Engagement, Hope, Resilience

Skeptical Optimism

It is raining today in Connecticut. The children waiting for the school buses this morning were clad in rain jackets and protective parents held their umbrellas over their impossible to still children. Cars plowed through the puddles creating splashes that made those efforts to stay dry futile anyway. No matter, everyone was smiling. We are grateful for this wonderful replenishing rain.

Long strings of sunny days are a wonderful thing, but we all know that without the rain we perish. The soil needs moisture, and so do we. Sometimes, we even need the break from activity that the rain might postpone. Rain not only nourishes, but it balances us, and makes us question our devotion to blue skies.

I know, I’m going on too long about the rain (I’m just so happy to see it), but it has got me thinking about the kind of balance we try to achieve in all educational settings. We are charged with educating our students about all manner of things – things that are complicated, things that don’t have clear answers, things that are impressive, but not yet done. This is an exciting and daunting responsibility that requires us to be able to celebrate both the sun and the rain.

Consider the work that science faculty must do. Discoveries in science require theories, hypotheses, experiments, results, new hypotheses, and ultimately new theories. All of this is natural for scientists; they see no problem with this cycle. For the uninitiated, though, the certainty of scientific results is shaken by any real understanding of this process. All scientists and students of science must find ways to embrace the temporary nature of our certainty. Each new breakthrough is a miracle that should be celebrated, but also distrusted. For those who find the balance, the path to the next set of questions is the win. They find a way to enjoy the wins (and the knowledge generated by the losses), while maintaining the absolutely necessary skepticism about what they think they know.

Then there are faculty charged with educating our future artists. Learning to be an artist requires a balance of technique, inspiration, and context. Faculty and students in the arts move from the position of the paintbrush, the horn, the toe, to the traditions of the genre, to the reinvention of the rules, often in the same sentence. For the uninitiated, though, art is all opinion and talent, without any of that hard work or precision. In fact, the most successful artists make all of the hard work invisible. The challenge for faculty is not just about convincing students to do the hard work, (counteracting the cultural narrative), it is also about doing so in a way that makes room for the inspiration and yes, talent. The critiques that are central to the creative process must help students find their way to excellence, not make them feel lesser. It is a balance of celebrating success and finding the path forward from the failures.

Ok, I’ve stalled long enough; then there is history. By history, I mean the history of everything-social structures, political structures, art and invention. Oh boy, how we’ve politicized this! Whenever we are charged with guiding students through the past to where we are today, we are going to be stepping into some tricky waters. Our histories are full of awe-inspiring moments. I’m particularly happy about the revolutions that were supported by the invention of the printing press (things like the way we do science, the way we imagine individual and human rights, the way in which governments are formed, come to mind). Understanding the importance of contact between different groups of people, how their ideas about right, wrong, medicine, or art interact with each other is both fascinating and sometimes unsettling. There are exciting tales to tell. But of course, there are no histories or societies without great achievements and great failures.

For those in the humanities and the social sciences, this is obvious. They are adept at examining the complexities of how right, or good, or even success is defined. They are also adept at seeing problems in our assumptions and places where work still needs to be done (and work always needs to be done). It is incredibly important that they have open and honest conversations with their students about the good, the bad, and the ugly that we find in our histories and social structures. They must be fair about the ambiguity in what they see and acknowledge that the meanings ascribed today are likely to change tomorrow as we learn more and expand our thinking. They work to elicit thoughtful critiques and ideas from their students and wrestle with the contradictions those observations may reveal. And, like their colleagues in science and in art, it is important that they help their students find the joy in the good stuff and the path to improvement for the not so great stuff – perhaps with some inspiration and talent.

Eboo Patel describes some of what I’m trying to get at in his essay: Teach Students to Be Builders, not Critics. Patel argues that criticism only goes so far, students need a path to action. I agree with this, although I think more of this is happening in our classrooms than is widely understood. Still, it is a good reminder that as we insist on the fullness of conversations that should happen in all of our disciplines, conversations that must include the failures and the successes, we should always help our students imagine themselves building something better. It is a balance of skepticism and optimism that we hope to strike.

