holistic higher ed

Is “holistic” higher ed’s latest innovation star?

New departments, admissions standards and faculty evaluation requirements are being created around the buzzword holistic.

In another move that strays from the traditional hierarchical and siloed traditions of colleges and universities, a number of recent initiatives at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions and higher education organizations are focusing on the buzzword “holistic.”

A simple dictionary reference defines the adjective holistic as “characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” In other words, a cohesion of individual parts working together. And, according to recent news reports, this cohesion of departments, teaching practices and admissions requirements is growing in popularity for this year and beyond.

A Holistic Department

According to Valparaiso University, faculty workload was becoming so burdensome–thanks to the additional duties in recruiting, marketing, and fundraising–that the university decided to address the problem by creating holistic departments.

The university notes that a holistic department “emphasizes a more team-oriented approach to departmental organization rather than the traditional hierarchical approach, and supports and rewards faculty for contributing to goals at the level of both the institution and the department in ways other than teaching and scholarship.”

Valparaiso, now in its second year of implementing the holistic department across campus with the help of the New American Colleges and Universities (NAC&U), expects each faculty member to teach an average of 18 credits and also be responsible for 6 additional workload credits that result in a “deliverable product,” notes the university. Their published case study emphasizes that the key to the success of the holistic department model is “both that teaching 18 credits is an average for the department and that the other credits must have a deliverable component. In other words, the responsibilities for teaching can be shifted among faculty members within a department.”

For example, notes the case study, if a more junior member of the department needs to produce more research for tenure and promotion, a more senior faculty member can take on more teaching credits. Similarly, if a professor is working on a book or has personal obligations, hours can be shifted to accommodate those needs.

“Our work had become so diversified and increased and creeped into new fields that faculty members have had to develop entirely new skills without much recognition,” says Joseph Bognar, professor of music at Valparaiso. “Faculty work seemed to be getting larger and more encompassing, and there wasn’t anything happening in terms of evaluation that seemed to account for this.”

(Next page: Holistic evaluations and admissions)

Holistic Evaluations

For Valparaiso, faculty accomplishments beyond teaching, scholarship, and service are recognized and faculty members are rewarded during evaluations for their efforts beyond those areas, says the case study. The university added a fourth field—“campus citizenship”—to the traditional triad of teaching, scholarship, and service to recognize other work. For example, “the job of redesigning a department’s website would fall under the campus citizenship umbrella and would also be a project for which a faculty member would receive workload credits rather than teaching credits.” Emphasizing professional development has also become a significant aspect of faculty evaluations.

Valparaiso also standardized measures by which courses and projects were counted for teaching and workload credits. “Creating a system in which different styles of courses and instruction were comparable was critical for a better understanding of how work was being performed and divided across departments,” highlights the case study.

But Valparaiso isn’t the only institution incorporating the holistic concept into faculty evaluations. David Salomon, associate professor of English and director of undergraduate writing at Russell Sage College, talked to Inside Higher Ed about how Sage reworked its student evaluation of faculty teaching to focus more on the student’s role in active learning by asking students to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “You put effort into learning the material covered on this course” and “You were challenged to do your best work in this course.” The form also now asks students more directed, open-ended questions to avoid subjective judgments about the teacher.

“Beyond student evaluations of teachers, each adjunct faculty member receives an annual teaching observation by a tenure-line faculty member,” writes Inside Higher Ed. “The annual review process for tenure-line faculty members includes a self-reflection narrative and a professional development plan mapping the coming year’s professional activities. Central to the whole process is rewarding faculty members for the work they actually do, not an antiquated notion of what faculty work is, Salomon said.”

“One of the big issues here is to re-look at teaching, scholarship and service and the collapsing boundaries between the three,” he said in the article. “In a holistic department, someone might pick up more service, and we want to make sure we account for that in the evaluation, as well.”

Holistic Admissions

Outside of departmental restructuring and faculty evaluations, US News reports that revamped college admissions are going holistic by  evaluating the candidate as a whole, including his or her mentality, and not just a collection of his or her documents.

Specifically, revamped admissions are going holistic in three ways:

1. By focusing on tasks that highlight skills crucial for college: For example, institutions like Bard College have redesigned their entire application as well as the Bard Entrance Examination to require four 2,500-word essays, a letter of recommendation and an official transcript. “Applicants can choose from a bank of 21 questions, which enables them to demonstrate their particular academic interests and strengths,” says US News. “Each prompt mirrors a typical college assignment, and with its mandatory categories–arts and literature, science and mathematics, and social science, history, and philosophy, the college can far more effectively assess students’ ability to complete general education requirements.”

2. By crafting application portfolios that highlight a student’s individuality: While basic holistic admissions have previously allowed applicants to opt out of tests like the ACT and SAT, US News says that Bennington College’s application represents a new realm of flexibility for students. “The Dimensional Application has no required documents. Instead, it asks applicants to build a portfolio that demonstrates their academic achievement including their creation and revision processes, classroom and community involvement and their writing skills,” states the article.

3. By allowing for videos: For those students who may be better at verbal rather than written communication, Goucher College’s video application are a welcome option. “A two-minute video supplants traditional application materials, such as exam results and high school GPAs,” notes US News. “The simple video prompt asks applicants to describe how and why they would excel at Goucher College. Students are also required to submit two works from their high school years, one of which must be a graded writing assignment. In some ways, the video application evaluates an applicant’s drive and vision, rather than his or her educational past.”


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