Community, Resilience

A Ray of Hope

As I write this final blog of 2020 and prepare to take a few days of rest, I am thinking about opportunities for hope. It’s been a terrible year for everyone, of course. Worse for the neediest members of our communities than it was for me, I know. I am lucky to have employment and a home and to be in this continuous semi-isolation with my husband. We have lots to do, even as we mourn the loss of our normal social life, which is usually filled with music. Our family members are healthy, though we will miss our children on Christmas Day. No, the year was just not as terrible for me than for so many around me. I am grateful.

Nevertheless, I am in need of rest. I have carried a boatload of worry. I’ve worried about students and colleagues every day since the beginning of March, when I had to decide if we should bring our students home from their semesters abroad. The number of decisions that I have participated in making this year is truly stunning, and the consequences of each just a little overwhelming. From weighing levels of risk as we considered offering classes on campus, to establishing reasonable standards for going back online if infection rates surged, it was a sea of ambiguity. We did pretty well at WCSU, but the level of stress and worry was, well, a constant noise in my not very rested mind.

After safety came worries about the quality of the education we were providing. The complexity of a university-wide shift to hybrid and online teaching should not be underestimated. There is a reason why most people dip a toe into online with just one course at first: It is hard! Faculty have faced re-thinking their entire approach to teaching in a week, then a summer. They had to do it for everything, not just one experimental course. The support provided may have been strong, but the number of things to learn was more than anyone who has not taught online can imagine. No doubt, not everything went well.

Our students, too, were in an overwhelming environment. While people like to think of young adults as fully comfortable in online environments, in reality they are comfortable with games and social networks, not learning online. The normal transition from high school to college, where students learn to manage time in ways they were never responsible for in the past, was magnified ten-fold. As they adjusted to many asynchronous learning environments, I think many of our first year students just felt alone.

Despite all of these worries, we made it through the fall with relative success. Our infection rates remained low, we supported an expanded pass/fail option to help our students through this difficult transition, and faculty are getting more comfortable teaching online. We did our best to do some normal things in new ways. Faculty engagement with online meetings and events was high. Indeed, our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) ran weekly meetings to discuss all sorts of issues related to teaching online and there was a lot of engagement. Scholars in Action, our interdisciplinary panels featuring recent faculty scholarship, had their largest audiences ever. Our musical theatre program did a wonderful job creating online productions. Yes, we were fully engaged with creating a reasonable campus environment.

And now there is a glimmer of hope – vaccinations are approved and the first groups are already receiving them. It will seem agonizingly slow, as we wait for our turn, but this is an important moment. We are moving in the right direction. I am proud to say our nursing students and faculty have really stepped up. First, they were our contact tracers and now they are administering vaccines. Bravo to all of them.

I am proud of all that we have done together this year. The commitment of every member of the WCSU community has been tremendous. Amidst the fear and the ambiguity, everyone did their very best to support each other and keep working toward creating a positive and effective learning environment. We will do even better in the spring semester because we’ve had some time to practice. It is not ideal that we will still be mostly online, but there is nothing like that second chance at teaching or taking courses in new modalities for improvements. I’m confident we will all feel just a little happier and more satisfied with this disrupted environment in the spring.

So, on this shortest day of the year, I want to say that I can see the light ahead. We won’t be where we want in the spring semester, but we will be marching towards normalcy. And that march will be just a little less stressful because of the most important lessons we learned this fall. But the most important lesson we learned was that we are a caring and supportive community. It has been a joy to see those positive impulses shine this year. They were the true light in the darkness.

So, we should all get a little rest. We need it. But then, let’s return with a renewed spirit of optimism and community. That will sustain us throughout the spring.

Happy Solstice, Happy New Year, and Stay Healthy Everyone.

