Higher Education

What are Schools For?

It seems that I come around to this topic at least once every 6 months. The prevailing economic conditions, political priorities, and evolving learning environments provoke questions that are at the heart of what education should or could be at this moment in history. As I peruse the higher ed news I see rich debates on social justice, modes of instruction, and the value of education. As my mind tries to sort it all out, I find myself reaching back to the work of Dr. Henry Perkinson who taught one of the best classes in my doctoral program: Readings in the History of Western Thought: What are Schools For? It’s time to revisit this question once again.

To start, it seems prudent to acknowledge that the answer to the question What are schools for? depends on which students we hope to serve. As provost at an access-oriented public university, the answer is clear – we exist to serve any student who is striving for the advantages that a college education can bring. Those advantages are related to social and economic opportunities and the ability to live a fulfilling life. All of our efforts then, should focus on making these advantages real for our students. But how do these advantages connect with the debates surrounding social justice, instructional formats, and the value of education? Quite directly. Let me explore them one-by-one.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the topic of social justice? Profound. One cannot be transformed by education if there is no opportunity to explore the history of ideas that underpin our social structures and the ways in which those ideas have changed and grown over time. As soon as we ask ourselves questions about how our world is organized now, and how we got here, we have entered a conversation about social justice. There are no stories untouched by bias, and it will be ever so. Each new discovery reveals another thing, place, or person we forgot to consider or actively excluded. We will always be finding those gaps or blind spots or exclusions and grappling with their consequences. It does not seem possible to teach anything without touching on social justice; it is embedded in all we do.

Our students need multiple opportunities to see how the past is connected to present in all disciplines, examining our best and worst ideas, and the impetus for change. They need learning environments that allow them to grapple with difficult concepts, the impact of discoveries large and small, and, yes, the gaps in narratives that have excluded some voices in favor of others. They need the chance to argue about these topics in contexts that demand extended thought instead of snap judgements, evaluation of evidence from multiple sources, and honest consideration of conflicting points of view. They also need the opportunity to practice these conversations with both passion and diplomacy. Without these opportunities, we will fail to give our students the chance to develop the skills and habits of mind necessary for navigating social and economic decisions that support a fulfilling life. Yes, the obligation to think about social justice is strong.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the exploration of our teaching practices and modalities? Unrelenting. These questions directly reflect our mission. We cannot change lives if our students don’t understand our goals or our expectations, or if we persist with methods of instruction that have a demonstrably negative impact on the equitable distribution of success. We should be obsessed with the literature on instructional design in any modality. We should be engaged with the research on non-cognitive variables and their outsized impact on our first-generation college students. We should be exploring ideas about course design that help our students draw connections between the learning in the classroom and the world in which they live.

Our faculty need multiple opportunities to experiment with instructional design. They need opportunities to engage the research on how students are learning and to try out new ideas. This means that those efforts need to be recognized as valuable to their career trajectory. We need to think about the kinds of supports we should give to new faculty to encourage attention to pedagogy. This might be a smaller teaching load and some professional development opportunities. It might also mean some relief from research expectations in the first few years. We also need to think about how to continue that engagement with pedagogy over the arc of a career, perhaps building in some periodic reductions in teaching loads to spend some time testing out a new approach. It isn’t that complicated, but we should be thinking about how to systematically support faculty development in instructional design as part of our understanding of their roles and responsibilities at the university.

Strong engagement with the research on pedagogy and instructional design is essential for a university like this one. It is the best path to supporting the diversity of learners we embrace in our mission. It is also the best path to improving student success rates, which translates into improved opinions of our value. This is the work of investment and engagement, not economic efficiency. Focusing on great instructional design keeps our attention on great learning experiences that don’t short-change students at access-oriented universities.

So, what are schools for? Or should I say, what are public, access-oriented universities for? We exist to serve any student who wants the advantages that a college education can bring. How do we help them access those advantages? First, by creating learning environments that are informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning and then being obsessed with finding better ways to invite students to engage difficult material and explore ideas. Second, by insisting on placing all that we know in context, the good and the bad of it all, so that our students leave us informed about the complexities of our world and prepared to engage those complexities honestly and fearlessly. That is our purpose; that is our value.

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.

Change, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Finding that Perfect Blend

Like everyone in higher education, WCSU has worked hard to return to campus this fall. From vaccinations to health monitoring to emergency shut down guidelines, we planned for a reversal of the proportion of online vs. on-ground course offerings established last year. We were successful in this planning, with an overall in-person course schedule for undergraduates landing at 86% (last year we were 74% online.) At last our labs and performing arts are in person again and the back and forth that occurs best in the face-to-face environment is pervasive. Our graduate students are mostly online (73%), but they were already moving in that direction prior to COVID-19. Graduate students are jugglers and increasingly prefer the flexibility of online learning.

