Inclusion

False Dichotomies

Over the last few weeks, I have been in several conversations about the impact of career focused education on the liberal arts. Some conversations focus on tradition (we’ve always taught this), which neglects the ways in which disciplines and departments have evolved over the last two centuries (we haven’t always taught this). Others suggest that professionally oriented majors lack flexibility in a changeable world of work, ignoring that fact that, with the exception of students who enroll in certificate programs only, our career focused degrees are part of a liberal arts program. Finally, there is an argument that prioritizing career focused educational pathways creates a kind of caste system in higher education, with access to the benefits of a liberal arts education being preserved for the lucky few at more elite universities. This framing reveals deeply held biases about what qualifies as liberal arts (and therefore a quality degree) which are pervasive in higher education.

Let’s start with the obvious: Liberal Arts education offers an important path to lifelong learning. Foundations in writing, speaking, and quantitative reasoning are necessary to navigate the worlds in which we live. Indeed, the digital realities we all navigate require clear and effective communication more than ever before. It is not enough for college graduates to know how to write clear sentences and to decode reports of trends that are presented in mathematical forms. They must now have a rich understanding of how rhetoric works, in writing, speaking, and in visual forms, so they can defend themselves from the faulty arguments that surround many important decisions.

Beyond these foundations, it is imperative that our students have at least a basic grasp of how different disciplines define truth. Students need to understand the tentative nature of truth – tied to the moment and destined to change. They need to understand that artists, historians, social scientists, and physicists all arrive at truth (or facts) in different ways. The understanding of these ways of knowing offers ways to resist misinformation and fanaticism. The need for this kind of learning is why our degrees (two- and four-year) have some number of courses devoted to general education. This is where we learn that different disciplines see the world differently. This is how all students are introduced to habits of mind that the liberal arts can bring.

After general education, we guide our students into majors, trying to match them with subjects that let them build greater insight into a specific perspective. We are agnostic about this, recognizing that most people change careers numerous times, by plan or by fate, and the ability to think clearly, do some research, and be flexible when approaching new problems or ideas are the most important outcomes of any major. We urge our students to find the right fit for them and enjoy it, because we know that deeper learning comes from a passion for a discipline. We know that whatever that fit is, it will help our students build their lives after they graduate.

All of this is to say that yes, degrees should be grounded in the liberal arts. Yes, we should be careful not to reduce our programs to just the professional pathways. However, the suggestion that universities and colleges engaging in promoting career pathways, certificates, short programs, etc., are undermining liberal arts education, reveals a very narrow vision of what a well-rounded liberal arts education includes.

Let me be clear. Elite schools are not ignoring these short-term credentials. Every day in my news feeds I see ads for digital media certificates and coding boot camps and executive format certificates in leadership, management, and so on. These ads are from elite universities, including UCONN (our flagship university in CT), Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, etc. These universities either see these as complementary to the degrees they are offering, or they may see them as alternate revenue streams. Either way, they do not seem to suggest that the offering of such opportunities is somehow oppositional to a quality, liberal arts education.

Such programs might also provide important opportunities to students at community colleges and regional, access-oriented, comprehensive universities. Offering short-term, stackable credentials can give students earning power while they are pursuing their undergraduate degrees. Since so many students need to work while they are studying, these opportunities might make that work more interesting or at least more lucrative. Short, focused credentials or certificates can also enhance those very liberal arts majors that we care so deeply about. Weaving these kinds of things into our offerings might help our students see the path from a literature or communication or biology degree to any number of careers. These are opportunities to connect the dots and explore the ways that any degree can lead to interesting career trajectories.

