Thinking

And breathe

Well, last week was the whirl of decision-making.  First it was the cancellation of the spring break trips.  Our disappointed athletes saw their spring seasons quickly disappear.  Then campus events were cancelled and our performing arts students saw their seasons and trips disappear.  Then there was a cascade of schools sending students home for a few weeks (returns TBD), and our lab sciences shuddered, students in internships scrambled, and the stress of faculty figuring out how to move classes to an online format was palpable. It was a tough week for everyone.

But here we are, at the start of spring break.  Students and faculty are off.  Most staff are working remotely.  Our facilities crew is cleaning the campus and we actually have a moment to regain our composure. Whew.

So, here’s some good news.  First, what a wonderfully resilient group we are at WCSU (and I suspect in most of higher education).  My instructional design team has upped its support for faculty who have never taught online.  For those who have never done so, teaching online is not an easy shift.  Most people spend at least a summer planning for such a thing, so doing it in a week is lightning speed.  Nevertheless, people are figuring it out. I have received lots of notes from faculty wanting to help each other.  We are putting those helpful hints in our course management system, so people can get ideas from each other.  It is the kind of camaraderie that comes in a crisis, that I hope will last beyond the panic.

Our Academic Support services (librarians, tutors, and academic coaches) are all moving online  These groups are in separate clusters at WCSU, with varied uses of log in tools, training, and tracking of demand.  This week, they are all learning to pool resources and share techniques so that the supports for student learning do not waiver while we are a virtual university.

We are just entering our fall registration period and there have been questions about how advising will work.  As a blended system of faculty and professional advisors, we wanted to be sure students knew how to get help while off campus.  As it turns out, this part is pretty simple.  Advising is easy to accomplish via email, phone, or conferencing tools.  Faculty can review student transcripts from home, put advising notes and registration pins right in Degree Works (our transcript system), and the students will be all set to go. The bright side might be, however, that students happen to be reading their email right now because of their attention to the closure.  I’m hoping we end up with higher percentage of students registered for the fall than is usual at this time.

What about the rest of us, the ones who aren’t teaching, advising, or maintaining facilities? Well, admissions is still busy admitting students.  Financial aid is still busy helping address awards and manage accounts.  Registrars are still busy helping students register.  Our Student Affairs team suddenly has a few free minutes to plan for the fall, while simultaneously planning for an adjusted schedule this spring.  In Academic Affairs (including the Deans and all of the people who support us), we’re busy reviewing schedules, curriculum, and opportunities for growth, as we were prior to COVID-19.  The only difference is that we might have a few more hours of uninterrupted writing and thinking time.

This is that moment when we might wonder why we’ve built in so many interruptions in the first place.  Are all of those meetings a good use of time?  Is our committee structure so complex that it wears us out more that it offers insight?  Do we build agendas for meetings that are useful and achievable? Having this opportunity to think for just a few extra minutes a day, I can already see that there is room to streamline our efforts.

Then there are the electronic interruptions.  The good news is it is easy for me to shift my job to online, because much of it is about responding to email and writing documents.  The bad news is that much of the email is silly.  It is easy for me to delete all the sales pitches, but the never-ending stream of clarifications about our governance processes, suggests that a) our processes are too cumbersome, b) our instructions are too vague, and c) we must have hidden the instructions from view, because no one seems to have read them.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind answering.  People are doing their best and they don’t want to get things wrong. But I’m pretty sure my colleagues are smart, so I suspect there is something wrong with how we’ve organized things.  This shift away from meetings might give me a minute to figure out how to make some adjustments.

For those who are scrambling to figure out online instruction, you can pause for a minute, too.  Look at your courses and ask yourself what you must accomplish in the remaining weeks of the semester.  In complete honesty, is it everything you included at the start?  Could you get to a good set of learning experiences and outcomes by doing a little less?  Probably.  Take this opportunity to make those cuts, with essential concepts at the heart of the decisions.  It will keep you from trying to do more than is actually possible in this quick transition.  It might also teach you a few lessons for next year.

In other words, after the panic, there really is time to breathe and think. While I remain concerned about the potential spread of this virus, I will simply be grateful for the time it has added to my day. It is almost as if mother nature scheduled time for spring cleaning.  I’ll take it.

 

Thinking

Reading for Restoration

Final exams are over.  Students have returned to families and work.  Faculty are turning in final grades and most are taking a minute to exhale as we complete the fall semester.  It always feels like a mad dash to the finish line, no matter how carefully we plan.  I suspect it is built into the very notion of end points in learning.  They are necessarily artificial, so they are always a little disconcerting. But, hooray, we’ve made it through another fall.

