Accountability, Evaluation, Thinking

Remember the Qualitative Data

The phrase “data-driven decision-making” has become the gold standard for proposing policies, research, or other plans to improve outcomes in higher education. You cannot apply for funding for anything without some evidence to support justify the proposed project and a detailed evaluation plan. This, of course, should not be startling for higher education. Building cases for our research and related decisions is at the heart of all that we do. What has changed is what we define as sufficient evidence. Spoiler alert – it is quantitative data.

Much of this transformation is to the good. We have new tools that allow us to gather quantitative data much more easily than we once did. With Survey Monkey or Qualtrics data from a well-designed questionnaire can be easily launched and analyzed. Getting a good sample is still a challenge, but digital tools make reaching potential respondents better than ever before. The tools for statistical analysis have similarly evolved in ways that help the analysis section of a study to perform functions that were once reserved for the most advanced mathematical thinkers. And with access to large databases, the sky’s the limit for exploring behaviors of various populations.

Then there is the power of “big data” which is so powerful in medical research right now. With access to studies from all over the world, scientists can get at a level of analysis that is much more nuanced than we once experienced. It is so exciting to see that, with all of the information available, it is possible for physicians to move from a generalized Chemo cocktail to one that has been edited more specifically for the genetic traits of an individual. It is truly breathtaking to see the advances in science that these tools provide.

In higher education, the data-driven movement is really impacting our evaluation of university outcomes at every level. We move from the big picture – graduation rates and retention overall, and then fully scrutinize factors that might show us that we are systematically leaving specific groups of students behind. Often referred to as the achievement gap, colleges and universities are no longer (and should no longer be) satisfied with gaps in retention and graduation that break down along gender, income, first-gen, and other socio-cultural groupings.

Attending to these gaps is, indeed, driving policies and programs at many universities. At WCSU, it has led to a revision of our Educational Access Program (Bridge) and to the addition of a peer mentor program. We’re tracking the impact on our overall retention rates, but also taking a deeper dive into different clusters in our community to see where we need to do more. What has really changed for us is that we are designing these efforts with follow up analyses built in from the start, so that we don’t just offer things and then move on. We have a plan to refine as we go. This is a good change.

Still, this focus on statistical data can lead to gaps in understanding that are significant. As always, our results are only as good as the questions we ask. Our questions are only as good as our ability to see beyond our worldview and make room for things we never anticipated. This is a challenge, of course, because we often don’t realize we are making assumptions or that our worldviews are limited. It is the nature of our disciplinary frames; it is the nature of being human.

Although my education has included anthropology and media ecology (both with lots of attention to our biases and qualitative data), I realize that I have been struggling to find ways to incorporate more qualitative analysis into all that we are doing at WCSU. It is tricky because it is more labor and time intensive than analyzing statistical outcomes or neatly structured survey data. It is also tricky, because we need to be informed by the qualitative without falling into the problem of generalizing from the single case. And, of course, it is tricky because, well it takes sustained practice with ethnography to do qualitative well.

I was reminded of this, as I began to read Gillian Tett’s, Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See Business and Life. This text explores the ways in which the habits of anthropology can be transformative to business processes of all kinds. It isn’t so much a “new” way to see things – after all anthropology has existed as a discipline for over a century – nor is it new to see it as a tool of business and governments (see Edward T. Hall for a glimpse of the past) – but it is an excellent reminder that anthropology offers a powerful lens. Tett’s book is full of examples of mis-steps in the tech industry and in marketing because those in charge never even questioned their assumptions about how people interact with technology. The hiring of a full-time anthropologist helped to address some of that. She also reminds us of the difference between asking questions and observing behavior – not because people lie, but because our questions were calculated to get the responses we got and, therefore, missed the bigger context. Our narrow lenses go beyond market research and explain socio-political challenges and misunderstandings on a global scale. These are important reminders, all.

So, I am reminded to take the time to dive into the questions that most statistical research will miss. There is more to understand than calculating the percentage of students who answer the question: “How often do you use the tutoring resource center?” with often, sometimes, or never. There’s the whole long list of feelings that complicate seeking help. There’s that long list of other priorities (work, co-curricular, family). There are the things I haven’t thought of yet, that are barriers to using the resources we are providing. There is research on this, I know, but I think there is more to know.

