Higher Education, Resilience, Thinking

What have you learned?

We’re speeding toward final exams, papers, and performances at a breathless pace. The Thanksgiving holiday always ends with that terrifying thought that we’re almost done and now what? Students are scrambling to catch up on the things they missed earlier, while juggling the remaining assignments and exam preparation. Faculty are wondering how they will complete the goals they set out for their classes and if it is possible to live up to their own aspirations. Administrators like me are wondering how it is possible that my to-do list is longer than it was at the start of the semester. Whew!

Well the good news is we always seem to make it to that finish line one way or another. The interesting news is that for most of us it was another. Clearly our planning processes are open to re-interpretation. Maybe that is a good thing. So, as I reflect on all that has occurred since classes began in late August, I am thinking about that simple question: What have you learned?

My husband once told me that when he was an undergraduate one of his professors asked only this question on the final. He says it was the most challenging exam he ever had. Being able to sum up all of your knowledge from one course in an essay addressing such an open-ended question can be truly daunting. Where are the essay prompts directing us to address specific details? Where are the multiple-choice questions that limit my thinking to which answer is correct? Where is the list of core concepts from which I choose my favorite and show off what I’ve learned about that one thing? What have I learned? That is just too much.

Or maybe we could have fun with this approach. It might free us from preconceived notions about what our students should have learned, letting us open our ears to what they really gleaned from our courses. It might show us how they have prioritized the course content, giving us clues about what went well and what did not. It might even help with course design next semester. I know, it doesn’t really work for everything. Sometimes there are very specific things that students must master by the end of the semester. Still, in some instances this could be a great question.

But, I’m not advocating for anything in particular today. Just thinking. For me, I’m considering what I have learned from my list of projects this fall. You see I had a long list of things to work on and almost none of them are complete. In some cases, this is because my list was problematic, and I was working on the wrong thing. In others it was because the scale of the job was larger than I’d hoped. And, of course, in several cases other priorities emerged. So, what have I learned?

First, I’ve learned that managing during a pandemic that appears to be under control is only slightly less exhausting than when we had no idea what would happen next. We started the fall pressing for vaccinations and hoping for normalcy only to encounter Delta. We did well, but just as I was getting optimistic about an even more normal spring, Omicron appeared. I guess, from this I must learn not to predict more than two or three weeks into the future. That sure makes it hard to plan things!

Second, I’ve learned that simple tasks have a way of turning into giant, multifaceted projects if I don’t continuously rein them in. This is, of course, the nature of the academic mind. We see the connections from one idea to the next, never wanting to settle on the narrow focus. This is wonderful in so many ways, and it can keep me from ignoring critical variables, but at some point this habit of expansive thinking is a way of avoiding decisions. In this case, I’ve learned to try to limit the number of variables to be considered in any project that I’d like to see completed. Note the word try. I might not be able to do this.

Third, I’ve learned that really good conversations are still better in person than on Zoom. I don’t hate this technology. I find it valuable for all sorts of quick, problem solving, task-oriented meetings. Remote meetings allow me to schedule more check-in meetings that are not too taxing for those involved. In other words, if I don’t have to ask folks to come to my office, it is easier to fit in a quick chat. Nevertheless, the tough stuff, the complicated stuff is still better in person. It takes time, trust, and focus to really uncover where things are going right and where they are going wrong. Somehow, being in the same room makes this more likely to happen than online.

Finally, I’ve learned that, as stressful as the world still is, good educational experiences remain at the heart of what is going on at WCSU. Faculty are starting to tell me about the clever ways that they modified their courses to deal with gaps in learning from last year (yes, there were gaps). Students have reported great support as they navigated a COVID scare or two. Activities on our curriculum committees show that departments are fully engaged in reviewing and updating their offerings to better support the goals they have for their students. We even have some new programs moving forward. In a climate where we might just tread water and wait out the chaos, people are actively working to make new things happen.

There is a lot more, of course. If there wasn’t my to-do list would not have gotten longer. But I am inspired from the lessons learned and more so by the great things that are actually getting done. So, let’s think of this race to the finish line as a sled ride and just say wheee!

equity, Inclusion

Good Intentions Derailed

In the summer of 2020, students at WCSU, like students all over the country, planned a demonstration in response to the murder of George Floyd. I stood with them as they held the moments of silence representing the time that Floyd was held down, the stunning amount of time for the police officer to stop what he was doing and not take a life. The tears were flowing.

We then participated in a brief march around the campus and ended at the podium where some students and faculty took a moment to air their concerns, not just about the treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice system, but the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion at our university. While many of the things said represented a moment of pain beyond my ability to respond, one concern that was raised was about our curriculum. This is my bailiwick, so I called the student leaders in for a meeting and tried to get at what they were worried about. From this conversation, I attempted to take action.

The concerns expressed by the students were two-fold. 1. There was a sense that our curriculum did not fully represent the histories and contributions of the diversity of peoples that make up our campus community. 2. There was a sense, demonstrated through various examples, that students of color are marginalized in the classroom. Not being aware of the range of literature about inclusive teaching practices, the students struggled to express their concerns. Nevertheless, I thought I had an idea of what they were experiencing.

As provost, my default next move is to reach out to the faculty and ask for help in addressing these concerns. In the fall after that demonstration, I visited our University Senate and asked for volunteers to form an ad hoc committee and charged them with the narrowly defined task of identifying some tools for looking at our curriculum from an equity and inclusion lens. I thought that this group would review the many tools that have been developed by other campuses to look at curriculum and recommend one for adoption. This tool would then be used by faculty within their departments to consider opportunities to be more inclusive. Oh foolish me.

I should have known better. You see the trouble is that there is too much equity work to be done on our campus, and the areas of inquiry just kept expanding. There were questions about our campus climate (good questions) that got bundled into the report. There were concerns about our recruiting practices and the persistent results of our searches that still skew toward historic representations along race and gender lines. There were concerns about trying to address diversity and equity in every class, potentially distracting from the overall goals of the course. There was no concern whatsoever about our own achievement gaps and how our pedagogies might be contributing to that, but I assume that would have emerged eventually. It was not a happy conversation.

Well, we are moving on to another committee whose charge will be to address these many questions, broadening the scope of the analysis, which is probably appropriate. But this will likely take another year, which doesn’t seem right to me. I must admit, I am disheartened.

From the range of questions and comments that emerged, it is clear that our community cares deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campus. Nothing that was said suggests that there isn’t concern about how to best serve our students from this perspective. Unfortunately, I think we are so aware of just how complicated these questions are that we are paralyzed. It reminds me of how I used to feel in the library stacks when I was getting my PhD; I just couldn’t figure out where the end of the question might be. This knowledge of the layers of complexity makes it difficult to take action.

The trouble is, I think those students deserve some action, sooner rather than later. So, at the risk of over-simplifying things, I’d like to suggest a few first steps for our community. These are baby steps, available to us right now, while we wait for the more complex DEI plan to be fully developed.

  1. Each faculty member should take a look at their syllabi and simply ask if there are any opportunities to include a wider range of voices in the readings assigned. This does not mean that math classes need to teach subjects that are more appropriate to anthropology classes. It simply means looking at the many people who have contributed to the field of mathematics and consider whether or not their voices or discoveries are reflected in the materials.
  2. Each department might come together to look at the whole of what they are offering and consider whether or not, taken together, the curriculum includes opportunities to encounter a diversity of scholars who have contributed to the field. That work together could reveal a few insights about the dominant narratives being presented and whether or not there are opportunities to grow the range of voices encountered by our students. This holistic approach to the major can help address any gaps in perspectives while at the same time avoiding trying to make all courses do the same thing.
  3. Our curriculum committees might take a moment to scan our catalogs (graduate and undergraduate) to see if there are ample opportunities for students to pursue some of the particular histories, fields, and narratives of interest to them. Can we find more than one course focused on women, or African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, or LGBTQ+ communities? Can we pursue a line of inquiry about the role of religion or culture or social structures in social justice movements? Is it possible to complete a degree at our university without ever hearing about a culture or community that is different from our own?
  4. For all of the above, can we include our students in the conversation? They might not see things the same way that we do. Perhaps we should try to learn what they are seeing.

And when we’re all done with the process above, it might be a good idea to a) communicate about it in some way and b) make a plan to do this work every few years.

There is a lot more to do. We really do need to look at the literature about inclusive teaching practices and get serious about finding out why some of our students are feeling marginalized. We need to get serious about looking at the ways in which that lack of attention to inclusive teaching practices is impacting our students in terms of successful course/degree completion. We really do need a climate survey to help us gauge how widespread the feelings of exclusion might be. Then we need to act on the results of that survey. We really do need to examine our hiring practices to try to get a better understanding of why we keep replicating the status quo. All of this is important, and I hope that the next committee will do a great job on this.

