Community, Return on Investment

Valuing Community

Well, it is Labor Day and here in the northeastern United States we are taking those end of summer walks, paddles, and swims. It is a celebratory holiday, with the hint of melancholy that endings always bring.  For me, it is always a happy time as we start the new school year and enter the season of apples, cinnamon, and changing leaves.

The hint of the crisp weather to come was in the air last week, and I was prompted to get out my bicycle to take a ride on a nearby rail trail. Rail trails have been an ever-present part of my adult life. When my children were young, my husband and I would pack them up, first in bike seats on our bicycles, then on little bikes of their own, and eventually, setting them free on proper bikes, training wheels gone, and streamers flying. The rail trails offered our family a safe, car-free space for our adventures.

Yesterday, my husband and I rode the Dutchess County Rail Trail from Hopewell Junction to the Walkway Over the Hudson.  It’s a lovely ride, but that is not my point.  What was great about the trail, which I have watched emerge over the last 20 years, is the community values it represents. Like all parks and trails, it required local time and money, community investment and labor, an occasional grant, and a vision of the positive impact it would have on Dutchess County.  People joined together to make something that would improve the quality of life for those around. This, is a wonderful impulse.

The Walkway Over the Hudson (an old railroad bridge, now a pedestrian and cycling route) offers spectacular views of the Hudson River and has become a destination all by itself.  From a derelict and scary structure to this vibrant park, some intrepid folks had enough imagination to move it forward.  Not only is the resulting structure beautiful and generally packed with people during the warmer months, but on either side, small businesses have popped up.  This investment has surely resulted in some monetary returns as it draws tourists to experience the views.

But the rest of it, the winding trail, with bridges over highways, and parking spots for shorter and longer loops, brought something more than a monetary reward… it brought an improved quality of life. As we pedaled along yesterday we passed people of all ages–newborns in backpacks, small children with training wheels, dog walkers on roller blades, people in wheel chairs, and senior citizens taking a slow stroll.  On this rail trail I passed people of many colors and sizes and I believe I heard at least six different languages spoken.  This wonderfully democratic experience, with no admission fees, brings cultures together in the most positive ways.

Now I could talk about property values (probably improved by this investment) or the other potential business that may result, or the actual health benefits of trails and parks as they encourage people to get up and move about, but I am most impressed by they way these things represent our commitment to community.  Time spent and funds raised on building these come from people who see the value of the experiences the trails will provide without seeking a financial payoff.  Families and neighbors then volunteer to help with the upkeep, representing a continued commitment to making the world a nicer place.  When we do these things, we all demonstrate care for our friends and neighbors and even those visitors from far and wide, dreaming of that common good for all.

So, it’s Labor Day, the perfect day to think about commitment to the common good. The work of labor unions in creating a reasonable standard of living for all is a clear representation of that commitment. People came together for the betterment of the whole, rather than advocating for the one.  That work improved working standards and created better living conditions for the many.  Our willingness to invest in transportation, healthcare, and education also represent that commitment.  These things are a bet on the idea that we all have better lives when everyone has access to these essential things.

And parks of all kinds are really just that….a bet that we all have better lives when everyone can share in the beauty of the outdoors in a safe and accessible way.  This seems like an excellent way to spend Labor Day.  That, and a picnic of course.

Enjoy the holiday.

 

Engagement, Higher Education, Inclusion

Student Engagement? No Problem.

It is the start of a new academic year.  Students are scrambling to find books or finish registering for classes, while faculty put finishing touches on syllabi.  Opening meetings have commenced, a new cohort of first year students has been welcomed, and WCSU is abuzz with activity and optimism. Even the weather is supporting new beginnings with a hint of fall in that late summer air.  It is impossible not to love this part of the year.

I have a long list of things I hope to accomplish this year, from the trivial to the impossible, but I don’t want to get overwhelmed by all of that yet.  What I hope for at the start of this new year is to take the opportunity to see our campus with fresh eyes. This is the beauty of the summer break–when we pause, we have the opportunity to change our perspectives and start fresh. Sometimes, what we thought were problems aren’t really problems after all.

As we start this new year, I want to acknowledge that student engagement was something that I used to see as a problem to solve.  Now I see it differently.