Yes, I am a fan of quantitative data, but I must admit that I have learned much more from qualitative data over the course of my life. The insights of the unexpected interaction, or the opportunity to observe for long(ish) periods of time, have improved my questions and understandings, and generated much more interesting follow up work than the summary data have ever done. This is important for the work on academic success that we are engaged in at our universities. It is even more important (and not at all unrelated) when we try to see the barriers to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment. I’m thinking it may be time to put a few anthropologists on the institutional research payroll.

Thinking

Time to Read

As I awoke Monday morning, I vowed to do no work. It was a holiday weekend and even if a provost’s work is never done, days off are necessary. Indeed, though I am not protected by any union – administrators don’t get that particular benefit – I recognize that my life and the lives of all of us have been improved by the hard work of labor leadership over the last century. One of those most important improvements in our working conditions is that there are days when we don’t work. Thank goodness for those efforts.

Well, despite my determination to laze the day away, I found a little task nagging at me. A dear friend has just completed a draft of her new book and she was looking for some feedback. With the day stretched out before me, I opened the draft and enjoyed a wonderful read. I won’t reveal anything abut the book here, so she has time to get to publication, but I will say it offered me all sorts of insights into the current state of our culture. As media ecologists, we always look at the ways in which our communication environments shape behavior, and she’s got some great observations about how our portable electronic universes are changing who we are.

But that is not what I am thinking about today. What I am really thinking about is how having a few uninterrupted hours to read an entire book is so wonderful. Although I did read the text on a screen, something I have come to prefer in recent years, I was able to completely ignore the endless stream of email that I usually address, and with the world around me relatively quiet, I could give the reading my full attention. It felt like a vacation.

My entire career in higher education has been about addressing things in chunks so I can manage the interruptions around me. I had my first child at the end of my first year as a PhD candidate. Even before the birth, the pregnancy was an interruption – distracting me from reading things closely and generally leaving me exhausted. After children and then with various teaching positions, I became an adept skimmer and expert at breaking projects into 15 minute intervals. It worked to keep me on track with my doctorate (more or less) and it helped me keep up with children and teaching assignments in the sanest way possible.

As an administrator, I read constantly. I start the day with email triage – addressing all the messages that came in over night to clear the decks for the day ahead. I scan the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed looking for important information and potential research areas that I should follow up on. Then I drive to work and jump between reading, writing, meeting, and repeat. I write policy proposals, accreditation documents, edit proposals of all kinds in an effort to move things forward through various evaluative processes. I follow up on those morning articles, getting to the details of the research behind them and hoping to get smarter. It is important that I can do this kind of juggling and often I find it exhilarating. It allows me to jump between tasks productively, getting to various finish lines regularly. I’m never without a task ahead, but I can see progress.

But my expert skimming and juggling is nothing like sustained reading and the pondering of an idea. One can get a lot from an essay or an academic article, but to really engage an idea, book-length reading is still the best path. Don’t get me started on what doesn’t occur in video formats. I love them, by the way. Movies, documentaries, televisions programs, and little video tutorials all have their place in opening my eyes to ideas or processes that can be helpful or amusing. But watching isn’t reading. Reading is different.

I could try to dredge up some science for this essay, but you have Google, you can figure it out. No, this is really just about my experience of reading. It is slow enough to let me break down an argument as I encounter it. It allows me to back up and think without having to find the remote. It encourages me to pause and reflect, without having things run ahead of me. In book form, authors have time to layer in detail to the argument at hand, supplying new evidence and illustrations as I read on and helping me think things through. Yes, this is a kind of respite for me. I am slowing down, not deciding anything, just thinking.

In the book I read today, I was also reminded of the way an author’s voice is so important to the narrative. Now in this case I know the author, so it is cheating, but in all books there is a tone and rhythm that invites (and sometimes discourages) engagement with the tale being spun and the worldview being suggested. That invitation can help to block out the immediacy of our electronic world – helping to tune out the beeps and dings of our news feeds and friend groups, and just attend to the details at hand. The text becomes a person to whom I am giving my full attention. When I finish a book, I always feel better for having spent the time reading it. Synapses have connected and I am restored.