So, I’m back to the rain. Some will curse it as their plans are cancelled, but most of us recognize the essential role it plays in our lives. Those streams we swim in are re-filled, those forests we walk through are lush again, that day of rest from our ballgame is healing our muscles. We can embrace the balance of sun and rain. Let’s also embrace that balance of the great and the awful in our histories and our capacity to grow; the discoveries that cure our ills and and the knowledge gained from those that ended in disaster; the inspirations that brought forth breaktaking new performances and those that resulted in giant ugly messes, from which new inspiration will certainly arise.

Embracing failures, mistakes, and limits are all essential to learning. So is the excitement of being able to see the next question, the place for improvement, the path forward when nothing seems to be working. Dedicated faculty all over the world are starting the fall term, striving to achieve the right balance between those essential pieces of a good education. Balancing them is the complexity and the joy of this profession. It is the sun and the rain.

Engagement, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

From Evolution to Revolution

Over the last year a group of dedicated faculty and staff, all members of our standing assessment committee, have been working to define our university outcomes. This effort is meant to help us see the big picture of the goals of WCSU. University outcomes ask us to consider the connections between majors, general education, minors, electives, co-curricular programs, etc., and their collective impact on our students. When established, they will also provide a path to determining if we are achieving them. This has been a somewhat daunting task, but the committee members have worked hard, and we are nearly there.

When we started this conversation two years ago, I supplied the team with records of all of the established learning outcomes in every major at the university. In addition, I suggested that our general education curriculum and the university’s mission, vision, and values were great places to look for clues as to how to begin. Taking that information together, the things we value as a university started to come into focus. After a few rounds of analysis, forays into drafting language that sprang from those sources, and one focused retreat, the committee emerged with a proposal that is a good reflection of who we are. This backward mapping was very effective as a process, and after incorporating the edits suggested by the broader campus community, this list will stand as an excellent start for defining our shared goals. Bravo.

University outcomes encourage us to look at how things weave together. We are often so busy focusing on our specific tasks in majors or academic support programs or athletics that we don’t look at the whole. Establishing shared goals focuses our attention on how all areas interact. They suggest a path to collaboration that is exciting. Having a standing committee with representatives from faculty, staff, and administration has been a great place to move this conversation forward. This is an important step for WCSU, one that I hope will inspire great conversations at our university.

But I must admit that as we approach the finish line (I hope), I am feeling a little restless. You see, even as that very good work has been taking place, I have been immersed in conversations about the ways that we are failing to reach all of our students. Three different groups (committees, leadership teams, program leaders) have just reached out to me about retention. Each one was trying to discern the reasons why students leave and what next steps we might take to reach them. The answers to their questions are both simple and complex; simple in that I know that the greatest predictor of losing our students is actually their high school GPA, complex in that after accounting for that predictor there are many other subtle factors that lead students out the door. We have taken important steps to address the main predictor; there is more work to do on the rest.

At the same time that those earnest and important questions emerged, I ended up in two wonderful conversations about engaging students in the first year. WCSU already as a first-year course, but these conversations led to an observation about the totality of that first-year experience. In one, we were discussing ways to connect students to our community, in another we were talking about learning experiences that first year students should have. These were exciting conversations and the ideas we explored reflect so well on my colleagues. They are feeling the gaps in the experiences our students are having and trying to innovate and respond.

But I worry, because whenever we get into these discussions about better ways to support the students at a high risk of leaving, or about creating learning experiences that might be more engaging for this generation of learners, we always get bogged down in questions of time, effort, and resources. These are important considerations, but they often derail us before we begin. It is clear we are feeling the need to change. I don’t want those good impulses to get derailed. I am just as exhausted by the juggle as my colleagues are, and I am well aware of our limited resources, so it would be easiest to just pause with the university outcomes and wait a minute. But I find myself feeling that there is no time to waste. I default to my usual perspective–let’s focus on productive changes, while we conspire to do less. Ironically, doing less will take an immense effort. I think the effort might be worth it.

