Higher Education

Listening Professions

On April 2nd, I had the pleasure of hosting WCSU’s sixth Scholars in Action event.  Twice a year I bring together faculty who are doing scholarship in very different fields, but with themes that connect them. These interdisciplinary panels always spark fun and interesting conversations and, I hope, a sense of camaraderie among all who attend. While all of these events have been thought-provoking, this most recent one was particularly compelling.

The panel, “Acts of Violence, Acts of Grace,” explored topics that were of great cultural significance.  Communication professor, Jay Brower focused on media coverage of violent and traumatic events, reminding us of our complicity in its popularity and repetition.   Brian Clements of our Professional Writing program, described the ways in which he has drawn together his art (poetry) with political activism in his work, From Bullets to Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. Deneen Harris and Karen McLean of the Social Work program illuminated the concept of historical trauma (trauma arising from hundreds of years of ill-treatment and oppression) and the strain of empathic engagement in the field of social work, and the connection between the two.  George Kain, former police officer and professor of Justice and Law Administration, described his experiences studying and teaching about the death penalty and his own transformation from pro- to anti- death penalty sentencing.  Finally, Greg Haynes of the Music programs described the project of constructing a piece of music called Peace. 

The importance of these topics is undeniable and the audience enthusiasm was palpable.  Each professor described ways in which this work has become part of their classes, applying their scholarship in ways that easily illustrate the value of continued investment in the growth and development of the scholarly endeavors our faculty.  There is plenty to follow-up on, but I want to highlight an important take-away from this conversation for all of us in higher education.

In a nutshell, education is a listening profession, obsessed with the holistic of the student experience that extends far beyond the classroom. Listening professions need room for rest.

I arrive at this thought as a result of the conversations connecting these interesting works of scholarship.  As each participant described the ways in which this work informed their teaching, and the deep emotional connection to it, I started to imagine the psychic energy required.  When Drs. Harris and McLean then discussed the self-care practices they are teaching future social workers so that they might manage the emotional exhaustion that arises from the deep empathic connections to their clients, I thought, we need to do the same in higher education.

Here’s the thing, we do not just deliver content and let students figure it out.  We build relationships with students, meeting them wherever they started in this education process. They come to us with varied assumptions and experiences of education (and life) and these assumptions and experiences shape their performance in the classroom.  We then task ourselves with listening to their stories and finding ways to bridge differences so that all students have a chance at success.  This alone is an amazing juggle, asking us to continuously imagine responses to our teaching from multiple perspectives so that everyone might succeed.  This juggle is little understood outside of the classroom, and it is not easy, but we do it every day. But wait, there’s more…

Topics of discussion can be controversial and we are expected to handle them without alienating anyone in the room.  This isn’t just an issue for humanities disciplines: we encounter controversy in business, chemistry, nursing, and, well everywhere. We have to be attuned to the many ideas our students bring to the dialogue and coach each one fairly in their understanding of a controversy.  We must suspend our own emotional connection to an idea, as best we can, and hop between arguments and evidence with agility and fairness in a way that no other profession demands. We don’t just need doctorates in our disciplines, we need to continuously pay attention to the values of all, so that we might encourage close scrutiny of ideas, values, and evidence.  We listen to the students, to the public, to the media, and to the research, refining our approaches every semester. But wait, there’s more…

Most of us also engage our students’ day to day realities, which can be incredibly challenging.  We hear tales of the transitions from adolescence to adulthood that are often unsettling for the student. Their images of their strengths, weaknesses, and values are all emerging and changing and they talk to us in person or in papers in ways that require, or at least encourage, response.  Some are dealing with traumatic events, homelessness, general financial insecurity, so we try to help them get the resources they need. Some have had a lousy educational foundation and now we’re trying to help them succeed without destroying their sense of self-worth.  We reach out as best we can, trying desperately to get them to use the resources available.  And this is just the list I can remember, today. I’m sure there’s more.

In other words, information delivery or explanation of a subject is the easiest part of this job.  It is so much more.  Like social workers, therapists, and health professionals, we are tasked with listening carefully and reading closely the signs that are the clues to how to help our students.  This takes a tremendous effort. Like those other professions, we are also unsuccessful part of the time, which takes a tremendous toll in terms of our emotions, and in this field, in terms of our budgets, enrollment, and how the culture (state) sees us.