Community, Resilience

The Bright Side

It is March 23, 2020 and Western Connecticut State University has officially launched as a virtual campus.  Spring “break” was filled with activity. Faculty were preparing materials for online course delivery with lots of help from our Instructional Design team.  Information Technology & Innovation (IT&I) has been deploying hardware and software at a dizzying pace, all the while working to ensure that there is enough support on the Help Desk, as our system strains under the weight of a sudden level-up in usage. Academic and Student Support Services have moved to virtual formats.  Student Affairs and the Residence Life team are finishing up the process of helping our residential students retrieve their belongings, and the facilities team has identified appropriate places on campus for emergency spaces for the City of Danbury, should that be necessary.  It has been all hands on deck, and people have been rising to the challenge with positive attitudes.  Whew.

It is sure to be a little bumpy for the next few weeks.  We’re all learning quickly but mistakes will happen.  Nevertheless, I see some potential positive outcomes from adapting to this new reality.

Online Teaching and Learning

WCSU does not want to become an online university.  I want to be clear on that. We are woven into our community and we serve students from many backgrounds with varied needs.  Not all of our students (or faculty) will thrive in an online environment.  But some students will.  At WCSU, we’ve been trying to determine the right audiences and approaches for our online offerings (graduate, returning adult, hybrid, low-residency, and so on).  This quick turn-around to an online environment creates an opportunity for us to gather some actual data on these questions.  I am hoping for some great conversations and analytics when this is over.

It is also important to note that this midcourse shift in medium places faculty in a good position to assess the impact of moving their instruction online. Working with students face-to-face for the first half of the semester has provided the opportunity to get to know how each student engages their education.  This will help them see where the change in medium is or is not impacting student success.  When there is a change in student performance it may be time to review the approach. If student performance stays roughly the same, things are probably on the right track.  There will be a lot to learn about instructional design from this simple metric.

Online Academic Supports

While many students, staff, and faculty prefer face-to-face experiences for academic support, this isn’t necessarily a great fit for a majority commuter campus.  As my colleagues have worked at breakneck speed to develop processes to support the virtual versions of our support services (tutoring, academic coaching, advising for students of all learning needs), we now have the opportunity to compare the volume of demand for services, and possibly the impact of interventions, with the face-to-face version.  We may learn that we should reconsider the proportion of online vs. face-to-face services when we return to normal operations.

Registration for fall is also underway.  WCSU has (wisely) committed to requiring students to meet with their academic advisors prior to being allowed to register.  This allows us to flag critical pre-requisites or course sequences, discuss challenges or the need for academic support, identify opportunities (minors, internships, study abroad), and most of all, build relationships with our students.  However, like the realities of academic supports, sometimes our students’ work schedules, etc., make traditional office hours problematic.  Testing out platforms for good virtual advising experiences could be good for us.  I’ll add that learning to keep our advising recommendations in Degree Works could be another good outcome.  Think of all the paper we could save!

Collaboration

I’m not in love with the collaboration tools yet, but I can definitely see their value. Between Teams for smaller group meetings and WebEx and Zoom for the larger ones, we are learning to stay in touch via technology.  I know lots of organizations have been doing this for years, but education tends to be a high touch environment.  We find the free flow of face-to-face conversation and debate to be vital for refining our ideas.  The awkwardness of taking turns in the online environment does kind of dampen discussion, but it will let us proceed with university business and we will get better at it.

There is the other kind of collaboration, too.  We are organized by schools, departments, and divisions in higher education.  We frequently spend our careers interacting within the narrowest of those clusters, without learning much about how our colleagues see things or how they do their work.  Ironically, this separation is making us reach out across divisions more than we usually do.  There’s an esprit de corps as we try to help each other think things through and solve problems.

The connection between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs and Enrollment Management has never been stronger as we identify the gaps in our areas that result from the lack of face-to-face engagement with students and faculty.  We might just discover some better processes that won’t lead to these gaps when life returns to normal. Likewise, the relationship between students, faculty, and the IT&I team has strengthened, as people become accustomed to the online support they used to resist.  As we moved to quickly vacate the campus, many of us came to understand the logistics routinely managed by our Residential Life staff, our Facilities Team, and our Campus Police.

