Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Uncertainty

Contingencies

Well, the national news is not encouraging. This morning I saw that two universities have stepped back from having any campus experiences. Although they started out committed to bringing some of their students back, the early signs in those (southern and western) states are showing a resurgence of COVID-19, so they are changing course. Here in Connecticut, things are still moving in the right direction (lower incidences of infection, low hospitalization rates), but we are just reopening, so time will tell how things progress in July. In the meantime, we must get ready for our August opening with a lot of uncertainty. Oh goodie!

Well, the obvious answer is to prepare to be fully online, just in case. But this is no small thing. Teaching online is (or should be) fundamentally different from on-ground teaching. For example:

  • In the classroom, faculty can see reactions (confusion, engagement, or the lack thereof) and adjust. Online, the space for reactions must be carefully constructed.
  • In the classroom, group work is relatively easily supported, online it must be designed in advance.
  • In the classroom, you can easily change course if things are not working. That change can happen in the same day or by the next session. Online, that change will require re-writing notes/assignments and so on, to address the change.

Preparing to teach online requires thinking about instruction in new ways. It is a departure from the routine. You can see, from this short list, that many people will be tempted to just prepare for teaching the last part of the semester online (when we all go home at Thanksgiving).

Nevertheless, with the hope of some on-campus experience before us, we must prepare for multiple possibilities. This preparation will take effort, but it might benefit all of us for the long haul. In that spirit, I would like to offer some thoughts about course design. I hope this is some encouragement. We’ll see.

First, for faculty who are new to thinking about building courses around weekly topics, with weekly activities to support and assess student understanding of those topics (best practices for online instruction, excellent for those aiming for universal design), I would like to say that this approach will also strengthen the on-ground learning experiences for your students. Like preparing to teach anything, this will require some thought and effort, but it can be very satisfying for everyone involved.

For lower level courses, this weekly topic approach helps students transition from high school to college learning expectations, by providing clear timelines, and lots of opportunity to see if they “get it.” Online, assessment opportunities can easily become self-assessments (mini-quizzes), to reduce grading for the professor. On-ground those same strategies can be deployed in support of the class discussions, ensuring students have started thinking about the ideas before you meet. Then faculty can attend to discussions and more nuanced assignments, without overburdening themselves. It takes time to get all of this organized, but once done, it can be edited each semester, reducing the preparation to normal on-ground levels.

For upper level courses, particularly those that are meant to be seminars, the same weekly groupings of topics apply. Offering these courses online will require a good understanding of how to set up discussion groups, so that students can take on leadership roles. This is a usual practice on ground that translates to online very nicely. It is true that most of this will be asynchronous and lack some of the in-classroom spontaneity. However, the time lag in responses often allows students to think through ideas in ways that they have difficulty doing in the classroom. Their responses, with time to think, are often more grounded in the readings and more thoughtful. The grading will be the same as always (usually lots of writing assignments in these kinds of classes), and faculty will find themselves nudging conversations rather than responding to everything, just like a seminar. In other words, it does not have to be a lot more work than on-ground seminars, after you set things up.

Second, many people already teach hybrid courses. This approach has long been seen as an effective strategy for learning at many levels. It blends some face-to-face experiences with online work. Faculty who have been doing this have been deciding about what is vital for on-ground and what works well online, for years. In normal times those decisions are made in advance. However, teaching this way also requires the kind of organized experience that an online class requires. Faculty who have taught hybrid courses will be well-prepared to flip to fully online if necessary. It might be a good time to phone a friend and see how they do this.

Finally, for those who plan to use live meeting platforms for the fall, I must acknowledge that it is not necessarily ideal. If you like to lecture, great, but getting feedback from students will be a challenge. We have all learned about the strengths and weaknesses of WebEx, Zoom, Teams, etc., this spring. People try to have “conversations” but they end up being frustrated as we wait for people to mute and un-mute themselves (and forget to re-mute themselves afterward). It can happen, if you assign moderators to discussion boards, but it is tricky.