In addition to the concerns about certificates and such, there is a persistent framing of programs like business, health care, or technology focused degrees as somehow lesser than more traditional liberal arts disciplines (history, philosophy, or literature, for example). If you look at the curriculum in our professionally oriented programs you will see that they are all grounded in the liberal arts, rely on the thinking that our general education curriculum introduces, and apply those very skills and habits of mind to specific contexts. Not only do our Justice and Law Administration majors take introductory courses in Political Science and Psychology, but they also take those ideas to the many contexts of the criminal justice system. Students in Social Work are applying concepts introduced in Anthropology and Sociology to their work, bringing them to life in professional settings. And our health care students rely on foundations in Social Sciences, Biology, and Communication to build an understanding about the differences between health information and the social structures that shape how healthcare is perceived and received.

In other words, professional programs are the applications of the ideas introduced in our foundational liberal arts courses. Those foundations are not going away, even as the majors we offer change and evolve. Our professional programs are satisfying the interests and career aspirations of our students, while still helping them develop the habits of mind that support lifelong learning. Suggesting that these are lesser experiences devalues the work of these applied disciplines and the interests and ambitions of our students. It also fails to recognize that the degrees and certificates that are more clearly linked to a career are extensions of the ideas learned in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines. They aren’t separate; they are liberal arts in context.

So, I agree that liberal arts degrees matter. Certificates or narrowly focused career programs should be part of a building block to the broader liberal arts degree. If some people need to stop there at first, for whatever reason, it is up to us to make the path to the liberal arts degrees clear and easy to follow when the time is right. But framing career focused education as separate from or lesser than the liberal arts is not a productive position at all.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Reflection

What is College for?

When you transition from faculty to administration, you tend to go to conferences focused on institutional questions – assessment, retention, general education, equity, and so on. It is not often that a dean or provost has the opportunity to attend a conference in their discipline, so it is wonderful treat when we do. This past weekend, I spent some time with friends old and new at the annual conference of the Institute of General Semantics, and thoroughly enjoyed the thinking it provoked.

General Semantics is one of the roots of the development of the field communication. It focuses on how language shapes our realities and how a more precise use of language might improve our understandings of all that we encounter. Inspired by Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, general semantics asks us to consider the frames our words are setting (and therefore what is outside of the frame), the level of detail we are choosing (and therefore what details we will ignore), and the impact of time on what we are defining (noting that people and things change from time 1 to time 2). There’s much more, of course, but at its core, this is an optimistic field; there is an assumption that we can improve our circumstances, relationships, and experiences through a more precise and thoughtful examination of the words we use.

IGS attracts an eclectic group of artists, philosophers, mathematicians, and communication scholars. Making sense of the myriad ideas and arguments presented is often a challenge because of that diversity. I enjoyed the presentations by people most closely aligned with my field, particularly Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker’s observations about the links between flashmobs and the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Drucker’s expertise in law and language was particularly compelling. I was also intrigued by the work of Eva Berger as she explored ideas about the ways in which ideas of the self are reshaped (erased?) by the focus on the performative self (selfies and TikTok). Her arguments evoke the work of Marshall McLuhan in the linking of our media not just to cultural practice but to the development of the biological self. But as I endeavored to understand the work presented by the scientists, mathematicians, and artists there, I found myself leaping to the institutional questions that are my focus as an administrator.

The ability to make sense of ideas and arguments developed in diverse contexts from varied perspectives seems to me to be the fundamental purposes of education. We start with our children, explaining that there are clusters of ideas called history, science, literature, religion, and so on, and those ideas explore different questions about the world. In teaching them that these are distinct categories, we put a frame around clusters of learning, helping to organize paths to understanding within those frames.

We also (inadvertently) erect the barriers to connecting ideas across fields. It is rare that we make the space for our K-12 educators to bridge the divides between fields, as we have organized them into class times devoted to each topic. On occasion, a school will coordinate learning in a connected way – by selecting literature, history, and religious texts of the same era across classes. A very creative school might also find a way to weave science into this strategy, but mostly, we separate science from this kind of thinking. We quickly discover that we have not just organized clusters of ideas, we’ve established things called disciplines.

