Engagement, Higher Education

Education must be the Fifth Estate

If ever there was a moment to reflect on our national (natural?) inability, to think beyond the moment, it is now. The wrath of COVID-19 and the havoc wrecked across the United States is an unbelievable tale of our narrow focus on the now. From the defunding of the continuous foundational research necessary to stay ahead of, or at least keep pace with, evolving viruses, to the knowing neglect of creating a PPE stockpile, our policies have led us to the highest COVID-19 casualty rate in the world.

Then there’s Texas, who committed to ignoring calls to strengthen their power grid from disastrous storms, in favor of the low-cost status quo. Not connecting to regional power grids left people even more vulnerable than they should have been. The statewide commitment to independence from environmental and other regulations is a statewide commitment to today, not the future.

Whether or not you want to accept the science of global climate change, the fact of it is right in front of us. Without arguing about primary causes, it is clear that our infrastructure needs significant overhaul to deal with rising sea levels and disastrous storms. It isn’t just Texas folks; we’ve seen the impact all over the country. But we are content to do the emergency recoveries (mostly poorly), rather than prepare for the coming storms.

And of course, there is the pervasive economic decision-making that favors quick wins and get rich quick schemes, rather than systematic planning for an equitable society where everyone has food, healthcare, homes, and opportunities. I’m tired just thinking about how stuck we are in reaction rather than long term planning.

Consider the COVID-19 vaccinations. Millions of dollars of emergency funds helped to incentivize the research necessary to get us to the several vaccinations that have emerged. I am so grateful this happened, but let’s not mischaracterize the event as some private industry, entrepreneurial advantage over the slow path of publicly funded scientific research. The knowledge necessary to succeed so quickly was based on years of university based research into mRNA, that had varied levels of success and investment. There were also tremendous gains from earlier research on HIV, and the development of a worldwide testing infrastructure. We made it to several vaccines in record time, but we can’t forget how the foundational research efforts were often hampered as funding dried up. The un-evenness of the investments in this long haul research is a failure of imagination at best, and blatant irresponsible at worst.

The story of our energy infrastructure is a similar tale of unreliable funding streams. The need to change our reliance on non-renewable energy resources has been known for a long time. It isn’t just climate change, it is the math of the number of people in the world, the things we like to do, and the resources available. Yet our investments come in fits and starts, largely due to politics and an inability to think about the long term when there is still cheap oil, gas, or coal available. We have not committed to the sustained investment in the research for the future. Discoveries are made and then insufficiently tested or implemented, and they disappear as we stick with cheap and convenient. The fact that after proper investment, the new resources could indeed be cheaper is no enticement, we live in the now. (For a great read, I recommend Mariana Mazzucato’s, The Entrepreneurial State.)

As educators, I know we can’t cure everything. There are powerful forces beyond our walls that chafe at our input. When we do enter the national conversation, it is our “liberal biases” that are featured. This liberal frame frequently allows hard work to be dismissed or made fun of for its apparent minutia because no one puts the work in context. Even worse, it makes it permissible to reduce funding for education and scholarship because we appear to be out of the mainstream or trivial. But the thing is, we aren’t terribly liberal. Despite the mythology in the reporting about higher education, most of the work we do relies on a slow and measured approach to creating knowledge that is rigorous, peer reviewed, and honest about the scope of our discoveries. It takes time to do this work. It is woven into a million other smaller or larger studies with an occasional big breakthrough. It is work that informs the future and helps to explain the past and the present.

This work happens at every level of higher education. The big, elite, research universities get the big grants and credit for the big discoveries. They, and some in the middle range, have access to public/private partnerships (sometimes fraught with ethical questions, mostly not), that help sustain the slow and painstaking work that brings about new discoveries and solutions to old problems. The teaching universities with less of a research emphasis, often participate in the larger projects through partnerships, regularly conduct original and replication studies, involve students in the process of discovery, and indeed secure the occasional patent. Together, higher education is the home of the slow and steady look toward the future that is grounded in all that has come before.

Universities are just about the only place where slow and steady can happen in our culture. The world of face-paced, profit-centered invention is built on all this work. Innovation doesn’t happen without us. We are the home of measured deliberation and we eschew soundbites (most of the time). As fun as TED Talks are, we are the place of the real work behind those talks, that is, deep reading, thinking, and the long view. We are essential for the long-term planning necessary for a balanced and equitable nation.

In the throes of these recent (yet predictable) crises, I would like us to be louder about this role. We need to be shouting for long-term thinking. We must demonstrate the ways in which our scholarship underpins those beloved market forces, and therefore requires investment. We must provide the context for that “first draft of history” instead of allowing national conversations to focus on recent events as exceptional. We need to support the path to the long-term thinking necessary to protect us from global pandemics and climate change and whatever is next. We must assert our authority and our place in the functioning of a productive and responsible democratic society. We must claim our place as the Fifth Estate.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Prioritizing Reflective Practice

In 1999, when I was still completing my dissertation and working as an adjunct at several colleges and universities, I wrote a little essay called “The Art of Teaching Students to Think Critically.” I did not actually give it that title, but the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested when they agreed to publish it. It did, of course, talk about the dynamics of teaching critical thinking, but the larger take-away, which then became my mantra as a professor was to teach the students you’ve got.

