Change, Engagement, equity, Higher Education

Active(ist) Learning

Well here we are.  In the midst of getting our minds around COVID-19, we have a resurgence of an old plague – racism (thanks to my colleague for that framing).  It seems unbelievable that this could happen while we are all still reeling from the trauma of quarantine. But it is not unbelievable to those who have been on the receiving end of our clearly codified structural biases. Indeed, we should not be surprised at all.  This is not new, and the current quarantine has only enhanced the visibility of the cracks in our socio-economic system.

As I have mentioned in other essays, COVID-19 made obvious the differential experiences of education that we have been complicit in supporting.  In March, as we deployed laptops and hotspots to our neediest students, I wondered why we had neglected this until now.  Why had we been comfortable knowing that our neediest students were required to come to campus (own a car, pay for gas) and forgo opportunities to earn money (give up shifts so they can access our open computer labs) in order to fully access their education? We were perpetuating systemic inequities. Those same students are also unlikely to have the opportunity to

  • win awards because they will not be able to participate in our co-curricular activities, which are the foundations of most awards.
  • do an internship because they need to work to support themselves while in college; or
  • participate in a faculty research project because it will require even more time on campus, time they cannot give.

These pieces of our “meritocracy” are entirely rigged against the struggling students who are mere mortals, as opposed to the superstars we always hold up as examples of what can happen with hard work. I will not go over all of the ways in which the paths to higher education are also rigged against the have-nots.  We all know this, and we should be ashamed that we let it stand. For students of limited means, being a successful college student is nothing short of miraculous.

Yet, our less advantaged students do succeed every day. They juggle the demands of work and school, and they accept the realities of the things they cannot afford. We work hard to help–despite the barriers I have described above.  As we see the barriers, we try to address them. But we are too slow. So is our culture.  Hence the roar of anger, dismay, and pain that we are hearing in our streets.

While it would be easy for me to throw up my hands and say, I cannot think about this right now because COVID-19 is taking my every waking moment, I will not do so.  I must not shy away from a thoughtful response.  Like the people in the streets, members of my community have suffered the endless indignities of a system rigged against them, and they deserve a response. So here it is–I am proposing direct instruction in the tools that can help our students to change the world.

Proposal 1: Let’s reimagine our first year courses. At WCSU, FY courses are a combination of an extended orientation (which is an important step toward equity) and an introduction to a discipline or set of disciplines. We can do better.  Let’s skip the intro to the discipline and focus on debate skills instead. Our students need to practice gathering and presenting evidence, responding to counter-evidence, and understanding multiple points of view. Standing up and presenting one’s case will be excellent preparation for their undergraduate studies and for advocating for their ideas after they graduate. We can build in the orientation piece, but the heart of the course should be honing debate skills.

Proposal 2: Let’s adopt a second year experience that focuses on developing and advocating for policy change. There is room for this in every discipline, but we could also cluster things around special topics. Sophomore year is a great time to do this, so students can understand the connections between policies and their majors.  Think of all the future educators looking at the structure of education while learning about pedagogy. Or the chemistry majors who might partner with our environmental sciences students to develop a path to environmentally responsible invention. And, of course, our students aspiring to careers in justice and law professions might truly delve into the persistent inequities in how our laws are applied.

Proposal 3: Establish a center for policy research that is powered by faculty, embedded in courses, and connected to the relevant political arenas.  Our students can be actively engaged, serving as lead investigators or research assistants as appropriate.  Making policy research part of our required classes will remove a barrier to participation, because it will be on a student’s schedule. We can harness the varied ideas of our students and faculty, who are not uniformly left- or right-leaning in their perspectives. This will help us keep our proposals grounded in the possible. And in a state the size of Connecticut, we will have real opportunities to get these proposals into the right hands.

All of this could be done quickly.  We could just say “let’s do it” and move to logistics instead of engaging in our usual, drawn-out debates. It is not that I do not value those debates, but there is no time for that right now. We must take action. We must prepare our students to take on the hard questions, eyes wide open, and we must instill in them the confidence they need to try to change the world.  We can evaluate and adjust the strategies I have proposed as the flaws emerge (and I know they will). That is good practice. But right now, we need to act, and these proposals are a good enough start.

