Friday, November 30, 2012

Exploitation of College Athletes Revisited: Maryland's move to the Big 10

On November 20th, the University of Maryland at College Park announced that it would be leaving the ACC (not a slouch of an athletic conference by most standards) and becoming part of the Big 10 Conference.  It was a curious move for all sorts of reasons (e.g. with the exception of Pitt & Penn St., Maryland is not a geographical neighbor to any of the other member schools of the Big 10), not the least of which being the way the decision was made and announced--the Board of Trustees started and finished the process in under three weeks and some regents weren't aware of the final decision until hours before it was announced to the media.  

Not surprisingly, finances played a big role in the decision and in providing a rationale for the move, Maryland President Wallace Loh made a rather interesting statement about Maryland's future potential to use the athletic department to subsidize other parts of the university (something many would call a pipe dream).  As reported in Inside Higher Ed, Loh has publicly declared that "substantial funds" from Maryland's new revenue stream as a member of the Big 10 Conference will be used to support the educational mission of the university, specifically through financial aid for needy students.  Loh then asserted that Maryland is "doing nothing less than developing a new financial paradigm for intercollegiate athletics."

On its face, Loh's statements and ideas seem laudable.  What could be better for college athletics than an institution where the athletic program, rather than being a drain on institutional resources, puts money back into the pipeline and for needy students, no less. However, viewed another way, this is just another example of athletes--specifically, those who participate in high-profile, revenue-producing sports (which at most institutions means football and men's basketball)--whose talent is used to bring prestige and financial gain to the larger institution.  What's more, writers like William Rhoden, would argue that systems such as the one Loh is advocating for, have historical echoes to early American History when African American men were oppressed for the benefit of the more privileged class of American society.  In his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves, Rhoden provides a narrative of black athletes in the US (who, make up the majority of athletes of high-profile teams in Div. I college athletics).  He describes the evolution of professional and collegiate athletics in the US as one that led black athletes from literal plantations--where sports were used as a distraction to quell uprisings among slaves--to symbolic plantations where professional sports franchises and intercollegiate athletic departments continue to exploit black athletes' skills.

Critics of the views put forth by Rhoden and others are quick to point out that high-profile scholarship athletes receive scholarships that cover tuition, books, room, board, and virtually any other expense they might incur directly related to their enrollment in the institution.  Further, by providing opportunities to black athletes (often from urban areas and familial cultures where higher education isn't the norm) to attend college, the institution does much more than give someone a chance to play basketball, they change his life trajectory.

My purpose here isn't to argue for one position or another, just to raise some interesting questions about college athletics in general, and Wallace Loh's views in particular.  Is a free college degree and the opportunity for a better future enough "payment" for what an athlete (or team of athletes) brings in for a university?  And, how often does the four-year athletic scholarship really lead to the opportunities cited by proponents of big-time college sports?  What does it mean for one student (or group of students) to subsidize the cost of enrollment for another group of students?


Friday, November 16, 2012

Sending a message very different than the one we intend

Because I am a graduate student at the institution where I work, I receive an email each semester I am enrolled in courses (which at this point is every semester, because the sooner I finish my dissertation the sooner my wife can stop being an academic widow) inviting me to submit "student ratings" for the courses in which I am enrolled and the instructors who teach these courses.  Although I doubt the utility and value of the exercise, my sense of duty compels me to try to submit thoughtful ratings each semester.

I've completed this process at least twice a year for nearly the last 10 years; however, it wasn't until this morning when I was submitting my ratings for the current semester that I noticed this statement on the "Student Ratings Homepage:"

A message to students from President Samuelson

Student evaluations of BYU faculty and courses are extremely important.
  • Faculty are expected to consult them to improve their courses and teaching methods.
  • Department chairs are expected to review them annually with faculty to assess teaching effectiveness.
  • University committees consider them carefully as part of faculty reviews to determine who is retained and promoted.

