SAGES through the ages

A CWRU experience stretched over a decade

Kushagra Gupta, Staff Reporter

The Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship (SAGES) program is a part of Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) that students learn of before their arrival on campus, and often even before their acceptance to CWRU.

The program may soon change. Its current benefits are being examined by the Provost’s Commission on the Undergraduate Experience (CUE), which was created in January 2016 with a two-year charge to propose improvements to the student academic experience at CWRU. Given that all students participate in the program, they may be experts on its current form but not of its past.

The SAGES program began as a pilot in 2003 in response to a university-wide feeling among faculty that a centralized and unique general education should be developed. It was set for implementation in fall 2005, after a lightning round of approvals beginning in April 2004, ranging from the Faculty Senate, to the individual schools and colleges and finally to the Board of Trustees.

The pilot included a third University Seminar in addition to the two the current program requires, but no Departmental seminar. It also used the current system of grouping the seminars into three categories, but it didn’t require students to take one of each.

Peter Whiting has been the director of SAGES since its implementation. He was co-director of the pilot program and is currently an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, as well. As director, he personally reviews each new University Seminar proposal, often stepping into the mind of faculty and students alike. Several faculty members, the curriculum committee of the given school or college and the Faculty Committee on Undergraduate Education (a university-wide committee) also review each university seminar.

“There shouldn’t be enormous differences from seminar to seminar,” said Whiting.“Students are getting three or four credits for the course. They’re getting a grade for this, so to the degree possible, we try to have broad similarities. Now of course topics are different and that’s the joy in some sense of taking a seminar and having choices in seminars.”

Since its implementation, there have been some changes to the program. Whiting explained that the program also began to develop support for students whose first language was not English. Another addition was the “directed self-placement” system, in which incoming first-years write an essay over the summer and base their First Seminar selection off of it. A rule was put in place to require students to take a different category for their university seminars than their first seminar so that they take a class in each subject area.

While the program had been approved in April 2004, it needed a guide to equip it for operation. Enter Mark Turner, associate professor and founder of the Cognitive Science department at CWRU and the man who was charged with implementing the SAGES program. Turner began his time at CWRU as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in March 2004 and was immediately put in charge of implementing the SAGES program by then-President Edward Hundert.

Hundert was president of CWRU from 2002-2006. According to Turner, Hundert was very excited about SAGES and many other projects beginning at the time; he would place one person as the “point person” for each project.

“Naturally, everyone was concerned at the beginning about how to staff the new program,” said Turner. “Hiring faculty takes months or years. Faculty rightly asked how the program could be run without substantially increasing their workload.”

To solve this dilemma, Turner developed the SAGES Fellows program, which allowed for CWRU to hire temporary “Fellows” to teach University Seminars. He noted the program walked a fine line between allowing opportunities for those hired, but also keeping the influx of persons under control.

Balancing is an act that was built into many areas of SAGES. In the case of the seminars, specifically, Turner sees a compromise between breadth and depth.

“One of the goals of SAGES was to increase breadth of knowledge, experience, and networking,” said Turner. “University Seminars were a key instrument in accomplishing that goal. But all universities seek to balance breadth with depth, because as faculty and students specialize, they naturally seek to go ever deeper into their field.”

He also sees a shift in the way students see this balance. Compared to his undergraduate years at University of California, Berkeley in the early 1970s, Turner believes students today are less confident in the chances of career success and try to define themselves academically earlier in college, often coming in with a major decided. Turner explained that during his time, a student would join a university “without a major and be proud of it.” He thinks the prospects for jobs are one cause of this fear.

“My sense is that the cost of education, which has gone up dramatically, has made families and students more concerned about making the most of this experience in preparing for the future. Family resources are being devoted to education, so it makes sense to have a well-defined plan,” said Whiting, who attended Carleton College in the 1980s. “….I don’t think fundamentally students are that different….The similarities are much greater than differences in students overtime. If there are some differences, they are largely tied to external pressures.”

According to Turner, the vision was that SAGES would allow students to “learn how to learn.” The hope was that through University Seminars, students would be exposed to different fields and would have opportunities to network with persons who may end up in those fields. According to him, this is why SAGES classes have a 17-person limit, to provide the opportunity to connect with a diverse set of peers. Turner has seen careers and fields change rapidly; the vision for SAGES was to be a way to prepare students to succeed in a job that hasn’t been created yet.

Turner was impressed that the program had lasted so long without a major change, given the rapid shifts in the careers and fields. Based on CUE’s proposal for changes to the academic experience, future CWRU students may experience a program different in its requisites.

Current CWRU students have the opportunity to provide input on the commission’s work through drop-in hours and appointments.  

CUE’s finalized proposal for changes to the CWRU academic experience is expected to be released in the Spring of 2018.