In higher education, we follow the same pattern, dividing things by discipline and major. We are exceedingly proud of ourselves when we manage to link the topics in two courses together, but most of the time students experience their education in course-based structures, occasionally making connections to other courses. This habit of dividing up the learning territory is deemed a necessary element of education, in order to give adequate attention to detail in one’s area of expertise. Surely there is an element of truth to that need, but as I worked hard to draw connections between ideas at the IGS conference, I wondered if we were overdoing those divisions.

Higher education has been reflecting on those divisions of late, most often under two conditions: interdisciplinarity and austerity. These conditions are not mutually exclusive. Interdisciplinarity of subjects seems to be emerge fields evolve. At WCSU, we have a relatively new degree in Digital and Interactive Media Arts, which draws together expertise in film and video, graphic design, and computer science (three separate departments). Professions associated with digital media evolved in such a way that these disciplines had to collaborate to better serve our students. We also have a degree called Interdisciplinary Studies that allows students to make connections for themselves. A student in Justice and Law Administration, for example, may wish to reimagine their degree with connections to history or literature. These new combinations may help us see the emergence of new areas of expertise or just demonstrate the eclectic ways that ideas can come together.

Under conditions of austerity, we see waning interests in long established disciplines driving thinking about new combinations of ideas and disciplines. This change is more disconcerting than those that come when we see new patterns of interest. The apparent loss of interest in any discipline is disheartening at best. I won’t try to pretend that it is easy to move from that loss to invention; it is not. But in those losses there is the opportunity to remind ourselves that all disciplines have emerged from other disciplines, and all have changed over time. Perhaps, we are not so much at a moment of loss, but instead, we are undoing the borders (walls/silos) we have created.

What would be even more exciting, though, is not just to engage in the slow process of realignment of ideas and expertise into new combinations. That is exciting, to be sure, with lots of room for interesting collaborations. But perhaps this moment is an opportunity to be more bold and try to reorganize college around the connections between ideas, instead of separations.

I think that connecting ideas might be what we wanted to have happen in the first place, but we got distracted by the names of subjects and structures of departments. K-12 did the work of establishing the broad categories of learning, the map of knowledge if you will. College is the opportunity to help our students understand just how far those categories are from the lived experience of trying to understand anything at all. Experience always reveals that a single disciplinary perspective will help us solve nothing at all.

Those useful maps of disciplines that allow our partners in primary and secondary education lay a foundation for learning are not very useful after those foundations are in place. Just as the alphabet must disappear if we are to achieve fluency as readers, so should the disciplinary boundaries disappear if we are to become fluent thinkers. Maybe college is where we can learn that the map of knowledge we have encountered so far, is not the territory in which we live and learn at all.

Evaluation, Quality

Assessment is fun?

In 2006, when I was an assistant professor on the tenure track, I wrote an essay that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Those were the early(ish) days of the assessment movement in higher education and I was feeling the pain. The essay was really meant as an homage to the faculty in my doctoral program who had taught me to love playing with ideas. The loss I was feeling was what I described in that essay as the loss of the chance to wander. Specifying my learning outcomes seemed to rein in that wandering to the detriment of a good Socratic learning experience.

Well, as luck would have it, I wrote that little essay at the same time that the Spellings Report was released. My essay was attached to the back of a special section devoted to the work of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the Chronicle gave my essay the title, “Taking All the Fun Out of Education.” I received a lot of feedback, mostly from other faculty feeling frustrated with the too many rules that assessment seemed to be creating. I also heard from my boss and found myself in charge of assessment in my discipline and then my school shortly thereafter. That’s what complaining will get you.

Since that time, I have moved into administrative roles and the largest part of my job is assessment. When I served as the Dean of Arts & Sciences I was responsible for making sure that every program had an assessment plan and that the plan was followed. As Provost, I’ve expanded my focus from the assessment of programs to the assessment of general education, the development and assessment of university outcomes, and the appropriate measures of our academic success programs. I read numerous program review reports every year, serve on visiting teams for university accreditation, and coordinate the writing of our institutional self-study. It is assessment all day every day.

