Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Celebration as Learning

At the recent FYE Conference in Orlando, Kurt Penner from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver, British Columbia presented a session on how First-Year Experience programs can use "celebration" as a supplement to their offerings, particularly at the end of the first year.  This got me thinking about how celebration could be used as a pedagogical tool so I started a small conversation among colleagues in Utah where I work and live.  The general consensus was that celebration might be a good thing, but it would depend on how it is done.  

One comment in our discussion was particularly thought provoking.  Gary Daynes, a friend and the Associate Provost for Integrative Learning at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah raised questions about how meaningless most celebrations have become and used the myriad award shows that we see on TV these days.  While I would agree that most of the award ceremonies that we see in the media (think of the Oscars the other night where 25 awards were given, but most of us really only cared about 5 of them--and how many Americans even know what "cinematography" is?) have become dog and pony shows, I do believe that strategic and intentional celebrations can lead to meaningful learning and reflection for students.  My reasons are outlined below:

1.  Ritualistic closure presents opportunities for learning and growth.  Effective celebrations become rituals that, when timed in a strategic way, can bring closure to a meaningful experience while also serving as a springboard for what is to come, or the "next step" as it were.  Commencement exercises at colleges and universities are an excellent example of this.  During commencement students celebrate the end of their academic journey, are reminded of various aspects of the experience (e.g. challenges faced/overcome, knowledge gained, relationships developed), and then invited to consider how their 4 years of scholarship have prepared them to "commence" the next step in their journey, whether that is graduate school, work, raising a family, or anything else they might choose to do.  I may be going out on a limb with this one, but a marriage might also be considered a ritualistic celebration that "closes" one chapter and promotes reflection on the next--a couple celebrate the end of their courtship, recall experiences they have had together and the characteristics they value in each other, and then look forward to their future life together.  Well-timed and thoughtful rituals like these and others bring tremendous opportunities for reflection, meaning-making, and learning.  Even more, it isn't empty learning that is stored away on a shelf--the participants are engaged in considering how what they have learned or experienced makes a difference in what they will do and become.  (For a thoughtful discussion of the role rituals play on college campuses, you might consider reading Peter Magolda's essay in Anthropology & Education Quarterly)

2.  Celebrations can recognize and reinforce behaviours that lead to good learning.  When student/faculty awards are included in first-year celebrations, organizers help stakeholders involved in the first-year to identify and consider those behaviours that promote deep and meaningful learning.  This is an appropriate time to reconsider the Oscars as a poor example of this sort of celebration.  The problem with award ceremonies in Hollywood is that (1) there are far too many awards given, effectively decreasing the prestige of all but the top awards (e.g. best actor/actress, etc.) and (2) those giving the awards don't articulate clearly why a particular actress or film is being recognized so unless someone has seen the film and has some film background they never really learn what, for example, good sound editing looks (or sounds) like.  Effective celebrations not only recognize good performance, but help the rest of the community better understand why the performance is good.  Hearing well-told stories about individuals being recognized (stories that highlight the behaviours we wish to reinforce) are a good way of driving this sort of learning.

3.  Celebration builds community.  Bringing students together to celebrate one another's achievements, hear stories about challenges and struggles, and recognize meaningful learning can connect them to each other and to our campuses.  These interactions can remind members of the campus community of our shared experiences and encourage us to support one another as we move towards becoming communities of scholars.  Ritualistic practices like fight songs, iconic images from campus, stories about founders, etc. also help revive feelings of pride and respect for the institution.  Things like this frequently occur at our orientations and again at graduation, but there is a dearth of such practices in the gap between those two bookends.  While large gatherings like what occur at the two ends of the college experience are things that probably cannot and should not be replicated.  Smaller-scale celebrations during the "in-between" times could enhance the sense of community on campuses.

4.  Celebrations communicate messages about what an institution values.  When an institution invites members of its community to gather together for a common experience, it communicates a set of values to the participants.  Furthermore, students learn about what we value by the number and type of gatherings we promote.  Consider the gatherings we see most often on the campuses of large research universities.  While only anecdotal, the three types of celebrations I see are athletic events, faculty lectures focused on research, and large-scale social events that feel like parties.  None of these things are inherently negative; however, when students see these celebrations they learn about what the institution values:  high-profile athletics, scholarly work, and "good times".  With no celebrations of student learning to balance the rest of our celebrations, there is danger that students will pick up on the theory in use (John Tagg, The Learning Paradigm College, 2003) and lose sight of our true institutional missions (Tagg would call this the espoused theory)--learning and becoming.  Effective academic celebrations will communicate to students that we value meaningful learning, effort, civic engagement that draws upon the knowledge we gain at our institutions, and the overcoming of challenges.  

What does all of this mean?
The answer that comes to my mind immediately is "I don't know" because the implications of these ideas probably look very different depending on what campus we might find ourselves on (I also recognize that there are a lot of flaws in my thinking surrounding this issue and hesitate to make any broad statements about what should happen on any given campus, especially my own).  With that disclaimer, I do believe that we could be a little more thoughtful about the celebrations we design for our first-year students.  I've outlined some basic principles that might be helpful--embedded rituals, recognition of good learning, and institutional values--so I won't say much more about those things, but I would like to close with a warning.  As faculty and administrators, there is a danger that the celebrations we design will become what students might see as "too academic".  It is important that these celebrations are at least a little bit like the celebrations we experience outside of our jobs (e.g. birthdays, parties, etc.).  That's not to say that these celebrations should look or feel like what we already see on our campuses (the ones planned by Student Affairs units where we give out lots of free food and play loud music).  As academic affairs professionals we have a responsibility to find a balance where the celebrations we organize are enjoyable enough that people will actually come, but thoughtful enough that they really lead to learning.  As far as I can tell we have lots to do in that area.  

No comments: