Engagement, Hope, Resilience

Skeptical Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher Education, Hope

Degrees Re-Imagined

Generally, when I write this weekly post, my ideas are inspired by some interesting development in the higher education news, a recent book on teaching and learning, or some new initiative here at WCSU. This morning, when I was reading the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, I just shook my head. The higher ed news is littered with battles over academic freedom, affirmative action, and the ongoing impact of COVID-19. There are concerns over admissions strategies that reflect our cultural obsession with big name schools, and the details have almost nothing to do with the rest of us. There are tales of demographic disaster, no longer looming, but fully here, and well, I’m already living the reality, so welcome to the club. I just wanted to go back to bed.

But I have never been one to walk away from hard things, and I have a habit of getting up and moving forward despite the gloomy news, so I spent some of this morning thinking about a real reimagining of higher education. In particular, I have been thinking a lot about two things that, when combined, make me wonder if it might be possible to rebuild the entire system (well, not those elite schools, but the rest of us) in a way that reflects the needs and interests of the students we are serving now. Those two things are the short courses of study that lead to immediate credentials (recognized by various employers as valuable) and the potential emergence of the 90-credit BA in the United States.

The short courses of study – certificates and micro-credentials – are a favorite topic of politicians suddenly interested in education. Of course, what these politicians are mostly interested in is workforce development. Economic plans are drawn up by economic policy developers of various states. These plans identify gaps is talent for fields that are either critical to support the current socio-economic infrastructure or necessary to attract a new kind of industry to the state. That gap then becomes a focus of the conversations about education and, well, four-years just seems too long to wait to fill it. Enter the certificates.

Many of us in higher education find the motives for these programs a little suspect. We see our expertise downplayed and the demands of the market/employer amplified. This is true, and sometimes it is downright insulting. We also worry that the overemphasis on employability diminishes the perceived value of the rest of what we do (holistic education, that is rooted in the liberal arts). This is also true and worrisome. Finally, many of us worry that students will be steered towards these programs in ways that replicate the structural inequities in opportunities that have long pervaded all of our systems, but higher education in particular. This is a valid concern.

Nevertheless, there is a part of this emphasis on short-term credentials that we should be paying attention to specifically because of the interests of our students. Many of us serve students who are a) in need of skills they can use right away, to support themselves and their education, and b) not convinced of the value of the four-year experience we currently offer. So, I’m wondering if we might be thoughtful in our response to this approach to education. My colleagues in community colleges are already adept at navigating these kinds of credentials. They have been serving students who need an immediate payoff for their education for years. They are also committed to opening doors, not closing them with these degrees, so they have been focusing on stackable credentials, weaving the short credential into a longer path to a two-year degree. Those degrees transfer to us. Great. Half the job is thinking about this has already been done for us.

But there is more for the four-year colleges to do. If we choose to go in the direction of micro-credentials, we need to ask ourselves a few things: 1. What are the right kinds of credentials for a four-year school? It’s not a great idea to replicate the work of the community colleges. They are expert in this, and they cost less. No contest. But surely there are things that are more appropriate for the university context, where there is a presumption that students will continue after the short credential. 2. How do we make it easy to return to campus, when some students decide to stop out and earn some money with that credential? 3. How do we communicate the value of continuing after that credential and can we do it with evidence?

The other end of this story is the potential emergence of the 3-year (90 credit) baccalaureate degree in the United States. This model has existed in Europe for many years, with many schools there labeling the four-year version as an honors degree. The four-year version tends to focus on research and independent reading in addition to the core 3-year program. It is an intriguing idea, but there are some key things that need to be considered.

The first thing is to acknowledge that the three-year degrees have fewer electives. These degrees are far more focused on the major with a few slots left for breadth. This is a loss for the breadth that we love about our traditional, four-year liberal arts degree. Still, this might be an attractive option for many of the students attending college right now. For those who are ready to declare a major in year one, this is a faster route to the engaging their area of interest, which can be motivation to stick with us. This is not a degree devoid of breadth, so students will still have some room to wander and with careful design, a change of major might not be too damaging. Certainly, we could engineer a plan that would allow degree completion within the original four-year model if students change course.

Where it the 90 credit model is wanting, is for those who are a) missing some academic foundations or b) not ready to declare a major. The work that many of us have done with embedded support in foundational math and writing might be a strategy for this. For those unsure of their interests and talents, we might strengthen our pre-major pathways (meta-majors) and include some education about careers and self-assessments to facilitate decision-making. This could work, but I’m guessing these folks will need the four years. So will the students planning to pursue advanced degrees – much like the honors courses (majors) in Europe.