When I wrote that essay, I was grappling with the need to get to the same finish line (teaching the same course on multiple campuses) while understanding that the starting places, and indeed the supports necessary, varied greatly. This is also the reality of teaching at a regional comprehensive university with a commitment to access. Teaching the students you’ve got was meant to sum up the realities of the different preparation and cultures one encounters on multiple campuses, encouraging listening and adjusting, and letting the students help you help them. This seemed like the only way to achieve that finish line goal.

Although I left the classroom nearly ten years ago, this mantra still informs my thinking about creating a good educational environment. At regional comprehensives like WCSU, our students need for us to understand their unique needs and expectations. Their K-12 experiences vary in quality, creating a giant question mark about assumptions that inform curricular development in higher ed. Their families vary in experiences with higher education, creating a set of interesting cultural assumptions about the value of education that needs to be addressed in some way. They vary as learners, some needing specialized support, others more general guidance on how to succeed in college. Imagining all of these needs and setting a plan for a semester is no small challenge.

As Provost, I pay attention to our outcomes, both because I must and because I care. There are patterns in who succeeds and who does not, and not acting on that information, in my estimation, is simply morally bankrupt. In my role, then, I analyze that data and try to bring forward ideas and strategies to disrupt those patterns and get more of our students to that shared finish line. It is my responsibility to stay abreast of the most recent data on student success initiatives and see where there are opportunities to build on that research to improve the student experience at WCSU.

We are not unique in facing these challenges. All over the country campuses like ours are grappling with the best ways to support a truly public higher education. We don’t weed out students on the margins, like our more research oriented or private competitors do. We do some sorting, asking some to attend community college first, but mostly, we welcome a diversity of learners. Drawing on the research on student success, we have implemented several strategies (FY, Four-Year Plans, Embedded Remediation) that have proven helpful elsewhere. Most recently, we are working to implement a new on-ramp for at-risk students, requiring participation in a peer support program in their first semester to connect them with essential services and, frankly, not to lose them. Our data and the work at other universities have led us to this approach and we are hoping for a real impact on student retention and overall success.

I view these efforts as a moral imperative because not acting on the data means setting students up for failure. I know that my colleagues are equally distressed when their students don’t succeed. I see them bend over backwards to assist students in need, offering extra support, multiple chances at success, and not abandoning them when they do not succeed. These amazing efforts happen all the time, even as faculty also wrestle with fairness for all students and their commitment to academic standards. This desire to help is a campus ethic that makes me proud.

Nevertheless, we may be falling short on the collective effort. You see we are champions of the individual student and the individual faculty member and often this is to the good. But sometimes that ethic keeps us from leveraging the research about teaching and supporting students with varied degrees of preparation and experience of higher education. We are delighted by our unique discoveries, without looking at them as part of a larger body of scholarship. This can be a problem because it relies on serendipity rather than a plan.

Well, I am holding myself accountable for this. In Scholarship Reconsidered, Ernest Boyer made room for the scholarship of teaching as an important part of the role of the professor and an acceptable focus for achieving tenure. I’d like to expand on this thought; for all universities, but especially those committed to access, a focus on teaching practice should be required. We need to re-imagine the tenure clock with room for learning about teaching and we should continue to reward that reflective practice, even after tenure.

Let me be clear, at a university like mine, faculty are working hard. They are teaching 12 credits per semester, advising lots of students, serving on committees, and yes, publishing or presenting research. Adding a continuous engagement with the research on teaching is a lot to ask. Since there isn’t more time, we will have to reprioritize our expectations and make the room. We are going to have to reduce something to make this happen, but make room we must.

You see it isn’t sufficient to have administrators and a few campus specialists consulting this literature. This will not lead to a wide-spread commitment to research informed teaching. It will not foster confidence in the institutional plans to improve student outcomes. Everyone needs to be engaging with this literature and using it to inform their teaching. So, let’s find a way to make the time for this because as far as I can tell, this is the only way to truly teach the students we’ve got.

Affordability, Higher Education, Thinking

Time for a Timeline Change?

Like everyone in higher education, I am continuously trying to puzzle through the economics of access and equity. As a nation, we have invested deeply in the notion of education as a path to opportunity. Public education, from Kindergarten through some post-secondary education, is nearly (though not quite) considered a right for all Americans. The prevalence of public education is the result of the difficult, but ultimately productive arguments that have taken place since the start of this nation. While we do not always agree about what education should look like, it seems we do agree that it should be widely available.

