Friday, December 2, 2011

The shortcomings of a utilitarian approach to New Student Orientation programming: A call for aesthetics

Prior to my current work with Brigham Young University's peer mentoring initiative I was heavily involved in the university's new student orientation programming.  And, because my work is still focused on first-year students, I associate with colleagues (both here at BYU and on other campuses) who spend a good deal of their time thinking about how to orient students to a college campus.  Almost invariably I hear them use terms like "plan," "manage," and "direct" to describe their work.  This choice of words highlights a common metaphor guiding the work of orientation professionals, what I'll term here the management metaphor--one which is largely concerned with relatively superficial features of orientation programming,  including scheduling, event management, feeding large groups of people, and other associated logistics.  Clearly, these are all important considerations for an "orientation director" (something has to happen during orientation and it has to be coordinated, particularly on a large campus where thousands of students and their parents are likely to participate).  However, problems arise when this metaphor is adopted as the guiding principle in making decisions about orientation programs because it fails to attend to the aesthetics of the orientation experience (and I use the term experience very intentionally here).  As a result, students experience orientation as a collection of disjointed events--for example a convocation, campus tour, advisement session, and dance party--and walk away from the experience without having made any meaning, reflected on key messages (e.g. the institutional mission and other core values of the institution), or resolved to do anything differently during their college experience as a result of new student orientation.

A more useful metaphor for orientation programming is the aesthetic design metaphor (yes, I made that up).  Through this lens, the process of developing orientation programming is viewed as a process of designing an aesthetic experience for students, that is to say experiences which are coherent, connected, and infused with meaning.   In his book Art as Experience, John Dewey describes aesthetic experiences as those which are immersive, complete, and transformative.  In contrast, unaesthetic experiences are routine, dispersed, disengaging, and fragmented.  Patrick Parrish has described a set of aesthetic principles which can be applied to the design of instructional experiences in an attempt to avoid the negative outcomes so often associated with educational settings (e.g. boredom, lack of motivation, meaningless and imposed learning activities), which seem useful for orientation programming because of its susceptibility to the the same traps of fragmentation and meaninglessness.  These "first principles" are that

  1. Learning experiences have beginnings, middles, and ends,
  2. Learners are the protagonists of their own learning experiences,
  3. Learning activity, not subject matter, establishes the theme of instruction,
  4. Context contributes to immersion in the instructional situation, and
  5. Instructors and instructional designers are authors, supporting characters, and model learners

When viewed as an aesthetic design process, orientation programming is elevated to an act of weaving together an experience or narrative which attends to Parrish's first principles and which is meaningful and transformative for students.  The goals shift from scheduling events, providing meals, and holding "sessions," to providing an experience which moves students towards internalizing institutional values and changes their conception of the college experience.  Imagine the impact of an orientation program which not only helps students register for classes and locate campus buildings, but which poses a question or challenge which can provide a purpose or framework for a students entire undergraduate experience (e.g. "How can my learning position me to solve important problems?"  or "As a citizen of a global community, what responsibility do I have to improve my community?  How can my college experience prepare me to do that?" or for a faith-based institution, "How can I integrate spiritual and secular learning?").  Further, why does every student have to have the same experience as the student next to them?  Could students create their own orientation experience by selecting from a number of events and opportunities, those which attend to their needs and concerns.  Finally, as I have written about before here, meaningful conclusions do much to further learning--why couldn't orientation culminate with some kind of experience which promotes reflection, unifies the sub-experiences which have occurred across orientation, and invites students to continue to engage with the problem or question posed on the first day?

None of this is to say that these two metaphors for orientation programming are mutually exclusive or wholly incompatible.  An orientation experience can be both aesthetic and pragmatic; however, far too often institutions focus exclusively on planning and managing and lose an opportunity to design an experience.  An experience which not only welcomes students to campus and answers their questions, but which like a good piece of art, stimulates reflection, action, and (occasionally, when the stars align) promotes personal transformation.


Drake said...

As always, your reflections are both thought-provoking and meaningful. Here's a thought for you. As a teacher, I am often bogged down my the pragmatic, by the logistics. We have endless amounts of paperwork and forms and reports to fill out. I find that I have to be reminded, by a book or an event (or a blog post) to stop and really remember what I am trying to accomplish with students, and I have to be reminded to stop and think about the experience I am crafting for them. I empathize with those who have the pragmatic approach, because in my experience, at least in a large school district, you have to think about those things to keep your job. The person who creates a aesthetic experience and the person turns in all the right forms get recompensed the same, in fact the first might get reprimanded because their paperwork isn't perfect. So my question is, could an orientation leader's pragmatic and logistical focus be caused by their circumstances? If so, how do we change that? Or if not possible (I'm not going to redirect an entire school district), how do we find time and energy to see the big picture and meet all the other demands?

Unknown said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Drake. Yes, undoubtedly, an orientation leader or a teacher (and anyone else working in a formal educational setting) will be influenced by the organizational setting in which they work. So, leaders could do a great deal to facilitate the kind of holistic thinking I'm advocating for in the post.

Like you hint at in your comment, widespread organizational changes are easy to talk about in blog posts and a lot harder to implement. So, I don't know that I have any earth-shattering ideas. At the risk of over-simplifying a very complex issue, I wonder if the logistics and forms you've mentioned can be retooled to nudge educators in the direction of aesthetic and holistic thinking. However, asking all teachers to submit "an aesthetic plan" is, very quickly, likely to turn into another hoop to jump through. So, institutionalizing things too much may not help.

Part of me thinks that aesthetics in education will always be a somewhat individual pursuit that requires an educator to engage in the thought pattern you describe in your comments (i.e. remembering what we are trying to accomplish). And, I'm not naive enough to think that we can do that kind of thing all day every day (or maybe even every week). But, I do think it's productive to grapple with the aesthetics vs. logistics tension on a regular basis to keep us grounded.

As far as finding the time to do it, sadly I think it has to come at the expense of something else (which is tricky, because everything seems important on a Monday morning). But, setting aside regular time to revisit aesthetic principles and high-minded purposes would seem to pay dividends over the long term. As for energy, I wonder if a disconnected, fragmented approach to education actually consumes more mental and emotional energy than one that strives to be holistic and connected. That's just a guess though. Let me ask you, when do you feel most drained? When you are filling out forms, checking items off a list, and pleasing the bureaucracy? Or, thinking about the experience you are crafting for students?

Drake said...

I am definitely most drained when I am "pleasing the man." When I can sit down and craft an experience for students, that's when I feel most alive. Your point is solid, sound, and should be implemented worldwide. I can't wait for your business/education book to come out. We all need to step back, if only occasionally, and make sure we know what the big picture is, and then make sure we can get people there.