And yet we do all that extra work, the rest of the job, willingly and habitually.  Those of us who choose education as a career hold the hope of success for all students dear. We are committed to the notion that every one of them can succeed if they will just meet us halfway. We are not satisfied when we aren’t successful in reaching them, and so we continuously reflect, revise, and try again.

It is draining work, this listening profession, and it isn’t limited to the classroom. It is part of all aspects of the university, from teaching faculty, to advisors, financial aid counselors, resident assistants, coaches, and even those of us in administration.  We are all listening carefully and taking action as best we can. Like our faculty supporting future social workers by teaching them self-care, I’d like to suggest we need to teach ourselves the same.  

So today I am congratulating my colleagues for the incredible work that they do, and reminding them to make room for a little rest, recovery, and forgiveness for any failed attempts at reaching a student. We cannot continue to care at this pace without acknowledge the cost and celebrating the value of our efforts. Take a deep breath, reflect, rest, and yes, repeat.

Higher Education, Thinking

Spring Cleaning

This morning I awoke to the welcome sounds of birds.  They’ve returned to the neighborhood, adding to the mix of voices that accompany my morning coffee and email routine. I have zero vocabulary for identifying birds (I call my friend Felicia when I really want to know), but what I can say is that I recognize the repeat visitors and the warm weather their return signals.

Waking to those voices always brings a sense of relaxation and joy.  We’re in the final weeks of our spring semester, the celebratory rituals have begun, and even though I don’t have summers off, the relaxed rhythms of the warmer months beckon. We’ve almost made it through another year.

Then it happens…. Ahhhh,  there’s so much left to do!  There are plans in progress that are yet to be finished.  My goals for the year are only half-way done.  My hopes for completion seem foolish at best.  And that’s just me.  My faculty and students are having the same moment multiplied by 1000s.  How do we get it all done?

Well, we can’t.  So let’s just accept that. But there is value in this moment of panic.  It provides an opportunity to evaluate the goals we set and consider adjustments for the future.  Were all of those goals worth it?  Do they get at the heart of what we wanted to do?  Are there too many? Too few?  It is time for a little spring cleaning.

As I adjust my list to something more reasonable and perhaps attainable, I am thinking about curriculum design. At universities, much of the curriculum is considered without reference to the whole.  Although departments work together to develop shared goals in the form of course descriptions, outlines, and learning outcomes, the courses themselves are mostly developed in isolation.  Faculty bring their talents to a topic, interpreting it through their particular lenses, with little thought to what else a student might be learning.  And, although the overall path through a degree is strictly defined in some majors (usually in STEM disciplines), in most cases the path is only encoded as far as course levels and a few pre-requisites, with the rest being experienced as a series of topics to be pursued and then, well, mostly forgotten.

This reality leads me to think about our students lives.  Project due dates are looming, with a generally pile up of research and exams and presentations for the end of the month of April.  How will they get it all done? How will they fully benefit from the creativity and insights of the faculty if we are piling on with no concern for that end of semester reality?

Here’s a thought.  Let’s do a little less.

We can start by looking at our syllabi and asking the question, what did I truly want to accomplish in this course?  All indicators suggest that the details of our courses fade as students leave for their next semester’s work, so what should they take with them?  Looking at what you planned, right at this moment when the fast slide to the finish line begins, what might you omit next time?  What is not essential to the things you’d like your students to carry forward? When you find it, write it down for next year.

Then let’s do a little reorganizing.

Remind yourself that a) your students are in three to four other classes, all with readings, assignments, and exams weighted toward the end of the semester and b) feedback is a really good thing for learning.  How might you reorganize the material that is essential, so that less of the big stuff is saved for the last weeks of the semester?  How might you make time for feedback and revision? Write it down for next year.

These are small steps, to be sure, but if we start to ask these questions regularly, we might be able to de-clutter our lists, creating just a little more room for honest engagement with ideas.  Let’s not equate academic rigor with a quantity of readings or assignments.  This just leads to skimming and superficial encounters with important concepts and texts.  Let’s not think that the most important measure of learning is a single large assignment, but build in the shorter building blocks that give room for improvement. Let’s not think of our courses in isolation, but consider the totality of a student’s schedule and find ways to weave that into our planning.

