Higher Education, Thinking, Uncertainty

Deep Breaths

Like everyone in higher education, I have spent every day since mid-March sorting through information and trying to make sound and thoughtful decisions about what to do. From our abrupt exit in the middle of the spring semester to our plans for the fall, nothing has been simple. There are complex interconnections between areas of the university that need to be sorted through and there are multiple constituencies to consider. This takes time, reflection, dialogue, and then logistical planning. It does not benefit from yelling. As I read the coverage of these issues in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, New York Times and the Washington Post, I find myself wanting to ask everyone to take a deep breath.

For the record, I am not more concerned with budgets than safety. This characterization of administration is a convenient trope that bears no relationship to reality. Budgets matter, of course, but that has not been the primary motivator of a single decision. It is the background noise that we worry about as we try to figure out what will best serve our universities.

At WCSU, we are striving to return to campus, but in a limited form. We are setting up classrooms with six feet between seats. We are requiring masks for everyone. We are deploying hand sanitizer everywhere. We are reviewing our ventilation systems to be sure we have the best possible air flow. We are ordering microphones for faculty who have masks on, because we are worried that their voices will be muffled, and students will not hear them. We have added all sorts of training in online teaching, so everyone is prepared to flip to online if that is warranted. We have had numerous meetings with union leadership, department chairs, faculty in disciplines particularly impacted by this change, and so on. All of this will have an impact on our budgets that we have no idea if we can recoup, but we are making the plans anyway.

Given all of this work, perhaps it would be easier to just be online. Sure, but then there are these other complications.

Lab sciences are not great online. Faculty in those disciplines have asked to preserve some of that hands-on experience. In some cases, certifying students for work in labs or applying to graduate school relies that hands-on experience. So, we worked together to develop protocols that we all feel are safe. The same is true for nursing, and that faculty has come together to propose what they feel are safe options.

Music ensembles are a disaster online. Don’t let the nicely edited zoom concerts you have seen fool you. Those are big (edited) productions. In reality, there is just too much lag to play together remotely, especially when on considers the variance of bandwidth in people’s homes. We cannot really support ensembles in full, but at least the ones without wind instruments and voices should have a chance to play together. For those others, we are trying to figure something else out, mostly outdoors subject to weather.

I am particularly worried about our incoming first-year students. While it is possible to build community online, it is not easy. Community building online works best with people who are either returning adults or graduate students. To build it with traditional students is a lot of time and effort. I know that some of my faculty will do a great job of facilitating group work that will help students meet each other, but students will miss the way physical co-presence tends to lead to post-class conversations. This is not trivial. We already know that our commuter population sometimes struggles to make these friend connections when they only come to campus for class. Not coming at all will magnify that problem. So, we are trying to preserve some of those first-year on campus experiences. Even if we find we have to return to online only, a few meetings are likely to be helpful in building those important connections between students.

We have a plan for our dorms. We are working through those safety protocols and, yes, we are wondering about our ability to build compliance. Enforcing the use of masks and social distancing protocols in classrooms and libraries, etc., is relatively easy. In dorms, not so much. We are reviewing the various publications on monitoring health in dorms and planning our testing and tracing protocols. We have also updated our fall schedule so families can make informed decisions about the value of dorms, given the proportion of class-time online (schedules vary). Still, some students and families want this option, so we are not just saying let’s skip it. This decision was made with the desire to preserve this option for families who want or need it. It was not made with an eye toward the bottom line. If anything, having the dorms open will cost more than closing them, given the protocols we will have to put in place and the scaled back occupancy numbers.

Nevertheless, the money piece does matter. As usual, the conversations about money in the press focus on the private schools with large endowments and very high price tags. Those of us in public higher education are grappling with small (no) endowments, diminishing state appropriations, and price tags that are lower than the cost of operations. We are being asked about reduced tuition and fees because of the predominance of online offerings, but there is no reduction in the cost of delivery. I am focused on cultivating good online instruction, but I know it is not the same as the expectations these students had for their education. We are being asked about pro-rated dorm costs in case we go home early, but the cost of the dorms will not diminish if we close early. The price is based on the semester, not a weekly rate. We do not know what to do about this. Our price tags are “affordable” but they are still a stretch for many of our families, so I understand their questions about reductions in this context. My tale of how low the tuition and fees are compared to the cost of delivering education is cold comfort to them. This puts us in quite a bind and there are no good answers.

It is July 13th and the decisions we have made so far reflect my (and the entire administrative team’s) best effort to navigate this difficult world. We are likely to change course on a few things as we monitor what is happening elsewhere. We are likely to grapple with decisions about costs and value as the proportions of online offerings shift with those insights. We will continue to address the interconnected decisions of operating a campus, in collaboration with our union leadership, as methodically as possible, even as we hear the demands for information on a daily basis. We will try to respond quickly, but some decisions take time.

This leads me back to the breathing part. Perhaps, for just a minute, we could all pause and think about these complexities. Perhaps we could stop accusing each other of bad priorities and look at all we have done to figure this mess out together. Perhaps we could cultivate a little more patience so that there is time to review the list of protocols we have developed, determine their feasibility, and then make adjustments. We can’t get this done if we are constantly responding to panic and misinformation. So deep breaths, please, so we can all figure out the fall. We will think about the money piece later.

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.

 

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.