Today I embrace assessment in ways that I did not in 2006. There is value in setting goals at the course level, in the major, for the whole degree, or for a specific program, if those goals are not overly complicated. When faculty and program administrators take the time to define those goals, they invite us to consider the best strategies for achieving them. The goals are an invitation to start conversations about teaching strategies and the outcomes we value most as a university. They are an invitation to share ideas with our colleagues and to engage the robust literature about innovative and inclusive pedagogies. They are also a clear path to articulating our value to students, families, and the larger publics we serve.

I see the value and even the positive impact that assessment can have when our goals are not overly prescriptive. We do need to make room for some wandering, some inspiration, and some innovation. If we set very narrowly defined goals, we will stop all of that good stuff from happening. Still, there are some things that students must know. Chemists should know enough to keep laboratory work safe and productive. Nurses must know how treatments interact to protect the health of the patient. Musicians need to understand the scales that underpin the compositions they are creating. Historians need to understand the process of vetting information as they place it in a context for describing connections between events. Yes, there are some basics that might well be measured in traditional exams with right and wrong answers. This stuff is important.

But there are lots of places where our goals are broader and perhaps even more important. These goals are about the perspectives each discipline can offer, forms of reasoning to be cultivated, cultural awareness to be explored, the ability to communicate effectively, and the ability to weave new information and experiences into a defensible worldview. These goals need to be assessed, because they are the heart of an undergraduate degree. They help us describe the value we add to the lives of our students in terms that we recognize as important and meaningful. Assessment for the broader goals is more nuanced than an exam, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. The key is focusing on a few important examples, not on everything.

But you know all of this already. The point I am trying to make is that using our assessments to refine our strategies can actually be rewarding. Seeing the impact of a change in curriculum or pedagogy or other interventions can be thrilling, especially when the results are improved outcomes. Letting that strategy go when it isn’t yielding results is also rewarding. It settles a question and helps us move on. The critical thing is not just the doing of assessment, it is using our results.

I’m not grumbling about assessment anymore (although I still want to protect time to wander through ideas). We shouldn’t overdo it, because then it will overwhelm us, and it will lose its value. But we must be sure to fully reflect on the results. We need to carve out time for the conversations that should ensue in departments, on committees, and with the full university after each assessment occurs. It is in those conversations that we will find paths to improvement. It is in those conversations that we will continue to develop our visions for great learning experiences. It is in those conversations that we might have some fun.

Higher Education, Return on Investment, Workforce Development

The Details: Education & Employers

A series of events last week led me to participate in several conversations about the alignment of our university’s program offerings with Connecticut’s workforce needs. These conversations are not new, nor are they surprising. Since our founding in 1913, WCSU has been responding to the needs of the region by growing our program offerings, assessing their quality, and evolving as new discoveries and career paths emerge. Our professional programs align with industry standards and our more broadly liberal arts offerings provide ample opportunity for students to explore the many paths open to them, through research, internships, service learning, and so on. Call it workforce development, career preparation, or access to the American Dream – this is what we do.

Still, I was struck by the confluence of initiatives coming from all corners, so I spent a few hours reading a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, Building Tomorrow’s Workforce: What employers want you to know. In this compilation of interviews with business leaders and career development professionals in higher education there were some important observations about the complexity of aligning education with what employers say they want. There were also some important gaps in the conversations. Those gaps reflect some important details that we all need to understand.

First, not all workforce needs are equal and conflating them is not satisfying for anyone. In our region of the country and elsewhere, there is a pressing demand for an expanded workforce in healthcare. At a four-year university, the pathways to much of this work is through the nursing degree and allied health programs. At two-year colleges, there are opportunities to become Certified Nursing Assistants, phlebotomists, EMTs, and to earn the first level nursing credential. Each of these paths are great opportunities for students and all of them will lead to employment. They are appropriately tiered in terms of the return on investment, with a relatively low-cost for CNA, phlebotomy, and EMT, and somewhat more for the two-year degree, and more for the four-year degree. All of this makes sense in terms of opportunities for graduates and meeting regional workforce needs.

