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.   

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