WCSU is a majority commuter campus. This has been true for the entire 116-year history of the institution, but for some reason we talk about it as if it is something that should be fixed.  It isn’t!  While it is true that the kinds of experiences we construct must be different from a majority residential campus, the ability for so many students in the region to attend college at an affordable rate, without racking up additional (any) debt for housing, is a true benefit to our community and our future alumni.

Instead of thinking about the loss of the experience that comes with life in the dorms, what we need to do is reimagine the ways we engage students. Instead of constructing entertainment activities to entice students back to campus (largely a silly endeavor in a Netflix world), we should connect commuter and residential students around community, career opportunities, and professional development in the major.

Volunteer efforts, like WCSU’s Annual Day of Service on September 20th, is one great example of productive student engagement.  This year, our faculty have supported cancelling morning classes that day, so that everyone has the chance to participate.  Students, faculty, and staff come together to tidy up neighborhoods, work in shelters, paint fences, and connect with the Danbury community. This very popular event has often led to internship opportunities or other service learning opportunities, and commuters and residential students alike are willing to participate. It is a bonding event that builds community and opportunity.

Our clubs linked to majors offer another successful model for student engagement.  Clubs in Biology, Chemistry, Communication and Media Arts, Marketing, Mathematics, Justice and Law Administration, Psychology, and Social Work, and more, regularly bring students and faculty together to hear guest speakers, meet professionals working in the field, travel to professional conferences (often, presenting research and winning awards), and sometimes taking a canoe trip or going apple picking.  As it turns out, our students and faculty mentors are highly engaged in these activities.  Instead of asking why students aren’t frolicking on the quad, let’s acknowledge where they are.  Let’s invest a little more in these clubs and celebrate the results.

Sometimes we feel a little bad about the fact that we must incentivize attendance at campus events–you know, extra credit or a trade for class time.  We have this idea that students should just want to attend the presentations we value.  Why?  Faculty and administration do not choose to attend all of the events on our campus.  We make decisions about value and relevance and how much energy we have left in any given week.  So do our students.

On the other hand, these events do offer wonderful enrichment opportunities for all of us.  So, let’s all take a moment to look at what we see as the best benefit for the students we are teaching and go ahead and offer that extra credit.  Don’t worry about going to everything; let’s just focus on getting everyone to one or two things a semester. That really is enough.

Another area for growing student engagement is in career exploration.  Our students (all students) want a great education, but they also want help figuring out where they will go after college.  At WCSU, the Career Success Center has career fairs, alumni networking events, support for resume and cover letter writing, and guidance on getting an internship.  They even have peer mentors so those who feel a little intimidated by the environment might find a supportive face to greet them. Just like our guest speakers, though, students need a nudge to get to the Career Success Center. Let’s give them that nudge.  As students get started in the major, perhaps a small assignment on career exploration could open their eyes to the support available.  This is engagement.

Campus activities, when tied to the student’s educational and professional goals, are productive and enriching engagement opportunities.  They are less about the extra-curricular activities developed to support a vibrant dormitory life (don’t worry, we do that, too), and more about the co-curricular opportunities that are meant to help students see the connections between their coursework and the rest of their lives.  Given the many claims on our students’ time, these professional opportunities are more likely to bring them back to campus than entertainment-focused events.  Not only that, these activities are as valuable to residential students as they are to commuters. So, let’s not mourn the uneven participation in the Quidditch Team (one of my favorites), and celebrate the things that are capturing our students’ attention.

Here’s why.  First, these kinds of engagement matter.  They help us explain the value of the undergraduate experience by connecting opportunities to apply and extend learning to the curriculum.  Second, and perhaps even better, these professional development opportunities build community.  Students meet to work together on projects, talk with faculty about conferences or speakers, and get to know alumni in networking sessions. These experiences are just as likely to support friendships as attending a football game or the fall musical or a touring comedian.  Interestingly enough, the co-curricular experiences might even encourage more students to head out to this week’s art show or a soccer game, because, well they were on campus with their friends for a workshop anyway so they might all go together.

So this is how I’m starting this semester.  I’ve taken a breath and reimagined the situation. Student engagement.  No problem at all.

Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion

Reflection and Inclusion

I confess.  I play Words with Friends and Puzzly Words.  If there is anyone left who does not know what these are, they are digital variations on Scrabble.  In the morning, I check my email, read Inside Higher Education and the daily Chronicle of Higher Education summary, and then play a few rounds of these games while I sip my coffee.  I have never been much for any board games other than Scrabble (well, I love Banagrams, too), so when these came along they fit my fun criteria nicely.  

 A few years ago, I noticed something while I was playing.  As we all moved from impersonal screen names to our Facebook photos, I could see images of the people I was playing.  As it turns out, these digital games had greatly added to the diversity of my game partners.  It gave me pause, not just because my own circle of friends is so homogeneous (a worry to be sure), but also because it unearthed a previously un-noticed assumption I had about Scrabble.  Invented in Connecticut, in my unconscious mind I saw Scrabble as a white game.  It was a startling realization.

I never knew I held that thought.  Indeed, it never surfaced until I had contradictory evidence. As I saw my word game partners broadening and becoming wonderfully diverse, this bias rose from my unconscious.  I took the time to acknowledge the thought, felt more than a little ashamed of it, and then embraced the change in my point of view.  I eagerly look forward to the seeing the diversity of my online partners and the sense of commonality it engenders. This change was relatively easy to make because it was virtual, I could acknowledge the error of my ways privately, and because I care to change the biased assumptions I find buried in my mind. 

It was a simple thing to surface this bias. Seeing images of my partners fostered the discovery.  As I played this morning I noticed the diversity once again, and it reminded me to ask my colleagues who are busily preparing for the start of the fall semester to look at their course materials.  Are they wonderfully diverse?  I know you are rushing and making final edits to your syllabi, but can you take a moment to look at your readings, slides, films, and examples and see if you have been inclusive?  This simple step could be the start of uncovering all sorts of unconscious biases.

I know I have written about the inclusivity of course materials before, and it does bear repeating, but I would like to acknowledge another piece of the inclusion puzzle today.  You see, this morning’s reading of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle was not encouraging when it comes to our ability to create environments that support inclusion.  I won’t list all the recent articles, but here’s what is coming through loud and clear: In our efforts to be inclusive, we don’t seem to be successfully creating the space for the reflective process that I went through in the privacy of my home.  This missing piece appears to be fostering anger and defensiveness instead of reflection and inclusion.

Selecting course materials that reflect a breadth of cultural experiences and the contributions of the many is an excellent first step in creating an inclusive environment. It can encourage students and faculty to notice assumptions and, perhaps, reflect on biases they did not know they had.  This private reflection can be very productive.  We know from our attempts to use less gender-specific language (chair instead of chairman, firefighter instead of fireman) that the change in language can make our thinking more inclusive. Including diverse images and authors is likely to have a similar effect, so this is an effort worth making. However, once we start talking about it, well it is no longer a private process.  The conversation piece is much more threatening, particularly if the bias we discover is one that deeply offends our sense of self and/or the sensibilities of others in the room. 

Yet, the conversations are so important. We must figure out how to have them in ways that are not alienating.  We have to understand that while some of us have benefitted from “privilege,” we have not all benefitted equally.  Some of us have been so excluded that we don’t even know how to begin. And none of us is without bias. The variation in access to wealth and power and education means conversations about those privileges must be nuanced.  Entering discussions with all of this in mind is paramount to creating an environment in which conversations that address bias are about discovery, not accusation.

Now listen, I am not blind to the real structural racism that we are dealing with as a culture.  I understand the force with which we need to be seeking real change and asking for nuanced conversation is cold comfort for many.  However, as I scan the reports on higher education I am worried that we are skipping a step.  As educators, we need to create the space for reflection and the room to breathe as we all come to terms with each new hidden bias we discover.  

There will always be hidden biases.  Each new bias discovered opens the door to the next one, and that is a good thing.  It is, indeed, progress. But discovering them will always be uncomfortable. So we need to get better at this part, the part where we learn together without demeaning anyone. It is hard, but it is an effort worth making.

 

 

Dialogue, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

Small Measures: Using the Data

This morning I returned from my annual week in the woods to discover our institution’s National Survey of Student Engagement Report (NSSE) on my desk.  For the uninitiated, the NSSE compares student reported experiences of academic and other campus interactions both within group (comparing first-year to senior year-responses) and between colleges of similar types. Like all surveys, the NSSE is an imperfect measure, but it does reveal some potential points of pride and some areas we might improve on.  Since we invest in this survey as part of our institutional assessments, I am thinking that we ought to make some specific plans to use the information gathered.

