In his UF Quest course “Soccer Explains the World,” Professor Quinn Hansen brings first-year students through the history of the game, from its origins as a gentlemen’s sport in British public schools to its emergence as a vessel for fervent patriotism to its current status as a multi-billion-dollar business. Hansen says what starts as an engaging exploration of a popular and relatable topic becomes a series of thought-provoking discussions about a host of issues ranging from equity in education and child labor laws to gender politics, nationalism, and what it feels like to be a player bought and sold like a commodity.
“It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch,” said Hansen, a linguist who also teaches Portuguese. “The topic is what excites the students, and when everybody is excited, great things happen in the classroom.”
If Hansen’s class feels like a typical small-group elective offered at a liberal arts college, it is meant to. It was designed specifically for UF Quest, part of the general education curriculum at the University of Florida, recrafted over the past several years to create intimate, interactive learning communities within the large land-grant university in Gainesville. The intent behind UF Quest is to provide students, particularly FTICs (first time in college), an opportunity to learn how to learn from faculty who know their names before settling into the more impersonal tracks dictated by their declared major. These classes typically involve critical thinking and robust debate about some of the world’s biggest problems, a process the web site describes as “engaging students in questions that are difficult to answer but impossible to ignore.”
“With Quest, students begin a journey to understand what their potential roles are in answering some of these questions, whether it’s obvious to them or not” said Angela Lindner, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Affairs, who has led the development of Quest since her arrival at UF in 2015. She is the first to admit it has been a hard-won endeavor. At “Quest Day” in November, which commemorated the program’s 5-year anniversary, Lindner told an enthusiastic crowd, “My colleagues throughout the country repeatedly say to me ‘how in the world did you pull this off?’”
Getting to Quest
Lindner is an engineer by training with a PhD from the University of Michigan and fond memories of her liberal arts undergraduate experience, which included strong relationships with her professors. She was drawn to the school because of its student-centered culture and its early adherence to a core shared curriculum. In scouring historic catalogues (the university graduated its first class in 1857), she took as inspiration an adage that aligned with her philosophy on the developing student. “The choice of professional work is postponed until the student knows better his capacity and disposition to undertake work that will be profitable to himself and society…avoiding the handicap of narrow specialization,” it read.
Lindner’s own adage was to “leave them alone” in their first two years as they transition from the black-and-white of high school to the gray abstract of the university. This, and the belief that liberal arts-like experiences can happen anywhere, drove her to create the vision for what would eventually become UF Quest.
But general education reform is not easy anywhere, and certainly not in public universities in Florida where the legislature weighs in on curriculum. The trend toward vocationalism in education and away from the humanities as the foundation for learning has been hurtling along for the past decade, accelerated by the great recession of 2008 and 9. Predictable barriers such as faculty push-back, turf wars, and the pace of committee decision-making, all made the eventual release of UF Quest in 2018 seem miraculous. Lindner says they had to redesign the UF Quest logo three times.
Fortunately, long before Lindner’s arrival, the UF Task Force on Undergraduate Education of 2010 paved the way for Quest in calling for the creation of signature experiences for first-time in college students that are themed: an increase in academic experiential learning, service learning, and civic engagement opportunities. Its most notable change was the addition of the required course “The Good Life,” which gave FTIC’s exposure to great book philosophers and the Socratic method. While the course itself is largely considered disappointing, the breakthrough of establishing a shared, core curricula for 6,500 incoming students provided a platform that could be revised.
After countless hours of expansive consensus-building on campus, and the solid but intentionally understated support of then President Kent Fuchs, Lindner and a multi-disciplinary team of faculty, staff and academic administrators unveiled the first version of UF Quest in 2017, centered on “the exploration of grand challenges” (hence the name) in the Humanities, Natural and Social Sciences. The content of UF Quest 1 courses reflect one of five themes representing grand challenges in the Humanities – the Examined Life, Identities, Justice and Power, Nature and Culture, War and Peace.
Quest 2 courses, also required, focus on what Lindner calls the “wicked questions” of the natural or social sciences. Quest 3 and 4, which are currently electives, rely more heavily on experiential learning components to send students into the world to try on for size what they have learned in the classroom. Quest 4 is a discipline rooted faculty-driven capstone course that allows them to synthesize their learning and hear from voices outside of higher education.
Unlike other courses in the general education curriculum, UF Quest has a number of “non-negotiables” reflecting its mission. Every Quest course has to have small classes, faculty have to engage closely with students - they are expected to know every student’s name; they have to include reflection assignments and some element of experiential learning. In addition, every course has to pose an essential question. For example, in the anthropology course “Indigenous Values,” the instructor asks, “How can indigenous values about the relationship between nature and culture help us address the challenge of climate change, food insecurity, and public health?”