Now it is mid-semester and so far so good. Most of our students opted for vaccinations as did faculty and staff. Our testing protocols are revealing very low infection rates and there hasn’t been much in the way of objection to wearing masks while we weather the Delta variant. Our events calendar is starting to be populated with in-person experiences and, well, it almost feels like we’ve got the hang of this environment. I don’t want to tempt fate, but it feels good to have gotten to this point.

Now it is time to get on with figuring out the future of online for WCSU. As happy as we are to be back in the classroom and to see our students moving about the campus, the last year has revealed that online and hybrid opportunities should become part of our regular mix of offerings for many students, but how much, for whom, and under what circumstances? These are important questions to answer as we begin to build a post-pandemic university. Here are a few things we already know.

Our graduate programs benefit greatly from the online format.

For years, WCSU has offered a low-residency MFA in Creative and Professional Writing. Bringing students to campus for residencies twice a year has proven to be an effective way to build community and it has helped our cohorts thrive. Indeed, many of our graduates are published authors and all have found great relationships with mentors and peers to help them develop and grow as writers. Similarly, our more recent MS in Applied Behavior Analysis has been highly effective in helping students to degree completion and in passing the licensure exams, all while remaining employed. The schedule structure (year-round) allows students to complete the work relatively quickly and the constant assessment of outcomes has led to regular program modifications to support online learners effectively. The outcomes and the enrollment show us this is a strong model. Our EdD in Nursing Education has a similar tale to tell.

For many of our other graduate programs, the push to online necessitated by COVID-19 has led to an aha moment and most are going to be online going forward. Some will have residencies, like the writing program; others will include some on-campus experiences (hybrid) as part of particular teaching and learning strategies, and others are building some shared experiences that students may participate in both online and on campus. Still others will maintain the on-ground format but are considering using a few online courses as part of the overall experience. This blend solves some scheduling issues for students, making room for on-ground experiences overall. All have found that building community is important, but so is the flexibility online can bring for adult learners.

Overall, this move for graduate students appears to be to the good, but as it becomes a strategy instead of a reaction, we must not neglect the close examination of our students’ experiences – from overall learning outcomes and degree completion rates to their sense of connection to faculty and peers – so that we don’t just stop at the flip, but instead become expert in online instruction for graduate education. We have a strong foundation here, but to thrive, we’ll need to engage the literature on adult learners and refine our program assessment strategies. Luckily, we have some highly developed programs to work with and the faculty teaching in them can serve as important resources for those programs emerging post-COVID.

Our undergraduates benefit from some online learning as well.

WCSU has had some online courses peppered throughout the undergraduate curriculum for years. Largely at the lower levels (100-200), with a few high demand junior and senior level classes often offered in the summer, these courses are often great options for students who need to catch up or those managing very busy schedules. For years we have seen that these courses fill up very quickly, so there is obviously a demand for them in the student body. As we transitioned back to campus, it was clear that more students wanted online than prior to COVID-19. But how much is good for our traditional undergraduates and how do we develop a strong schedule model? Right now, we’re working on percentages, but this approach needs to driven by pedagogy, outcomes, and a detailed scheduling model.

Here are some things we know (kind of) from the last few years with online learning.

  1. Overall, students who take at least one online class in their first year have a higher retention rate than those who did not. This is intriguing, but there are many more questions to ask, particularly about the characteristics of students who opt for an online course in their first semester.
  2. Class sizes for online courses seem to have a sweet spot between 22 and 30 students. Looking at course completion details, too small seems just as bad as too big. This may inform decisions about which courses belong online. It might also suggest a look at pedagogical strategies for supporting courses outside of this range, if appropriate.
  3. Online courses are very helpful for students in highly structured programs, such as STEM, Education, Nursing, Performing Arts, and Honors students more generally. Being able to fit in a non-major course requirement provides some breathing room in their schedules. It is important, however, that these classes be asynchronous or they won’t provide that schedule relief. Do we need to consider priority scheduling for the online seats available to these students?
  4. While many students want some online, too many online courses can be, well, too much. This was particularly true for our residential students who accidently ended up with all online courses last year. It was also true for the many students who found it necessary to drop courses to make it through a mostly online semester. We need to understand how different types of learners navigate the demands of online learning. We also need to understand how this might change at different points in a student’s educational experience. There are answers to these question, but we need to do the work and arrive at a clear strategy.
  5. Some amount of consistency in the online learning environment is warranted. While the many pedagogical approaches employed by faculty are part of the joy of the higher education environment, the many log in and navigation experiences for students were a confusing headache. Getting the right blend of offerings must include consideration of learning platforms, orientation practices, and some uniformity of the first steps in getting “to” our online courses.

