Engagement, Higher Education

Practical vs. Liberal Arts Education

Well, I am back from my respite in the tropics, where I had time to read several books, some of which were about education.  In an interesting history of higher education in the United States, I found myself laughing aloud, as I read that the demise of liberal arts education has been railed against since at least the 1860s.  Charles Dorn’s, For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America (2017), flags the Morrill Act as a pivotal moment in this argument.  The Library of Congress describes it here:

“An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts,” the Morrill Act provided each state with 30,000 acres of Federal land for each member in their Congressional delegation. The land was then sold by the states and the proceeds used to fund public colleges that focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts

Largely celebrated as an act that represented a commitment to education as a public good, it is about as clear a commitment to practical/applied education as there could be.  Even before this act was established, alarms about practical education were being raised. Dorn recounts a speech by John C. C. Hamilton on this very issue.

The numerous schools and colleges scattered over the vast expanse of our country, the liberal encouragement which they receive from the public, and the munificent patronage lavished on them by the various States, amply attest to the value which the American people place on their system of general instruction. And yet, whilst the importance of the subject is recognized in this practical and substantial manner, and whilst we fully understand the great agency which the enlightenment of the citizen is to exert on the progress and final success of our peculiar form of government, it is surprising to see how great a prejudice exists against the liberal studies. The pursuit of them is regarded as a waste of time. We are told that they contribute nothing towards what are vaguely called the practical purposes of life; that they are too tedious to suit the active spirt of the American youth. [An Address Delivered before the Philodemic Society of Georgetown College, D.C., by Joh C.C. Hamilton Esq. of Washington, D.C. (Washington, DC: Henry Polkinhor, 1862), 3-4.]  (as cited in Dorn, p. 68)

So, there it is.  We have always been torn between learning things that are good for us and learning practical things. But Hamilton does not just reflect a sense of longing for liberal arts; he is also recounting a public sentiment about the temperament of the learner. Well, if the liberal arts were “too tedious to suit the active spirit of the American youth” in 1862, then it is the “same as it ever was” (apologies to Talking Heads).

What strikes me is this: with the exception of those very few people who get to spend their lives thinking about one area of study, uninterrupted by commerce or teaching, we are always juggling the love of pure inquiry with the practical use of that inquiry.  For most of us in higher education, the juggle is not practical vs. liberal arts.  It is really about dividing our thinking between our field of study and how best to teach about it.  Frequently, the best path to that teaching is helping students see the value of what they are learning.  Guess what? They frequently find that value when they understand how it might be useful to them.

Whether we are teaching about nursing, accounting, art, philosophy, or history, most of us spend a lot of time considering where the points of engagement might be.  You see, after we get over the notion that everyone finds our discipline exciting (usually in one’s first semester of teaching), we get obsessed with how to help our students feel the excitement that we feel. We usually stumble through many strategies, testing out assignments of various types, trying to get our students to understand what is important or interesting about the subject at hand.  Whatever the assignment, that moment of understanding often comes when students can connect the knowledge to something tangible in their own lives.

So, our nursing students endure anatomy and physiology because they know it is a means to success in their profession.  But what about that art history course?  Can we help them see a purpose for this knowledge without demeaning the pleasure of just encountering some of the great works of art? For those who are pursuing degrees in literature, can we help them see the poetry in math, or at least connect it to their daily realities?  For the psychology major, can we offer a music class that fully engages them with the role of music in our culture, without turning it into preparation for future trivial pursuit games?

I guess what I am trying to say is this; it is all practical or useful in some way.  Indeed, much of what we teach is downright magical in the ways in which it can help us build an understanding of our lives.  Some things are directly useful in particular professional contexts. Others are a different kind of useful as they help us process cultural and emotional responses to all sorts of things. And those much maligned symbols of the true liberal arts, philosophy and history, have never been any more or any less useful than they are at this exact moment in history.  They are filled with opportunities to understand the world around us.

So, let’s not spend another minute arguing about practical vs. liberal arts education. If we continue to commit to a balance of major and general educational experiences, we will be just fine.  Instead, let’s think about how to create learning experiences that help our students discover the practical value that every discipline provides. After all, we don’t actually want them to find this stuff “tedious.”

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Engagement, Growth Mindset, Innovative Pedagogies

Being Vulnerable

This afternoon I am going to go and have some fun with the WCSU music department.  Part of their program includes convocations twice a week, in which various student, faculty, and guest artist performances take place.  I am going to perform with a group of talented students, answer some interview questions by the host, and take my chances on testing my very rusty sight reading skills.  The chances of making at least one mistake are very high.

