Georgia Regents University associate professor of English Wesley Kisting imagines a college experience where all students share a common thread in their first two years.
Where mathematics, English, history and chemistry professors discuss the same topics but from different perspectives.
As American higher education evolved to be more specialized within disciplines over the past century, Kisting said, the common knowledge students need to have a basic understanding of the world might have been lost.
To create a more unified focus across majors, Kisting and a team of professors will launch a program in August that weaves common discussions within required freshman and sophomore core classes. Knowledge Integrated, or KNIT, will include 200 freshmen in its pilot year but, if successful, will gradually grow until all underclassmen complete their core classes in this way.
“Finally GRU is going to have something that jump-starts the campus intellectual life,” Kisting said. “We’ve always suffered a bit from being a commuter-heavy campus where students say ‘I go there, I take classes, then I throw my books in my car and go home.’ We have beautiful facilities, but we don’t have a beautiful foundation of knowledge where I can leave the classroom and say ‘I know anybody else I bump into on campus
will be able to intelligently discuss this with me.’ ”
One goal is for students to see long-term value in the content they are required to learn. Kisting said before, some of his students didn’t see the logic in reading a 300-page Shakespeare play for his English class only to take one test and never think about it again.
Perhaps not seeing the relevance, they often lost basic knowledge. In one survey conducted in the development of KNIT, two-thirds of GRU students could not identify the century in which the scientific revolution began or the decade when the Civil War ended.
Kisting said he hopes KNIT can help solve the loss of basic knowledge by working like this:
Each semester will center around one of four themes: Reformation, Enlightenment, the American Experiment or Industrialization.
Students will be blocked into groups of 25, where each group takes three courses together per semester.
About 18 professors in the core curriculum will teach their subject content but will intertwine books and discussions related to the selected historical focus.
KNIT will launch in fall 2013 with the theme of science in the Enlightenment.
English professors might teach Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, a satirical work that suggests poor Irish in the 1700s should sell children born out of wedlock as food to the rich to solve economic and moral dilemmas.
Using the common text, Kisting said a math professor might get creative and require the reading to challenge students to calculate the nutritional value of children. History professors could use the book as a tool to examine the context of children born out of wedlock in that time period.
Debbie Van Tuyll, a professor of communications and KNIT promotions chairwoman, said this model mirrors university structure pre-20th century, when education was more focused on general knowledge.
To develop KNIT, more than 50 professors and faculty collected data over three years on student knowledge and needs. Hundreds of students participated in reviews and gave feedback on what their education was lacking.
They circulated a 46-question multiple choice test that touched on all disciplines, asking students to identify correct grammar or which animal was a mammal.
Of 336 students given the test, only 69 scored at 70 percent or above, Van Tuyll said. They also found students who didn’t see the point in reading full required works when they could skim enough pages just to earn a passing score on a quiz.
“It’s like they were saying ‘I challenge you to make me learn,’ ” Van Tuyll said.
KNIT associate director Craig Albert said he will be promoting KNIT to freshmen during orientation as a program that puts relevance back in learning. When the program expands to the entire university, it will create a needed common ground in education, he said.
“The university system overall has really lost the focus of this idea of what does it mean to be human?” Albert said. “That’s what KNIT really tries to do is establish connections across disciplines through historical eras that establish higher order learning.”