Monday, March 23, 2009

Millcreek's Fading Civility

I'm going to break from my customary style and comment on something not directly related to higher education or learning (although I do think those of us in that field can learn something from the situation I will describe here).

I grew up in East Millcreek, a small township southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.  Millcreek was settled by Mormon pioneers who were drawn to the area by the resources of the creek that flows from the nearby Canyon (now known as Millcreek Canyon).  The area gained its name because of the variety of mills that sprang up along the creek.  It was these mills and the local orchards that supported the families that settled in Millcreek.  These were hard-working, blue-collar families that relied upon the creek and each other to survive.  In talking to long-time residents of the community (many who remember the days of operating mills and large orchards) there is very real sense that early Millcreek residents understood what it meant to be a neighbor.  They believed very strongly that how they lived their invidual lives and the decisions they made, had an impact upon the family down the road and the community as a whole.  

Millcreek has changed quite drastically in the last 10 years.  Because of good schools, quiet streets, and beautiful views of the foothills (among many other things) more and more people are "discovering" the area and purchasing homes.  This is a good thing.  Communities need new members and the ideas, young energy, and vibrancy they bring with them.  However, when an individual or family relocates to a new city or neighborhood, they are not just purchasing a new home, but becoming part of a new community.  With this comes a responsibility to seek to understand the history, traditions, and culture of that community.  That isn't to say that new members of a group should blindly accept all practices of that community (otherwise, how would meaningful change ever occur?), but there is value in "fitting in" without losing ones own unique identity or sacrificing all of one's own interests.  At the same time, existing members have a responsibility to be open to the new ideas, interests, and needs of its new members.

So, what does this all mean for East Millcreek?  I won't take the time to outline the current dispute among Millcreek residents (for more information see this Salt Lake Tribune Article for January 26, 2009).  In a nutshell, residents are divided over the issue of whether or not homeowners should be restricted in the size of homes that they build.  One group believes that home owners should have ultimate freedom to do what they want with their land, another wants to place restrictions on the size of homes that can be built in the township. 

 As I have observed all of this play out in the newspapers and among neighbors in my old neighborhood it has been a sad commentary on how we view community.  Essentially, we have become incredibly selfish.  In terms of the current issue in Millcreek, that selfishness is seen on both sides--it's just manifested in different ways.  Whether it is a new move-in acting in complete disregard to their neighbors and building an over-sized home that blocks sight lines and becomes an eyesore, or a long-time resident that refuses to acknowledge that a home built in 1945 may not meet the needs of a young family of 2009, the malady is the same--complete disregard for others.

For the record, I'm in favor of some sort of restriction and have a hard time swallowing the argument that the size of some homes in Millcreek prevent families from growing or expanding (I'm not a demographer, but my sense is that family size has decreased in the last 40-50 years so a need for larger homes seems illogical).  But, my own personal biases aside, I hope that Millcreek's citizens will step back and remember what it used to mean to be part of a neighborhood or community--dialogue, sharing, and compromise.

In terms of higher education, I think we see this same sort of demise on our campuses.  Generally, we have become very fragmented and siloed academic cities of sorts.   We make decisions unilaterally, have given up on building relationships across departments/colleges, and mostly think of our own well-being.    For recent examples of this sort of thing see the two Inside Higher Ed articles below:

I don't have any real good solutions, but a start would be exploring the work of Bob Putnam in Better Together.  Putnam outlines a handful of successful communities and there are valuable lessons to be learned from these case studies.  Additionally, if any readers have made it to the end of this much longer than intended post and have examples of successfully functioning communities, I would love to hear about them.  Like Putnam, I still have hope that we can build and sustain effective communities, but recognize that they are becoming increasingly harder to find.  

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Underprepared & Underaware

I've been doing some work lately that has caused me to revisit a theme that I was quite fascinated with a few years ago.

In "Unskilled and Unaware of it" James Kruger and David Dunning describe a phenomenon whereby individuals with incompetence in some area (humour, writing, etc.) are unable to detect their own incompetence because of a lack of metacognitive ability about the particular skill or ability in question.  This has some interesting applications in education and students' willingness to engage in the process.

If they are incompetent in any of a number of academic areas, but don't know that, how receptive will they be to new opportunities to learn?  Will they engage?

James Prochaska's Transtheoretical Model (particularly the "Stages of Change" he identified with Norcross) has some interesting connections to these ideas as well.  If an individual is at a very early level in terms of their "readiness for change" how do they respond to efforts like first-year initiatives that seek to change academic attitudes and behaviours.  What risk do we run when we try to engage students that aren't ready to change?

Expect some more on this in the coming months.  I'm working on a paper and conference presentation exploring these issues.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ritual in Education

For a great example of using ritual, see Washington State's Convocation highlights.

In a past posting I discussed the role of "Celebration" in learning.  Here, I address a somewhat related issue:  how the "rituals" on our campuses can be viewed as pedagogical tools.  

In an article that appeared in Anthropology & Education Quarterly ("The Campus Tour:  Ritual and community in higher education",2000), Peter Magolda analyzes the campus tour given at Miami University (OH) and uses it as a context for discussing the role of ritual on our college campuses.  His thoughts about how rituals convey messages and values struck me as very important.  His suggestion to educators is to closely examine the rituals on our campuses--from large rituals like Graduation to small "interaction" rituals like the way a campus tour guide addresses tour participants--to learn about what kinds of messages we are sending.  His premise is that students, particularly prospective and new students, learn a great deal about the institution and its "way" by observing and participating in these rituals.  

