Change, equity, Resilience

Forces of Nature

Well, I took a week off and went to my usual cabin in the woods. This annual tradition with my family involves 10 cabins with no plumbing or electricity, a beautiful lake for recreation and bathing, a gas powered pump to supply water for washing dishes, a gas/wood stove for cooking, and a mountain spring for drinking water. I can connect to the internet via phone, but I limit it to once a day to save the cellphone battery and protect my sanity. Turns out my annual retreat to “roughing it” was the lap of luxury. Hurricane Isaias had its say.

Hurricanes, tornados, COVID-19, and the now ho-hum heatwaves and/or snowstorms always remind me that no matter how hard I try, I cannot control everything. It is an important and necessary recurring lesson. It is also the opposite of how I am inclined to think.

Those of us in higher education leadership roles are tasked with trying to control outcomes. As provost, I try to control the interaction between our academic offerings and student success. Working with deans, department chairs, faculty, academic support staff, and, well everyone at some point, I struggle to develop good strategies to improve the educational experience of our students. Some of those strategies focus on pedagogy (most recently pedagogies that work well online and on ground), some on academic interventions for students who are struggling, some on curricular development, and some on faculty development as teachers and scholars. With data analysis, input from almost everyone in some form or another, governance review, and then questions about affordability, sustainability, and impact, I work to prioritize our efforts in the hopes of continuous improvement.

Despite all of these efforts, the reality is that only some of it seems to work. An experiment with a flipped classroom shows some interesting things, but yields no overall improvement in student outcomes. A cutting-edge revision to a major has not found a new audience. Efforts to improve our graduation rates appear to be working (yippee), but I am a little uncertain about which intervention worked. My hunch is clear pathways (four-year plans) and the FY course, but I am not sure. Efforts at improving retention have not yet shown results, but hope springs eternal and a new plan is underway. I am accountable for all of these things and so I strive to control them, but that control is mostly an illusion. There are too many variables; there will never be a single cure.

So, too, with the problems of systemic racism. As I grapple with the questions surrounding biases in curriculum, processes, and pathways to admission to WCSU or any higher education institution, I recognize the “too many variables” nature of the situation. Many institutions like WCSU have spent years focusing on the connection between K-12 and higher education. We have long supported Upward Bound, we offer Early College classes at local schools at minimal costs to those students and/or districts, and we have an Education Access Program that offers an alternate path to admission at WCSU. The urgency of those efforts easily draws my attention, but I suspect it is not where it should be focused.

It is not that I do not recognize the urgency of the K-12 situation. The variability in funding for districts is outrageous. The quality of educational opportunities given to wealthy vs. non-wealthy schools is short-sighted at best and morally bankrupt in any case. What happens in primary and secondary education has everything to do with the perpetuation of structures that enhance segregation and diminish opportunity for some groups while enhancing it for others. What happens in primary and secondary education has everything to do with the needs of the students that we serve at WCSU. Of course, I see this as urgent. However, these issues are more than can be managed in the day-to-day of running a university. The scale is too large and the variables beyond my control. I should keep my eyes on higher education.

So, I endeavor to prioritize efforts that directly impact learning at the university. I focus my attention on our data and our outcomes. This is an unsatisfying exercise because the outcomes of students at WCSU will not improve if K-12 is not improved. Our efforts will be about catching people up, not setting them up to succeed from the start. Decisions that narrow the scope of our efforts may be correct in terms of avoiding “mission creep” but I know that not addressing the years before higher education will make interventions at the university-level only partially successful. It is a conundrum.

What does this have to do with forces of nature? In as much as I should accept that there are things outside of my control, the comparison is clear. Trying to manage everything is a fool’s game and control is an illusion at best. I would do well to acknowledge the limits of my capabilities, narrow my focus, and ignore the variables beyond my official scope. But I find this comparison a cop out, because, when it comes to systemic racism, it is irresponsible and ineffective to take a limited view.

As I return to the world of electricity and connectivity (mostly), and a world still disrupted by facemasks and social distancing, and too many unknowns, I find the forces of nature daunting and humbling. However, I also find hope and resilience. Communities are clearing brush together and the masks seem to be working. Those simple steps give me the strength to think bigger and strive for more.

So, as I prepare to begin this odd fall semester, I will focus on making education better for everyone. There will be lots of input on those efforts, but as an academic leader, I will take responsibility for them. Each step forward will likely be matched by missteps and miscalculations, because issues of racism and inequity are as forceful and destructive as hurricanes, with timelines that dwarf the scale of even the most powerful seasonal storm. Working toward great education for everyone is an impossible task with too many variables. But, it is the only responsible action I can take.

Higher Education, Resilience, Uncertainty

Unhappy Realities

We have done it! Working with my deans, department chairs, and facilities team, we have mapped our classroom capacities for COVID-19 and built a fall schedule. Room capacities were startling, with lecture halls that once fit 75-125 now only fitting 16-25. Fixed seating scenarios were much worse than rooms with moveable seats, so the very few large lectures that we offered will have to be online. Working with faculty preferences and concerns, paired with a few guidelines around creating on-campus experiences for our First-Year students and our upper level major courses, we ended up with a mix of online (60-62%), hybrid, and on-ground classes (38-40%). Absolutely no one is happy.

Of course, no one is happy. My residential students (about 30%) want more on-campus courses. So do some of my commuters, who do not like the online learning experience. Other students (a mix of traditional-aged and returning adults) do not want to come to campus at all. They are juggling work, children, helping with siblings, or serving in essential personnel roles (nursing homes, hospitals, etc.). For them the best option is all online, but not all of them will achieve that. Some students and faculty and staff have health conditions that suggest they should stay away. Others have learning needs that favor face-to-face experiences. Faculty are trying to figure out how to teach in a mask and/or spending the summer reimagining their courses for our very non-intuitive learning management system. For part-time faculty it is even worse, with decisions about on-campus or online, complicated by the reality of reduced enrollments and likely course cancellations. Oh boy.

And then there is the drip, drip, drip of health and safety concerns. As we watch surges in recently reopened southern and southwestern states, we wonder if we should come back at all. After all, even here in Connecticut where the prevailing behavior has been reasonable caution (most of us are wearing our masks and sitting far apart), we know very well that young people will take risks. That is a simple truth.

As the fall schedule began to solidify last week, I started to get the questions and complaints from students. I anticipate my inbox will be full of these missives about the balance of online and on-ground experiences until we start the semester. Then they will be followed up with complaints about how each modality is working. The list will be:

  1. The professor doesn’t know how to use Blackboard.
  2. I can’t hear my professor through the face mask.
  3. I can’t figure out which day to be on campus and which day is online (hybrid/hi-flex).
  4. I thought I wanted the synchronous (live online class), but now I wish it was asynchronous.
  5. And so on.

I am also receiving questions and concerns from faculty and staff. These questions revolve around enforcement of mask wearing (we will all enforce this practice together), cleaning practices (same as always, with supplies to wipe down desks and teaching stations in every room, and hand sanitizer everywhere), ventilation (adequate with masks on), and bathrooms (same as always, just wear your mask and wash your hands). For faculty and staff who do counter/reception service (secretaries, librarians, registrars, etc.), we are adding plastic barriers for extra safety, but most things will be by appointment anyway. These questions will continue through the start of the fall only to be followed up with:

  1. I thought I could teach for three hours in a mask, but I cannot.
  2. I can’t hear my students through their masks.
  3. I can’t read my students through their masks.
  4. I thought I wanted to teach online synchronous, but I wish I had decided on hybrid.
  5. And as always, I hate Blackboard Learn.

Nope. No one is happy.

I have seen all the jabs at administration during this pandemic. We have been accused of making decisions too quickly (driven by monetary concerns) and too slowly (families/students want to know what to expect). We have been accused of offering platitudes and vague statements that obscure realities. We probably have done this as we navigate the balance between decision-making and problem-solving. We are being asked to lead our campuses forward with the same information that everyone else has, while being flogged for each decision. Ok, I have a sense of humor. But, you know, it is not all that funny. We are tasked with making sure we still have universities in the fall, and it is not an easy task.