And there are limits to our ability to pay attention in online meetings. We all know this now that we are working remotely. The chunking strategies that are ideal for the online teaching environment, are also preferable in the WebEx/Zoom environment. Faculty should carefully consider how they are organizing time in this environment. You will be glad you did.

In addition, even if you prefer the live meetings, assignments and assessments, still need a learning platform (in our case, Blackboard Learn) so that students have a consistent experience. It is incredibly frustrating for students to have to find their courses – with some in email, some in Teams, and some in Blackboard. So, the work of preparing the course will still need the kind of preparation that our online classes require. It may be work to set this up, but those same tools work on ground, too, so it is not wasted time. Indeed, I have long enjoyed collecting assignments this way. It helps me keep track of things in multiple courses, instead of unseparated email trails and piles of paper.

So, I guess what I am saying is we must prepare to teach fully online, but the best techniques for online teaching can have great benefits for on-ground teaching. The process of imagining your material in multiple formats, might also help you see that material differently. This has the potential to help you reach students with diverse learning styles. The tools that you leverage now will be there for snow days, conference trips, and other scheduling purposes after COVID-19. They may also help us chart a new path toward new schedule configurations in the future. This is something we should be thinking about anyway, so why not take advantage of this moment of crisis to prepare for a more flexible future.

I know it is hard, but, after it is done, I think it will be worth it, not just for the fall, but for the future of the university.

Higher Education, Resilience, Uncertainty

Unhappy Realities

We have done it! Working with my deans, department chairs, and facilities team, we have mapped our classroom capacities for COVID-19 and built a fall schedule. Room capacities were startling, with lecture halls that once fit 75-125 now only fitting 16-25. Fixed seating scenarios were much worse than rooms with moveable seats, so the very few large lectures that we offered will have to be online. Working with faculty preferences and concerns, paired with a few guidelines around creating on-campus experiences for our First-Year students and our upper level major courses, we ended up with a mix of online (60-62%), hybrid, and on-ground classes (38-40%). Absolutely no one is happy.

Of course, no one is happy. My residential students (about 30%) want more on-campus courses. So do some of my commuters, who do not like the online learning experience. Other students (a mix of traditional-aged and returning adults) do not want to come to campus at all. They are juggling work, children, helping with siblings, or serving in essential personnel roles (nursing homes, hospitals, etc.). For them the best option is all online, but not all of them will achieve that. Some students and faculty and staff have health conditions that suggest they should stay away. Others have learning needs that favor face-to-face experiences. Faculty are trying to figure out how to teach in a mask and/or spending the summer reimagining their courses for our very non-intuitive learning management system. For part-time faculty it is even worse, with decisions about on-campus or online, complicated by the reality of reduced enrollments and likely course cancellations. Oh boy.

And then there is the drip, drip, drip of health and safety concerns. As we watch surges in recently reopened southern and southwestern states, we wonder if we should come back at all. After all, even here in Connecticut where the prevailing behavior has been reasonable caution (most of us are wearing our masks and sitting far apart), we know very well that young people will take risks. That is a simple truth.

As the fall schedule began to solidify last week, I started to get the questions and complaints from students. I anticipate my inbox will be full of these missives about the balance of online and on-ground experiences until we start the semester. Then they will be followed up with complaints about how each modality is working. The list will be:

  1. The professor doesn’t know how to use Blackboard.
  2. I can’t hear my professor through the face mask.
  3. I can’t figure out which day to be on campus and which day is online (hybrid/hi-flex).
  4. I thought I wanted the synchronous (live online class), but now I wish it was asynchronous.
  5. And so on.

I am also receiving questions and concerns from faculty and staff. These questions revolve around enforcement of mask wearing (we will all enforce this practice together), cleaning practices (same as always, with supplies to wipe down desks and teaching stations in every room, and hand sanitizer everywhere), ventilation (adequate with masks on), and bathrooms (same as always, just wear your mask and wash your hands). For faculty and staff who do counter/reception service (secretaries, librarians, registrars, etc.), we are adding plastic barriers for extra safety, but most things will be by appointment anyway. These questions will continue through the start of the fall only to be followed up with:

  1. I thought I could teach for three hours in a mask, but I cannot.
  2. I can’t hear my students through their masks.
  3. I can’t read my students through their masks.
  4. I thought I wanted to teach online synchronous, but I wish I had decided on hybrid.
  5. And as always, I hate Blackboard Learn.