But we can’t keep up with demand. CNAs move on quickly so there is a need for constant replenishment. EMTs are only compensated in some scenarios, so there is some instability there. Nursing programs are working hard to educate as many students as they can, but there are limits on the number of clinical sites, which slows the pipeline. In other words, the education we provide is aligned with the regional workforce needs, but a combination of factors external to higher education is making it hard to keep up with demand.

Then there is the ever-present need for people who understand all things related to computers and the internet. From coding, to cybersecurity, to web development, the demand is clear. The shortfall in appropriately skilled people has led to boot camps, free online programs, the dropping of degree requirements in favor of tests of competence, etc. These short paths to entering reasonably compensated positions is not a bad thing. The industries making these moves are supporting the preparation necessary for entry level opportunities that can be good for the people who take advantage of them.

But, then they want the rest of what we offer — the maturity, the critical thinking, the collaboration and problem-solving skills, and even the understanding of the nuances of cultures — and those short-term credentials don’t get students there. Employers also frequently need the more extensive education in computer science and cybersecurity that we provide. Certainly, those more robust skills and understandings are the path from entry level to more advanced positions. Without them, those short-term credentials may ultimately limit opportunities, rather than grow them.

Universities and colleges do revise and adapt as quickly as we can, but in technology fields new things emerge at a pace that is breathtaking. The short-term paths may be good opportunities for our students, if the employers will also create paths to the rest of the educational opportunities we provide. Support for continued education for those who come through those boot camps would be a great place to start.

What about the degrees we offer that don’t neatly align with a single career trajectory? Well, most jobs require combinations of skills and attitudes that are not aligned with particular majors and a plethora of studies about “what employers want” keep identifying the essential learning outcomes of a liberal arts degree. We do that well. Still, there are some components of positions that a specific course or two might address. For example, there is a high demand for graduates who can support social media sites, so some grounding in how websites work and how to analyze interaction within them might be useful. Many places need people who are able to interpret and communicate about basic quantitative data, so a statistics class is in order. Then there are the many jobs that ask for employees who are adept at interacting with diverse populations of people (in the workplace and in the community). Those skills can come from any number of courses and experiences in our classrooms and in the internships we hope that many organizations will provide. We can be more intentional about promoting these combinations of skills to our students; we hope that employers will make these skills visible in their recruitment language.

The popular perception that higher education is somehow averse to supporting workforce development couldn’t be further from the truth. But supporting the workforce needs of a state is a collaboration. Employers need to understand the barriers we face in meeting their expectations quickly. Limited opportunities for clinical placements make it difficult for us to increase the desired educational pipelines (healthcare, mental health, social work, etc.). Financial realities often make it difficult for students to take advantage of internships. The pace of technological development makes it difficult to re-imagine curriculum quickly. We are not being obstinate; we just face some practical challenges.

These are the kinds of details that need constant attention as we strive to provide the best opportunities for our students and for our region. They are tricky details, but not insurmountable. We are happy to partner up and sort them out. Let’s talk.

Engagement, Hope, Resilience

Skeptical Optimism

It is raining today in Connecticut. The children waiting for the school buses this morning were clad in rain jackets and protective parents held their umbrellas over their impossible to still children. Cars plowed through the puddles creating splashes that made those efforts to stay dry futile anyway. No matter, everyone was smiling. We are grateful for this wonderful replenishing rain.

Long strings of sunny days are a wonderful thing, but we all know that without the rain we perish. The soil needs moisture, and so do we. Sometimes, we even need the break from activity that the rain might postpone. Rain not only nourishes, but it balances us, and makes us question our devotion to blue skies.

I know, I’m going on too long about the rain (I’m just so happy to see it), but it has got me thinking about the kind of balance we try to achieve in all educational settings. We are charged with educating our students about all manner of things – things that are complicated, things that don’t have clear answers, things that are impressive, but not yet done. This is an exciting and daunting responsibility that requires us to be able to celebrate both the sun and the rain.