As I feel the wave of rejuvenation that my morning spent reading provided for me, I am thinking about education once more. It takes a holiday for me to have time to really read. What would it take for education to make room for real reading? You know we don’t make room for it now. Our current structure makes it nearly impossible. Can we come together to make the kinds of changes to the structure of higher education that will make room for that sustained engagement with ideas that we say we value? Perhaps this requires the same level of effort that our unions made to improve the quality of life for all of us. Readers of the world, unite!

Resilience

Doing More by Doing Less

It is the start of the fall semester and I am already worried about my ability to keep up with the hundred tasks before me. The emerging list is so long that, as one of my favorite professors once said, “it’s a full-time job just updating my to-do list.” No! I cannot be tired before September. This will not do.

As always, whenever I feel this way, I reflect on the lives of my colleagues. Faculty are in that first exhilarating rush of the semester, when everything seems possible. Fresh syllabi, fresh faces, and hope are the order of the day. This will be the year when all that hard work of planning pays off in student engagement and professional growth.

Sort of.

The planning was probably a little more stressful this year as we tried to take all eventualities related to COVID into account. The research agendas are somewhat disjointed as we plan for travel but know that some is likely to be cancelled. And, those fresh faces are partially covered with masks (for now), dampening the sound and a little bit of the excitement ahead.

Colleagues not in the classroom are also happy(ish) to be back on campus. It is so good to see each other, to hear noise in the hallways, to have some direct interaction with peers and students. It is a refreshing change from those endless remote meetings of the last year. The possibility of the casual conversation, the collaborative events, and just being together feels good. But, it is moderated by that nagging sense that things could shift quickly, and we should be prepared.

Many students are looking forward to in-person experiences this fall. Some stayed in online courses, but most are here and ready for the things that just work better when we’re in the same room. They are looking forward to the conversations in classes and co-curricular activities that we once took for granted. Students who started college last fall are finally able to feel like they are in college, which is wonderful. This year’s first year students are here from the start. It is good, and as I watch them scurrying across campus I note that they are pretty good at the mask thing at this point. I am sorry that they have to be.

In the face of this quasi-normal life and the potential for disruptions, those wonderful aspirational feelings of a new year are just a little dampened. We find ourselves having to plan two options at every step, and, well it is a lot. Like my endless to-do list, it can make a person feel a little tired at this point when we are usually energized. So, considering our extra load, I am returning to a common theme in my writing… can we do just a little less?

Deep breaths, everyone. I know you just made your plans for the semester and that may be all you can do right now. Perhaps you don’t want to think about anything else until conditions change (if they change). Ok, do what you need to do for your own sanity. But, if you’re willing to think for a minute, with your students’ chaotic lives in mind in addition to your own, maybe there is some room to trim those plans just a little.

For courses, this means taking one more look at the readings and assignments and asking yourself about the goals for each. Is there a way to focus those goals a bit more and eliminate one thing? When I was still teaching, I found this question very helpful. At one point, it resulted in reducing assignments by 3 and gaining as many opportunities for learning. I cut some short papers in favor of more focused goals in those that remained. This made room for more detailed and timely feedback. The experience and the learning was better for everyone.

For co-curricular activities, how about just focusing on small opportunities for engagement. With most activities safest outdoors it seems like our outdoor recreational opportunities will serve us best this year. I’ll add that our students feel a great deal of reward when they have been of service to the community, so adding those events that foster community service (outdoors), will likely go a long way to just making us all feel a part of something. It is a welcome change from the dislocation of Zoom.

For the initiatives in departments and in governance, perhaps we can think just a little more strategically and lighten our load. I was recently reading about several Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives around the country, and I am struck by the smaller steps that can go a long way. Some universities have elected to look at the expertise and offerings already available on their campuses, and worked to bring those resources together into majors, minors, and certificates. This is more manageable than creating something entirely new and can often create interdisciplinary relationships that are invigorating. Others are looking at existing courses and programs for opportunities to revise from within. This generally involves a scan of topics and readings to find opportunities to include new voices in our favorite courses. This is easier to get our minds around than trying to think about re-imagining an entire major from a DEI perspective.