Nope. No one is happy.

I have seen all the jabs at administration during this pandemic. We have been accused of making decisions too quickly (driven by monetary concerns) and too slowly (families/students want to know what to expect). We have been accused of offering platitudes and vague statements that obscure realities. We probably have done this as we navigate the balance between decision-making and problem-solving. We are being asked to lead our campuses forward with the same information that everyone else has, while being flogged for each decision. Ok, I have a sense of humor. But, you know, it is not all that funny. We are tasked with making sure we still have universities in the fall, and it is not an easy task.

All I can say is this, I have tried my very best to deal with the realities as they are known today. For faculty, that means working with their proposals for modalities, asking for minor modifications to meet a few face-to-face interaction goals, and then letting it be. For students, that means making sure that most have a blend of learning options in their schedules. They will not have everything they prefer, but they will have some options. For staff, this means working to determine the balance of on-campus and remote work and putting in protections for those in reception areas. For everyone, this means vigilance and compromise.

All decisions have been informed by the very best guidance from the CDC so far: wear masks, wash hands, stay six feet apart. That is really all there is to do, unless we all stay home. Students across the country rejected the notion of just staying home, so we are doing our best to “re-populate” our campuses. When you blend commuter with residential students, like we do, we must assume potential exposure at all times. So, we are erring on the side of caution with our protective measures. The masks, social distancing, and reduced number of classroom experiences appear to be an effective strategy and should go a long way toward preventing a resurgence. We’ll see.

So, no one is happy. No one is going to have an ideal experience. Everyone is going to have to reimagine what education is like in this environment. But, is this really a new situation? Ideal experiences never really exist. Faculty must always figure out how to create the best educational experience possible with the tools and settings available. Students always have to adjust to experiences they did not expect or have not experienced before. So, you know, we could decide this is adventure and, well, get happy.

Change, equity

Antiracist Policy 1: Remedial Education

Like so many others, the recent demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd have led me to reflect upon my own behavior. I am reviewing my personal and professional actions with a greater focus on equity. I am looking for ways that I can move my attitudes to actions that will make the world a more equitable place.

I want to thank Ibram X. Kendi for making it simple for me. I have been lost in the twisted logics of equality rather than equity. In my efforts to include all voices, I have neglected the steps necessary to create opportunities for all voices to be heard. I have also been willing to let things evolve. There is no more time for that. From now on, I am committing to action. I will let Kendi’s elegant definitions be my guide:

  • Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
  • Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. *

In the year ahead (and thereafter), I will be reviewing all of the policies at my university through this lens, but right now I am focusing on a policy at the intersection of high school and college. Given the persistent “achievement gap” in CT, I would like to see the State of Connecticut adopt this policy: Any student who earns a high school diploma from public school in the state of Connecticut, and then places into remedial education, will be awarded one year of free tuition at a state college or university.

Here are the reasons that I see this as a necessary policy.

I have long known that the students who attend Danbury Public Schools (where many of my undergraduates attended high school) have much less support than those who attend Sherman School, where I serve on the Board of Education. This is true in terms of per pupil spending: Danbury $14,041; Sherman $20,034 (Connecticut Public School Spending Report). It is even more true when one considers the needs of the students in Danbury High School (61.2% Free Lunch Eligible, 17% English Language Learners) vs. Sherman School (3.3% Free Lunch Eligible, 0% English Language Learners). Unsurprisingly, most students in Sherman are White: not so in Danbury. (Connecticut Report Cards). I think you can see that funding is an important source of Connecticut’s persistent educational inequities.

This imbalance in support became nearly catastrophic when we all closed for COVID-19. Sherman teachers struggled to find good methods of supporting students in this distance learning environment. Families adjusted to the need to juggle working at home while supporting their children’s education and the general chaos of separation from friends and activities that make up the lucky lives of the people of Sherman. Danbury schools struggled with all of that plus providing food for families. They also had many families without multiple (or any) computers or wi-fi access. They had families who struggled with childcare because the parents were essential personnel. They had students who had no real support for learning because their parents do not yet speak English.

