Agency, Inclusion, Innovative Pedagogies

Here Comes the Sun

This morning I noticed the shift in the light.  It happens to me at this time every year.  I see the sun’s rays creeping over the tops of the trees as I drink my morning coffee and I take heart.  Yes, it is only mid-winter but the days are growing longer.  And even though I very much enjoy the hunkering down that the dark days of winter require (I embrace the couch by the fireplace); I confess that a little more daylight lightens my step. Just a hint of the sunny days ahead brings out my optimistic nature. It is with this sense of optimism that I am thinking about higher education this week.

Here in the Northeastern United States, we are in what some have called a “demographic winter.” Simply stated, there is a forecast for a long-term drop in high school graduates.  Lower birthrates and new migration patterns have left us a little stunned by the declining number of students available to recruit to our colleges and universities.  Elite colleges are fine.  So are the well-known colleges in destination cities (Boston, New York), but the rest of us are left to figure out what to do next.  After decades of growth, and budget practices based on ever-increasing enrollments, we are facing new realities.

This is hard.  We are making cuts in our budgets and new programs are facing heightened scrutiny about their viability.  Where we once might have assessed the value of a new major based on the ideas it would explore, we are now thinking about how it will serve our recruiting efforts.  Reflecting on the quality of ideas has not disappeared, of course.  Our nature and our review processes always focus on quality. Nevertheless, in our efforts to be financially sustainable, potential enrollments have become a critical part of how we evaluate the feasibility of a new degree.  This shift, which seems obvious to the for-profit world, has shaken public higher education to its core.

Nevertheless, I see light ahead and here is why: When we discuss finding new audiences for our university, we do not focus on marketing– we focus on student engagement. Where we were once satisfied with the notion that emerging questions in a discipline were sufficient justification for launching a new degree, we now consider barriers to student engagement with those questions.  Our curricular design processes are keeping those barriers in mind.

For example, we know that there are many great careers related to “big data.”  We also know that our students avoid math like the plague. Instead of launching a big data degree, we are weaving data analytics into some of our not so obviously math-related majors.  This helps us avoid the hazards of the stand-alone data analytics degree, which would likely have low enrollment numbers at our university.  By building the data analysis tools into existing degrees, and thinking about how to support students in learning how to use those tools in the context of their major, we are avoiding the typical breakdown of math and non-math students.  We are also increasing the value of the degrees we offer by responding to current trends in multiple disciplines. We hope that the value we have added to multiple majors will become part of our recruiting strategy.

Retention, rather than new degrees, is also an important strategy for a financially sustainable university.  Higher retention is better for students, reputation, and the bottom line.  At WCSU, we know that building community is critical to student retention.  Yet, as a majority commuter campus, we have struggled with strategies for doing just that.  There were hints, however, in several of our programs. Music majors have a weekly Convocation that brings them all together.  Nursing students develop robust study groups to support each other. Theatre students must all contribute to staging productions.  These activities are typical for these kinds of degrees. What can the rest of our degrees learn from them? Lots.

For example, who says convocation is just for music? My Biology Department decided to use their First Year Navigation course as a community building strategy as well.  They opted to bring all of their first year students together in a large group each week (rather than the more typical 25 student classes). In this structure, students meet the biology faculty, hear about the opportunities of the discipline, relevant clubs and projects, and are encouraged to attend events important to their department.  They also stage a faculty talent show, which is lots of fun.  This community-building focus makes us better at meeting the needs of commuter and non-commuter students alike.

Faculty members are also experimenting with pedagogies. In history and social sciences, several faculty have been using a reacting to the past model as a first year course.  Students take on roles of people in a particular era, learning to research characters and debate critical political issues.  This is fun, in itself, but the best part is the collaboration is leading to a new course that focuses on a locally important historical event, which may be even more engaging for our students. It has certainly been engaging for the faculty involved. Others have been trying out flipped classrooms, exploring virtual reality, employing good practices associated with mindset research, and trying out universal design.  It is exciting to see so many people really thinking about how to reach the students we are serving. This climate of innovation and passion creates an attractive teaching and learning environment–perhaps one that more students will want to experience.

These examples of the work we are doing at WCSU tell me that we are going to be okay.  We are not waiting for something to happen; we are getting better. Here is the thing about this numbers conundrum: there are fewer high school students in total number, but there is also a heightened need for college education.  As I do the math, this means we need to set the stage for a higher proportion of those high school graduates to attend college.  To do so is to focus on engagement so we can better serve those graduating seniors, many of whom may require us to examine our assumptions about good learning environments. That is exactly what we have been doing.