We (I) will be vilified, of course. Everyone hates it when higher education is political, and this is political. But, as I learned in an undergraduate history class long ago, to do nothing is also political. This proposal is not about teaching students to support a single point of view. It is a proposal in support of the development of the skills necessary for active engagement with important societal questions.  I am pretty sure that was one of the points of education in the first place.

 

Higher Education

Hope and Renewal

Education is organized around clear beginnings and endings.  We associate those beginnings with resolve and optimism.  Faculty have freshly written syllabi and lofty goals for their students.  Students dream of getting their habits right and succeeding in all of their courses.  Administrators like me, hope that a new year will prove the success  of our initiatives as we try to improve the quality of the educational experience and support those dreams of success.

But what about the endings? Though sometimes tinged with a sense of melancholy as we close our books and call it a semester, they are a welcome point of relief.  After all, it is  the endings that give us a moment to reflect on our successes and failures, rest, and re-group.  While I sometimes consider restructuring the use of time in higher education, and potentially the use of summers in more intentional ways,  I never consider losing the pauses that are our endings.  They are absolutely necessary.

Then there is the biggest ending of all, graduation. Last weekend, WCSU congratulated nearly a thousand students who had reached their goals and earned their degrees. I love the commencement ceremony.  Many of our students are the first in their families to  attend college.  Their successes are celebrated by many family members cheering them on in the arena.  Others were like me, coming from several generations of college graduates, and equally proud of getting to that finish line. It is all smiles and handshakes and joy.  And then, well, then what?

As an administrator, my friends often ask me what I do all summer.  They are confused by the fact that I don’t have that beloved summer break that is part of the faculty life.   (Don’t worry faculty colleagues, I know it isn’t all break for you.)  Well, here is what I  tend to get up to.  I move from that arena stage at commencement to annual reports, taking stock of how we did this  year.  Have we made improvements in our efforts to support students on their way to that commencement stage?  What can we do better  next year?  Where are we still falling short? The summer is my opportunity to regroup.

It is both an exhilarating and daunting task to examine and assess our efforts each year. There are many great stories in annual reports from departments and deans.  I will learn about new curricula, faculty scholarship, student success in research or graduate school and I will be impressed.  Then I will look to see if any of the interventions designed to improve our ability to retain and graduate students has improved our outcomes.  It’s a deep dive into both qualitative and quantitative measures, as I attempt to develop a comprehensive understanding of how we are doing as a university.

But I don’t start with the  reports. I usually start by reading some inspiring story of   possibilities.  This year that story was Saundra Yancy McGuire’s, Teach Students How to Learn.  Her career as a chemistry educator and student learning center director is inspiring.  The strategies she details on how to help students take control of  their  learning are simple and elegant.  They don’t require fancy technology, just clarity and a little persuasive data.  They are scalable, and if successfully leveraged, have the power to  dramatically improve those pesky retention and graduation numbers.  I am inspired.

And that’s how I like to read all of the reports, in a state of inspiration, optimism, and hope.  We won’t have met all my goals for this year, because those goals are challenging.  But we will have made some progress.  I will see the little impacts and find new opportunities for improvement.  I will be able to celebrate the innovations in classes and in student support services that are slowly moving us forward.  I will be proud of the  many small stories that add up to a great commencement ceremony.  And then I will make plans to do better next year, because I will feel inspired and hopeful.

And really, that is what I am struck by every year at our commencement ceremony, the truly awesome sense of  hope that is at the  heart of education.  From pre-school to doctorate, each time we  engage in learning, we are acting on the optimistic assumption that learning will help us do better and be better.  From pre-school to doctorate, each time we engage in teaching we are acting on the optimistic assumption that the understandings we discover with our students will help us support an educated person with the  power to create new knowledge and navigate a complex society.  From pre-school to doctorate, each time our society invests in the structures that support these educational experiences and contexts, we are acting on the optimistic assumption that access to education is the foundation of a fair and just society, where all citizens have the opportunity to thrive.

These are the expressions of  hope I see each year as I shake those many hands on the  arena stage.  These are the feelings of hope I have as I review the year just completed in preparation for plan for an even better next year. It is the rhythm of education and it is a very good idea.