Our pattern has been one of expansion. Education was first for small groups, sometimes segregated by sex, often by race. Through arguments, local and national, we have broken down many (though not all) of the barriers to at least a high school education. (For an enjoyable history of K-12 in the US, I recommend Johann N. Neem’s, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America). We shouldn’t forget that high school was an expansion, not an assumption from the start. It serves as a reminder that we have continuously added to the scope of what we think the public should fund. As we dive into the national conversation about funding post-secondary education, this is an important lesson. What sounds like an insane economic expansion to some, is really part of the trajectory of expanding access to education from our earliest days.

Nevertheless, the expansion of higher education needs some careful thought. Two data points caught my attention as I read the higher education news over the last few weeks. The first was in Brian Rosenberg’s recent story in the Chronicle, “The Problem with Biden’s Higher-Education Plan” in which he points out that access is only part of the story: completion rates must be addressed. The second is in Jacquelin Elias’s report, “Who Holds America’s $1.5-Trillion Student Loan Debt?” Guess what? There is a connection between the debt and the completion question. To sum up, those who did not complete their degrees are most likely to a) not yield the financial benefits of a college education, and b) carry student loan debt that they cannot re-pay. And, while the group of students who borrowed money that they cannot repay do not carry the super high student loan balances (our grant systems do help), they are likely to be haunted by the bad credit implications for a lifetime.

Now, Biden (and Obama before him) has a strong focus on community colleges. This is where the free college conversation is strongest, and many states have taken steps to make that promise somewhat real. It is last dollar free (students must use their grants first), and it is tuition, not cost of living free, but it is something. For those of us in the public four-year world, the current free discussion is mapped to family income. This seems fair, but it does mean that schools like mine are likely to be missing many of these students in the first two years, while they leverage the free community college for their foundations. I think everyone should make sane economic decisions around their education, so I am not whining, just noting the budget problem this leaves me with.

But that is not what I really want to think about here. What I am most interested in is the fact that, even with the free college, completion rates are a problem. Financial concerns certainly drive that so this funding structure will help, but it is a lot more than that. A short list of things that might get in the way of degree completion includes college preparation, cultural/family support for education, commitment to education/knowing the purpose, and the million ways that life gets in the way. So, I agree with Rosenberg’s observation that completion needs our attention. But the question I have is, do we have the education timeline right?

We speak in two-year and four-year completion rates as if they are part of nature. From an economic planning point of view, that structure certainly helps us organize resources and curriculum. But it doesn’t serve the majority of students very well. This is why community colleges are always struggling with a measure that doesn’t fit their students’ realities, with three year graduation rates below 30%. That is also why access oriented four-year colleges struggle around the 50-60% six year graduation rates. None of us likes these outcomes, and we spend a lot of time and money trying to address them, but I think we might just have the model wrong.

Since so many students do not complete degrees in two-year or four-year timelines, perhaps it is our organization of time that is the problem. Maybe there is room for a different approach. For example:

  • Break up the undergraduate experience into two-year increments. I would add that we should really consider three segments, expanding access to advanced education (whether degrees or certificates), because so many opportunities for growth require more learning, after careers are underway. Whether a two-year of four-year institution, that first two years are focused on essential learning foundations with introductory major preparation. For some, this will include job specific education, and a clear exit from education for now. That’s fine. Graduates get the credential win and are prepared for more if they change their mind. For others, there is a career trajectory that is more broadly defined, and their next step should be a year or two in the workplace, exploring options. Then return, for the major work and some more advanced practice in liberal arts thinking. This approach might foster greater commitment to completion (through direct understanding of value) and give students time to grow into what they want to learn.
  • Add a service year infrastructure to our educational planning. If all high school graduates are required to do one year of national service prior to entering college, they will contribute greatly to supporting areas of need and have time to think more about what they want to learn. We already know the kind emotional growth that can take place in a service year, which may help students do better when they are in college. It is also a potential engine for cultural engagement, helping students understand the needs of many different communities. This requirement could also help all of us see the value of our investment in education, because in addition to supporting the next generation in their professional and intellectual growth, we will see real labor in our communities.
  • Support part-time learning, for real. You see, some students just really need to take the path more slowly. Our current infrastructure makes this challenging and, frankly, makes the student feel like there is something wrong in needing more time. If we schedule learning opportunities year round, in shorter increments, the part-time track could still yield degree completion in a timely manner (two-three years; four-six years, etc.). It will facilitate the management of those other things in life that get in the way and support the momentum that many have identified as crucial for degree completion.

This is just a sketch, and there is so much more to say. The work on supporting the varied learning needs and reducing cultural barriers to success is still urgent. The need for reasonable and helpful accountability measures for free education requires attention. But if we change our assumptions about the timelines for education, perhaps the expansion of access will have the desired effect, instead of a lot of students with some college and no degree. And, of course, I think that all of it should be free.