Without your responsible input, we cannot effectively assess and improve teaching performance and student learning.  Please be honest, fair, and constructive as you complete your evaluations.
Your evaluations matter.
Thank you,
President Samuelson 
At first glance, posting a message like this on a webpage where students initiate the rating process makes sense.  An institution wants students to submit ratings, so someone on a committee suggests that a formal statement of support be made and displayed in a public place.  It is a very simple thing, doesn't require much time of anyone, and we can all feel good about being "supportive" of a particular initiative (in this case, student ratings).

However, one could offer a very different interpretation of the one above, which is the interpretation I made when I noticed the statement this morning.  A committee somewhere in the institution was charged with finding a way to increase student participation in the rating process, was told "these evaluations matter," doubted the truthfulness of that statement (the person who said it probably did too), a secretary somewhere drafted a statement, it was approved by the university president, and then "publicly" displayed but in a place and in a fashion that made it discrete enough that it wouldn't cause any problems or change any aspect of the cultural norms that prevail on campus with regard to teaching and learning (e.g. faculty can teach a course any way they want so long as they don't give inaccurate information, act abusively toward students, or teach anything that would make the Board of Trustees anxious).  The net result of the hypothetical process I've described above is that a very different message than the one originally intended becomes encoded in the way the explicit message (Evaluation Matters) is conveyed.  While the text of the message clearly states that the institution cares about student ratings, the tone of the message (e.g. its formality), the way it is displayed (on a webpage that 1/2 the student body visits and that probably 3% read), and the absence of this message in any other venue outside of the email sent to students (reminding them that their ratings are "important to the University and used in many ways"), convey a counter-message that student ratings are a necessary part of the institutional landscape but one that few of us really care about.

Again, the issue here isn't whether or not institutions should care about student ratings.  Rather, institutions should be careful to consider all of the components of a message, not merely text, when attempting to convey a message to students.  Factors such as tone, placement, repetition, consistency, and alignment with institutional practices will, ultimately, be much more powerful communicators than static text on a page or in the body of an email and communicate a hidden curriculum to students that can be quite impactful.  And, when these factors have the potential to communicate a message very different from the one intended, institutions run the risk of coming across as insincere, bureaucratic, and naive.

For a great example of holistic messaging that really conveys the message an institution wants students to hear and embrace, see Westminster College's message about e-Portfolios from former president, Michael Bassis.  Contrast the amount of time, energy, and thoughtfulness that went into this messaging with the message I referenced above from my own institution.  Could a student doubt that Westminster College values e-portfolios after watching a taped message from the President and then reading through an e-portfolio that he created himself?  Very different from the message that would have been conveyed had the college opted for a static text-based message on an obscure webpage.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Another exploitation of athletes . . . this time in the NFL

I've written before on this blog about the problem of exploitation among athletes in high-profile sports (i.e. football & men's basketball).  Thanks to Allison Morris from for sharing this graphic that explores a problem associated with the NFL, namely the high rate at which retired players experience financial duress (3 in 4 are in financial trouble within two years of retirement).  Clearly, the league cannot control the decisions of its players, but this work raises interesting questions about what role major sports leagues should play in preparing players for their post-athletic futures.  How much responsibility does an employer like the NFL bear to prevent these kinds of problems?

Please Include Attribution to With This Graphic Benched and Broke Infographic

Friday, October 26, 2012

The trouble with inspiration

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Carl Bloch
I'm a bit of a curmudgeon.  People that only know me casually might be surprised to hear that, but those who know me well know that I am easily frustrated with "inspirational" stories, raw-raw presentations intended to "motivate," and short "inspirational" quotes (I've tried for years to be a "quote" person, but in all but one case the quotes I write down on a sticky note and stick on my wall seem disappointingly mundane a day or two after I am "inspired" by them--the single quote I have kept and still refer to comes from artist Carl Bloch in describing his struggles to create:  "God helps me--that's what I think, and then I am calm.").

I was reminded of this when I read an email this morning (which is actually a blog post that is sent out to a listserv) in which the author described being asked by a student to "define in one sentence what it means to be a 'true teacher.'"  The rest of the post went on to describe how he came to his "one sentence" that he eventually shared with her (you can read the post to find out what he told her).  Because I've read posts by this author before, I wasn't surprised at being underwhelmed by what he told this student.  It was a statement that sounds nice, but for me, has no real meaning because it is so abstruse and esoteric to provide no real guidance for someone who wants to be a good teacher.  So, while it may be initially inspirational to this student, it isn't likely to change anything about her teaching practice.

