Agency, Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The Importance of Cultivating Agency

In all of education, and especially in higher education, we are committed to cultivating strong critical thinking in our students.  Many of our classes provide students with essential tools for critical thinking as we try to help them understand statistical and scientific methods of analysis, forms of argument and evidence, and even the values from which our questions emerge.  We strive to shake our students from their comfortable senses of reality so that they may form their own understandings of truth and what makes a good life. We want them to leave us empowered, confident in their ability to navigate the myriad questions and decisions they will face in their lives. These efforts are our passion and our joy.

Sometimes, however, we need to think a little deeper about what we want to accomplish with these critical thinking skills.  We must consider the cultural contexts in which our students have been raised and ask ourselves just how much critical thinking they can take. Lately I’ve been noticing that a lot of our young people are a little freaked out.  There have been lots of articles in the popular press about this and I don’t know what the real figures are about anxiety, but I will say that there are some real and frightening things that have happened during this group’s childhood that gives them the right to be scared.

Consider Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Parkland.  Gun violence isn’t a just story for the unlucky few, it is a dominant narrative in all of our student’s lives. Then there’s September 11th and the subsequent wars, literal and cultural, that never seem to end.  Terrorism is a reality in the United States, not just something we can say is happening elsewhere else.  Oh, and let’s not forget climate change, which is starting to scare our young people a great deal.  They are wondering about the feasibility of planning anything in the face of the looming crises of rising waters and shrinking resources. No wonder they are a little shaken.

Now listen, people have had rough childhoods before.  I grew up at the tail end of fears about nuclear disaster and war and lots of my friends were truly terrified of that potential reality.  I knew many veterans of Vietnam, and a fair number of conscientious objectors, who were suffering the after-effects of that war.  Then there were the wars before that, and the Great Depression, and dustbowls, and segregation, and poverty, and so on.  Disasters and injustice have always been here, but that’s not how it feels to this generation. The media messages are universally devastating, positive narratives are shaky, threats are nearby, and the future, at least in terms of the climate, appears to be out of their control.

So what about critical thinking? Well it is more important than ever. We have to give our students the tools to decode probabilities, if for no other reason than to relieve some of their fear levels. We have to show them how science and technology may have caused some of the problems of climate change, but they might also be tools to some of the solutions.  We have to teach them to argue with bad evidence and to identify good evidence, even if it is just the best evidence to date. We have to show them that they are capable of making a case for the kind of world they want to live in.  We need to recount the scope of the history of changes that have made most of us ashamed of our bigotries and biases so that our students have a sense of how far we’ve come.

And then we need to take another step after all of that. We need to cultivate agency. As we consider creating the necessary moments in our curriculum when we disrupt our students’ assumptions about what is real, we also have to consider creating pathways to agency.  We can’t flinch from the complexities of the world. There are real dangers and disagreements that have to be sorted out.  But, we cannot leave our students without a sense that they might be able to sort out at least one part of the messes they perceive.

So, let’s look through our course plans and the experiences we are designing and consider building in some opportunities to discover that agency. Don’t just show them the problems, show them some of the ways we might start looking for solutions.  Perhaps there are small things that you can actually tackle in your classes things like community service, or a campus culture initiative, or promoting good environmental practices.  Perhaps there is some group research that can become a policy recommendation that your students might take on.  Maybe there is room to connect with neighborhoods in productive ways.  These things will be small, but if they truly flow from the learning context, they can have a profound impact on our students’ confidence in their ability to make positive change in the world.

We really need to do this.  We have to balance the critical skills with that sense of agency.  It is this sense of agency that will help all of us move from anxiousness to action.  We may not believe in our agency everyday, but those little glimmers might just make us hopeful enough to use our critical thinking to make things better.



equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Uncategorized

The Jobs Act and False Equivalencies

Today, I awoke to read Andrew Kreighbaum’s Insider Higher Education article about the potential Jobs Act legislation. He quotes Senator Kaine (co-sponsor of the bill) here:

We need to broaden our definition of higher education to include quality career and technical programs, and we have to make sure that federal policy supports this kind of learning, too,” Kaine said in a statement. “So the idea behind the JOBS Act is to be more flexible with Pell Grants and allow students to use them for high-quality career and technical classes if they want to.

I applaud the impulse to fund career training, but I would like to suggest that we do it with some other fund, so we stop evaluating college education through the same lens as career training.  Don’t broaden the definition of higher education, separate the realms.

Let me be clear, I am all for job training.  I think, however, we need to be very honest about what job training does and does not do.  First, job training is narrowly focused, generally in service to a particular sector of the economy.  It does not usually foster transferrable skills. Second, the wages for these jobs tend to stagnate quickly because they focus on entry-level skills.  Most advancement will mean more training. Third, training isn’t college. A college education is designed for a broad focus on the habits of mind that support life-long learning.