We are still going to be working with less.  We are going to have to rethink how we develop our budgets for the enrollments we have, and not count on growth. That will present a challenge, and there will be hard decisions to make. But if we keep leaning into innovation and engagement, I feel confident that we will figure it out. It’s not all sunshine yet, but I can see the rays peeking in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Agency, Evaluation, Innovative Pedagogies

Reflection vs. Evaluation

Well, it is December and we are racing toward the end of the semester. As students complete term papers, prepare for final exams or presentations or performances, faculty are making room in the schedule for teaching evaluations.  These evaluations are generally short questionnaires that ask students to give an assessment of the effectiveness of the teaching they just experienced. It is an opportunity to give feedback, which is to the good, but most are constructed in a way suggests expertise where it does not exist (students are not instructional designers, nor will they have depth of knowledge of the discipline), and there is well-documented evidence that they reflect cultural biases throughout.  So, why do them at all?  Good question.

As currently constructed at my university (and at all of the universities where I have taught), there is little value in this exercise.  We have made the whole process about evaluation instead of about learning.  We have also cast our students as consumers, who then provide ratings (stars?) of our work, without really helping them reflect on their learning. What if we reimagined teaching evaluations as course reflections? Instead of using them to tally the effectiveness of a faculty member, they could become a mechanism for collaborative course construction. Instead of seeking an ill-informed critique, we could invite our students to share what they’ve learned from us and give us suggestions for future iterations of the course.

Here’s what it might look like.

Dear Students,

At the end of each semester, I gather information about your experiences in my classes so that I can get a better understanding of what is working well and what new ideas I should explore. Please take a few minutes to reflect on what you have learned in this class and then answer the questions below thoughtfully and honestly.

  1. What was the most interesting or most important thing you learned in this class?  

Why?

    • It provided a foundation for this or another class that I will take.
    • It connected to important topics beyond this course.
    • It helped me see things from a perspective other than my own.
    • Other (please explain).
  1. What was the least interesting or least important thing you learned in this class?

Why?

    • It was too foundational/I’ve encountered it in several other classes.
    • It seemed like a tangent that was not relevant to the class.
    • Other (please explain).
  1. Considering the course overall, were there ideas or assignments that you think will help you succeed in other classes at the university? Please explain your answer.
  2. Considering all opportunities for feedback on your understanding of the material (tests, quizzes, presentations, papers, group work, etc.), which did you find most helpful? Please explain your answer.
  3. Is there an opportunity for feedback on your work that you would like to see added to this course?
  4. Considering things like grading criteria, timing of assignments, or overall organization, do you have any suggestions that you think might improve this course?
  5. Do you have any additional comments that I should consider?

Thank you for your feedback and good luck in your studies.

What I like about this structure is that it invites students to participate in the evolution of the course, instead of asking for some kind of score for performance. By using the first person in the opening paragraph, the faculty are given agency, suggesting that they are fully committed to this dialogue with their students.  It also suggests that students are speaking directly to that faculty member, not some unknown administrator who will then evaluate the professor. 

Moving in this direction, faculty can use the information to learn how students are experiencing their teaching and respond as they deem appropriate.  For example, maybe the thing that students identified as unimportant, was in fact very important.  Perhaps some reframing needs to take place.  Or, maybe several students felt the need for a presentation to be included in the course.  Digging into why would be a good next step.  No doubt some students will ask for extra credit. If the answer is no, then being clear about why not might be a good thing to discuss in the next class.

I also like that this is a disaster for quantitative summaries.  While the current scales from 1 to 5 may be helpful for creating graphs and charts, and they do provide some sense of the instruction in terms of extremes (outside of university norms), in reality they do next to nothing for teaching.  Mostly, they inspire defensiveness. I’m not worried about losing those statistical summaries, because the extremes are easily captured in the syllabi, sample assignments, and peer observations. I’d rather cultivate the reflective practice that this qualitative approach implies.

As one of the people who reads faculty portfolios in their applications for tenure, I am most interested in seeing how faculty respond to student feedback. The most compelling thing that can be included in any tenure packet is a narrative about how one’s teaching has evolved and why.  Evidence of change over time should include sample complaints and sample praise found in these course reflections. If the examples are followed by explanations of how things changed as a result, then I feel confident that I will know enough to fairly review the candidate. I will also know that I have a professor devoted to good teaching.