As I thought about this, and the many other things I have done just this week that had a high risk of error, it made me think about the idea of vulnerability in the classroom. Every single time a faculty member enters a classroom there is a high likelihood that some error will take place. It could be small – like messing up a due date – or larger – like getting lost in an equation we are trying to explain.  These moments have the potential to shake our confidence, and worse, convince us to be risk-aversive in the classroom.

In the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion around the notion of “mindset” in education. There are a couple of important observations in mindset theory. The first is that people with a fixed mindset tend to see learning in terms of talent and innate ability. From this point of view effort matters to a point, but there is not a lot of room for change in our capabilities.  We are either good at something or not. For growth mindset people, learning is indeed a function of effort and our talents can change and grow over time.  (See Carol Dweck’s work for a more thorough explanation.)

Things that follow from these two perspectives are related to risk-taking.  Students with a fixed mindset tend to be looking for right answers and are uncomfortable with getting wrong ones. When they do make a mistake, they are likely to see that as a function of their natural ability (or lack thereof) and simply dismiss their ability to find a right answer. Growth mindset is the opposite.  Getting things wrong is the path to learning, growing, and improving.

It seems like the growth mindset is the better perspective for education.  But, do we really cultivate environments where failing or making a mistake is ok?  I’m not sure.

Some faculty are great about building enough assignments into their courses so that no single score is the measure of a student’s ability.  This approach gives students the opportunity to drop lowest grades, or get a few low scores on assignments that are building blocks to larger things, with those larger things weighing more in the grade formula. Others offer opportunities to revise things, which certainly can encourage a student to get started on a project, even if confused, and then have the chance to do better with feedback.  These are all good practices that encourage a student to try, even if they might make a mistake.

But there’s more to cultivating an environment in which we are comfortable taking risks or being wrong.  We have to be role models for failures.

I think back to how frightened I was as a student, not wanting to raise my hand lest I be way off base in my response.  My heart used to pound as I finally took the chance and there were even cold sweats involved.  I was afraid I would look stupid.  Eventually, I developed comfort in taking a chance on a response, but it wasn’t easy.  I think some successes (right answers) and some helpful follow up questions from supportive faculty (for my wrong answers) built courage. Their probes helped me see errors as part of learning, not a condemnation of my skills. I went through this process of developing courage as an undergraduate, graduate student, and even at academic conferences as I ventured to comment on a presentation.  I was truly terrified, but eventually pushed through and developed a habit of trying out my ideas.

In the classroom, I also battled the risk-aversive behaviors brought on by fear. In the early years, I prepared so many notes to be sure I did not make a mistake. Like most junior faculty, I was worried that I just didn’t know enough yet, and that I would be easily tripped up.  Over time, though, I freed myself from the need to be perfect and, though still devoted to strong preparation, I frequently tossed out ideas that just did not work. This allowed me to laugh at myself with my students watching and, I hope, encouraged my students to be brave.

Now, as an administrator, I follow the same practice. I do research, develop proposals through lots of conversations with colleagues, and then send things out to our whole community for review. Some things are revised and adopted through that review; some are dismissed as bad ideas.  I could avoid the risk of the dismissal and not have to steel my nerves for the negative comments, but I do not think it is good for our organization to wait for ideas to be perfect.  Like the mindset we are hoping to cultivate in the classroom, I am hoping for all of us to become comfortable exploring ideas, building our ability to develop proposals, and have to courage to have them edited or rejected later.  It is my best effort to cultivate an organization with a growth mindset.

Teaching, scholarship, and policy-making are inherently about vulnerability.  Those of us who have made careers in education are always risking errors and making mistakes in very public ways.  We are not able to edit everything out in a document in the safety of our offices.  We have to perform and remember things in real time.  Even our documents are open for edits and critique. It can be scary, but perhaps that is the point. If we want to support a growth mindset in our students, we have to believe in it for ourselves.  We must embrace our fumbles and errors and our capacity to learn more, and we need to do it in front of our students. Then they might come to trust us enough to try out difficult ideas and learn from their mistakes.

So, here’s to embracing vulnerability.  It is the fastest path to strength that I have found.

 

 

Engagement, Higher Education, Inclusion

Student Engagement? No Problem.

It is the start of a new academic year.  Students are scrambling to find books or finish registering for classes, while faculty put finishing touches on syllabi.  Opening meetings have commenced, a new cohort of first year students has been welcomed, and WCSU is abuzz with activity and optimism. Even the weather is supporting new beginnings with a hint of fall in that late summer air.  It is impossible not to love this part of the year.