For administrators, the punctuation is a little different.  Our vacations do not necessarily align with the semester breaks, and no one understands what we do all summer (lots, but that is for another day).  We don’t have exams to grade (hard work, to be sure), nor do we have the elation that comes after they have been completed. For me, the middle of the academic year generally brings a moment of horror as I realize the number of  projects on my to-do list that are nowhere near done.  There are policy projects, accreditation projects, record keeping projects, software implementation projects, and the ever-present pressure to insure that our efforts at supporting students are working.  Sometimes December just feels like a moment for panic.

Despite that panic, the end of the fall semester does allow for a moment of reflection and re-evaluation of my goals.  I will take a look at that to-do list and take advantage of the opportunity to delete a few goals, restructure some others, and then enjoy a few days of uninterrupted efforts to complete the parts that I can do alone.  Yes, with most folks off campus for three weeks, I have fewer meetings and more time for sustained reading and writing.

But first, I will pause.  I might not have the whole mid-semester break, but I will depart for some quality rest and relaxation. It is time for a vacation during which I will mostly just sit still and read.  Some of the reading will be about education, some will be fiction, all will be in a lounge chair by the pool, beach, or on the balcony of my vacation rental.  And all of it will be restorative.

I have been thinking about reading lately, mostly because it is so hard to get sustained reading done during my general workflow.  Like students and faculty, I am immersed in deadlines, email, meetings, and desperate efforts to stay informed of daily crises or breakthroughs in my field. My inbox is continuously filled with updates about higher education, ads for new technologies to help me do things more efficiently (ha!), and reminders to follow up on ideas, requests, or new initiatives.  By the time I go home each night, I find my mind ready for a relaxing British police procedural and reading gets pushed aside.

When I go on vacation, I suddenly find myself with the capacity to read.  When I first get started, I actually feel my body relax.  I have logged off and given myself over to the book in front of me. Distractions are gone and so is the stress of trying to keep up.  There is no deadline for this book, just the pleasure of the journey.

It is interesting to observe that it doesn’t matter if I am reading about education or just enjoying a novel, the effect is the same.  I feel restored and even inspired.  When not trying to keep up with the everything-ness of daily life, ideas have time to emerge.  Some might be about the human interactions that are best revealed in novels. Others might be about learning or teaching, that arise from recent scholarship in higher education.  I enjoy the opportunity to let the ideas wash over me. With more than a day to consider them, the ideas might even have time to develop into plans.

We should never underestimate the value of the pauses that we have built into our education systems.  They are not simply vacations, they are the space to heal, settle our minds, and bring back new perspectives and attitudes to all that we do.  And, we should not forget the difference between reading for survival and currency, versus reading for inspiration and reflection.  The latter requires the unscheduled blocks of time that our breaks allow.

Of course, observing that means I’m already thinking about how we build more blocks of time into our regular lives, not just during breaks.  After all, I would like to support more inspiration and reflection. But for now, I’m letting it all go and focusing on selecting books to take on my holiday.  I’ll work on new ideas later.  So, happy holidays, happy vacations, and congratulations on completing another term.  I wish you all a restorative break. See you in 2020.

Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Thinking

The Opposite of Twitter

This week I deleted the Twitter app from my phone.  It probably won’t stick.  I will find myself wanting to know what folks are saying or what is prompting the “arguments” that are taking place in the media and in grocery store checkout lines.  Nevertheless, I have deemed this particular communication format to be an anger-accelerant and not healthy for our society.

This is not my usual way. As a media ecologist, I have a habit of examining all new communication platforms via plusses and minuses or winners and losers.  I consider the concerns Socrates expressed about the invention of writing (no one will know anything if they just look it up), and remember that I still like books. I consider the observations of Marshall McLuhan who suggested that we focus on the medium instead of the message, and the analysis of Susanne Langer, who detailed propositional (emotional) vs. presentational (logical) forms, and think what they might make of today’s media environment.  I review Neil Postman’s argument that television redefines public discourse in such a way that prioritizes amusement over analysis, and consider how that has been heightened when everyone interacts with that “entertainment” format. I have always taken cues from their observations, and tried to reflect deeply on how our shifts in communication environments may be changing us. I don’t just dismiss things.

As social media took over the world, I took just such an approach. As my children and I dove into Facebook, I did not just worry about the bullying that could occur there; I also looked at the connections that were maintained over distances and time that once were lost to geographic changes.  The dangers of the algorithms are real, but there are some redeeming qualities. As I pondered Instagram, I observed that although it is well used by influencers hawking products, it is also a fun place for families to share updates on children, grandchildren, travel, etc.  But as I observe what is happening with Twitter, well, I am out.