This effort is a lot to ask for, I know. But the questions raised by faculty and staff and students on a daily basis, tell me that this is not a moment to tweak what we do; it is time for real change. So, just as we finish this task of establishing our shared goals, I am thinking of next steps. This time we shouldn’t be backward mapping to what we already do. Instead, we should give full reconsideration to the question of how the learning experiences we design (curricular and co-curricular) interact to engage our students. We should be thinking about how those experiences can help students seize control of their lives and empower them to create the world they want to live in. We should draw on the full range of expertise on our campus to create meaningful connections between ideas, instead of separating them by departments and divisions. We should work to undo the biases built into federal and state regulations that privilege the student who can survive five classes a semester and rebuild our programs to outsmart those rules. We should remember to consult the vast body of research on instructional design throughout. And so much more.

So, why am I restless about those university outcomes? Well, I’m not really. They are a great place to start to focus our efforts and examine our decisions in light of a common set of goals. Those goals are not contradictory to the next project I have just outlined. They will help us evolve as a university, connecting people and ideas that we have struggled to connect in the past. I hope these shared goals will foster conversations at every level of our university, so we can make good decisions about what we are investing in and the experiences we are designing to achieve them. They can propel us forward, even as they reflect the past.

But establishing these outcomes is not enough because we don’t just need to evolve, we need a full-scale revolution. No time to pause… ready, set, go.

Engagement, Evaluation

Learning from Students

For the last ten years I have been a full-time administrator. In that time, I’ve focused on student learning outcomes and university effectiveness. I’ve obsessed over better pathways through WCSU, hoping to eliminate the unintentional barriers to graduation and policies that are too heavy handed, punishing all students for the poor behavior of the few. I regularly review all the data I can gather about who is succeeding and who is not, trying to address gaps and make things better. Some of those efforts have been effective, improving our overall outcomes; some do not seem to have made a difference. Nevertheless, I forge ahead in that continuous improvement cycle, because it is my job and because I care.

This semester, due to a series of events (read COVID), I am back in the classroom. Adding one course to my insane workload might seem crazy, but it turns out to be the very best part of my week. I am teaching Public Speaking (something I can manage to keep up with, since so much of the feedback is in the classroom), and truly enjoying the interactions with the students. They are as I remember, equal parts interested and ambivalent about their education. Some are always early to class, others often late. Everyone starts the morning looking at their phones. It is my job to get them to look up.

This is a very active class, with a lot of what I call “pop-ups” to help students fight the pervasive fear of public speaking. During most classes, everyone gets up in front of the class to tell us something. You can learn a lot about your students from popups. They reveal attitudes, interests, and experiences that help me see what they are experiencing in the class and in their lives. This is also a First-Year class focused on orientation to college, so a lot of the prepared speeches focus on things at the university. Last Friday the students presented their first informative speeches and I learned a lot about the student experience at WCSU.

Lesson 1: Our study spaces matter. It is not surprising that many students focused their informative speeches on physical spaces. It is a very open-ended assignment – tell us about something at WCSU- so several students identified locations to describe. Those who did emphasized those places where they can sit down and get some work done. I was happy to hear their tales of using our library, computer Labs, quiet lounges and not so quiet spaces to get through the day. Developing these kinds of spaces has been part of our campus master plan and the facilities team has done a great job of finding spaces in every building for students to land. Our library faculty and staff have completely reimagined the library as a campus hub, with academic supports (tutoring, research, writing center) and a bagel shop. This one assignment tells me that our efforts were worth it.

But it isn’t just that they described the spaces, they described their days. They told tales that were familiar to me because I was a commuter student many years ago. With classes spread out throughout the day, and the inefficiency of going home or traveling between our two campuses, our spaces are essential for managing gaps between classes. Having those spaces near help (library) and faculty (science building in particular) was seen as a big bonus. Having access to computers (all over campus) helps them do assignments that are a pain on their mobile devices (even laptops). And being able to find a quiet space to study or a more social space that might help them meet other students was revealed to be essential.