These options are intriguing, and I am keen to think them through. These are fun questions, questions that involve invention and imagination and an honest look our students’ needs and the expectations of the world we hope to prepare them for. The options could actually expand opportunity by letting go of our commitment to a one-size-fits-all model. This could be the creation of multiple paths to success, instead of just offering fallback plans that are less than satisfying for everyone involved. It is even a chance to disrupt the traditional timeline for degree completion, focusing more on completion points than a single ending. That might encourage graduates to return later. Oh, now we’re talking.

This is a lot more fun than all the doom and gloom I woke to this morning. Like the lengthening of the daylight hours, I am shaking off the darkness and looking for a brighter future after all.

Hope, Uncertainty

Vaccinations or Interventions?

Today students at WCSU are moving into our residence halls. Like everyone else, we’ve worked hard to create a re-entry plan that offers as much protection from Covid-19 as we can manage. We are testing our mostly vaccinated students as they enter, trying to stop an outbreak before it happens. We are stressing the importance of masks whenever indoors on campus and we’ve made the N95 versions available. We have isolation plans for what we imagine is the inevitable arrival of Omicron, and we have made getting tested as easy as possible so that folks can be proactive. That’s really all there is to do. This is as safe as we can be, and we are ready to go.

The last two years have taught us that these measures are relatively effective, despite the moving targets surrounding this Covid-19. We have had low campus-level infection rates, with only one brief school-level shutdown (not university-wide), and the protections in the classrooms in particular seem to be doing what they need to do. Outside of class people may be willing to take more risks, but in the classroom we seem to be pulling together to protect each other. That has been a bright spot in this whole thing – that impulse to protect each other, at least in the classroom.

But off campus is a different story. We have definitely not been pulling together to protect each other. Instead some of us are focused on individual rights, some of us are lost in a lot of misinformation about the vaccinations, others are swearing by the science and claiming ignorance or malicious intent in those who have questions. And all of these positions are accompanied by scorn for those with whom we disagree. These attitudes have been exacerbated (created?) by politics, to be sure, but there is more to it than that, and with the emergence of Omicron, it is time to evaluate some of what that “more to it” might be. I think one of the biggest culprits in this mess of disagreement is the word “vaccine.”

Throughout my life the word vaccine has meant full protection from a disease. I am vaccinated against polio and the measles and tetanus. As a child I had the mumps and the chickenpox, so I’m safe from those as well. I have had no occurrences or recurrences of these diseases. I appear to be fully immune; my faith in this science is strong. Given this understanding of vaccinations and immunity, it is no wonder I was eager to get my vaccination for Covid-19. Honestly, the emergence of one so quickly appeared to be a miracle to me. I signed up for my first dose as soon as I was eligible. When summer came, I happily returned to restaurants and playing music with my friends. Then Delta hit and boosters were recommended. I got one. Now it’s Omicron and, well I’m seeing a pattern here. The vaccinations that I’m signing up for are not quite what I mean by vaccine.

It seems like the shots we are getting are more like our annual flu vaccines, which offer some measure of protection but not complete immunity. Flu vaccines definitely reduce the number of people who get sick each year, but some number always get sick anyway. These vaccines are always being reformulated as new variants emerge, and that reformulation might miss a variation. I have always known that these shots were helpful but not perfect. This was ok with me, as I lined up for a flu shot each year, but I’m guessing this is because I was young enough and healthy enough not to see any real threat from the flu. Covid-19 has been something different.

Obviously, I’m not discussing the science. I am sure that the doses I am getting for Covid-19 work sufficiently like vaccinations to warrant the same name, but the breakthroughs and the quick mutations are really not helping us all come together to protect each other. The state of affairs with Omicron appears to bolster the arguments of those who didn’t believe in these vaccinations in the first place. The changing understanding of how masks should work are adding fuel to that fire. I get it. I don’t get the politics at all, but I do understand why some people are not confident in these measures because the story appears to keep changing.

I think it is time to re-think that word vaccine. Given the lack of permanence in the protection, and the moving target of the mutations, perhaps we need a new word for these shots that conveys the difference between them and my polio vaccine. I like to think of mine as an intervention. It is clear that the multiple doses provide some protection from Covid-19 overall and severe illness in particular. This protection doesn’t make me fully immune, but it is very likely to keep me out of the hospital. I feel relatively safe because of it, so I’ve done my best to take care of me.

My decision to engage in this intervention, along with my decision to wear a mask, also reduces the likelihood that I will accidently get others sick. We shouldn’t lose sight of this part of the intervention; it is about others. I really don’t want to get others sick. I do not want to be responsible for someone else’s trip to the hospital. I do not want to put all of those folks working in restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and, yes, classrooms, at a higher risk of infection because of my behaviors. I also want to keep going out to play music with my friends. I want classes to be in person and to see my colleagues at work. I want a relatively normal world.