First, the good news.  Our first-year and senior-year students are reporting spending more hours on reading and writing than the students from several of our peer institutions are, and many of our students report feeling challenged to do their best work.  Our seniors are completing culminating academic projects (a widely recognized high-impact practice) at a very high rate, and they value that experience.  Taking a long(ish) view of our NSSE data, there has been improvement in student reports on academic challenge for both first and senior year students and, although still not where we hope it would be, more of our students are reporting more quantitative reasoning opportunities in the curriculum.

By the time our students are seniors, they are reporting experiences with academics, peers, faculty, and the campus in terms that are roughly comparable to our peers.  There are a few plusses here, too.  Our seniors report that they are using good learning strategies, their faculty are using effective teaching practices, they have engaged in discussions “with diverse others,” and completed culminating and integrative educational experiences.

Unsurprisingly, there are real differences between our first-year and senior-year student responses.  Our first-year students are not convinced that we are using effective teaching practices, which may be a function of the transition from high school to college expectations.  In addition, our first-year students do not feel they are experiencing integrative learning opportunities, and they do not feel they are engaging in discussions with diverse others.

This interesting information.  We want our students to engage with difficult concepts, examine their worldviews, and be confident in their ability to learn both broadly and within their major.  Based on our NESSE data, this appears to be happening by senior year, but our first year students are not reporting this at all.

Over the past five years, WCSU has done a lot to make our goals transparent to our students. We have revised our general education curriculum to reflect common learning outcomes that we believe are essential to a liberal arts degree, published four-year plans, and added a first year navigation course.  Great.  Perhaps these steps account for some of the improvements in our NSSE scores overall.  However, we should not be satisfied yet, because our students are still not fully engaged with or aware of our great plans for their education.

Here’s a radical idea–let’s clarify things for our first-year students. Can we make those big ideas about their whole education visible to our students right from the start? Here are three suggestions to that might help us communicate our intentions more clearly.

  1. The First Year Course. Let’s build a couple of conversations about the holistic of a liberal arts degree into every FY course.  Part one of that conversation can focus on just describing the rationale behind the components of a degree (general education, major, minor/certifications) and the related experiences that might be considered enhancements (study-abroad, internships, etc.).  This conversation should take place prior to advising for the spring semester.  Part two could happen at the end of the semester. Take a moment to ask the students what they have learned.  Give them a writing prompt that encourages them to draw connections between their courses.  Then ask them to consider what they think they need to learn to make those connections more clear and encourage them to get those experiences in the next year.
  2. Introductory Courses. In all 100 level courses, let’s describe and discuss our pedagogical approach with our students.  We should not be repeating high school: college is different. We put more control into our students’ hands and we are more focused on questions than clear, short answers.  Let’s clue our students in to these new expectations with direct conversations about how the higher education environment should differ from their experiences with education.  Give them some direct examples of how this might work.  For example, show them the difference between a quiz for memorization and a quiz for integrative thinking.  Then they will know we have a plan and it is not to trick them. This might help students see our teaching strategies as effective at an earlier stage in their education. It might also help them build effective learning strategies.
  3. Everything Else. So, who about those conversations with diverse others?  This is both the easiest and hardest change to make.  It is easy because there is no subject that is not informed by experiences of different groups of people.  From the histories we tell, to access to the arts, to land use, or genetically modified foods, we have unique perspectives that deserve consideration.  As an institution, higher education is uniquely responsible for fostering conversations that examine these issues from many perspectives. It is our job to help our students develop skill in sorting through fact, opinion, and probabilities in thoughtful and civil ways.  It is hard to achieve this because sometimes our differences are complicated and intimidating and we are unsure of how to navigate the conflicts.  Still, we should be working to gain full participation in these conversations in every single course we teach. This means we must be intentional about fostering inclusive conversations and brave about addressing conflict.  It is a challenge, but I am certain we are up to this task.

If we take these steps, we might be able to close the difference between the impressions our first-year and senior-year students are having of their education.  Maybe we can engage them sooner so they can enjoy this experience from the start.

 

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?