All I can say is this, I have tried my very best to deal with the realities as they are known today. For faculty, that means working with their proposals for modalities, asking for minor modifications to meet a few face-to-face interaction goals, and then letting it be. For students, that means making sure that most have a blend of learning options in their schedules. They will not have everything they prefer, but they will have some options. For staff, this means working to determine the balance of on-campus and remote work and putting in protections for those in reception areas. For everyone, this means vigilance and compromise.

All decisions have been informed by the very best guidance from the CDC so far: wear masks, wash hands, stay six feet apart. That is really all there is to do, unless we all stay home. Students across the country rejected the notion of just staying home, so we are doing our best to “re-populate” our campuses. When you blend commuter with residential students, like we do, we must assume potential exposure at all times. So, we are erring on the side of caution with our protective measures. The masks, social distancing, and reduced number of classroom experiences appear to be an effective strategy and should go a long way toward preventing a resurgence. We’ll see.

So, no one is happy. No one is going to have an ideal experience. Everyone is going to have to reimagine what education is like in this environment. But, is this really a new situation? Ideal experiences never really exist. Faculty must always figure out how to create the best educational experience possible with the tools and settings available. Students always have to adjust to experiences they did not expect or have not experienced before. So, you know, we could decide this is adventure and, well, get happy.

Resilience, Thinking, Uncertainty

Uncertainty Reduction

As we close out this disrupted and odd spring semester, I am thinking about our normal practice of wrapping things up–turning in grades, congratulating our graduates, and going home for a little rest and relaxation.  My husband and I had, indeed, planned to be sitting on a beach in Miami right after we finished congratulating the last student to walk across the commencement stage. Obviously that isn’t happening, not just for safety reasons, but because there is too much to do. It is time to figure out what happens next at our university.

Uncertainty is all around us.  We do not know how long we will be compelled to stay home.  We do not know when there will be a true treatment for this virus. We do not know when there will be a vaccine.  We do not know if there will be a second wave (although evidence suggests there will be). And so on.  How does one plan for the future of a university with so many unknowns?  One decision at a time.

This week we made our first real decision about what is next.  Having cancelled our usual commencement ceremony, we were left with very big sense of loss.  At all universities, commencement is an important ritual, sealing that feeling of pride and accomplishment that should accompany completing one’s degree. At a university like WCSU, with a large proportion of students who are the first in their families to go to college, it is all the more profound and meaningful.  Something had to be done.  After consulting with our students, we have settled on a fall celebration on our campus. That announcement was met with cyber-cheers from everywhere.

I am thrilled, assuming it can actually happen.  If we are allowed to gather in a pretty large crowd in September, this will be a wonderful, soothing, experience for all of us.  If. There are real threats to the feasibility of this event, but we have a plan and we all feel better. It is action. It is decisive and it gives us a sense of hope and progress.

So on to the next.  How shall we plan for the fall semester? We are diving into that conversation right now.  Like our students, who loudly rejected the idea of a virtual commencement ceremony, none of us wants to be a fully online university in the fall. It just is not who we are at WCSU. We are more high touch than that. It comes from our commitment to meeting students where they are, with the goal of helping all of them succeed. We have a student body with incredibly varied educational experiences prior to college. Those varied experiences require nuanced responses that are just harder (though not impossible) in a fully online environment.

This observation tells me that I have already made a first decision about the fall.  We will not operate solely online. That doesn’t reduce uncertainty much, especially since I don’t have the power to make that decision alone.  Nevertheless, it does remove one option from the logistical map we will try to create at WCSU in the next two weeks.

Next question…what does a campus look like when it must consider social distancing as a key variable?  Do we reduce the number of students on campus at any one time?  What will be the maximum occupancy of each room, and how will that impact class size? How will that impact the budget? What will we do about gathering spaces? Will we ban them? How will we make sure people wear their masks, if required? How will we protect the most vulnerable members of our community? That is not a next question, is it?  It is a barrage of variables that must be considered.