The reason I have appreciated and benefited so much from the Bloch quote above, I think, is that it has a concreteness that is helpful to me when I am feeling overwhelmed with a writing project, a troublesome situation with a student, or some other challenge that I don't know how to face.  At the same time, it isn't so explicit that it seems mechanical or restrictive.  Additionally, it has a narrative quality to it in that it calls up an image in my mind of a real person (Carl Bloch) struggling with a task and then thinking about the divine help that he is entitled to as an artist.  So, in that way it is both inspiring and instructive because it seems tied to someone's actual experience.

It occurs to me that we might often look in the wrong places for inspiration.  My experience suggests that it isn't found in philosophical statements or high-energy Joel Osteen-esque speeches.  Rather, inspiration comes when we have a window into the experiences of another.  What I might be arguing here (and which I've argued multiple times on this blog) is that rather than searching for one-sentence inspiration that is easily posted on the corner of our computer monitor, we should be searching for, telling, and listening to stories that have meaning because of their embeddedness in our actual experiences.  This takes time.  And, it also means entering into relationships with others in order to gain access to one another's stories.  It also means being vulnerable because anytime we tell a story about ourselves, we expose some part of our being that can then be evaluated, judged, or critiqued.  Telling a story is much more risky than giving an impersonal one-liner divorced from any of our actual experiences.

So, while the blog author whose post I referenced above (along with everyone else who has ever tried to say something inspirational) surely means well, his student would have been better served by a rich and personal story, as opposed to the sticky-note-ready quote that was likely forgotten as soon as the sticky on the note dried up.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Incentives & Risk-Taking in Admissions

One of the most interesting phenomena in higher education is the admissions process.  Students develop ulcers over it; parents shell out cash to hire professional admissions consultants to give their child the best shot at getting into their top-choice school, and those hearty souls who work in enrollment management stay up nights trying to figure the whole process out.  I have never worked in admissions and probably won't at any point in my career, so I realize the danger in commenting on something that I probably don't know enough about as I should.  That said, it seems that the ultimate objective of an admissions office or department is to admit those students who (a) will persist to graduation and (b) provide a good "value" for the institution in terms of the cost of providing an education to that particular student.  Consequently, the "golden egg" for a particular school is , so to speak, a highly academically qualified student who can pay the full sticker tuition price, whatever that might be.  Of course, this is an oversimplification and doesn't generalize to every type of school (e.g. an open admissions institution whose mission is to provide educational opportunity to populations that have, historically, been underrepresented in higher education.

But, for the sake of argument (and so that I have something to write about today), let's assume that the above situation holds for at least a hefty percentage of the mildly selective institutions in the U.S.  In this case,  there is an incentive for an institution to minimize risk by only admitting those students that (a) seem nearly certain to succeed or (b) are relatively likely to persist to graduation and won't cost the university too much money if they aren't retained.  Clearly, a system like this decreases the likelihood that certain students will be admitted.  And, it raises questions about these institutions' commitment to educating more than just a very narrow segment of the prospective student population.

What if, however, institutions were rewarded for taking risks in the admissions process?  What if there was some kind of incentive for an institution to admit a slightly underprepared student, provide a high-quality experience to that student, and achieve some measurable level of success with that student (e.g. graduation, job placement, etc.)?  Not only would a system like this one change the admissions game dramatically and provide more students with access to institutions where, previously, they would never have been accepted.  It would also encourage institutions to be more thoughtful about the resources and initiatives they have in place to support students that may not be as academically prepared as others.