Although there are more questions than answers right now, last year’s naturally occurring experiment is filled with good lessons, providing us with clues about where to start. In addition, research in online education is mature enough to suggest some maps for how to proceed, even if it wasn’t fully developed for blended environments. Most of all, our community is fully immersed in the online experience now, so we’ve got a lot of expertise right here to help us learn. Now it’s all about bringing that knowledge together and looking to the future.

How wonderful to be in a moment when we can start this conversation. It feels like the beginning of something exciting, instead of the triage of the last year. Hooray. I’m ready to dive in.

Engagement, Higher Education

Engaging the “Why”?

This morning, I read with interest “In Defense of Disinterested Knowledge” by Justin Sider. His essay chafes at the recent over emphasis on connecting the ideas and disciplines in higher education to political goals/social action. He argues that this propensity for tying disciplines to, well, outcomes beyond the university, provides a narrow lens that undermines the value of higher education as a whole. Ultimately, he argues that this lens has become a convenient tool for administrators to use in justifying program cuts or elimination. I stand accused.

I agree with Sider on several points. First, not every course needs to address the current sensibilities of our culture. Second, reducing all that we study to a direct (political) consequence is antithetical to the very idea of a university education. He summarizes this here:

Our students deserve to find themselves in whatever subjects, authors, texts, and ideas they may light on during our time together. That’s the great promise of higher education, especially public higher education, and there’s no predicting beforehand what concerns students will take as their own — just as we ourselves chose our own disciplines and fields. The attempt to make all scholarship accountable to the political exigencies of the moment removes that freedom.

I couldn’t agree more. Universities should provide room for the serendipitous experiences that provide the possibility of enlightenment and engagement in any area. Not everything we do should connect to a career or political action. To reduce education in this way would miss the point of the holistic that is an undergraduate degree. To be clear, I mean a liberal arts degree, with the idea of breadth built into its design. Indeed, when we narrow these opportunities, we inadvertently narrow the chances for our students to stumble upon an insight or a passion that was wholly unfamiliar to them at the start. Without these possibilities, the notion of a liberal arts degree is undermined.

Where I disagree with Sider is in two important areas. The first is in his assertion that administrators are taking advantage of this trend in linking degrees to “political exigencies” or even to careers and using it as a tool for course or program elimination. Not really. We are just as likely to be horrified by a program closure as faculty. We are, however, terribly concerned with enrollments because the health of the university depends on enrollments overall. Most of us do not have large endowments to tide us over when enrollments slide. We are directly impacted by missing our recruiting and retention goals, leaving us to make tough decisions about staffing in all areas of the university, including faculty. When a department has persistent low-enrolled classes, questions about the better investment to sustain the whole become paramount. Sometimes that can lead to program closures.

Recently, our campus closed four programs – two in STEM disciplines and two in humanities disciplines. All of them had long histories of low-enrollment in the major. In closing them, we lost no faculty; they are all still actively engaged in teaching in their disciplines. We simply made room for other areas of focus that seem to better speak to the students we are serving right now. Indeed, we have opened more new programs than we have closed.

But there is more to this story because I believe one of those degrees could have been saved had we come to an agreement about how to reposition it. I do not think that everything needs to be connected to a particular career, nor do I think everything should have a direct political or practical outcome. I do believe that we must be able to communicate the value of the curricula we offer and that communication needs to engage the students we are serving right now. Unfortunately, in this case, that did not happen.

This leads to my second disagreement with Sider. There is a difference between treating our students as consumers and trying to understand how to engage their sensibilities. Careers and politics are just two of the ways that we can appeal to our students right now. The career focus responds to important questions about return on investment. We cost a lot of money, even at public universities, and students and families want to know whether that investment will pay off. Career opportunities are one of the answers to that question. Politics and social change are also compelling for some (but by no means all) students. The desire to do some good in the world is a powerful argument for education. It is inspiring and empowering and may drive enrollment in some majors.

But what are the other arguments for what we do? We need to develop arguments for the “disinterested knowledge” that Sider celebrates. I know this seems counter to the wander through education that many of us enjoyed on our way to careers in higher education, but the students we are serving are not us. We are removed from their sensibilities in at least three ways:

1. They grew up after us and experienced different things – technologically, politically, environmentally, culturally. This means they are interested in different things.

2. Students coming to us right now have heard endless stories about debt and are less willing to just risk it and trust that the value will emerge.

3. Not all of them are curious about a breadth of ideas. This is not because they are a different generation, lots of our peers were not that curious either. It is because we were particularly interested- you know, kind of nerdy – hence we went into higher education.