The question right after those addressing a theoretical return to campus is, what if we have to go back home? Now the ruling out of an online only environment requires a little more thought. It seems we will have to be prepared to go back online at any moment during the fall (the next year?).  Oh boy.  Now I have a new list.  How do we make sure that our online offerings are of the highest quality? How do we support our faculty as they fully develop their courses online? How do we adequately support students in this environment in a developmentally appropriate way? What about the quality of our technological infrastructure – can it really support this? And so on.

Beyond the academics, what on earth do we do about student life in either scenario? It is a lot to think about folks, a lot.

Nevertheless, the act of thinking about it is a relief. This long list of questions can have answers. We can make a complex logistical map that helps us develop strategies for addressing each scenario. It will be very hard, but the answers can be developed, evaluated, and decided upon.

I have listed a lot of questions here because listing the questions is that very first step toward uncertainty reduction. Despite the missing pause for recuperation at the end of the semester, I am thrilled to get started on this, because the uncertainty is really the worst part of this whole situation. Making plans, however complex or vulnerable they may be, is a kind of serenity-prayer for our campus, as we endeavor to control what we can, and accept the fact that we truly cannot know what comes next with this virus.



Power Disruptions

As I read the weather forecast for today, I worried about the loss of electricity that is likely in my small town.  We have a lot of trees, and big winds tend to take out a few poles or power lines.  That will be a last straw from many of us. Our gadgets are making this quarantined life bearable. Losing them is likely to lead to a collective scream.  For the university, we may have to consider a lack of access to electricity as a snow day, and just pause for a day.  I’m hoping, whatever the disruption, that it is brief.

But as I continue to trouble shoot the many challenges that came with the COVID-19 realities – technological, financial, emotional– I realize that we are in another kind of power disruption, and it is pedagogical.

Education, at its core, involves a clear imbalance of power.  Faculty are in charge, not students.  It may be that faculty answer to accreditation standards, or department definitions of curricula, but in the classroom, there is no question of who is setting the parameters for success and the expectations for interaction.  Faculty sometimes try to shift more control to students, but it is never complete, and, frankly students don’t buy it. Even in a seminar where all dialogue is focused on discovery, rather than a fixed goal, faculty retain the power of the grade, which makes the transfer of power mythic at best.

This is not a terrible state of affairs. After all, faculty are the experts. They’ve spent years learning their subjects and students have not.  So, no matter how hard professors work to cultivate a classroom with open discourse or create materials that foster student-led discovery and independent learning, that role of expert is an essential part of the power relationship.

But here we are in a world where students and faculty have been forced into a learning in an unfamiliar environment.  While faculty are still the content experts, the control over the learning environment has been fundamentally disrupted.  The potential for error on the part of faculty is much higher than in the classroom – there are just so many ways a beginner can go wrong in an online learning platform – disrupting their sense of control.  For students, the lack of standardization that is only a small problem in face-to-face classes, is now a major distraction from learning.  They are spending a lot of time trying to find where each of their four to five professors has “hidden” their assignments. This too, is leading to a collective scream.

It would be wonderful if I could command everyone to a) use Blackboard Learn (Bb) only and b) lay out their classes the exact same way, but I can’t.  While Bb is our official online learning platform and everyone should be using it, the truth is, it is not an easy environment to dive into.  It has some nice features, if you’ve had time to fully plan and experiment with your courses.  If you are faced with moving to it in a week’s time with no prior Bb experience, you are sunk.  Starting from scratch it is confusing, at best.  Demanding that everyone use it is probably worse than letting faculty devise unique approaches that they feel they can manage (weekly WebEx meetings, and emailing notes and collecting assignments; or using features of Office 360 to achieve the same end – and there are more).  As for similar layouts within Bb – there is no hope, at least not in the middle of this crisis.

From the student side, though, this is a nightmare. Some students have let me know that they are now trying to learn in 5 different “places.”  And, they are writing to me for help.  Their expectation was for some predictability; they are finding none.  Although, each of us approach the classroom experience in our own unique way, in reality the classroom has a limited number of predictable configurations.  Students can spend more time thinking about the subject than the furniture. With the variability of our online environment, they are really focused on the furniture. And by the way, these so called digital natives are not particularly good at figuring out how everything works. They kind of want us to figure it out for them.

