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.