Consider the work that science faculty must do. Discoveries in science require theories, hypotheses, experiments, results, new hypotheses, and ultimately new theories. All of this is natural for scientists; they see no problem with this cycle. For the uninitiated, though, the certainty of scientific results is shaken by any real understanding of this process. All scientists and students of science must find ways to embrace the temporary nature of our certainty. Each new breakthrough is a miracle that should be celebrated, but also distrusted. For those who find the balance, the path to the next set of questions is the win. They find a way to enjoy the wins (and the knowledge generated by the losses), while maintaining the absolutely necessary skepticism about what they think they know.

Then there are faculty charged with educating our future artists. Learning to be an artist requires a balance of technique, inspiration, and context. Faculty and students in the arts move from the position of the paintbrush, the horn, the toe, to the traditions of the genre, to the reinvention of the rules, often in the same sentence. For the uninitiated, though, art is all opinion and talent, without any of that hard work or precision. In fact, the most successful artists make all of the hard work invisible. The challenge for faculty is not just about convincing students to do the hard work, (counteracting the cultural narrative), it is also about doing so in a way that makes room for the inspiration and yes, talent. The critiques that are central to the creative process must help students find their way to excellence, not make them feel lesser. It is a balance of celebrating success and finding the path forward from the failures.

Ok, I’ve stalled long enough; then there is history. By history, I mean the history of everything-social structures, political structures, art and invention. Oh boy, how we’ve politicized this! Whenever we are charged with guiding students through the past to where we are today, we are going to be stepping into some tricky waters. Our histories are full of awe-inspiring moments. I’m particularly happy about the revolutions that were supported by the invention of the printing press (things like the way we do science, the way we imagine individual and human rights, the way in which governments are formed, come to mind). Understanding the importance of contact between different groups of people, how their ideas about right, wrong, medicine, or art interact with each other is both fascinating and sometimes unsettling. There are exciting tales to tell. But of course, there are no histories or societies without great achievements and great failures.

For those in the humanities and the social sciences, this is obvious. They are adept at examining the complexities of how right, or good, or even success is defined. They are also adept at seeing problems in our assumptions and places where work still needs to be done (and work always needs to be done). It is incredibly important that they have open and honest conversations with their students about the good, the bad, and the ugly that we find in our histories and social structures. They must be fair about the ambiguity in what they see and acknowledge that the meanings ascribed today are likely to change tomorrow as we learn more and expand our thinking. They work to elicit thoughtful critiques and ideas from their students and wrestle with the contradictions those observations may reveal. And, like their colleagues in science and in art, it is important that they help their students find the joy in the good stuff and the path to improvement for the not so great stuff – perhaps with some inspiration and talent.

Eboo Patel describes some of what I’m trying to get at in his essay: Teach Students to Be Builders, not Critics. Patel argues that criticism only goes so far, students need a path to action. I agree with this, although I think more of this is happening in our classrooms than is widely understood. Still, it is a good reminder that as we insist on the fullness of conversations that should happen in all of our disciplines, conversations that must include the failures and the successes, we should always help our students imagine themselves building something better. It is a balance of skepticism and optimism that we hope to strike.

So, I’m back to the rain. Some will curse it as their plans are cancelled, but most of us recognize the essential role it plays in our lives. Those streams we swim in are re-filled, those forests we walk through are lush again, that day of rest from our ballgame is healing our muscles. We can embrace the balance of sun and rain. Let’s also embrace that balance of the great and the awful in our histories and our capacity to grow; the discoveries that cure our ills and and the knowledge gained from those that ended in disaster; the inspirations that brought forth breaktaking new performances and those that resulted in giant ugly messes, from which new inspiration will certainly arise.

Embracing failures, mistakes, and limits are all essential to learning. So is the excitement of being able to see the next question, the place for improvement, the path forward when nothing seems to be working. Dedicated faculty all over the world are starting the fall term, striving to achieve the right balance between those essential pieces of a good education. Balancing them is the complexity and the joy of this profession. It is the sun and the rain.