All of the things I just listed need a host of policy reforms to correct them. But today I am focusing on college readiness. You see, it is clear that Danbury Schools cannot achieve the outcomes of the Sherman Schools under these conditions. The fact that a fair number of Danbury graduates do manage to thrive is exceptional. It should not be considered a bar that everyone can meet if they just try. Getting to the graduation stage is a remarkable achievement for students whose lives are characterized by hunger, poverty, home insecurity, and no resources for education beyond what their under-funded school district provides.

Even so, many Danbury High School graduates still pursue a college education. Thank goodness we have not managed to dissuade them from this opportunity. While some of them go on to Yale and Harvard, or qualify for our honors program, etc., the fact is that students from these under-funded school districts are over-represented in our remedial math and writing courses. This reality adds about a year’s worth of additional cost to higher education.

Here is how it works. We admit students with a wide range of K-12 educational experiences. If they opted out of the SAT, or if their scores on the SAT are below the “cut scores,” they take placement tests. Some of these students end up with scores below our general education levels. They are placed in our “P” courses. P courses allow students to take a college level writing or math course with embedded remediation. This is a good effort on our part to try to get students on track, without costing them college credit and time. But there are issues.

Issue one: P courses require a lot of time and effort to complete. We reflect this in credit hours, but it is not sufficient. Students are better off taking a reduced load while in these courses, but the reduction has financial consequences. They have to stay in school longer or catch up in the summer (pay additional tuition).

Issue two: Students who place into P courses, are effectively blocked from starting majors in STEM, Education, and Nursing (all very popular among our first generation college students). This means staying in school longer (paying additional tuition).

Issue three: For the neediest students in Connecticut, Pell Grants cover tuition and fees at state schools (more or less). They do not cover the cost of living. Students who need P courses are frequently in that neediest category and are likely to need to work a lot while in college. Therefore, they will not have sufficient time to do well in the P courses and frequently withdraw and try again. This means staying in school longer (paying additional tuition).

So, my proposal is simple: Students who graduate from any public school in CT and need remediation in college, will be given their first year of education at a public college or university for free. This will allow students to save their Pell or student loan money for the other four years. It will allow them to take a reduced load if they need to work. It will stop charging the neediest students extra to attend college.

One more thing: CT has recently adopted the “last dollar” free tuition model for our community college system. Good, but notice that it is last dollar. This still asks these same students to use their grants for remedial education. It also keeps them from having a university option, which is problematic at best. It is not sufficient to achieve equity. My proposal stands.

*Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, 2019.

Black Lives Matter, equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

The Disconnect

On Friday I attended a demonstration organized by WCSU students in response to the murder of George Floyd.  Beginning in silence as our leaders let 8 minutes and 46 seconds pass, I had ample time to understand everything. Already reeling from the video, already horrified by the unequal application of the law to communities of color, already committed to decriminalization of non-violent crime, I still missed the most important message of all: there was plenty of time to change course, but it did not happen. I wept.

As my students began to speak, they told me important things. They told me that our African-American student clubs are treated unfairly. They told me that our “conversations” about social issues are not enough.  They called out the lack of courses in African-American, Latin-American, and Native-American histories and cultures.  They reminded me that faculty and staff do not reflect the diversity of our student population. And, yes, they wondered why it took a nation-wide protest for us to heed the calls to change our mascot.  I listened.

I have no defense for any of it.  I have observed some of these same things over the years.  I have seen that our “conversations” are never followed up with action.  I have noticed the imbalance in our staffing and have not found a good path to change it.  I have seen the disparities in the catalog and on the schedule, without effectively balancing it.  I have allowed policies to stand that disproportionately impact students who come from under-resourced K-12 school districts, and yes, that means disproportionately students of color. And, though I have always flinched at our mascot, I did not see the mascot as something I should take the lead on.  I am sorry.