But for right now, the simple steps above could help us move forward. They allow the content experts to do the work. They do not involve any external reviews of anything, and so might encourage departments to have honest and thoughtful conversations. They do not suggest that every course needs to become a course about diversity or culture. Instead, they just ask all of us to be mindful of our decisions and look for reasonable opportunities to be more inclusive. That doesn’t have to take another year.

Higher Education

What are Schools For?

It seems that I come around to this topic at least once every 6 months. The prevailing economic conditions, political priorities, and evolving learning environments provoke questions that are at the heart of what education should or could be at this moment in history. As I peruse the higher ed news I see rich debates on social justice, modes of instruction, and the value of education. As my mind tries to sort it all out, I find myself reaching back to the work of Dr. Henry Perkinson who taught one of the best classes in my doctoral program: Readings in the History of Western Thought: What are Schools For? It’s time to revisit this question once again.

To start, it seems prudent to acknowledge that the answer to the question What are schools for? depends on which students we hope to serve. As provost at an access-oriented public university, the answer is clear – we exist to serve any student who is striving for the advantages that a college education can bring. Those advantages are related to social and economic opportunities and the ability to live a fulfilling life. All of our efforts then, should focus on making these advantages real for our students. But how do these advantages connect with the debates surrounding social justice, instructional formats, and the value of education? Quite directly. Let me explore them one-by-one.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the topic of social justice? Profound. One cannot be transformed by education if there is no opportunity to explore the history of ideas that underpin our social structures and the ways in which those ideas have changed and grown over time. As soon as we ask ourselves questions about how our world is organized now, and how we got here, we have entered a conversation about social justice. There are no stories untouched by bias, and it will be ever so. Each new discovery reveals another thing, place, or person we forgot to consider or actively excluded. We will always be finding those gaps or blind spots or exclusions and grappling with their consequences. It does not seem possible to teach anything without touching on social justice; it is embedded in all we do.

Our students need multiple opportunities to see how the past is connected to present in all disciplines, examining our best and worst ideas, and the impetus for change. They need learning environments that allow them to grapple with difficult concepts, the impact of discoveries large and small, and, yes, the gaps in narratives that have excluded some voices in favor of others. They need the chance to argue about these topics in contexts that demand extended thought instead of snap judgements, evaluation of evidence from multiple sources, and honest consideration of conflicting points of view. They also need the opportunity to practice these conversations with both passion and diplomacy. Without these opportunities, we will fail to give our students the chance to develop the skills and habits of mind necessary for navigating social and economic decisions that support a fulfilling life. Yes, the obligation to think about social justice is strong.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the exploration of our teaching practices and modalities? Unrelenting. These questions directly reflect our mission. We cannot change lives if our students don’t understand our goals or our expectations, or if we persist with methods of instruction that have a demonstrably negative impact on the equitable distribution of success. We should be obsessed with the literature on instructional design in any modality. We should be engaged with the research on non-cognitive variables and their outsized impact on our first-generation college students. We should be exploring ideas about course design that help our students draw connections between the learning in the classroom and the world in which they live.

Our faculty need multiple opportunities to experiment with instructional design. They need opportunities to engage the research on how students are learning and to try out new ideas. This means that those efforts need to be recognized as valuable to their career trajectory. We need to think about the kinds of supports we should give to new faculty to encourage attention to pedagogy. This might be a smaller teaching load and some professional development opportunities. It might also mean some relief from research expectations in the first few years. We also need to think about how to continue that engagement with pedagogy over the arc of a career, perhaps building in some periodic reductions in teaching loads to spend some time testing out a new approach. It isn’t that complicated, but we should be thinking about how to systematically support faculty development in instructional design as part of our understanding of their roles and responsibilities at the university.

Strong engagement with the research on pedagogy and instructional design is essential for a university like this one. It is the best path to supporting the diversity of learners we embrace in our mission. It is also the best path to improving student success rates, which translates into improved opinions of our value. This is the work of investment and engagement, not economic efficiency. Focusing on great instructional design keeps our attention on great learning experiences that don’t short-change students at access-oriented universities.

So, what are schools for? Or should I say, what are public, access-oriented universities for? We exist to serve any student who wants the advantages that a college education can bring. How do we help them access those advantages? First, by creating learning environments that are informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning and then being obsessed with finding better ways to invite students to engage difficult material and explore ideas. Second, by insisting on placing all that we know in context, the good and the bad of it all, so that our students leave us informed about the complexities of our world and prepared to engage those complexities honestly and fearlessly. That is our purpose; that is our value.