For my part, I’m looking at opportunities to draw on existing committees and departments to accomplish tasks. Most pressing right now is preparing to do a self-study of the university for our next accreditation visit. I’m trying not to build a new structure to figure out processes that members of our community are already doing. We’ve got most of what we need embedded in our normal practices, so why complicate things? In this case, I think we can accomplish more by doing just a little less.

I think there are more things I can do to simplify processes and projects and reduce all of our loads this year. Just thinking about this is bringing that energy and excitement back to this start of the semester. Hooray. Finding simplifications is now the most important part of my to-do list. I will be the champion of doing more by doing less. Maybe you will, too.

Higher Education, Hope

The Magic of We

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Dream Big

At the end of this year-and-a-half long effort to create great educational experiences in the face of a global pandemic, it is easy to get too focused on triage instead of big ideas. We have all been busy monitoring COVID cases and becoming experts in contact tracing. We’ve been transforming student support to try to reach out to students who are drowning in the online environment. Faculty have been trying hard to reshape their teaching strategies for online and hybrid modalities, all the while worrying about the learning taking place and the missing interactions that take place in the normal classroom settings. We’re developing strategies to encourage our students to get vaccinated and wondering if we’ll ever get to remove our masks. And, of course, we are all worried about surviving the fiscal challenges that we face due to this disaster because we know it will take multiple years to get back to normal enrollment patterns. In short, we have a lot on our collective minds.

While every single detail matters, when we stay too long in the slog of managing those details, there is a tendency to reduce our dreams to the immediate future. Well, consider this a reminder to step back, look up from the spreadsheets and grading, and take a moment to dream big.

I’m thinking today about the graduates that I will greet next weekend. They have had a heck of a finish to their education. They have attended to the details necessary to complete their programs in less that optimal ways. I am proud of them for getting to this point under these unique conditions. They are now facing a world of work that is strange to say the least. It would be a normal reaction to feel despair in the face of so much uncertainty. It would also be normal to limit the scope of one’s job search to safe bets, nearby things, and the less than ambiguous, just to mitigate all of that uncertainty. But I urge them not to do so.

Now is the time for our graduates to dream big. It is time to think clearly about what a good life looks like, what a rewarding career looks like, and what contributions to the world might be possible. This is a time to reflect on one’s values and align one’s goals with those values. It is time to think about the arc of one’s life and some long range goals. This will make that job search more rewarding and fruitful. It may be that the first post-college job is not a big step up from the work done to pay the bills during college. That’s fine. But make sure that the next job has something for you to learn on your path to your bigger dreams. In short, aim for the most that you want, not the least, and build a plan accordingly.

For my colleagues at WCSU, we need to heed the same advice. We have worked so hard this past year just to survive this crisis. The work has made me very proud. Faculty have reimagined pedagogy, experimented with new technologies, and kept the struggles of their students foremost in their minds. Our Information Technology team and Instructional Designers have continuously supported faculty and students as they’ve navigated new tools and connectivity. Student Affairs has worked hard to develop a semblance of student life in this virtual context and invested in more mental health support because it was so desperately needed. Athletics has managed to achieve some big wins, even with such limited opportunities to compete. Yes, we’ve done an excellent job of triage.

But we are going to face a few more years of challenges because of COVID-19 and the continued drop in high school graduates in New England. It would be normal to look at our chances to recover as something that can be managed by small cuts and status quo behaviors. That won’t work anymore. It is time to think clearly about what we want to look like in five years and in ten years. What does a great university look like for the students we serve and the communities that depend on us? How should we evolve to achieve that greatness? What steps do we need to take to feel that our work is rewarding and exciting? What contributions to the world do we want to make and how should we organize ourselves to get there? It may be that the next year or two of working toward this great university might feel mired in minutia and even more triage, but if we are working toward greatness together, it will be purposeful triage that can inspire us, rather than drag us down.

Yes, as we come to the end point of our academic-year and finish up reports, grades, and the usual closing of the year details, it is important to rekindle the capacity for big dreams. It is the dreams that make room for good ideas and inspire us to continue re-imagining all that we do. They give us hope when we need it the most and they are the start of any good plan. Let’s lift up our heads from the day-to-day and take the time to dream big. We owe it to ourselves and I know that good things will come of it.