also like to use this as an opportunity to talk about an initiative that we’re rolling out called the Liberal Arts Gateway. The Liberal Arts Gateway Initiative is basically a philosophical framework for doing this work and reflecting on the ways in which the Guiding Pathways approach could influence the way we teach our courses and think about programs and think about interdisciplinary connections among our different programs and courses. So the aspiration of the Liberal Arts Gateway is to equip students through a deep engagement in the liberal arts for living in a genuinely pluralistic society. So just on the surface there, you have a narrative that is deeper than we’re going to overhaul our program map so students know what courses to take next. And in one sense, this allows us to engage the professors who are content experts in a different kind of conversation about the role that the disciplinarity of their disciplines plays in fostering that sense of connectedness across the liberal arts. And ultimately it enables us to have conversations about the role that each discipline plays in preparing students for this larger aspiration of living in a pluralistic society. And that’s really been the sort of feedback that I think has been the most encouraging. When the discussion about Guided Pathways — and I’m — now, I’m switching back to the term. When that discussion is mostly about administrative structures and sort of like the analog of signage, you know? So, if you think about our institutional culture, if we’re really talking about signage and helping students way find, then you’re going to have difficulty engaging content experts around those kinds of issues because they’re wanting to know — and I think rightly — they want to know what does my discipline have to offer or how does this affect my discipline? So, if you can engage people in a narrative that draws them into that discussion, then they certainly have much more at stake because now they’re able to talk about the disciplinarity of their discipline and, you know, to really engage with other faculty in reflecting on what a human being needs to be equipped for the task of living a fully human life.

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] I’m really excited about this. Matthew, would you show those principle — those guiding principles in the Gateway? Because when I heard that, I got real excited, and I think our listeners will be too.

[Matthew Daude-Laurents:] Yeah, I’d really — thank you. I’d love to. So the Liberal Arts Gateway philosophy has three guiding values. And the first of them is the student experience is at the center of our curriculum planning and deployment. So that allows us to look at how students experience the course as opposed to, you know, we teach the course and we put the onus on students to plug in, you know, where and when they can. So that — I think the value of that is pretty obvious. The second is we want to look at our curriculum top to bottom, from the programmatic level all the way down to individual assignments in terms of the ways in which our — the ways in which the education system has rewarded a history of access. And one of the values of that is that it builds in from the ground up, conversations about equity and inclusion, and about the need for students to, as it were, see and experience themselves as part of the — of their experience in our classes. And then the third guiding value is we capture that in this phrase, responsiveness to down path stakeholders. So, if you think about Pathways in the largest possible sense, the path that a student is on in terms of a life trajectory, then what we can think about is the sorts of skills and knowledge that students will need in order to be able to respond to the needs of their circumstances as their life unfolds. So down path stakeholders are, for instance, the professors who teach the next course in a sequence. So clearly that’s a pretty obvious one. But it’s also how can we equip students to be more effective in their family life, in their work life, in their engagement in community? How can we help them be — develop the natural abilities they have to be leaders in their faith-based communities or their communities? So thinking about the curriculum in terms of those three guiding values and then looking for discipline specific ways to sort of embody those three values has been a really productive sort of conversation with faculty. And we — I’m happy to say we have a good number of pilots of Gateway courses. We focus first on Composition I. So we’ve got some of those coming along, and they’re some pretty exciting courses because they are — they’re like, you know, the embodiment of those values only from the perspective of English as a discipline.

[Matthew Evins:] Great. Well, the last question I have for you. What types of professional development and instructional support is made available to instructors within your division to learn more about shaping their curriculum around the Guided Pathways model?

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] Well, you know, ACC has invested a lot through the Teaching & Learning Division, Teaching & Learning Excellence Division. And our Teaching & Learning Academy is really focused on making sure that faculty understand how all these parts, the equity journey, the — you know, the curriculum redesign, how all that fits into their own work. We just had a wonderful panel discussion with those in this academy, talking about how do we receive students. And if we don’t have an equity framework, for example, both in how we design and conceive of our courses, but also how we assume so much about what students can and can’t do based on the fact that they haven’t experienced many of the technologies that we have — that we offer them. That’s a very important instructional support and professional development opportunity. We were talking about the fact that we just had some data that many of our students — half of our students in our Great Questions courses — both parents have no college credit. Yeah. And so that changes the narrative to understand they are coming in with a success mindset having gone through different cultural experiences in K12 systems, and we need to leverage that. But we also can’t assume that they have the exact same backgrounds that we do. And so that — I think that’s important. We also want to get — many of our disciplines have wonderfully robust national associations. So history has a wonderful — the American History Association did a wonderful job looking at how we teach History I and II, unpacking that course curricula and redesigning it based on how students come in with little to no experience in primary historical research. And so a great example I saw is a community college starts their history curriculum with mostly visual representations of historical artifacts and primary history, so pictures and drawings and things like that, with little textual supports. And then as the semester rolls on, the textual supports get larger and the pictures and the visuals get smaller until, by the end, the student is very comfortable reading a historical primary document with very little visual aspect to it. But they’ve been guided that way, right? They’ve been guided to that experience. I thought that was a wonderful example of how we can give faculty this instructional support and professional development. And they can run with it, right? And then so many faculty that have been exposed to that are excited to kind of be born again as instructors in many important ways.

[Matthew Evins:] Great. So the last thing I’ve got, which is not related to Guided Pathways at all, but what’s given you Riverbat pride this week? Matthew?

[Matthew Daude-Laurents:] Well, I was — you know, when I — so I’m on Twitter. And I was watching, you know, things go by. And it always makes me feel great to see that ACC is, you know, not just this, you know, this sort of Austin community thing, but that to a large extent we have a presence as a leader on a national stage and that that leadership is being — is noticed. And it’s — so it makes me really proud of ACC’s work, our faculty, our student support services, all the people it takes to make the organization run. But it’s a testament to the potential and the talent and the expertise that we have here at ACC that we’re able to play that leadership role in so many ways. So — and it’s nice to juxtapose that because a lot of times when you’re within ACC, it’s sort of like, you know, is this really paying off? Are we — you know, that sort of thing. But it’s really great, from time to time, to take a moment and step back and see that ACC is actually known for being an institution that really cares about students, a student’s success, and is, you know, willing to take a risk and experiment and come up with better ways to serve our students.

[Samuel Echevarria-Cruz:] I agree. ACC being recognized for the National Aspen Prize, you know, to — gives us that sort of pride, nationally, that we’re on the right track, that we need to take more risks. I hope that emboldens us to say — especially the faculty. Faculty that are listening, you know, take risks, and we’ll make sure that those risks, you know, are ones that we support, that don’t — that you’re not evaluated on. For example, we have this problem where we evaluate people who take risks, and that’s the not the way we want. We want to support and encourage risk-taking in the classroom and across departments and divisions. And so I’m very — I’m filled with pride that, nationally, we’re recognized. But I hope that pushes us — pushes the envelope to say, you know, now is great time to take even more risks and work across cultures with the student center — at the center of every experience that we discover.

[Matthew Evins:] Yeah. Those are great things to be prideful for. Excellent. Well, that wraps up another episode of “Teaching & Learning Champions.” Don’t forget that you can view blog posts for each episode on the TLED website. I also encourage you to subscribe to the ACC district podcasts on any of your preferred podcast apps or listen to individual episodes on the TLED website. Thank you for tuning in, and we’ll chat next time on TLC @ ACC.

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