So, now what. Faculty expertise is disrupted because they are spending their days focused on technology. Students trust their faculty less, because they, too, are spending their days navigating technology that is often poorly or variably configured. This lack of trust is leading to a lot of reaching out to Deans, Provosts, Presidents, and Governors, that is out of proportion to the problems at hand. Something’s got to give.

With only four more weeks of the semester, we’re all just trying to get to the end in one piece.  So, I only have a little bit to offer faculty on this subject, but here it is.

1. Simplify – identify those critical elements of the course material that must be addressed in the next four weeks and leave the rest behind.  Don’t try to do anything fancy, just focus on the essential content, and provide as much feedback on that student work as possible.  This will help remind students that faculty are experts after all, and they will be grateful for the sense of connection and continuity, even if on a shorter list of topics.

2. Empathize – Since we cannot offer students a consistent or familiar learning environment, reassure them (often), that we know this is a problem.  Then give lots of chances for resubmitting assignments or handing things in just a little late if they missed something.  It is easy to miss something when moving between many platforms. Acknowledging that complication will go a long way to re-establishing trust.

That’s it. I do not think we can do more in this context.  There is a lot we can do later, but for now, this will have to do.


Fun for the Grown Ups at Home

I’ve seen lots of posts about how to engage the kids while we are all in quasi lock-down, but what about the grown-ups? We empty-nesters, not-yet-nesters, or never-nesters deserve some fun, too.  Here’s one for all of you. Consider spending 30 minutes a day on these. It might calm the mind and you could learn a thing or two for the next trivia night.

Mathematical Mondays

You know you want to be better at math, and is it turns out, all it takes is a little free time.  I’m working statistics to better understand the path of COVID-19, but algebra and geometry are pretty great for planning the home renovations you are dreaming of now that you’re cooped up all the time.

Here’s a link to Khan Academy, but there are hundreds of options.

Sharpen those pencils.

Time Hop Tuesdays    

How the heck did we get here? That is the fundamental question for an amateur historian (apologies to the professionals). Whether you want to know when something happened or get a basic understanding of the implications/origins of important historical events, now is the time to look it up and do a little reading. Believe it or not, Wikipedia is an OK place to start. Just remember to follow their resource links to get a bigger picture.

Wildlife Wednesdays

I am the queen of “that’s a pretty bird/plant/tree” with no idea what I’m looking at. Are you curious about the natural world, but never really bother to check things out?  Now’s your chance.  Bonus points for taking a walk outside (with appropriate distance) to identify some of those birds, squirrels, trees, and plans.

Here are two sites to get you started, but really there are a million.

Theological Thursdays 

I always meant to take a comparative religion class, but it never seemed to fit into my schedule.  Instead of committing to an entire course or degree, I’m going to start with just learning a little about everyone’s faith.  Think how that could bring us together!

Fact Check Fridays      

Today is the day to test your knowledge.  Pick one news story and do your own research.  There is no such thing as a bias-free report, but there are reports that are better researched and sourced than others.  So, I recommend you choose a source you tend to trust and work from there.

Or you could simply start on by picking a news story you just read and then ask yourself what else you would need to know to believe it.  Then dig in to find out. Consider this activity an inoculation against nonsense.

Science Saturdays       

You did wildlife on Wednesday, but there is a lot more you can learn about science.  Let’s face it, we forgot most of what we learned in school and given the current state of affairs, we should probably level up our science knowledge.

Superhero Sundays     

It is Sunday, and you could reserve today for the great binge tv experience.  But you probably already made it to the bottom of your Netflix list (which, we didn’t know was possible before COVID-19, as my son pointed out). So, here is your opportunity to either become a Superhero nerd who learns all about the ones that exist, enjoying whatever medium you like.  Or, you could be come a designer of a new superhero, and work to even the representation of all kinds of people.  I’m thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

I can’t draw at all, but now could be the time to learn.  Here are some tutorials.

Chris Hart has a bunch of tutorials on drawing superheroes.

Or there’s this wonderful collection of resources here for drawing in general

Or you can skip the superheroes and just tune in to Bob Ross for some happy little clouds.

Have fun everyone.

PS: This is not my weekly blog.  I’m just taking a break from the WebEx meetings.