Engagement, Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Collegiality and Happiness

Over the past two weeks, I have hosted and/or participated in four different gatherings with students, faculty, and staff. We were trying solve problems, develop plans, and improve infrastructure and, well, to be better. After the year of Zoom meetings, it was fun to be in the room with colleagues, listening to ideas and working together to figure out what to do next. Preparing for these meetings took effort, but being in them was a joy. I am grateful to the many who participated and feel energized about the work ahead. Thanks everyone!

It seemed serendipitous, then, when I discovered an interesting essay about collegiality in Inside Higher Ed. Michael Weisbach argues that being a good colleague can benefit both the university and the person. He writes:

To be a good colleague, you must find some productive way to contribute that goes beyond your direct job description. By doing so, you will benefit your co-workers and the organization you work for. But equally importantly, you will benefit yourself. Your colleagues will appreciate you more, your evaluations will improve and you will most likely enjoy your profession more. (In Praise of Academic Collegiality, Inside Higher Ed, November 5, 2021).

I had two thoughts: 1. More? You want more from all of the over-taxed people who work with me?! 2. Maybe it isn’t the more, but the ongoing interaction that really defines collegiality.

Higher education is filled with work that is often invisible to the world outside of our (not so ivy-covered) walls. The work that most people associate with us is that of direct instruction in the classroom (virtual or otherwise). When looked at as a simple number of hours “at work” this looks like a pretty light load. At schools like WCSU, this means 12ish hours per week. The ish in my statement reflects the variability of this formula when we consider different types of classes–studios, labs, clinical placements–which may increase those hours. Still, even after those adjustments life looks pretty good. Except the work is way more than that. Faculty are also grading papers, preparing instructional materials, staying current in their field, which should also be regularly incorporated into their teaching (read new instructional materials). Oh, and they conduct research, attend/present at conferences, advise students, mentor scholarship–and this is just the stuff related to their actual job descriptions.

Right after the list above is the rest of it, which is not just faculty but everyone else at the university. We are an institution committed to peer review and shared governance. This means there are committees for everything from evaluations of personnel to the development and/or closure of academic programs, to the evaluation of co-curricular programs or student support services, to discussions about campus master plans or strategic plans. We also believe in the wisdom of our community and regularly see initiatives emerge from small groups with big ideas and these also require time and effort and evaluation. Each of these things happen regularly (weekly, monthly, and so on). We have no trouble identifying the hundred ways that the entire community “adds value…beyond the specified requirements of the job.”

So, the first part of what Weisbach discusses — looking for opportunities contribute beyond job requirements — is just a given of life in higher education. Indeed, the larger concern is how to keep those opportunities from overwhelming us. It is very easy to do too much and undermine some of one’s core job requirements. National data suggests that this overdoing often ends up disproportionately impacting women and colleagues from under-represented groups, which is an ongoing concern. Add to that the reality that those who volunteer to lead committees tend to become the go-to people for other projects, thus overburdening them in general, and we have a situation that needs to be thoughtfully monitored for equity and health.

Nevertheless, there are two other pieces of the essay that I think are incredibly valuable for thinking about collegiality on our campus. The first is his observation that while some people demonstrate collegiality in their willingness to take on committee or project leadership roles, or by participating in social gatherings or campus events, for others it takes the form of less visible action. Perhaps a colleague shares teaching materials or offers to talk about how they approach a topic with another faculty member. Maybe a person makes it a point to share information about grant opportunities with a colleague whose work is in a relevant area. Maybe a person reaches out to a colleague in a very different kind of role to talk about improving a process for students or colleagues, initiating a productive examination of where improvements could be achieved. Sometimes a person might just pass on positive comments they’ve heard about a colleague’s work. All of these examples, and the many more that take place every day, need to be acknowledged as the actions that contribute to a collegial environment.

The second important observation is that the actions we take to be collegial can also make us feel good about the work that we do. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing raises the spirits more than the feeling that we have had a positive impact on other people. Each time we reach out to help, to offer suggestions, and even to ask for input, we are building our sense of community and feeling more engaged with our colleagues. As frustrated as we may be now and then with a process or an individual, the ongoing commitment to having a positive impact is the best path to getting past those disheartening moments and feeling hopeful again.

It is not just the big projects that demonstrate collegiality, those smaller day-to-day interactions may matter most. They help connect us and they demonstrate a commitment to creating a great university. There is room for each of us to define the boundaries of those interactions; we don’t all have to contribute in the same way. But I think that we all benefit from the contact and the conversation that collegial interactions can bring. So, I’m thinking about how to foster that sense of happiness and common purpose that a collegial community can create. I promise not to create a task force, but I will be on the lookout for small actions and ideas.