Here’s the thing, Twitter encourages all of us speak in headlines.  For newspapers, radio, and television, headlines are meant to be a tease to get you to learn more.  In all of those media, the art of the headline is to frame issues in the most heightened state of conflict or disagreement so that people will buy the paper or tune into your network (yes, they sell a product). Ostensibly, that follow-up step would lead to a greater understanding of an issue than reading the headlines revealed. This sometimes happened. As television and radio news moved into 24 news cycles (CNN, FOX, MSNBC), the agonistic tones intensified and, although the time allotted to the stories was significant, the snippets that most people heard were shout downs between commentators and guests, rather than a true exploration of the story.  Twitter doesn’t even try to get to the full story. It is only the shout down.

Last week I realized that even people that I know and love are behaving badly on Twitter.  They have embraced the format and tweet responses of outrage to everything that offends their sensibilities.  In the process, their tweets are promoting petty and divisive approaches to all topics.  Since I know these people to be smart and well read on the issues they tweet about, I must conclude that Twitter is the problem.  It is all sensational headlines with no opportunity for dialogue.

Now some of you might be thinking that Twitter could lead us to the dialogue, but I don’t think so.  It is not what it is designed to do.  It is the perfect response and distraction medium, keeping us engaged in the next tweet, with no time left for research.  Even those who do their research about an issue continue to communicate in this abridged and inflammatory way. There appears to be no real motivation to go into the details of a story in rational tones. No, this just won’t do.

In higher education, our job is to do the opposite of Twitter.  We are tasked with helping students (and ourselves) see the full argument, not these truncated and fallacious syllogisms. We must learn to dig in and uncover as many assumptions as we can. Then we must examine the supporting and contradictory evidence before forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion. This is where true argument and debate live.

True argument (as opposed to shouting matches) is what we should be fostering at all levels of education, because if we don’t do it, there will be no opportunity to develop these skills in our citizens. There are just too many distractions outside of our halls. The world is facing serious questions about how to organize our efforts around climate, poverty, mental & physical health, economy, equity, etc., and answering those questions will require reflective, evidence-based thinking. This thinking cannot be achieved through Twitter.

So, I’ve deleted the app, for now.  I may go back and figure out how to use it as a teaching tool, or even better encourage its use for poetry. But for now, I want to live in the opposite world where thinking still has a chance.

 

Thinking

Doing Less

At WCSU, and many of the colleges and universities in the Northeastern US, this is just about the fifth week of classes. Faculty have found the rhythm of this version of their courses, having had the chance to get to know a new group of students. Students have grown accustomed to the expectations of this semester’s professors, and most are busy juggling those expectations in four to six classes. In other words, we have settled into the fall semester.

As always, the launch has been a whirl.  As an administrator, I too face the long to-do list and I have to adjust to the rhythm of due dates and meetings.  There are new curricula and policies to review, organizational practices to reconsider, and a looming crisis or two always lurking in the wings.  As I consider the best way to accomplish all that is on my plate, I wonder, can I do less?

This is a question I learned to ask many years ago when I was still teaching.  One particular lesson comes to mind. In 2004, when I moved from teaching undergraduate to graduate students, I carried with me a set of assumptions about graduate level work that focused on quantity. My assumption was that we should cover a book per week and write reflections on them at the same frequency.  This was what I experienced in many of my graduate classes, so I was just building on that experience.  It was awful.

In trying to replicate the experiences I had in graduate school, I had not taken the time to evaluate the lives of my students and my ability to support them.  I had allowed an imagined ideal graduate school experience to drive course design, rather than weaving the goals for learning into a series of well-constructed assignments and conversations.  It took about three weeks, but I learned the error of my ways and regrouped.

The process of discovery went like this:

  1. Students were providing responses to discussion prompts that revealed a less than careful reading of the material.  I suspected this was because there was not sufficient time to complete it.
  2. Students were having trouble meeting all but the most high stakes deadlines (turning in weekly reflection papers).  Again, there was not enough time to do everything, so the students were prioritizing based on weight of the assignment in relationship to the grade in the course.
  3. I was unable to give feedback on the reflection papers before they were finished writing the next one. The turnaround time was too short.  This did not seem fair to the students.

Observing all of this, I reconsidered the whole experience. First, I reduced the assigned readings.  When I was in graduate school, I think the assumption was that students were not working, so completing that weekly reading load was achievable. The conditions of students in graduate school have changed, and now most are working. If I wanted true engagement, I could select only what I thought to be critical works and then provide a list of recommended readings related to the course. After all, the books were readily available and the critical works would provide a framework for any follow-up reading they might engage in later. Now we could read less and discuss more.

Second, I reimagined the writing assignments.  Instead of weekly reflection papers, I constructed more focused assignments to help students develop the critical reading and writing skills I felt were essential in a foundational graduate course. In other words, I scaffolded the learning goals of each assignment, building new skills with each one. This allowed me to reduce the number of assignments and gave me the chance to provide clear and timely feedback, so that students could incorporate that guidance into their next paper. The reflections were reserved for our discussions.