You see the world is full of information and we are all adept at touching the surface of ideas.  But to get to the small moments that can build real understanding, we need more time. Universities need to create that time in our schedules and our curriculum as a counter-balance to the abundance of information and experiences at the touch of our fingertips. We need to make room for thinking.  So in the spirit of spring cleaning, let’s sweep away the excess and do a little less.

We might even find it brings us joy.

Higher Education, Return on Investment

Trust

As the hand wringing from last week’s scandal in elite higher education continues (oy!), there is an issue that is important to the rest of us.  Public trust in higher education is waning Now let’s be clear, we’ve always been both praised and pilloried – praised for the opportunities and experiences we provide, pilloried for our remove from the real world. In our various forms we’ve always been part of the pathway to professional degrees and the creation of new knowledge, but by design, we’re pretty judgmental which is irritating. This makes a love-hate relationship with higher education kind of normal.

What is new is this–as the cost of college tuition increases, more and more families are questioning the return on investment. Tales of wiz kids inventing apps in garages or hitting the big time in entertainment or sports suggest education might not be the only path to fame and fortune.  Stories of students with liberal arts degrees who can’t get jobs (told in the press in wild disproportion to the reality) make some see a traditional degree as a luxurious waste of time.  And there is the misguided notion that everyone should be enrolled in four-year degree right after high school.  When faced with the lived experience of friends and neighbors, this story just doesn’t hold up.

Well, I suppose we have it coming.  I could talk about how decreases in state funding of higher ed has driven much of the high cost of tuition (which is true), but that doesn’t change the experiences of our families who are striving for their children.  I could also insist that people with undergraduate degrees endure the vagaries of our economic cycles much better than those without (also true), but there are lots of jobs right now, so no one wants to hear that. I could remind folks that even those who major in the most traditional of liberal arts degrees (philosophy, literature, history) have better earning power than those with no degrees, and over a lifetime of work and tend to catch up with a lot of the more professionally focused degrees (including some STEM disciplines).  Yet, this is cold-comfort for those most recent grads living at home because they are paying off student loans.

As great as college education is for our economic system, our political system, and the health and well-being of our citizens, we are still describing what we do in unsupported and undifferentiated terms.  We’re asking the public to trust us, rather than making it clear that we have the best interest of our students’ futures in mind.

Well, not really.  This is really just happening in the media versions of college (both in fact-based and fictional genres). Our realities are very different.  We do, in fact, recommend multiple paths to our students.  Good high school guidance counselors are focused on the varied educational experiences available to students (public and private, four-year, two-year, training programs, etc.). Our high schools also still include technical training opportunities, which is a very important option for many.  Choosing from these many distinct opportunities would be easier for families and school districts if people weren’t so obsessed with that prestigious Ivy League experience.

Good colleges and universities also provide real guidance to students.  We work closely with students to get them on the right path. Some start at a four-year university, but find it isn’t a good place for them.  Good college advisors help students transition to the right place–sometimes a community college, sometimes work until the student has a better sense of what they want out of their education. We have also developed programs to help students return to college if their first attempt didn’t go well (Fresh Start Programs, for example).  At a school like mine, students also stop and start for financial or family reasons, so we’re finding structures to help them manage these real-world obstacles to degree completion.

In public higher education, we’ve also worked hard to make transfer from certificate to two-year to four-year degrees relatively easy (I’m not convinced it is seamless yet). We’re not creating a bunch of stackable credentials as part of a new trend in education, we’re helping students see that we’ve had those stackable options all along.  The trick is to help everyone complete something, so that they have the chance to move on when ready. We’ve also created advising supports to try to keep students from amassing too much debt in their pursuit of an education.  We hate seeing students piling on loan after loan without a good outcome.

But this is the real story that we all have to get our minds around.  The emerging economies rely on an educated workforce.  Our graduates have to be ready to learn throughout our professional lives, because job requirements are changing at a pace that no single degree or certificate can keep up with.  We do want everyone to earn post-secondary education credentials, and probably those credentials will lead to degrees, because we want our students to be able to respond to the changing world of work throughout their lives. But we know the path to those credentials will vary.