Dialogue, Engagement, equity

Continuous Engagement

As provost, I am constantly reading research on good teaching practices, scouring our outcomes measures, and thinking about how we might do better. WCSU is a public regional comprehensive university serving many students who are the first in their families to go to college. We are increasingly diverse and must be attentive to the different experiences and assumptions about education that our students bring with them to our campus. We also need to attend to any differential outcomes that might reflect structural biases within our curriculum and our organization. Most of all, we need to be prepared to continuously examine the information we have about how we are doing and act on that information. It is a lot.

It is important to keep up with the emerging research on teaching, learning, and systemic biases and use that knowledge to develop strategies to improve the experiences of our students. As usual I find myself trying to simplify the pile of things that are keeping me up at night by identifying some relatively simple and direct action. In this post-midterm moment, I am thinking about some steps we can take right now to impact this fall and the spring semester ahead. While I am necessarily obsessed with the kind of continuous improvement that centers around course and degree learning outcomes, this time, I’m focusing on continuous engagement with our students.

I know, you’re all thinking that I’ve forgotten what it is like to be in the classroom. Isn’t that continuous engagement by default? Yes, of course it is. But that engagement is shaped by all sorts of decisions faculty make about their approach to teaching and it is often constrained by the few hours shared in the room or online with our students. In this case, I am thinking about just a few other steps to encourage our students to be active participants in their learning experience and ultimately their own success. Here are some possible actions.

  1. Consider taking a moment in the next week to ask your students to re-read your syllabus. Ask them to provide feedback on the pacing of the material, the topics they are most interested in, and any topics that they think might be missing. Be sure to give them the opportunity to evaluate the expectations conveyed and whether or not they are clear. In particular, at this midpoint, they are probably able to comment on what they wish they had known earlier in the semester. I suggest that you dedicate some real time to this process. Start with individual written responses, then move to small group conversations to help students solidify their comments. Then ask the groups to report out. It may take 30 minutes from your course content, but it will give you the opportunity to see where there might be confusion, where there are ideas to consider and most of all, it will engage your students with their learning process. Be prepared to make minor adjustments as a result of this conversation. Big adjustments should probably wait until the next semester, but not always.
  2. Although your students may have done this organically earlier in the semester, now is a good time to establish some official study groups. At mid-semester there are students who are thriving and those who are struggling. Putting together some study groups with a few review tasks assigned by you could help your students establish relationships with their peers that are productive going forward. With all of our new online communication options, students can meet remotely to go over some of the tricky concepts that might need another look. If you provide an assignment or two and organize the groups with a balance of known talents (so far) in each, you are connecting your students with each other and engaging them with the material. If you are willing to give an opportunity to improve their midterm grades with this activity (re-doing an exam question or quiz after their group meeting, for example), they might be encouraged to continue to work together after your initial prompting. Best of all, they might ask you to clarify topics and ideas, which is a big win for teaching and learning.
  3. Finally, now is a great moment to look at the campus events calendar and pick one or two for you and your students to attend together. I say one or two just to allow for the conflicts that will inevitably occur as you try to add this activity at this late date. It doesn’t matter what you choose, so long as you can link it back to your course in some way. This shared experience is an opportunity for faculty to be seen less as an authority and more as a peer, learning with their students. Let’s face it, right after midterms is a good time to plant this idea in your students’ minds. This is an extra that may seem like a lot in the assigning but can yield a shared bond that might just inspire new conversations about the central issues of your course. By the way, there is no downside to awarding bonus points for these activities. For those who are excelling, it is just a nice thing. For those who are struggling, it is one more chance to succeed.

Each of the activities above are meant to focus on engagement, not specific content or learning outcomes. The syllabus assignment asks students to look at the structure around their learning and actively contribute to improving that structure. Study groups can encourage students to support each other on a path to success, while also providing a path to improving their own progress in the course. Attending campus activities with faculty invites students to see their professors as co-learners, engaging ideas together. Cultivating this kind of engagement could also provide a context for learning about the harder things, like systemic bias, because all of these assignments are invitations for students to talk and opportunities for us to listen. I’m pretty sure that dialogue is the answer to most of the hard questions we are asking about the student experience in higher education right now, so fostering it could do us all some good.

P.S. I left out the buzzwords, but I am guessing you could put them in if you’re reading anything about higher ed these days.