I know I might sound a little too Kumbaya, this week, but it is honestly how I feel.  I am proud of my colleagues and excited to learn from all that has occurred.  And if that’s a little to mushy, consider this – with this dash to online will never worry about snow days again!

Stay healthy.

 

Community, Critical Thinking, Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion, Uncategorized

The Age of the Straw Man

Two of the six core values that support Western Connecticut State University’s mission are:

  • Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
  • Respect. We value the right of all people to be treated with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.

These statements reveal a campus that has embraced the difficult and exciting discussions that follow when people of different social, political, and cultural backgrounds gather to address current and ancient societal debates.  This is who we are, and these values should be at the heart of any educational organization. But acceptance of the challenge of exploring differences in civil and thoughtful ways may need more support than just open minds and empathy.  Given the preponderance of fallacious arguments in the ether, it may be time to commit to some direct instruction in informal logic.

For the uninitiated, informal logic springs from the field of philosophy (also embraced in writing and communication curriculum), that provides a toolkit for examining arguments for structure and validity. Much like the old grammatical diagrams that were once used in the teaching of English (helping to break down nouns, verbs and connecting parts of speech), informal logic allows us to diagram arguments in terms of claims, support for those claims and conclusions. This diagramming is a great way to identify places where the supporting evidence or facts under discussion may have strayed from the initial claim or premise.

I recall my first encounter with informal logic as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the 1980s.  Sitting in a room of over 100 students listening to Dr. James Freeman introduce the structure of argument I felt a light go on.  For years, I had felt like there were problems with the statements/beliefs/worldviews that I encountered, but I could not figure out what was wrong.  These diagrams of arguments were a first step to uncovering the weaknesses or other leaps not supported by the claims I regularly faced. That course changed my life.

Now the field of logic has many nuances that most of us will never really dig into or fully understand, but the basics should be accessible to us all.  Among the basic concepts is the idea of a fallacy.  Simply put, fallacies are irrelevant evidence for a claim.  They are included as evidence, with no real bearing on the debate. They are distractions, keeping us from examining the central claim.  Typical examples are ad hominem fallacies (attacking the speaker instead of the argument), false dichotomy (setting up an argument around two choices, when many others are possible), or appeals to authority (invoking opinions of famous people, who may or may not have a connection to the actual topic).  Learning to see these tricks is incredibly helpful as one tries to evaluate a substantive issue.

One particular fallacy that seems to be dominating our lives right now is the straw man. The straw man fallacy is a way of distorting the central claim of an argument and then arguing against the distortion, rather than the actual claim. This tactic usually relies on taking things out of context or exaggerating the initial claim.    Since any example I give at this point is likely to draw some kind of bias claim, I will relate a totally unintended version that happened in an interaction with a six-year-old, twenty years ago. The six- year-old (let’s call her Sally) came to play with my daughter some time in mid-December.  The two began to discuss holiday plans and decorations. At some point, Sally stated that “everyone” would be going to church on Christmas Eve.  Since our family would not be heading to church, I interjected, “You mean everyone who celebrates Christmas.”  Sally responded, “You mean you hate Jesus?”

Sally was not malicious.  Her words were the innocent observations of a child who had never encountered a non-Christian before. I will not say things were easy to clarify, she was young and I wanted to be gentle, but we sorted things out.  However, I think you can see that in malicious hands, this statement is an interpretation of my words that was not in any way accurate.  In adult hands, with intention, this can become very ugly indeed.

This is a strategy that is dominating political arguments from all directions (left, right, and everywhere in between).  You name the issue (environment, immigration, gun control, healthcare, equity, etc.) and you will find a plethora of straw man arguments designed to distract us from the central argument.  At their worst, they are baiting us into discussions that are entirely false or at best, beside the point.  This is not a good state of affairs.

So what of my university’s values?  Well, like all universities, we are engaged in conversations like the one I had with Sally. In nearly every course, we challenge our assumptions about how the world is, was, or should be organized. Whether studying chemistry, biology, criminology, marketing, or history, students and faculty will uncover long held ideas and assumptions that may need to be reconsidered. Our task, then, is to insure that the reconsideration does not go astray with straw man arguments, or any other kind of fallacy.