Critical Thinking, Higher Education

Evidence, Argument, and Instruction, Oh My.

Just after the January 6th assault on the US Capitol, I wrote a blog in which I discussed what I felt were the limits of “truthiness.” In my thinking, our cultural habit of embracing the laughter that accompanies the snarkiness of that term (a feeling I truly love, by the way), was not helping us anymore. While truthiness summarizes an important moment in the history of politics and the news, it also seems to leave us at the laughing stage, which is not the right place to stop. We’ve gotten complacent about taking that important next step of questioning the thinking behind “truthy” claims and arguments. Now more than ever we need to commit to that hard work.

I was calling for my colleagues in higher education to commit to teaching informal logic. As a young adult, I remember that before I had the tools that I gleaned from that foundational philosophy class, I often felt bullied by arguments I sensed were wrong. I just couldn’t break them down properly. Those many years ago, I remember the awakening I felt in Dr. James Freeman’s class at Hunter College. In mapping out the structure of arguments, I suddenly felt able to defend myself, and to think things through. I kept his book, Thinking Logically: Basic Concepts for Reasoning, on my shelf for many years.

Well, to my delight an old family friend, Dr. Mark Battersby (emeritus faculty from Capilano University), who has spent his career teaching philosophy and trying to further the instruction in critical thinking and its necessary components argument and evidence responded to that column. Mark and his frequent writing partner, Dr. Sharon Bailin have written several texts addressing the teaching of critical thinking, most recently Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking (2nd Edition). Well, Mark wanted to remind me that without attention to evaluating evidence, mapping arguments will not get us very far. Indeed!

Evaluating evidence should be the heart of all that we do in higher education. No amount of diagramming arguments or participating in debates will work if we cannot distinguish between good and bad (better or worse) evidence. Whether considering probabilities, the validity of a scientific experiment, or the basis for making an ethical judgement, evidence is the critical element in our decision making. I would suggest that this particular skill is almost the entire point of an undergraduate degree.

Nevertheless, we have a way of neglecting the direct instruction necessary to build the capacity of our students to evaluate evidence. We seem to get bogged down in “covering material” instead of evaluating it. Or we focus on the techniques of math (statistics) or experimental design, while neglecting the frameworks for the questions that these techniques are meant to help us explore. Then there are those who feel that indirect instruction is best. The thinking seems to be that modeling the evaluation of evidence and arguments in our lectures and class discussions is sufficient for student enlightenment.

Well, I just don’t think these approaches are sufficient. The barrage of (mis)information that we encounter every day, and the assault on authority of all kinds, as an extension of the US commitment to individuality and independence, are testing the limits of our collective skills at evaluation of evidence. It is too much to handle by osmosis. We need to hone a toolkit.

At WCSU, we have at least four general education competencies that are rooted in the evaluation of arguments and evidence. Information Literacy takes on sources and ethical use of information. Writing Tier 1 (Composition I) connects the writing process to critical thinking. Oral Communication requires students to determine “the boundaries of arguments” and “identify and site relevant and appropriate evidence.” Critical Thinking asks students to “distinguish between arguments and unsupported claims” and “evaluate assumptions and the quality and reliability of evidence.” I should add that Scientific Inquiry and Quantitative Reasoning also play an important role in laying the foundations for competence in evaluating evidence. Given that we only have a few other categories in the general education curriculum, it seems that we care deeply about fostering the habits of mind and the skills necessary for critical thinking.

What is missing, however, is evidence that we are offering direct instruction in these topics. We are mostly relying on osmosis, and in this high speed internet world, with no true habits of reflection, only reaction, it is too easy to miss the logical leaps and faulty claims if we don’t know how to label them as such.

Let me commit, again, to the importance of direct instruction in the dissection of arguments and strategies to evaluate evidence. Our students need the vocabulary that comes from informal logic and an understanding of probabilities to even begin tearing apart and rebuilding arguments. These foundations are as essential as basic literacy and arithmetic. They are the building blocks for a successful college career.

Now I don’t have an opinion on which courses or disciplines are the best contexts for laying these foundations. It is possible to cultivate these skills in any discipline, and at WCSU, where we have adopted a competencies-across-the-curriculum approach, this instruction is dispersed. That’s fine. But those who take it on should make it central to the class, not a brief unit for a few weeks, and there should be a common vocabulary in the end. And, since the knowledge is foundational, students should encounter and develop their initial skills with these ideas in the first year.

This does mean reprioritizing some of the things that we do but imagine how much more fun we can have in later courses if students have these tools to draw on! If we do it right, we will also see improvement in student success overall. And perhaps most important of all, our graduates will be prepared to make informed decisions and arguments for the rest of their lives. Now that’s a learning outcome I would love.