In the end, I cut the reading and writing lists for this graduate class in half. I believe our ability to meet the learning goals for the course doubled.  Instead of skimming, rushing, and reacting, we all had a little more room to think, reflect, and ask the questions that would help us grow. Simple, right? Starting with the end goals in mind is certainly a basic idea in curriculum design.  Considering the environmental influences that might get in the way of those goals, also just a good idea.

But can we go a little further?  Have we designed for the end goals of a university degree from this perspective? I know we do it in places – majors/programs have learning outcomes, general education has learning outcomes, career services has internship targets, academic success programs are focused on retention as some measure of impact–but is the whole thing woven together around some coherent goals?  I am not so sure.

So today is Rosh Hashanah, a time to reflect on the year that has passed and the year to come, and although the academic year has just gotten into full swing, I see this day as an opportunity to pause and refocus our efforts. In its simplest sense, this turning of the year asks us to think about how we might be a little better.  As I take this pause, I want to be a little better at looking at the whole of the university experience and think clearly about the goals of that whole. I suspect that if we work together to define our overarching goals, we may find that we can develop plans to meet them by doing just a little less. We’ll see.

Shana Tova everyone!

 

Innovative Pedagogies, Thinking

Project 100

Last week I focused on the notion of slow education as a counter to the high-speed culture that surrounds us.  I suggested that we shift away from the impulse to cover lots of material and toward a more reflective exploration of ideas. There is nothing new about my proposal.  It neatly describes a old fashioned seminar approach to learning.  Before we had access to every book ever written, we had to make do with a little less.  This, perhaps, inspired more selectivity in the assignments and more time for discussion.  Sounds like slow education to me.

However, those old-fashioned seminars were generally populated by the lucky few who had experienced a robust K-12 education, raised with the assumption that they were “college material.”  Those students had been preparing for seminars their entire lives.  Much to the betterment of society, we are inviting many more students to college these days. Not all have had this preparation for slower thinking.  Even those who did have access to great schools and college-preparatory programs did not grow up in a reflective culture.  The students in front of us were raised for bytes and speed. We need to teach our students how to do slow education.

So, I’ve been thinking about how to assist students in the transition from quick summaries, multiple choice exams, and “passing classes” to the slow, reflective learners we want them to be.  I am not so far removed from the habits of young (and not so young) adults that I don’t know that this is a big shift. We can’t expect our students to jump into slow education.  They need help learning to learn differently. This leads me to an idea I have been trying to figure out for a few years now.  I call it Project 100.

Project 100 is the idea that we should design our 100 level courses to intentionally transition students from passive to active learners. Instead of putting students in survey courses that go over the high points of anthropology or psychology or history, let’s design 100 level classes focused on doing anthropology or psychology or history.  Most universities already have “doing” courses, but they tend to be reserved for the major, and only after the introductory surveys.  I think we have it all wrong.  Putting students in survey courses in their first year of college just asks them to receive information, no matter how hard we try to engage them. These courses give a clear message to be passive. So, let’s ditch the survey course (or rather, save it for the 200 level and revise the goals) and ask our first year students to dive in to doing.

We can do this in any discipline–biology, business, art, or sociology–it really does not matter. We just have to help our students experience the joys and frustrations of developing a research question and then attempting to answer it.  Instead of relying on surveys of a field, let’s organize the first year of college in such a way that our students become amateur scholars (detectives?) empowered to drive the curriculum themselves, by virtue of collaborating with peers and faculty in the development of research questions.

We could then re-map the first year so that students complete a balance of these 100 level doing courses in STEM, Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts.  We’ll save a little room in the schedule for some of the disciplinary foundations students will need (theory for our musicians, anatomy and physiology for our nurses, etc.), but the rest of the first year will simply focus on this kind of question driven learning that puts education in the hands of the students.  Toss in an FY orientation class and students should be fully transitioned from passive to active learners by the end of the first year.

Now, I bet you are wondering… is this still slow education?  Sure.  To do this kind of active, question driven class, we are going to have to abandon lists in favor of discovery.  We will take the time to develop a research question with our students, first intuitively, then by exploring some scholarship related to the topic. Then we will be focused on figuring out how to answer that question (introductory methods only).  We will be unburdened by the notion that we need to cover the history of a discipline and free to dig into just one idea.  There will be lots of work, to be sure, but the work will be limited to introductory tools and methods. This will leave lots of time to discuss ideas and tools, test them, and even toss them out when we fail to see their value.  All we have to focus on is helping our students discover ways to answer the questions they have devised with us. If we are really lucky, we will all leave with next questions in mind.

If we do it right, our students will leave their first year of college confident in their ability to lead discussions, collaborate with others, wrestle with new ideas, and capable of forming questions. They will not know a lot of detail about any particular discipline, but they will have foundational tools for learning that can support them as they begin to grapple with theory and history. Those foundational tools are exactly what our students need to bring to those nice, slow seminars, don’t you think?