Friday, September 23, 2011

The conscience of the academy

In a talk given at the 2010 TEDWomen conference, t.v. executive Lauren Zalaznick argued that television can be viewed as our "conscience" in that it reflects who we are as a society.  It's not really an earth shattering concept (although Zalaznick's talk shares some interesting data illustrating the veracity of this claim); however, it does raise an important question for any kind of group who claims to be or behave in a particular way, be it a corporation, a school, or a family.  That question is "Are we who we really thing we are?" or, put another way, "Do our actions, behaviors, practices, etc. really reflect the set of values we claim to espouse?"

This is an interesting question for academic institutions to consider.  And, leads to another useful question, which is "What is the conscience of the academy?"  At first glance, it seems like a fairly simple exercise:  just examine the mission statement, last presidential address, catalog, or set of standards from the last accreditation.  Clearly, these official pronouncements reflect the values of the institution and give us insight into the degree to which an institution is committed to providing a high quality educational experience for students.

The problem, however, is that saying and doing aren't always in alignment with one another.  Work in the field of action science has suggested that two types of theories influence the actions of an organization.  Espoused theories are those which individuals or organizations claim to follow (i.e. the theories and values manifest in mission statements and catalogs), while theories-in-use are those theories or values that can be inferred by observing the actions of an organization or its individual members.  This is not to say that all universities do one thing and say another (In Chapters 11 - 16 of his book, The Learning Paradigm College, John Tagg describes a number of colleges which have achieved a high degree of alignment between their mission to provide a high quality learning experience for students and what actually happens in the day-to-day happenings on their campuses); however, most organizations struggle to some degree to stay true to their stated missions and goals, particularly in the current economic climate when staying financially viable has become increasingly difficult.

Complicating all of this is the fact that those of us who do the work of education students on college campuses are often unaware of the gap between our actions and our stated values.  So, training ourselves to examine key practices on our campuses can be helpful in making the invisible paradigm influencing our work more visible and apparent.  So, what (or where) is the "conscience" of a campus?  Where do the underlying (and most influential) values manifest themselves?

Just like t.v. is not the only place a society's values are apparent, there are likely a number of aspects of a campus where its values shine through.  Here are a few that seem worth taking a look at:

General Education & Graduation Requirements:  Virtually all students, to some degree or another, view college as an exercise in earning a credential--the degree--which becomes a key for opening other doors (e.g. jobs, graduate school, etc.).  Institutions, then, are charged with outlining a set of requirements which, when completed, demonstrate that a student has "earned" this credential.  Thus, this set of requirements speaks volumes about what an institution believes an "educated," "learned," or "competent," student looks like or has done.  And, this means more than just the classes a student takes.  What a school requires in the way of internships, service-learning, capstone experiences, etc. communicates a set of values about what constitutes an educational experience.

Advisement Centers:  A fly on the wall in an academic advisement center would learn a lot about what an institution really values.  Is it a speedy path to graduation?  A well-rounded educational experience?  Personal growth?  Self-authorship?  The sub-text of these advisement sessions is something students pick up on and use to inform subsequent decisions they make regarding their academic experience.  If academic advisors engage students in conversations about what they are learning, what experiences they are seeking out to experience the growth they hope for, how their thinking or views are changing, etc., students are much more likely to conceptualize their time on a campus as an opportunity for discovery and growth.  In contrast, if these sessions are only about graduating in four years, meeting application deadlines, submitting the proper forms, and fulfilling course requirements, a completely different message will be communicated.

New Student Orientation:  Students make a lot of unconscious judgments about their college based on what they see and hear during their first few days on campus.  If institutions value a particular kind of learning for their students, this should be explicitly stated and modeled during orientation.  Of course, campus tours, social events, and other student-life types of activities are an important part of this experience.  However, if orientation doesn't do any more than disseminate information to passive human receptacles and bring students together for dances, parties, and athletic events, a tremendous opportunity is lost. A campus who claims to value service-learning, collaborative experiences, open dialogue, or undergraduate research, needs to ensure that, when feasible, these values are reflected in what students do (not just what they hear) during orientation.

Faculty Reward Systems:  Like students, faculty shape their work based, in part, upon what is rewarded by   department chairs, deans, and provosts.  What is it that faculty are rewarded for and how much does it align with what we say we really value.

Where else are institutional values (particularly hidden ones) made visible?

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