As it stands, there really isn't much incentive at all for institutions to take risks in the admissions process (outside of situations involving student-athletes).  And, often, the institutions that are viewed as most "prestigious" are those that rather than taking risks and seeking out students to whom they can add value, admit those who are a "good investment" and who are likely to make the institution look good.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Designing to preserve risk & ambiguity

Typically, risk and ambiguity are things that we try to eliminate from our lives.  We make our kids wear helmets when they ride their bikes to decrease the risk of head injury.  We're given detailed instructions for how to put together complex appliances or pieces of furniture.  And, we make sure plastic storage tubs come with explicit warnings like this, to make sure there isn't any question about the inappropriateness of storing children in such containers.  Clearly, I'm being a bit facetious here, but the point is that most of us operate from the assumption that the more we can get rid of risk and ambiguity, the better things will go.

While this is true in some parts of our lives, there are some aspects of our experience where moderate degrees of risk and ambiguity actually improve our behavior and performance.  Take the design of roads as an example, as reported here and in much more depth in Tom Vanderbilt's interesting book, Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us).  The essence of the argument is that drivers are more cautious, more aware, more considerate, and ultimately more safe when roads are stripped of the features we've long believed make them safer (e.g. signs, dividing lines, large distances between roads and sidewalks, and width to name a few).  Road designers (largely in Europe, those West Palm Beach, Florida has seemed to catch on) have realized this and started to design roads that are just risky enough that drivers have to slow down and drive skillfully (which most of us can do when we are actually thinking about it--the problems occur when we are lulled into autopilot by the "safety" of the road).  It is an incredibly interesting approach and one that will likely revolutionize urban planning and road design in the future (it is a philosophy first pioneered by a Dutch traffic engineer--Hans Monderman)

Risk is a theme I've taken on in this blog a number of times.  I think it has tremendous implications for learning.  My current wondering has to do with what it might mean for higher education institutions to embrace risk and ambiguity in calculated ways.  College campuses are full of the equivalent of road signs and safety features, meant to "protect" students and get them where they're going in a metaphorical sense (be it a job, graduation, or just becoming an engaged citizen).  We have advisement centers and student support services that notify students that they are on academic warning, reminders about graduation deadlines, policies preventing students from enrolling in more than a specified number of credit hours, and course catalogs that attempt to remove ambiguity by clarifying and outlining hundreds of policies and processes relevant to a particular campus.  I'm not ready to say that we should think about getting rid of any or all of those things.  However, I wonder if in our effort to protect students through our various policies, support services, and "clarifications" we might actually be causing more problems than we're solving.  And, are there "risks" that we might allow to become more visible and instructive so students approach their experience with a bit more caution and concern than they might otherwise?

A quick example--the course syllabus.  This great column from Inside Higher Ed (you really should read it, if nothing else, you'll laugh) illuminates the tension instructors face between including so much information that the document becomes laughably long and painfully detailed, and failing to outline the course w/ enough clarity so as to avoid "scandals" that arise when students question policies or procedures.  There is an inherent risk in a faculty member having a thin syllabus.  If the expectations for the course, course policies, and schedule aren't made unambiguous, students may not learn what they need to, we may have an argument with them about absences, or they may not know what to do in the event there is a Tsunami and they aren't able to get to campus for class.  But, when a course is so structured that the syllabus comes to be viewed as a recipe, that if followed leads to learning, we're in trouble.  From my own experience, I can say that when the syllabus outlined exactly what I had to do to earn my "A," I did that and nothing more.  Typically, the course became a hoop jumping exercise.  It was clear and safe, but I didn't learn much.  In contrast, I have had a few classes where ambiguity reigned supreme.  Initially, it was very frustrating for me as a learner because I wanted to know what to do, when to do it, and how to report back that I had done it.  But, the ironic thing is that the ambiguity increased risk and often nudged me to do much more and better work than I would have otherwise.  I don't know that this type of course design is a universal solution; however, designing for learner autonomy can lead to great motivation for some populations of students, particularly high-achieving or self-directed students (see Dan Pink's book Drive for a great discussion of this idea).

Of course, campuses must still be physically safe spaces and be structured in ways that allow students to feel comfortable enough that they aren't perpetually thinking about leaving; however, a little risk might go a long way in improving overall outcomes.

Friday, October 5, 2012

What is the equivalent of the opening hymn for a campus community?