It might be nice to offer myself an out.  I have, in fact, worked to right some of these wrongs over the years.  I could list those efforts, but I will not because the simple truth is, they have not worked. I have not managed to communicate the urgency of the situation.  I have only made marginal reforms. I have been deferential to the labyrinth of university processes that frequently end in tiny adjustments, rather than systemic change. It has taken me too long, but I get it now. It is time to change course.

Where to begin? The list is long, but I will start with two places where there is a disconnect between my (our) intentions and what my (our) students see.

Disconnect 1: Curriculum

While we may feel that our curriculum is inclusive, some of our students see it differently. As I looked through our catalog last week, I noted that gap.  Let me be clear, we do have courses that address African-American, Latin-American, Native-American, and Women’s histories and literatures but the number is very small compared to the whole of our catalog. We do weave in a diversity of perspectives and readings within some of our courses, but our students cannot see that when they choose to enroll because our course descriptions do not reveal a commitment to well-rounded narratives. We do have lovely courses that help us see our systems and cultures through the lens of non-US cultures, but our path to those courses (our introductions to disciplines) are failing to engage and excite our students, so those courses frequently struggle for enrollments. Then I have to cancel them because low-enrolled courses are not financially sustainable.

There are lots of steps to take to fix this disconnect between our intentions and what actually happens.  We can start with revising course descriptions to draw attention to our concern for equity. We can revise our reading lists to achieve a broader representation of voices and expertise in every discipline.  We can re-consider the point of an undergraduate degree and prioritize our requirements to address issues of equity.  We can re-imagine those first level courses, not as standard introductions to disciplines, but places to develop the basic tools of inquiry necessary for students to truly engage equity and diversity as they progress through their education.

These might be good places to start, but right now I think I will start by listening to what our students see, because talking among ourselves is getting is nowhere.

Disconnect 2: Prioritizing Student Success

We like to think of our campus as student-centered.  In many ways we are. Lots of faculty and staff take the time to reach out to students who are struggling, provide opportunities for students to excel, and go above and beyond to help students get to the finish line.  I know this to be true.  I have seen wonderful things happen time and time again.

Nevertheless, we are slow to act on information that tells us how we might do better. Consider retention, for example. For several years I have known that the students we are most likely to lose in the first year are students who had below a B average (84% or lower) in high school.  This was a big aha for me. I had been sorting our data by lots of demographic factors, but nothing was as predictive as this one variable. Great. Now what?

Well, I have tried to address it for two years, but I am getting nowhere.  I have initiated processes that have stalled, allowing these students to continue to arrive at the university and receive less than adequate support. The structure of our organization has made it next to impossible for me to achieve the focused intervention necessary for student success.

This can no longer stand.  I will act on the data and invest in the supports that have the best chance of improving the outcomes for those who did not thrive in high school.  Ignoring this leaves more students with a bill for an education they were unable to fully access. I have the time to change course, and I will not wait to do so.

There is much more to do, but I am guessing that as I move this conversation forward, including the voices that must be included, I will find the list to be longer than I have imagined.  I also anticipate that better ideas for solutions will come from those conversations, so I will continue to listen.

But I will not continue to wait for things to evolve over time. Higher education has time to change course, but that time is not infinite; that time is now.

Change, equity, Higher Education

Catalog as Equity Indicator

Well, it was a tough week last week.  As Americans took to the streets to express their fully justified rage at the persistent biases in policing that are visited upon communities of color, Western Connecticut State University struggled to respond.  We had a few missteps, but the near term result is that we have agreed to change our mascot and there will be a demonstration, organized by our students, this week.  But what about the long-term?

Last week, in response to students who wrote to me, I asked my faculty to reconsider the fall schedule.  Already struggling to figure out what we will look like in response to COVID-19, I added representation to the mix.  As students were grappling with the murder of George Floyd, they asked me why there were not more courses that represented the diversity of their backgrounds and experiences in our curriculum. Good question.

Of course, there is not a simple answer. When I reached out to faculty, and some of the departments that I thought had the most to contribute, two responses emerged.

Response 1: We address issues of race, gender, and equity in many of our classes.  It is woven in.