So, we have to be clear about the benefits and limitations of each type of educational experience available.  We have to match those experiences to the students we are supporting, doing our best to meet their needs in both the short and long-term. We have to be responsive to the need for lifelong learning and continue to build credentials that support that need.  And we have to articulate the value of the more abstract reasoning and cultural competency that comes from all of those courses that don’t have a visible link to a specific career.  Why? Because we know that students with these capabilities do better over time. The evidence for this exists, but we have to tell everyone.

In other words, we have to earn the trust of the public. I’m sure that if people knew just how much higher education pays attention to where students are going, they’d feel better about us.  If we can show them evidence for our claims about what we do instead of asking folks to just trust us, that would also help.  And, if we demonstrate that we are paying attention to students as individuals, mapping their educational experiences to their unique needs, people might feel better about the financial investment they are making.

Then we need to figure out how to get the press to stop obsessing on a single, elite model of education, and tell the rest of the story.

 

 

 

 

 

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Are You Kidding Me?

Last week, as the news broke about the “admissions scandal,” I thought it was just old news.  The many, many ways that the wealthy have unfair access to, well everything, is just not surprising.  Inside Higher Ed has nicely summarized the list of ways that access manifests itself in higher ed in the article “Wealth and Admissions.” From good K-12 schools, to tutors, to summer programs, to family legacies, to just plain financial wherewithal, there is nothing equal about access to elite higher education.  We save a few spots for new talent (talent from families not already part of the elite) and get on with our protected pathways for those who have already made it to the upper middle class and above.

None of this is new.  None of this is surprising.  Some wealthy people have found a new way of garnering access, but really, what did we expect?  We set up the system this way and it isn’t pretty.

So here’s the “are you kidding me” part. Media outlets spent a week talking about this, as if that proportion of coverage was warranted in the sea of other news we should be attending to. Celebrities were involved, so were sports, so here we go. Meanwhile, legislators are considering ways to rectify the unfair advantages that this scandal unearthed.  The Wall Street Journal reports statements and proposals focused on limiting tax-deductions for university donors who have children attending the school; regulating early-decision since it undermines the ability for students to juggle offers and privileges those who can pay; fining colleges with the lowest proportion of low-income students; and, of course, limiting affirmative action.  Why are we allowing this bluster to go on? These practices have long been scrutinized, to no avail, and they are only focused on the lucky few.

It isn’t that I don’t understand how rigged the system is.  Nor is it that I don’t understand how invested we are in the notion that merit is the way that students get into elite schools. That belief helps us nurture the hope that upward mobility is real and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is the clearest path out of poverty.  Of course this belief is true, once in a while.  Some of the students admitted to those elite schools really did work harder than the rest to gain admission with a status of unknown, under-represented, and under-resourced.  I should add that many of the wealthy students enrolled also worked hard and had no idea of the advantages their socio-economic status brought them.  They were honestly engaged in the studying and volunteering and extra-curricular activities necessary for admission to an elite school.

What I don’t understand is why we allow this to pull our attention away from the daily inequities that plague the majority of students in the United States. Approximately 73% of all students in colleges and universities in 2016 were in public universities, and the majority of those institutions are focused on being accessible and affordable. Most of the students in these public colleges come from public K-12 schools.  In every one of these public colleges and universities, a portion of the students is truly struggling with finances or adequate academic support or navigating the mysteries of higher education with no family history of higher education to help them find their way.  Those colleges and universities are trying to manage decreasing funds to support the needs of their students. This is where our attention needs to be.

If legislators want to focus on education at all, then the focus should be on making sure that there is really access to our public institutions.  This means adequate funding from pre-K through 12th grade.  Let’s find ways to truly invest in primary and secondary education so that students from all neighborhoods are adequately prepared for college.  Then let’s reinvest in our public higher education.  The erosion in funding over the last 25 years is making it a challenge to meet the needs of all of the students enrolled. Frequently these gaps in funding hit the neediest students the hardest. This dis-investment needs to be reversed so that when those properly supported K-12 students get to college, the support doesn’t disappear.

You know, public education was one of the best ideas this country has ever had.  It has supported social mobility and, after many a battle, it is becoming inclusive.  But it isn’t perfect yet.  We aren’t meeting the needs of all communities and despite the progress toward greater diversity and inclusion, we are still leaving too many students behind. And we do so at our peril, because many of the jobs in our emerging economy rely on an educated workforce. When we under-fund accessible education, we under-invest in the economic health of this nation.

