This morning I was reading about some really great projects being led by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). AAC&U has been a leader in developing strong arguments for liberal arts education. When the political world started clamoring for evidence of outcomes, AAC&U championed the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education and the development of the VALUE Rubrics. The work done included faculty from all over the country who worked to define, test, and revise the rubrics to help focus assessment work in meaningful ways. Noticing gaps in outcomes in STEM disciplines, Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) created a network of educators focused on improving teaching and learning in these disciplines. AAC&U continuously publishes material that explores and solidifies the connections between what employers are looking for and the role of strong liberal arts education. They provide a wealth of helpful information that helps me think through campus initiatives.
Today I was examining the Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Framework (TLA Framework). This initiative is designed to help an institution find ways to ensure students are learning (a combination of focusing on assessment and pedagogy). This is linked to the Guided Pathways models which tend to live in the world of community colleges, but as a university within a system that relies on the transfer of students from community colleges, it is imperative that we are aligned with these pathways. In fact, pathways work very well for students who start at four-year colleges, too. But pathways are just a start to better outcomes for all students. Focusing on the learning is an equally important part of this equity project. This is what the TLA Framework helps to assess:
The TLA Framework process centers student success and equity, and recommends measurable steps that faculty, staff, and institutional leaders can take to address persisting gaps in student learning outcomes. (https://www.aacu.org/initiatives/tla-framework).
I was excited to read about this initiative. The questions asked get at some of our nagging questions about equity and learning. The Framework gives a neatly defined process that could help us get some answers. Hooray, I thought! Then I thought again.
Here’s the trouble. Although I know that I have many colleagues who would be very interested in this work, I also know that every one of them is already over-extended. This is the result of two problems. First, those who are most interested in these questions always step up to explore them. This means the same people are doing the majority of the work of moving new things forward on our campus. They are tired. I don’t want to ask any more of them.
Second, we have too many committees and tasks already. Between short-term initiatives (ad hoc committees), to standing committee work, to initiatives originating outside of our campus (our System Office), everyone is drowning. This is on top of the regular work we all do – you know, teaching, advising, scholarship, supporting student activities and events, organizing registration, recruiting new students, working with clubs, assessing our programs, preparing for accreditation, and so on. Whew!
I suppose the good news is that we are a highly engaged community. Whenever we see a problem or have an idea, we establish a committee, task force, or some other mechanism to work on things. We should be proud of this. I might add that it isn’t just an impulse to understand and possibly solve a problem; it is a collaborative impulse. At WCSU, this means that most of these groups include faculty, staff, students (when they can join us), and administration. This is healthy and an indication of the level of commitment that all members of our community have to the success of our organization. Sometimes we forget to recognize this collaborative spirit in the day to day of the work, but it is clearly there in all that we do.
Unfortunately, that same impulse can undermine the very things we hoped to support. By continuously adding to our work we end up overtaxing our resources (time and energy, most of all), and end up with initiatives that do not result in action. As excited as I am about the TLA Framework, I do not want to add anything else to our endless to-do list. It is time to do some decluttering.
For me, decluttering is fun. I like going through folders and getting rid of things that are no longer useful or productive or necessary. I have never really liked having too much stuff, so cleaning out attics, basements, cabinets, and files leaves me feeling unburdened and ready for action. But I know not everyone feels this way. For many people, letting go of something can signal failure or at least a loss. The reason we started down a path was due to a genuine commitment to the need for the work. How can we just stop doing it? Perhaps we can focus on the desired outcomes, instead of the committees themselves. This might just give us a path forward.
When I look at all that we do, I see a lot of overlapping initiatives (both internal and external). Instead of trying to do them all, perhaps we can start by listing the desired outcomes for each group/committee/project/initiative we have started. Then let’s line those outcomes up and see what can be collapsed and what can be eliminated. What can be refined and focused into work that needs to happen right now. What no longer seems relevant to our current circumstances? Let’s ask what has been accomplished, prevented, or supported by this group/initiative. Has the same thing been supported by something else? Is this group/initiative duplicative? Does it undermine the work of another group/initiative? Have there been any meaningful outcomes for this group lately? Ever?
I’m not trying to be clever here. I am seeing a lot of hard-working people feeling tired and overwhelmed. I also see important ideas and recommendations stuck in reports because we are busy reading or writing the next report. Our endless lists of committees and initiatives have not left us enough room, time, or energy to take action. I don’t want all of that good work to go to waste.
The TLA Framework is exciting, but it will have to wait. I won’t start a new initiative until we put a few to bed. Unlike the diets everyone will commit to after the holidays, I’d like to see this reduction plan actually get done. It’s time to review our objectives and let the decluttering begin.