Lesson 2: Our students are interested in co-curricular activities as part of their undergraduate experience. As a majority commuter campus, we sometimes worry about the students who stop in for class and just go home. Yet, this was not what the students in my class focused on. There are athletes (commuter and residential) who described the demands of their practices and games and how they juggle those demands. As first year students, the athletes faced a big transition from high school sports and college. This transition was described as both intimidating and rewarding. Other students talked about being part of our arts programs and hoped to lure some other students to the performances. This group seemed to have a built-in buddy system with their ensembles, exhibitions, and performances. Both of these groups of students appear to be thriving already because they have well-defined communities at WCSU, filled with both curricular and co-curricular activity.

But our offerings are not suiting all of the students’ needs. For several, who are not in those well-defined cohorts, our clubs are falling short. Every campus likes to brag that students can start any club they’d like, and that is sort of true, but it is not something that a first-year student is inclined to do. Finding something of interest is important for these students so that they do connect with others and with the campus experience outside of the classroom. It was clear that our communication about this is falling short. I must admit I flinched as I heard tales of broken links, and missing details about who is involved or when a club might meet. In addition, the meeting times for these student-run organizations absolutely dissuade our commuter students from participation. They would have to return to campus after 8:00 pm, when they have already been to class, hung around between classes, and perhaps even gone to a part-time job. Even young people don’t really want to do that.

So, we have work to do here. One student suggested we survey students about their interests: I think we might need to do this every year. We also need to carve out some time slots during the day with no classes scheduled so that we can invite more to join in these activities. These are details about our campus that I suspected to be true but hearing it from the students directly, really brought it into focus. We need to help them participate if we want them to thrive.

Lesson 3: Given half a chance, the natural inclination of our students is to be supportive. This is particularly true in a class where everyone has to stand up in front of the room and deliver a speech. We all applaud, of course, that’s just good manners, but the supportiveness comes out in other ways. As we summarized the successes and areas for improvement after our first prepared speeches, students observed growth in their peers already. One noted that everyone’s voice was stronger and more controlled than the first pop-up, another observed that the topics were interesting, and the speakers were prepared. Suggestions for improvement focused on degrees, not absolutes–try to look around the room a bit more, make more eye contact, and try not to pace. These were offered as gentle encouragement. No one felt the need to be negative or harsh in those pointers.

This supportiveness is also expressed in their desire not to offend me as they apologize for lateness or absences or messing up a due date on an assignment. Surely they want my forgiveness (no points off), but I feel that there is also a desire not to appear rude or dismissive of the work we are doing together. In this FY class, I want to encourage that behavior; I want them to feel that I am supportive of them, too. I think carefully about my responses, hoping to support each student while encouraging improvement.

Most of what I have learned so far confirms the data that I regularly review, but teaching gives me a great opportunity to move away from my spreadsheets and see things first-hand again. Being in the classroom brings the trend lines to life and in some cases, makes clear some patterns that those lines don’t fully reveal. I am not sure I will be able to teach another course anytime soon, but I am grateful for this opportunity to learn from our students. The lessons they provide are powerful, indeed.

Engagement, Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Collegiality and Happiness

Over the past two weeks, I have hosted and/or participated in four different gatherings with students, faculty, and staff. We were trying solve problems, develop plans, and improve infrastructure and, well, to be better. After the year of Zoom meetings, it was fun to be in the room with colleagues, listening to ideas and working together to figure out what to do next. Preparing for these meetings took effort, but being in them was a joy. I am grateful to the many who participated and feel energized about the work ahead. Thanks everyone!

It seemed serendipitous, then, when I discovered an interesting essay about collegiality in Inside Higher Ed. Michael Weisbach argues that being a good colleague can benefit both the university and the person. He writes:

To be a good colleague, you must find some productive way to contribute that goes beyond your direct job description. By doing so, you will benefit your co-workers and the organization you work for. But equally importantly, you will benefit yourself. Your colleagues will appreciate you more, your evaluations will improve and you will most likely enjoy your profession more. (In Praise of Academic Collegiality, Inside Higher Ed, November 5, 2021).