To put it more plainly, when we ask ourselves to grapple with ideas that contradict everything we have known to be true, we may feel discomfort. That discomfort should not drive us to tactics that distort the question.  We should not start casting complex debates as either/or, us/them, and allow them to be reduced to slogans. We cannot allow simplistic, straw man fallacies, to distract us from our commitment to reasoned discourse on all issues. If keeping this commitment means more instruction in logic for all of us, let’s do it!

 

Community, Dialogue, Engagement, Higher Education

The Fifth Estate

Last week, I had a wonderful conversation with some of Western Connecticut State University’s talented faculty, as we prepared for Scholars in Action.  The Scholars in Action series features interdisciplinary conversations between faculty whose research intersects in some way.  The intersection is sometimes very loose, perhaps around a single common word, or sometimes quite direct, particularly when we focus on pedagogy.  The fall 2019 group was selected because of a shared focus on culture as important variable in marketing, justice and law administration, sociology, and philosophy.

One of the goals of Scholars in Action is to encourage us to get us out of our departments and into conversations with a broader university community.  Indeed, each time I host one of these panels, I find myself seated at a table with a group of people who have never met each other. The simple act of introductions is enlightening and exciting for all of us, as we get to know our colleagues.  Then we start talking about the scholarship, which expands our understanding of the varied approaches to research as well as disciplinary research priorities and boundaries.

This time, however, there was something more.  We went around the table, hearing first about how social exclusion can drive consumer behavior, then a provocative question about the ways in which we define “homeland security,” then insights into how academics can facilitate dialogue during international development efforts, and finally the ways in which power and economics can exclude or mischaracterize critical voices in environmental decision-making. As I listened to my colleagues describe their research, I found myself thinking about the richness of the questions asked, and the importance of our contributions to thoughtful discourse.

You see, most of the time, when people talk about scholarship in higher education, they focus on either breakthrough discoveries (usually in STEM disciplines) or on politically charged works that are poised to shake up the status quo.  These are important and useful contributions from the academy, to be sure, but they are only a small part of the story.  For most of us, the breakthroughs are elusive, but the day-to-day insights are profound.  It is these insights that guide curriculum, inquiry, and overall conversations with our students.  Cumulatively, they help us further our thinking in our disciplines while continuously uncovering next questions. These questions become the heart of our teaching.

The value of the questions that we pursue in the academy, whether large or small, have the power to re-shape worldviews.  For example, when a faculty member asks students in a communication class to map the representation of women athletes on ESPN (perhaps as research assistants or as part of senior research project), those students may simply contribute to a well-defined body of research surrounding popular culture and the construction of gender in the United States.  This, alone, can help students see that there is more thinking to do around athletics than simply calculating the odds of a win, or mapping coaching strategies. This change in perspective can have a larger impact on how they see other questions of equity, stereotypes, and power.  It might also help them see where progress has been made over time.

The faculty member who has developed expertise in the questions around representation in athletics will add to that body of literature, to be sure, but they will also have important examples and insights that go beyond the literature review. The specificity of their examples is likely to inspire deeper connections with the subject in their students because of its freshness in the mind of that faculty member.  Let’s face it, we are all excited by our new insights and discoveries, and that excitement is visible to our students.  With each new finding, faculty demonstrate what it means to be a critical thinker and a life-long learner, and the rewards of the hard work that research requires.

Universities like mine are rarely recognized for scholarship.  While all of my faculty are engaged in projects large and small, and a few hold patents or are the recognized authorities in their field, because we are generally characterized as a teaching university, the value of our scholarly efforts are often unobserved.  Yet scholarship of all kinds is woven into everything we do.  Our passion for our subjects helps us support the very best learning environments for our students.  We model curiosity and dissatisfaction with unanswered questions. We hope we are cultivating graduates who are interested in searching for answers to questions large and small.