While there are lots of direct career connections in college (nursing, education, accounting, chemistry, for example), they are couched in liberal arts thinking, preparing graduates to change course as their interests or job opportunities change.  Training just doesn’t do this. When we equate the two, we end up with a lot of guidelines and comparisons that don’t actually fit together.  To put it simply, asking if I am prepared for a particular employment (welding, for example) is fundamentally different from asking if I am prepared to navigate the changing world of work.

There’s so much more to say on this, but today I am focused on this funding idea. We should fund job training.  It is an important part of supporting economic mobility in the United States.  We see wonderful examples of this in our vocational high schools.  These schools ensure that graduates have essential skills if they want to progress to higher education (typical writing and math education), but also support direct career pathways. Many such schools offer training in carpentry, plumbing, cosmetology, culinary skills and more recently, computer science and even advanced manufacturing. These are great opportunities and we should fund them. Don’t use Pell, just fund the high schools appropriately.

For community colleges things get more murky.  Community colleges have been developed to support two different goals – job training and pathways to two- and four-year college degrees. In as much as community college is meant to serve anyone above the high school level, it is post-secondary education, but it is not all a college education.  The very narrowly focused job training (mostly certificates) is just that, job training.  This job training is not meant to serve as a pathway to a four year degree.  It is directly related to potential employment. It is meant to broaden opportunity, but not necessarily form broad habits of mind.

Like our vocational high schools, these pathways to employment are very important. People often have to re-tool at difficult moments or in ways they never expected.  We should support those opportunities, so let’s fund this, too, but not with Pell grants or student loans. We need a career training fund (perhaps supplemented by the industries who want particular skills). Having a separate funding line reminds us that this is not preparation for life-long learning, it is preparation for entry-level earning. When someone wants to move to the life-long learning part, then they should move to Pell.

Now here’s where it gets very confusing.  In higher education, we have been creating two year degrees with “stackable credentials.”  In this scenario a person might start in a culinary program then move to an associates degree in culinary arts that might even transfer to a four year degree at some point. The degree will have started with a certificate in culinary skills of some kind and then progress to include science, math, writing, social sciences, etc., all of which will add up to something we call a college education.  Separating the funding for part 1 (the job training) and then switching for part 2 (the college education)  will be a nightmare for community colleges.  They will have to switch funding streams as students progress in the program, but as my colleagues at community colleges know very well, students do not necessary take a straight path from one area to another.  Still, I think we need to make this effort so we can be clear about the experiences and outcomes expected in each path.

And there is one more thing for us to consider in this blurring of lines between training and college education.  If we accept the notion of the stackable credential, such that college education includes the training programs, we need to reimagine the definition of “college credit.”  Here’s what I mean: when we decide that there is room in a Bachelor of Arts degree for a bunch of courses that will simply count as electives (because they aren’t things that a university would ever offer), but include them in the credits toward earning a degree (because we want to value students’ prior experiences), we’ve basically called our own bluff.  What we’re saying is that we don’t really think the full liberal arts experience is important.  We’ve allowed something else to stand in for 1/4 of the degree credits (roughly equivalent to the credits carried by many certificates).  If that’s the case, well, it’s time for us to examine our assumptions about the whole enterprise.

Training and college education are not the same. Yet, as we continuously look for new ways to fund access to both of them, we have blurred the distinctions between the two,  creating false equivalencies. There is lots of room for us to re-consider our assumptions about what qualifies for college credit, and we probably should do some deep thinking about this, but even so they are not the same. Making everything the same upends all of the ways in which we might evaluate the goals of training or college education. So, let’s fund them both as the separate things that they are, and then get busy with questioning the structure of the whole enterprise. 





Higher Education, Technology

The Media Ecology Lens

When I first moved into administrative roles in higher education, one of my mentors gave me the following advice, “don’t lose sight of your discipline.”  Last weekend, I managed to follow that advice and attend the annual conference of my discipline, media ecology. A subset (or perhaps a metaset) of the field of communication, media ecology helps me think deeply about the many forces shaping and re-shaping higher education.

For the uninitiated, media ecology grew out of Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the “medium is the message.” (See Understanding Media, 1964). From this simple turn of phrase springs a complex set of questions and scholarship that touches on every aspect of how we understand and act in the world. In my doctoral studies at New York University, Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom explicated McLuhan’s observation in reference to adulthood, education, language, politics, the sacred and the profane. From cave painting to television screens, to the binary codes that now dominate our lives, media ecologists are obsessed with how shifts in dominant media of communication shape our realities.

As provost, this obsession can be very helpful.  I regularly receive messages from various companies trying to sell me the next great gadget for student success. Since I am responsible for university outcomes (read, retention and graduation rates), I am inclined to consider these pitches, at least for a minute or two. While there may be some promising ideas in the many commercials in my inbox, I always start with the question, what kind educational environment will this gadget create?