I had two thoughts: 1. More? You want more from all of the over-taxed people who work with me?! 2. Maybe it isn’t the more, but the ongoing interaction that really defines collegiality.

Higher education is filled with work that is often invisible to the world outside of our (not so ivy-covered) walls. The work that most people associate with us is that of direct instruction in the classroom (virtual or otherwise). When looked at as a simple number of hours “at work” this looks like a pretty light load. At schools like WCSU, this means 12ish hours per week. The ish in my statement reflects the variability of this formula when we consider different types of classes–studios, labs, clinical placements–which may increase those hours. Still, even after those adjustments life looks pretty good. Except the work is way more than that. Faculty are also grading papers, preparing instructional materials, staying current in their field, which should also be regularly incorporated into their teaching (read new instructional materials). Oh, and they conduct research, attend/present at conferences, advise students, mentor scholarship–and this is just the stuff related to their actual job descriptions.

Right after the list above is the rest of it, which is not just faculty but everyone else at the university. We are an institution committed to peer review and shared governance. This means there are committees for everything from evaluations of personnel to the development and/or closure of academic programs, to the evaluation of co-curricular programs or student support services, to discussions about campus master plans or strategic plans. We also believe in the wisdom of our community and regularly see initiatives emerge from small groups with big ideas and these also require time and effort and evaluation. Each of these things happen regularly (weekly, monthly, and so on). We have no trouble identifying the hundred ways that the entire community “adds value…beyond the specified requirements of the job.”

So, the first part of what Weisbach discusses — looking for opportunities contribute beyond job requirements — is just a given of life in higher education. Indeed, the larger concern is how to keep those opportunities from overwhelming us. It is very easy to do too much and undermine some of one’s core job requirements. National data suggests that this overdoing often ends up disproportionately impacting women and colleagues from under-represented groups, which is an ongoing concern. Add to that the reality that those who volunteer to lead committees tend to become the go-to people for other projects, thus overburdening them in general, and we have a situation that needs to be thoughtfully monitored for equity and health.

Nevertheless, there are two other pieces of the essay that I think are incredibly valuable for thinking about collegiality on our campus. The first is his observation that while some people demonstrate collegiality in their willingness to take on committee or project leadership roles, or by participating in social gatherings or campus events, for others it takes the form of less visible action. Perhaps a colleague shares teaching materials or offers to talk about how they approach a topic with another faculty member. Maybe a person makes it a point to share information about grant opportunities with a colleague whose work is in a relevant area. Maybe a person reaches out to a colleague in a very different kind of role to talk about improving a process for students or colleagues, initiating a productive examination of where improvements could be achieved. Sometimes a person might just pass on positive comments they’ve heard about a colleague’s work. All of these examples, and the many more that take place every day, need to be acknowledged as the actions that contribute to a collegial environment.

The second important observation is that the actions we take to be collegial can also make us feel good about the work that we do. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing raises the spirits more than the feeling that we have had a positive impact on other people. Each time we reach out to help, to offer suggestions, and even to ask for input, we are building our sense of community and feeling more engaged with our colleagues. As frustrated as we may be now and then with a process or an individual, the ongoing commitment to having a positive impact is the best path to getting past those disheartening moments and feeling hopeful again.

It is not just the big projects that demonstrate collegiality, those smaller day-to-day interactions may matter most. They help connect us and they demonstrate a commitment to creating a great university. There is room for each of us to define the boundaries of those interactions; we don’t all have to contribute in the same way. But I think that we all benefit from the contact and the conversation that collegial interactions can bring. So, I’m thinking about how to foster that sense of happiness and common purpose that a collegial community can create. I promise not to create a task force, but I will be on the lookout for small actions and ideas.

Dialogue, Engagement, equity

Continuous Engagement

As provost, I am constantly reading research on good teaching practices, scouring our outcomes measures, and thinking about how we might do better. WCSU is a public regional comprehensive university serving many students who are the first in their families to go to college. We are increasingly diverse and must be attentive to the different experiences and assumptions about education that our students bring with them to our campus. We also need to attend to any differential outcomes that might reflect structural biases within our curriculum and our organization. Most of all, we need to be prepared to continuously examine the information we have about how we are doing and act on that information. It is a lot.