So, let’s not get distracted by the unfair access to the elite schools.  We can let the courts sort that out.  Let’s get obsessed with meeting the needs of the many instead of the few. Those of us working in public education are out here trying to make the promise of America real, but we could really use some more support.

Higher Education

Snow Days: Time to Breathe

It’s March 4th and we have a delayed opening today.  We had a proper snow storm last night, that is,  it was actually snow.  We’ve been plagued with snow/ice storms this year, so nice mushy, good for snow ball fights snow is kind of fun.  I put on my snow boots and shoveled my numerous steps (30 if you want to know), enjoying the feel of the snow and the wonderful silence that comes with it.

I’m old fashioned about snow.  I like that is slows us down a little.  I use a regular shovel because the snow blower is too noisy. It ruins the way that snow dampens sound, helping us hear things that are often drowned out by the bustle of the world around us.  Not the least of this is the bustle of tasks that can’t be done because roads are not yet passable.  For me it is delay to be grateful for… a pause that makes room for thinking.

We need more room for that pause… in our lives and in our classrooms.  In a world that seems to run on overdrive, education is one of the few places where we should make time to think and explore.  As I shoveled, I started thinking about the structure of what we do in higher education.  We’ve organized undergraduate education into 4 years, with 8 semesters and an average of 15 weeks in each.  It seems like a nice amount of time to explore ideas, build some beginning expertise in a major, and develop the habits of mind that will help us continue learning for the rest of our lives. Yet somehow it isn’t.

We’ve over-filled this experience.  So afraid of missing something important, we have bulked up the major requirements so there is less room for exploration of minors and electives. We’ve hidden requirements in the general education curriculum as a way to add more to the majors.  We’ve created new courses for every outcome required by the various accrediting bodies. In some majors, every single course a student takes as an undergraduate is a requirement. There’s no room for thinking and there’s no room for mistakes.

Now consider the fact that students are generally taking five courses in a semester, each with sufficient reading, writing, and application of concepts to merit a true college course, we might be less surprised that our students are having difficulty doing more than skimming their work.  In an effort to cover it all, we’ve encouraged them to be acquainted with concepts instead of trying to really know them. Oh, and they have jobs, and would like to participate in campus life, and maybe do an internship or study abroad!  Whew!

In the last decade, many of us have done curriculum mapping.  We’ve tried to figure out reasonable pathways through majors to achieve the learning we think is essential.  These were good thoughts, a start to an important transition from lists of courses to take, to a vision for what our majors and alumni should take with them as they go.  This curriculum mapping came to us as a series accountability demands that we were not happy about, but in the end a lot of learning came out if it. We started to notice things we hoped for as outcomes, that were not being adequately addressed in our courses.  We closed loops and had retreats and tried to imagine the best for our students.

Well it’s time to revisit those degree outcomes on a larger scale. Instead of just thinking about the major, we need to think about the total undergraduate experience.  We need to ask questions about the kinds of opportunities we want our students to have, not in isolation, but as a whole.  How will their courses influence and inform each other? How will they integrate their work in the classroom with their work and co-curricular experiences?  When will we encourage independence and decision making?  How will we make room for the learning to sink in?

This is the educational mapping I’d like us to consider.  Let’s pull a representative sample of student course schedules, and examine the course requirements.  Is there really enough time to complete the work well, when they are combined?  Is there room for reflection? Is there room for mistakes, confusion, and recovery?  Now, add to those requirements some hours for a part-time job and some hours for clubs or sports or just hanging out.  If what we see is something we can’t imagine completing each week, we will know it is time to design a more holistic curriculum map.

The undergraduate experience has a lot of responsibility for preparing students for life-long learning.  Our graduates are entering a world where they will change jobs numerous times.  Technologies change weekly and their ability to adapt as needed will depend on deeply ingrained skills and habits of mind.  We can’t be distracted by the sheer volume of human knowledge, accelerating at an ever-increasing pace.  It is ever-expanding and easily accessed. Instead, we should be making room for reflection, deep engagement with ideas, and opportunities for some unexpected discoveries.  We need to do less and think more.

The snow storm has passed. The shoveling is done.  The sun shines on the white blanket that mother nature spread last night.  I’m moving back into the bustle of things.  But I’m grateful for the pause and the deep breath it inspires. I’m hoping we can find some ways to build those deep breaths into all that we do at the university.