Take, for example, the notion of student engagement.  For as long as I have been in higher education, faculty have endeavored to develop strategies that might engage  students in conversation in the classroom.  The very idea that we want conversation suggests that we are imagining an educational environment that is small enough to facilitate a robust dialogue (rather than simple questions and answers).  It also suggests that education is something other than content delivery.  Through this lens of the conversation, faculty are content experts, but their role is to draw out ideas and responses from students, ostensibly to clarify and refine understandings of the topic at hand, and ideally to discover new insights through that dialogue. 

What I have described is a seminar, ideally located in a room with a large table for students to sit around, or at least chairs that can move into circles. This kind of learning environment relies on small class sizes to allow for an authentic back and forth from all participants.  We seem to measure much of what we do against that imagined context. Yet, most of us only get to teach a small seminar now and then. The rest of the time, we are in medium sized classes (30-40 students) or even large lectures (100 or so students).  In these settings, conversations tend to shift to questions and answers, with little back and forth, not because we don’t want it, but because that is what can be accommodated with this number of students. The setting re-enforces the Q&A vs. conversation message, by putting students in rows, or if we’re lucky, moveable chairs or clusters of tables, all facing the professor.  

In this more usual environment, we then try to find paths to engagement.  We hold the ideal of the seminar in our heads and try to replicate it in some way. Each attempt has implications for the role of the professor and the goals of the course. Each attempt is different from a conversation.

Some faculty combine lectures with breakout sessions.  They introduce a topic and the move students into small groups so they converse with each other, and then they are brought back together to report out. This approach can be very effective, and it requires no expensive technology (something that is nice for my budget woes).  There are dangers of course, students stray from the topic and choose to see this as time to talk about other things. But, when discussion topics are well-structured and there is some sense of obligation to dig into the ideas (points for participation, for example), this approach can move passive listeners to active learners.

I favor this approach, but I must acknowledge that it isn’t as discovery-oriented as the seminar because the questions must all be crafted in advance.  Professors will have done their best to simulate discovery in the smaller groups and the sharing can lead to productive clarifications and imaginative ideas, but it is one step removed from the back and forth of conversation.  This approach must be more scripted.

In larger classes, some faculty are trying to employ technological solutions.  One such solution is the clicker or “student response system.” The clicker is a popular tool in large classes, letting faculty conduct mini quizzes and polls throughout the class in order to check understanding of topics and potentially develop strategies to clarify misconceptions. The most sophisticated versions of this tool allows for all kinds of data analysis on each student (attendance, right or wrong answers, skipped answers/lack of participation) and so on.  When managing a larger group of students, the clicker can push students to listen more actively, shaking them out of daydreams and confusion. Clickers can even help students who don’t usually raise their hands find a way to participate in a non-threatening way.  It isn’t a bad solution to combatting passivity and boredom in the classroom, and it can foster more inclusive participation.  However, it is in no way an environment about creating learning together. This class is about mastery of content/concepts.

Looking at these three scenarios, it is pretty clear to me that classrooms and class sizes are primary determinants of student engagement strategies. With each adjustment to the size and space, we see a change in the definition of the relationship between students and faculty, and we see a change in the overall goals of the course.  That doesn’t mean that only seminars are good learning environments. Each of these approaches has value. Indeed, sometimes students need the experience of the more structured learning environments before they can be successful participants in a seminar. But it is important to consider each size and pedagogy as part of a portfolio of learning environments at a university, always looking for the right balance of experiences.

So, what of media ecology? Well, we media ecologists tend to move from macro to micro and back to macro perspectives with great fluidity.  We might look at the structure of education in terms of interlocking systems (public, private, elite, accessible, etc.), and focus our attention to socio-political context of higher education is driving the metrics of evaluation of our successes.  We might look at physical environments and class size, as I have here, and focus our attention on the intersection of pedagogy and economics.  Or we might drill down to the impact of a particular technology (clickers) on a learning environment, examining the outcomes in terms of the conceptions of education implied.  Each of these approaches sets the boundaries of our analysis in a new place, but the common thread is this: we know that environments have implications, they are not neutral.

As the person charged with overseeing the academic programs of my university, this is the most important thing to know; environments are not neutral.  This lens shapes my decisions about technology investments, to be sure, but of much greater importance, it forces me to look at the interconnection between space, time, class sizes, schedules, and conceptions of education.  Media ecology demands that we think about the interconnections between these things, and not fall for the promises of a one-size-fits-all solution.

Most of all, media ecology reminds me to always ask two important questions in every situation in which I might want to try a new educational strategy: 1. What problem am I trying to solve? and 2. What are the potential unintended consequences of that solution? These are the questions that can keep this whole higher education enterprise honest.