I wish that were true.  I took a few hours to read through our catalog and a few of the associated course outlines.  Except for Social Work majors, where these issues are truly  woven throughout the curriculum, discussions about equity (and therefore, race and gender) are not in the course descriptions. Here is a sample of what I found:

  • Justice and Law Administration mentions race in one course description, has a gender focused class (women, of course), and one course about civil rights.
  • The business degrees limit this conversation to the Marketing courses, with an emphasis on persuasion, and equal employment rules in management.
  • Sociology has a Social Problems class, which gets at some of what we need to be talking about, and then a few on race and equity, and the issues facing Latin-Americans in particular.
  • Anthropology always focuses on concepts that help us have good discussions about the constructs of race and culture, but their contexts are other countries, thus obscuring the relevance to our students’ lives.
  • The health professions acknowledge that culture and community play a role in health care, so I guess that’s a win.
  • There are a smattering of courses (Women’s Studies, Non-Western Cultures), with titles that tell the tale, but they are a small part of our offerings.
  • The histories of music, literature, and art are mostly Euro-centric with a few exceptions sprinkled in, and most (not all) of our American History courses focus on slavery when they address diversity and equity at all.

Nope, we do not substantively address race, gender, and equity in our curriculum. If we do, it is communicated at such an abstraction that our students cannot find it.  We need to rethink this woven-in strategy.

Response 2: When we choose to focus on particular groups – Women’s History, African-American History, LatinX History, and so on – we run the risk of reinforcing a marginalized status. 

Yes, I agree. I hate the way we have to name these groups to make them visible. I wish that we were at a point in our curriculum development that it would be absurd to do this. In a world where our teachings fully represented the contributions and experiences of all groups in the arts, sciences, politics, and the rest, we would not feel the need to create these courses. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

When students ask where the courses about their histories and experiences are, they are telling us that they do not see that representation.  They are hungering for acknowledgement of their value.  If their stories are not part of everything, and they are not, then they need the focused courses.  Before we push away their request with the marginalization response, let us consider the balance of our offerings. Here are some examples of what I mean.

English has thirteen courses that are focused on literatures that skew white and European and four that obviously do not. I am being generous in this. I suspect the genre courses also skew white and European, but I do not know for sure. Throwing in one book by an author from an under-represented group does not count.

History has approximately twenty-five courses focused on histories that are distinctly white, European, and male.  There are a cluster of Non-Western Culture courses, and a few courses that focus on civil rights and women’s histories, but proportionately they are small compared to the overwhelming number of traditional approaches to history.

In the rest of the arts and humanities disciplines, where these topics should flourish, the proportions do not improve. What we are doing is marginalizing the histories, literatures, arts, and philosophies of women, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, LatinX Americans, LGBTQIA, and so on, by limiting them to the precious few courses.  In other words, if there were not so few of them, they would not be marginal. If we want equity in our curriculum, we should have many more classes that focus on particular histories and experiences. Then they would not be the exception, but instead, they would be the basis of a strong liberal arts education.

The most egregious example of the absence of serious diversity in our curriculum is the case of African-American Studies.  This is a topic that you can find in our catalog. It contains exactly one dedicated course, The Black Experience in America. The rest of the courses are anthropology courses about Africa. There is a course in African-American Literature in the English department, but it is not listed here. Wow. Worse yet, The Black Experience in America has no home. It is scheduled by the History Department, but they claim no ownership of the material. It is taught by a long-time adjunct faculty member. Nope, no buy-in here at all. I am ashamed.

Now, I know some readers will find flaws in my logic here.  If we weave it in, do we need the special courses? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Probably, but sometimes contradictory things can both be true. We need to weave equity into all that we do. We also need to be interested in the many histories and experiences that make up our communities.

We have a lot of work to do, and now that we are through the first level of our defense mechanisms, I would like to get on with it.  I do not want to get mired in identifying problems associated with transitioning to curriculum that better reflects the diversity of human experiences. I want proposals that dig into every discipline (yes, STEM, you too) and make the changes we need to build an anti-racist university*.

*More on this topic next week. For now, I highly recommend Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to be an Anti-Racist.