Let’s drop the ratings model and focus on learning about our teaching. Let’s try to foster an environment where we take student voices to heart, without ceding our expertise.  Let’s listen carefully to concerns and ideas, and work to grow in our profession. Let’s be reflective educators.

 

 

 

Agency, Dialogue, Engagement

Policy-Making as Pedagogy

This morning I joined a group of students in Dr. Anna Malavisi’s class:  Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, Ethics.  This interdisciplinary course explores the intersection of these three topics or areas of study on decisions around environmental issues. I was to introduce our guest speakers, State Senators Julie Kushner and Christine Cohen, who serve as chair and vice chair of the Environment Committee.  Their presence provided a wonderful opportunity for our students to get a sense of the complexity of developing good legislation around environmental issues.

The wonderful thing about the conversation was the way in which the Senators were able to give specific details about how communities can come together around an issue and how individuals can participate in the discussions that matter to them.  It was a positive conversation that acknowledged the challenges of budgets, differing interests, and competing needs. Their examples revealed that different perspectives are both a challenge and an opportunity to build consensus.  The examples they provided showed strong pathways to positive change.

As students asked questions about the environmental issues they had identified as important, one of them finally asked a question that sparked a particular interest from me.  She asked, (and I am paraphrasing), how can the university get involved?  Good question.

It is complicated to discuss advocacy at a university.  We do not all believe in the same things.  We do not all want to see issues resolved in the same way.  As a university, we value inclusive dialogue from all points of view, but sometimes we are hesitant to get started on policy advocacy, for fear of the discomfort differing opinions might create.  However, as I listened this morning, all I could think of was the value of the conversation.  Students did not get simple answers to big environmental questions; they got the complexity of competing needs. Perfect!  We can work with this model in so many ways.

As I have remarked in other columns, education has a great opportunity to avoid the silliness that takes place in sound bites, tweets, and communication that is meant to provoke outrage rather than solve problems.  We have the luxury of a semester long conversation on a topic.  We are cultivating scholars who can find answers to questions for themselves and then discuss them in groups. By design, we encourage deep thinking about issues and, by design, we investigate multiple answers to our questions.  Tying those conversations to the potential for real-world change could help raise the level of seriousness with which our students conduct their research and apply their knowledge.

Generally, applied research takes place later in a student’s college career.  We design our curriculum to introduce a field (100-level), engage some of the key scholars (200-300 levels), review the appropriate approaches to scholarship (200-300 levels), and then get into asking and answering questions (300-400 levels).  This all makes sense because we are helping our students build a toolkit and context for answering questions.  But, perhaps we need to re-think the starting place.  What if the introduction to the field was a policy question instead of the history of the discipline?

This approach is particularly well suited to the social sciences, because the big questions in those fields are easily connected to current challenges.  Developing policy recommendations around food insecurity, culturally responsive healthcare, treatments for addiction, appropriate punishments for crimes, or the economics of free public higher education are all likely to yield a lot of good discussion and complex policy analysis.

It can also work well for the humanities.  Consider policy recommendations on topics like censorship and the arts, ratings on various media products, displaying controversial historical artifacts, or promoting diversity in curriculum.  These are weighty topics that demand deep ethical scrutiny, prior to any policy recommendations.

Then there are the sciences.  Instead of discussing the ethics of scientific research after time in the labs, situating the pros and cons of using antimicrobial soaps, requiring vaccinations, or creating databases of DNA in a policy recommendation could be a very compelling introduction to scientific thinking.

Reimagining the beginning of the educational process this way is a great way to connect learning to action from the start.  It moves abstract concepts like bioethics to an exploration of real world implications in easy to understand ways.  Asking students to make decisions and recommendations is a compelling way to support engagement; asking them to collaborate in the process offers the opportunity to practice reasoned and civil discourse.

We would, of course, still need those other steps about the history of the field, relevant theories, and appropriate research methods.  But, if we start with application, perhaps those other courses would have greater meaning for the students, because they will have already seen the path to action.  Better yet, perhaps their advanced research projects will be informed by the notion that the results could be part of a recommendation for changes in the world around them.  Now that is a formula for engaged learning.

 

 

 

 

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 just a 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.  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.