From my perspective educators responsible for administering new student programs (orientation, registration, common reading programs, guidebooks, etc.) could do a great deal more to include thoughtful rituals in their work.  My reasons are below:

1.  Rituals model appropriate behaviours and attitudes.  One "ritual" that is quite common in New Student Orientation programming is some sort of academic session often led by a faculty member.  Often these sessions are intended to help students understand what a college course is like, including how they might be different than what they have experienced in high school.  Many institutions are beginning to use these sessions as a means of discussing a common reading book as well.  Rituals like these provide excellent opportunities to model academic dialogue, classroom decorum, strategies for learning, etc.  An example would be the way in which Appalachian State University uses it's "Phase 2" orientation as a venue for small group discussions about that year's common reading text.  These discussions are meant to "simulate the manner in which many university level discussion classes are conducted."  Additionally, by inviting students to read the book prior to arriving in Boone for orientation, the institution notifies students of the expectation that they will come to class and other academic discussions prepared to make a meaningful contribution.  Then, at orientation they have a chance to actually participate in this ritual, further reinforcing institutional values of preparedenss, dialogue, and meaning-making.  The training of discussion leaders seems critical in all of this because the comments they make and stories they share (much like the way a tour guide functions) are likely to shape students attitudes and expectations.

2.  Rituals set expectations & communicate values.  New students learn a great deal about what is normal or appropriate based on what they observe during "ritualistic" activities.  For example, the campus tour and the dialogue embedded within it (both formal scripts and informal comments that may be made during the course of the tour) convey to students a sense of what is valued and celebrated.  If a tour guide says a great deal about undergraduate research opportunities, the excellent resources in the library, or showcases classroom space, students will infer that academic work and serious learning are important aspects of the experience of students at that institution.  Likewise, a tour guide who highlights great clubs, the best burger joints, or the best places to meet dates sends a message about the importance of social interactions.  Both messages may be appropriate, the important thing is that institutions examine their rituals to learn more about what types of messages are being sent.  If an institution expects that students will make the library a home away from home, this message should be implicit in one or more of its rituals.  Or, if lively dialogue and debate are important on a campus, rituals highlighting these behaviours should be very visible.

3.  Rituals build community.  Participating in rituals like convocation, the signing of a matriculation, or even attending a campus athletic event signal to students that they have become members of the campus community.  That said, care needs to be taken to ensure that the rituals included in new student programs are not systematically marginalizing sub-populations of the incoming class (e.g. those that are not interested in athletics).  Even then, I believe that administrators can be thoughtful enough about the types and varieties of rituals embraced that participation in orientation activities and other first-year programming can lead to a sense of community for new students.  

The bottom line is that our institutions have both espoused theories and theories in use (see John Tagg's work in The Learning Paradigm College).  Too often our espoused theories (Tagg would say these are the things that show up in glossy brochures and guide books) are not reinforced in the day-to-day operations of our universities.  I would argue that this is especially true of many of our rituals, particularly the small "interaction" rituals that Magolda describes in his article.  It is through these often unplanned, informal, and relatively brief interactions that students may learn the most about what we value and what we hope they will value as members of our academic community.   

Monday, March 2, 2009

Democracy & Salvation

hIn my blog reading this morning I came across some thoughts posted by David Gagnon about democracy, Christianity, and education.  David talked of how new media and web 2.0 technology ("participatory media" I think he called it) have provided opportunities to become world citizens by participating in a global dialogue.  He also spoke of how this participation can be a means of "salvation", which was very intriguing.  I'm not sure that I understand perfectly what he meant by drawing that connection between democratic participation and salvation, but I thought I would articulate some of my thoughts here as an attempt to clarify my thinking.  

It's a little odd to use the two words that appear in the title of this posting together because we generally associate "democracy" with matters of state and "salvation" obviously has some religious connotations.  However, the roots of the idea of "cosmopolitanism" in Greek history suggest that there may be far more parallels to the two worlds than we are willing to admit.  Cosmopolitanism as the greeks used it referred to the belief that an individual was not just a member of the Athenian community or a particulary greek city-state; rather, he was a member of the global community--a "citizen of the world".  This had implications for the way he used his time, knowledge, and skill because he had a unique role to play in the global community and a responsibility to do his part to contribute and make an improvement in whatever way he could.

This idea of continual improvement, albeit through small individual contributions, resonates with me and seems to capture, in part, the idea of salvation that I espouse (that humans posess an innate ability for continual or eternal improvement and that it is in this incremental growth that we can find true happiness).  The opportunities for world-wide discourse that have become a reality with recent advances in technology seem to have an important role to play in this idea of democratic salvation, wherein we work together as a global community to improve our lives and the state of the society that we live in.  

By participating in this global dialogue and voicing our thoughts, ideas, and opinions we provide an opportunity for others to hear our thoughts and be changed or impacted by them.  Granted, much of what is said in an online environment, be it blogs, wikis, etc. isn't likely to be earth-shattering or life-changing (although that might happen at times).  However, I do believe that by continually exposing ourselves to the ideas of others, and then reflecting on them personally, we move towards a closer approximation of truth and are better positioned to live lives of meaning.  Open education has some interesting implications here as well.  Those that are working to provide these sorts of opportunities are providing "saving" opportunities (because of what increased education and knowledge mean for the quality of an indiviual's life and the lives of his/her family) by providing access to learning.  It's hard for me to see how those sorts of opportunities wouldn't "save" lives.  

This is all very rough thinking, so I apologize if it's unclear.  If anyone has thoughts relative to these ideas, please share.  I'm interested in pursuing this, but need some help.