As I left our preparatory meeting for Scholars in Action, it occurred to me that perhaps education should be called the Fifth Estate.  Our context allows us to pursue questions without the timelines and profit margins brought to bear on journalism, and without the vagaries of re-election that drive the legislative, executive, and even the judicial branches of government. In education, we have the unique opportunity to pursue ideas that interest us and take the time necessary to sort them out.  We are also committed to challenging our own assumptions about what is right, what is real, and what is possible.  This can help us contribute wonderful insights into all kinds of things. This is valuable to be sure.

But our value to a democratic society isn’t just about the research questions we try to answer. Cultivating the habits of scholarship in our students is our much larger and perhaps more important contribution.  The ways in which our scholarship can inspire our students to ask questions and seek answers is a vital part of creating an educated citizenry.  That contribution to democracy is invaluable.

Community, Return on Investment

Valuing Community

Well, it is Labor Day and here in the northeastern United States we are taking those end of summer walks, paddles, and swims. It is a celebratory holiday, with the hint of melancholy that endings always bring.  For me, it is always a happy time as we start the new school year and enter the season of apples, cinnamon, and changing leaves.

The hint of the crisp weather to come was in the air last week, and I was prompted to get out my bicycle to take a ride on a nearby rail trail. Rail trails have been an ever-present part of my adult life. When my children were young, my husband and I would pack them up, first in bike seats on our bicycles, then on little bikes of their own, and eventually, setting them free on proper bikes, training wheels gone, and streamers flying. The rail trails offered our family a safe, car-free space for our adventures.

Yesterday, my husband and I rode the Dutchess County Rail Trail from Hopewell Junction to the Walkway Over the Hudson.  It’s a lovely ride, but that is not my point.  What was great about the trail, which I have watched emerge over the last 20 years, is the community values it represents. Like all parks and trails, it required local time and money, community investment and labor, an occasional grant, and a vision of the positive impact it would have on Dutchess County.  People joined together to make something that would improve the quality of life for those around. This, is a wonderful impulse.

The Walkway Over the Hudson (an old railroad bridge, now a pedestrian and cycling route) offers spectacular views of the Hudson River and has become a destination all by itself.  From a derelict and scary structure to this vibrant park, some intrepid folks had enough imagination to move it forward.  Not only is the resulting structure beautiful and generally packed with people during the warmer months, but on either side, small businesses have popped up.  This investment has surely resulted in some monetary returns as it draws tourists to experience the views.

But the rest of it, the winding trail, with bridges over highways, and parking spots for shorter and longer loops, brought something more than a monetary reward… it brought an improved quality of life. As we pedaled along yesterday we passed people of all ages–newborns in backpacks, small children with training wheels, dog walkers on roller blades, people in wheel chairs, and senior citizens taking a slow stroll.  On this rail trail I passed people of many colors and sizes and I believe I heard at least six different languages spoken.  This wonderfully democratic experience, with no admission fees, brings cultures together in the most positive ways.

Now I could talk about property values (probably improved by this investment) or the other potential business that may result, or the actual health benefits of trails and parks as they encourage people to get up and move about, but I am most impressed by they way these things represent our commitment to community.  Time spent and funds raised on building these come from people who see the value of the experiences the trails will provide without seeking a financial payoff.  Families and neighbors then volunteer to help with the upkeep, representing a continued commitment to making the world a nicer place.  When we do these things, we all demonstrate care for our friends and neighbors and even those visitors from far and wide, dreaming of that common good for all.

So, it’s Labor Day, the perfect day to think about commitment to the common good. The work of labor unions in creating a reasonable standard of living for all is a clear representation of that commitment. People came together for the betterment of the whole, rather than advocating for the one.  That work improved working standards and created better living conditions for the many.  Our willingness to invest in transportation, healthcare, and education also represent that commitment.  These things are a bet on the idea that we all have better lives when everyone has access to these essential things.

And parks of all kinds are really just that….a bet that we all have better lives when everyone can share in the beauty of the outdoors in a safe and accessible way.  This seems like an excellent way to spend Labor Day.  That, and a picnic of course.

Enjoy the holiday.