So, I am reimagining the steps we are taking on campus as interventions that make us safer, not as paths to immunity. I am taking part in these interventions on and off campus, even if the morning news continues to shake us all, because I am doing my very best to contribute to a relatively safe environment for all of us. I am trying to get my mind around the word endemic and the conditions that will signal that we are in that phase of this virus. I’m hoping the decisions we are making are getting us there. Most of all, I am hoping we can leave the scorn for each other aside and pull together to protect each other.

Hope, Reflection, Resilience

Don’t Forget the Joy

Higher education (all education) is a lot of hard work. Faculty are writing curriculum, grading papers, advising students, and doing research. Tutors, advisors, mentors, and counselors of all kinds are not just meeting with students, but they are actively evaluating their impact and striving to do more. The folks in admissions, registrar’s office, and financial aid are equally engaged in the question, how do we do more to meet the needs of our students? They evaluate processes, looking for the points where they might reach one more student and meet one more need. Student Affairs is endlessly reaching out to meet the changing expectations of our students, trying to find ways to bridge the gap between classroom and life beyond the university, supporting recreation, career development, and access to interest groups that represent the students we serve. Even those of us in administration are obsessed with improvement, digging into our outcomes and looking for new opportunities to thrive. We are positively obsessed with doing better.

All of this hard work can be taxing and sometimes we get lost in the details of the immediate questions on our plates. This can keep us from looking up and seeing all of the wonderful things going on around us. As we head into final exams, this is a good time to reflect on those wonderful things and remind ourselves that even the hard work is rooted in joy.

Joy, you say! How can this final slog through papers, exams, registration rates, and analysis of data be truly joyful? Well, I boldly claim that it can be. Why? Because those of us who choose higher education as a career are dedicated to learning as a way of life. Every activity that I have listed is all about learning. We are the original life-long learners. We are the ultimate data wonks. We are the very definition of a learning organization. And learning brings us joy.

The key to recognizing the joy in the myriad lists of problems we hope to solve, and the goals we have not yet met, is not to neglect the small triumphs and breakthroughs that occur while we’re striving for more. Let’s face it, when we are focused on doing things better, we will always fall short. There is always one more thing to implement. There is always another percentage point to reach in improved outcomes. There are always pieces that we miss as we lay out our plans to do good things. If that’s all we see, joy will be elusive.

Duh! Right? How simplistic can this provost be? Don’t we all know that already? Yes, but we have a habit of short-changing ourselves in those small wins. We have a way of focusing on what we missed, not what we accomplished. Let’s take this moment to shift that focus and celebrate what we did, not what we have left to do. To get us started, I’ll mention just a few things that I’ve seen on our campus this fall that are filling me with joy.

Our Computer Science program applied for ABET accreditation. We will see how it turns out, but here is what was joy inspiring. The department fully engaged in questions of what they do well, how they might do better, and what they’d like to do next. They had intense pride in their work– and, deservedly so. The visiting team saw that spirit of collaboration and the hard work. This gives me such joy. I am proud of their efforts and their commitment to growth.

We launched our new peer mentoring program, using the data on the students we are losing and acting on that information. Even as we complete the first iteration of this program we can see places for improvement for next year. Nevertheless, getting this started involved collaboration between library faculty, our tutoring centers, the first-year program director, academic advising, orientation leaders, and the director of education access programs. They shared knowledge and resources to get this off the ground. This effort brought together constituencies that often operate separately. They left those silos, focused on student success, and built something together. When I see that collaboration, I can practically walk on air from the joy it brings me.

Building on the momentum from our abrupt move to online last year, several programs have identified online as the best modality for their students moving forward. This means tons of work in the move from emergency online courses to fully developed online programs, yet faculty in these programs are willing to do that work. Their commitment to meeting the students where they will thrive has driven them forward in this effort. I am proud of their ability to learn from this crazy pandemic and build new things. I am excited by the thinking and effort that this represents and feel inspired to imagine new educational models and opportunities that these dedicated faculty might explore. That student-centered innovative spirit always brings me joy.

I feel immense joy every single time I hear from faculty and staff about the great experiences they are having with students now that we are back on campus. Those stories include tales of experiments in teaching, reports of honest conversations about tough subjects, strategic group projects that inspired students to cheer for each other, and the relieved smiles of people happy to just be in the room with other people again. Stories also flow from people reflecting on the good things that happened as a result of the pandemic — like remote access to career services or advising or counseling — and how these things have expanded the opportunity to connect with students. I love when these tales are shared with me because it allows me to share in the happiness that my colleagues are feeling.

There is so much more because there are so many people doing things large and small every single day. There is so much more because we are always looking for the opportunity to do things better. There is so much more because we work hard. As I think about all of these wonderful and inspiring accomplishments, I think it is safe to say that the hard work of higher education is the joy. Let’s just remember to notice it.

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.