I have a long list of things I hope to accomplish this year, from the trivial to the impossible, but I don’t want to get overwhelmed by all of that yet.  What I hope for at the start of this new year is to take the opportunity to see our campus with fresh eyes. This is the beauty of the summer break–when we pause, we have the opportunity to change our perspectives and start fresh. Sometimes, what we thought were problems aren’t really problems after all.

As we start this new year, I want to acknowledge that student engagement was something that I used to see as a problem to solve.  Now I see it differently.

WCSU is a majority commuter campus. This has been true for the entire 116-year history of the institution, but for some reason we talk about it as if it is something that should be fixed.  It isn’t!  While it is true that the kinds of experiences we construct must be different from a majority residential campus, the ability for so many students in the region to attend college at an affordable rate, without racking up additional (any) debt for housing, is a true benefit to our community and our future alumni.

Instead of thinking about the loss of the experience that comes with life in the dorms, what we need to do is reimagine the ways we engage students. Instead of constructing entertainment activities to entice students back to campus (largely a silly endeavor in a Netflix world), we should connect commuter and residential students around community, career opportunities, and professional development in the major.

Volunteer efforts, like WCSU’s Annual Day of Service on September 20th, is one great example of productive student engagement.  This year, our faculty have supported cancelling morning classes that day, so that everyone has the chance to participate.  Students, faculty, and staff come together to tidy up neighborhoods, work in shelters, paint fences, and connect with the Danbury community. This very popular event has often led to internship opportunities or other service learning opportunities, and commuters and residential students alike are willing to participate. It is a bonding event that builds community and opportunity.

Our clubs linked to majors offer another successful model for student engagement.  Clubs in Biology, Chemistry, Communication and Media Arts, Marketing, Mathematics, Justice and Law Administration, Psychology, and Social Work, and more, regularly bring students and faculty together to hear guest speakers, meet professionals working in the field, travel to professional conferences (often, presenting research and winning awards), and sometimes taking a canoe trip or going apple picking.  As it turns out, our students and faculty mentors are highly engaged in these activities.  Instead of asking why students aren’t frolicking on the quad, let’s acknowledge where they are.  Let’s invest a little more in these clubs and celebrate the results.

Sometimes we feel a little bad about the fact that we must incentivize attendance at campus events–you know, extra credit or a trade for class time.  We have this idea that students should just want to attend the presentations we value.  Why?  Faculty and administration do not choose to attend all of the events on our campus.  We make decisions about value and relevance and how much energy we have left in any given week.  So do our students.

On the other hand, these events do offer wonderful enrichment opportunities for all of us.  So, let’s all take a moment to look at what we see as the best benefit for the students we are teaching and go ahead and offer that extra credit.  Don’t worry about going to everything; let’s just focus on getting everyone to one or two things a semester. That really is enough.

Another area for growing student engagement is in career exploration.  Our students (all students) want a great education, but they also want help figuring out where they will go after college.  At WCSU, the Career Success Center has career fairs, alumni networking events, support for resume and cover letter writing, and guidance on getting an internship.  They even have peer mentors so those who feel a little intimidated by the environment might find a supportive face to greet them. Just like our guest speakers, though, students need a nudge to get to the Career Success Center. Let’s give them that nudge.  As students get started in the major, perhaps a small assignment on career exploration could open their eyes to the support available.  This is engagement.

Campus activities, when tied to the student’s educational and professional goals, are productive and enriching engagement opportunities.  They are less about the extra-curricular activities developed to support a vibrant dormitory life (don’t worry, we do that, too), and more about the co-curricular opportunities that are meant to help students see the connections between their coursework and the rest of their lives.  Given the many claims on our students’ time, these professional opportunities are more likely to bring them back to campus than entertainment-focused events.  Not only that, these activities are as valuable to residential students as they are to commuters. So, let’s not mourn the uneven participation in the Quidditch Team (one of my favorites), and celebrate the things that are capturing our students’ attention.

Here’s why.  First, these kinds of engagement matter.  They help us explain the value of the undergraduate experience by connecting opportunities to apply and extend learning to the curriculum.  Second, and perhaps even better, these professional development opportunities build community.  Students meet to work together on projects, talk with faculty about conferences or speakers, and get to know alumni in networking sessions. These experiences are just as likely to support friendships as attending a football game or the fall musical or a touring comedian.  Interestingly enough, the co-curricular experiences might even encourage more students to head out to this week’s art show or a soccer game, because, well they were on campus with their friends for a workshop anyway so they might all go together.

So this is how I’m starting this semester.  I’ve taken a breath and reimagined the situation. Student engagement.  No problem at all.