These differences in our experiences and expectations seem to be driving our students to ask the question “why” – why should they value what we value? The question is reflected in their enrollment decisions. We need to give them some answers.

There are more cases to be made for the many disciplines and ideas explored at a university than simply linking everything to careers and political exigency. We might make a case for the value of understanding context, or the benefits of connecting ideas across the curriculum, or even for the joy of discovering new things. We can’t just say it though, we’ll have to show it, but I know we can. The why of what we do can be found in a million places, and honestly, I don’t think it is too much to ask that we provide that explanation. Doing so might just save us from our enrollment challenges. It might also lead our students on a journey through the very questions that might appear superfluous to them right now. If we give them a little help in understanding the why, they might just get interested in that “disinterested knowledge” after all.

Higher Education, Hope

The Magic of We

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I was very involved in all things music. I played flute in the band and in the pep band for football games. I was a mediocre flute player, but I loved being involved in it all. I also sang in everything – the madrigal singers, the chorus, and in the musicals. Part of all this activity meant auditioning for county and state choruses. I was a better singer than flute player, so I was routinely selected for these elite choral groups. What a lucky thing to go to a regular public school, not in a wealthy neighborhood, and have all of this available! But I digress.

Today, I am remembering a moment in All County Chorus when we were rehearsing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. We had been struggling to find our parts all morning, but finally we had it. We hit a particularly beautiful and robust chord and the conductor burst into tears. Since we were a bunch of awkward teenagers, he was quick to reassure us that they were tears of joy. There are moments when a particularly resonant note can send chills up the spine and move a person to weep. I understood him immediately. It happens to me all the time.

So, here we are at the start of a new academic year, and we are inching our way back to campus after a long year of remote, hybrid, and limited in person learning. I am very proud of all we accomplished last year. Students, faculty, and staff all worked valiantly through so much uncertainty and so many frustrations, navigating new technology and re-imagining ways to connect with our students. Some things were stellar, some just barely adequate, but everyone tried hard and learning continued. Most of all, everyone was kind. But we were also unsatisfied, so here we are, trying to return to something like a normal college environment.

Well, it is worth wondering why we are so eager to return. After all, the tools of instruction, with practice, do become easier to manage. The pedagogical innovations that online (and hybrid) learning offer are more fun as we have time to engage them repeatedly. Indeed, after the giant learning curve of moving all instruction online, we have the luxury of repetition to help us feel more in control of the environment. This is really a lot like what we do in the classroom. Teaching starts as a terrifying plunge, but with repetition, we develop our skills and learn how to play with learning. Online instruction turns out to be a nice component of the learning environments available to us.

We also learned that a lot of our processes are better online. Bureaucratic processes like registration, bill paying, and signing contracts are simpler in electronic format. It is also true that, for many of our students, tutoring support is better online. It is just easier to arrange schedules when you can meet virtually and the tools allow direct interaction, rather than back and forth of email. It isn’t good for everyone, but it is good for a lot of students. Students and faculty are finding that having the flexibility of online office hours is also a benefit. Again, not for everything and everyone, but we should keep some of that available. Yes, this being forced to move online has improved access to services and support in important ways.

But all in all, we were still missing something. We did our best to have guest lectures and workshops and presentations all year. People attended, people asked questions, and there was convenience to all of that. Still we missed the ease of the back and forth that happens when we’re in the room together. It’s that corner of your eye motion that clues you in to a question unasked or a comment unspoken that is just hard to spot on Zoom.

Performances, art shows, honors ceremonies, and Western Research Day all took place, but let’s face it, we all missed a little direct applause. In one instance the faculty hosting an awards ceremony tried to put some applause into the mix – a nice effort and we all enjoyed it – but it’s just not the same. Little boxes on screens just don’t make us feel like we are all together.

So, we’re making the effort to return to campus while still managing some uncertainty. Things are much better than they were last year, of course, and we’ve gotten very good at our safety protocols, but it is not quite normal, and we will be working hard. So, why are we doing it? Because we miss the We.

The We inspires us, connects us, and makes us feel alive. No matter how technologically advanced we get, there is still something magical about shared spaces and the immediacy of responses when we are together. Being together helps us feel alive; it helps us know that we exist. It isn’t about the measurable or the possible or the practical. It is about the excitement we feel when we start to understand something together. It is the feeling of exhilaration when we’re all in the same room celebrating the success of a colleague. It is even the aggravation of being stymied together and throwing up our hands in knowing despair.

The We tells us we are alive and it gives us meaning. It evokes a feeling of commonality and basic humanity. The We is magic. Let’s face it, magic is a necessary ingredient for education and for our lives. So, as I begin to make the rounds of welcoming everyone back, I won’t be surprised if, like that conductor so many years ago, I burst into tears. The magic of We is my perfect chord.