It is important to keep up with the emerging research on teaching, learning, and systemic biases and use that knowledge to develop strategies to improve the experiences of our students. As usual I find myself trying to simplify the pile of things that are keeping me up at night by identifying some relatively simple and direct action. In this post-midterm moment, I am thinking about some steps we can take right now to impact this fall and the spring semester ahead. While I am necessarily obsessed with the kind of continuous improvement that centers around course and degree learning outcomes, this time, I’m focusing on continuous engagement with our students.

I know, you’re all thinking that I’ve forgotten what it is like to be in the classroom. Isn’t that continuous engagement by default? Yes, of course it is. But that engagement is shaped by all sorts of decisions faculty make about their approach to teaching and it is often constrained by the few hours shared in the room or online with our students. In this case, I am thinking about just a few other steps to encourage our students to be active participants in their learning experience and ultimately their own success. Here are some possible actions.

  1. Consider taking a moment in the next week to ask your students to re-read your syllabus. Ask them to provide feedback on the pacing of the material, the topics they are most interested in, and any topics that they think might be missing. Be sure to give them the opportunity to evaluate the expectations conveyed and whether or not they are clear. In particular, at this midpoint, they are probably able to comment on what they wish they had known earlier in the semester. I suggest that you dedicate some real time to this process. Start with individual written responses, then move to small group conversations to help students solidify their comments. Then ask the groups to report out. It may take 30 minutes from your course content, but it will give you the opportunity to see where there might be confusion, where there are ideas to consider and most of all, it will engage your students with their learning process. Be prepared to make minor adjustments as a result of this conversation. Big adjustments should probably wait until the next semester, but not always.
  2. Although your students may have done this organically earlier in the semester, now is a good time to establish some official study groups. At mid-semester there are students who are thriving and those who are struggling. Putting together some study groups with a few review tasks assigned by you could help your students establish relationships with their peers that are productive going forward. With all of our new online communication options, students can meet remotely to go over some of the tricky concepts that might need another look. If you provide an assignment or two and organize the groups with a balance of known talents (so far) in each, you are connecting your students with each other and engaging them with the material. If you are willing to give an opportunity to improve their midterm grades with this activity (re-doing an exam question or quiz after their group meeting, for example), they might be encouraged to continue to work together after your initial prompting. Best of all, they might ask you to clarify topics and ideas, which is a big win for teaching and learning.
  3. Finally, now is a great moment to look at the campus events calendar and pick one or two for you and your students to attend together. I say one or two just to allow for the conflicts that will inevitably occur as you try to add this activity at this late date. It doesn’t matter what you choose, so long as you can link it back to your course in some way. This shared experience is an opportunity for faculty to be seen less as an authority and more as a peer, learning with their students. Let’s face it, right after midterms is a good time to plant this idea in your students’ minds. This is an extra that may seem like a lot in the assigning but can yield a shared bond that might just inspire new conversations about the central issues of your course. By the way, there is no downside to awarding bonus points for these activities. For those who are excelling, it is just a nice thing. For those who are struggling, it is one more chance to succeed.

Each of the activities above are meant to focus on engagement, not specific content or learning outcomes. The syllabus assignment asks students to look at the structure around their learning and actively contribute to improving that structure. Study groups can encourage students to support each other on a path to success, while also providing a path to improving their own progress in the course. Attending campus activities with faculty invites students to see their professors as co-learners, engaging ideas together. Cultivating this kind of engagement could also provide a context for learning about the harder things, like systemic bias, because all of these assignments are invitations for students to talk and opportunities for us to listen. I’m pretty sure that dialogue is the answer to most of the hard questions we are asking about the student experience in higher education right now, so fostering it could do us all some good.

P.S. I left out the buzzwords, but I am guessing you could put them in if you’re reading anything about higher ed these days.