Faculty Expertise, Student Choice
It is clear that the role of the faculty in the development and execution of UF Quest cannot be overstated, both in terms of their buy-in and ownership of the program and in the way it has allowed them to teach. UF Quest’s excerpt is “Faculty Expertise, Student Choice” which speaks volumes about the essential elements of the program. “The only way this was going to work was to have faculty backing it,” said Quinn Hansen, who was introduced to UF Quest by a faculty colleague who thought he would be a good fit. “And the best way to get faculty bought in is to say to them ‘talk about what you like and what you’re passionate about.’ It’s all about proposing your own adventure.”
Lindner believes Quest has influenced teaching generally at UF with professors reporting they now teach their other courses as they do their Quest courses – with a much stronger connection to their students. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear the word ‘love,’ from faculty,” she said. “They love their students, they are excited to get back to their ‘first love’ – teaching.”
So how does all this feel for the students themselves, nearly all of whom are unaware of the general-ed revisions that were made on their behalf?
Claire is a senior on full scholarship at UF. She is double majoring in biology and Japanese and is on her way to veterinarian school. Her UF Quest journey was not so much about discovering what she wanted to major in as it was about experiencing a different side to what she had already chosen to pursue. For her Quest course, Claire chose “The Anatomy of a Story,” mostly, she said, because it had anatomy in the name. The instructor used several media sources – books like When Breath Becomes Air and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as documentaries, poetry, and artwork – to convey the experience of either the patient or the practitioner. With humanities-related topics weaved throughout, the class was largely discussion-based, and students submitted a final essay interpreting one of the media sources they chose.
“Being a biology major, a lot of what I do is listen to lectures and regurgitate information so having a discussion-based class where you hear other people’s opinions, that’s what I found most valuable about Quest,” she said. Claire’s experience included forging a close relationship with her professor. “She made a big impact on me because of how passionate she was about the material,” Claire said. “She has been a phenomenal mentor to me.”
Andrew, a third-year engineering major at UF, was also impressed with the energy and commitment faculty put into their Quest courses. He took the “Good Life” in Quest 1 and while he was “meh” about the course, he said the instructor impressed him. “The professor made it way more than just about the material itself,” he said. “He was a passionate musician, and he brought his music into different points of the course and gave us his own personal view. He was also very interested in what we had to say.”
Like Claire, Andrew viewed his Quest requirement as a respite from the load he was taking in engineering where he is studying digital arts and sciences. “As a student in a Quest course, you’re embracing a very different way of thinking than your major probably tracks you into,” he said. For Quest 2, Andrew chose “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” which he described as exploring what love, sex and romance actually mean. “Each week we did readings that we would discuss, and we talked about how they made us feel, how this pertained to our own lives, and I think we all grew as people as a result,” he said.
In discussing the level of faculty engagement within his Quest courses, Andrew offered an astute observation even Lindner may not have anticipated. “The Quest instructors have more freedom and can arrange the curriculum with more fluidity in a way that’s productive and engaging and that tends to produce a higher quality of instruction.”
The Quest Forward
17,849 students have now successfully completed their Quest 1 requirement and 8,800 students have completed Quest 2 courses. Over 200 faculty from 69 units have developed and offered UF Quest courses and the qualitative and quantitative data have been positive. But UF Quest still faces a number of internal and external challenges that will determine just how much a change agent it proves to be for the university.
Marketing the program wasn’t included in “getting it over the finish line” and there is a long way to go before students move from checking the box on their required Quest courses to promoting them as transformative experiences on TikTok. A related problem is getting traction on Quest 3 and 4. As important as it would seem to bring students through the full Quest trajectory, it is a tougher lift for third- and fourth-year students who are fully ensconced in their majors. In many ways, the challenge in implementing Quest’s later stages bumps up against the problem the program was created to address: students are worried they won’t have the time or the credit latitude for courses outside of their area of study. As excited as Andrew was to have participated in UF Quest, he was unsure if he would pursue Quest 2 and 3 when asked about it. “As an engineering major, I have a lot of other big stones to step on.”
Perhaps Quest's biggest challenge is the chilling effect reported on college campuses in states, like Florida, with active legislation that restricts content of courses, combined with the increasing drumbeats calling for a return to prescribed classical education in core curriculum (both at odds with Quest's excerpt of "Faculty Expertise and Student Choice" to encourage freedom of exploration, discovery, and meaning-making). Today, despite its tangible, transformative successes, this uncertainty leads to the question of whether Quest will be allowed to reach its full potential now that it has indeed hit its stride.
Angela Lindner has recently retired from her position as Associate Provost, something she said she planned in anticipation of a research-based sabbatical that will lead to a teaching position in the engineering department. As proud as she is of the signature work she led with UF Quest, she said her greatest satisfaction came when people, particularly faculty, started calling it their own.