Recently, I've spent a fair amount of time exploring this website, dedicated to phenomenology.  Yesterday I stumbled across an essay with the intriguing title "The Experience of Singing Together in Christian Worship."  One aspect of the "singing together" experience that is explored in the essay is the potential for the act of singing to bring together the members of a worship community.  This vignette captures it well:

"When I enter the chruch, I see that most people in the pews are sitting and talking to their friends, probably getting caught up on the news of each other's lives.  It is an interesting sight and sound; a sort of gian living room with people relating plitely to each other, their voices creating a gentle rumble.  At 11:00, the worship leader announces, 'Let's stand and sing our praises to God,' and the musical introduction begins.  It's amazing the change in atmosphere as the chatter stops and we begin to focus.  One kind of sound stops and another begins as we start to sing.  The individual conversations stop and we sing the opening hymn as one great, united proclamation."

As I read that description of one worshiper's experience, I immediately thought of a similar thing I have witnessed on my own campus.  We are a faith-based institution and, as is common among institutions of this type, we have a weekly devotional service (Tuesdays @ 11:05 a.m.) where the campus community comes together to hear a speaker or view some kind of cultural performance.  One thing that has always fascinated me is the way these meetings begin.  Just like a church bustles with conversation and action before the beginning of a service, the large building where BYU's devotionals are held is alive with students pouring in the doors and lively conversations.  However, when the clock hits five after the hour and it is time to formally start the meeting, there is no formal pronouncement from anyone (e.g. "Let us begin," etc.).  Rather, the organist begins playing, the text to that morning's hymn appears on a video screen in the center of the assembly hall, and we begin to sing.  It's a remarkably simple and effective way of focusing the attention of a fairly large group (I would guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 - 4,000 students & faculty most Tuesday mornings).

There is something selfless about hymn singing in a congregation of worshipers.  We shift attention from our individual concerns, and join together in singing a hymn we haven't chosen (unless you happen to be the person who has that assignment).  We each contribute in our own unique way, but our voices come together to form a unified chorus.  And, at times, it can be an incredibly sublime and uplifting experience for individuals as well as the collective group.  Perhaps the selfless nature of the act has something to do with this.

As I read the essay I found myself wondering whether their is anything that happens on a college campus (aside from faith-based institutions who sponsor devotionals or "chapel hour" as it was referred to at my first alma mater).  Academic institutions have an inherently selfish tone in many respects.  Students pursue their own academic majors, faculty members conduct their own research, and each department generally has its own set of concerns and challenges.  At times, there is very little drawing us together as a campus community.

Part of me wonders whether this is much of a concern for academia.  Is it even true that one of the purposes of an academic institution is or should be to draw its members together?  That's a question that can only be answered by individual institutions.  But, if unifying students, faculty members, and others on a campus is one of our aims, we should take care to find ways of doing so on a regular basis.  And, whatever we come up with should be something that invites us to give up a bit of our selves and join with others in working towards a common goal.

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Human Response to Bullying

Last week I wrote about institutional efforts to promote character development and argued that to successfully do so requires both technical and human responses.  This week the SL Tribune ran a story that, for me, perfectly illustrates the power of human responses and the ways in which they can be used to support more technical and formal responses to the challenges faced in schools.

The story reports on an incident of bullying at Sunset Ridge Middle School in West Jordan, Utah and how an entire school community came together to take a stand against bullying in their school.  You can read more about the story here, but here are the highlights:  a new 7th grade student was the victim of bullying, the heartbroken student went to a school counselor for comfort, and the counselor responded.  Up to this point, this story is nearly identical to the other stories about bullying we've heard.  But what makes this particular story unique is the way the counselor responded.  Rather than taking the issue to a faculty meeting where new policies or programs could be discussed, she initiated a very human response.  She sent text messages to 24 "student ambassadors" who then organized a grassroots campaign against bullying for the next day of school.  In response, 1,000 students showed up to school the next day sporting post-it notes bearing anti-bullying messages (e.g. "Stop the hate").  A few days later, friends of the bully turned him in based largely on the response of the school to this incident.  Consider how different this story would have been had the counselor responded with the typical technical response we often see in these situations (e.g. faculty meeting conversations, formal school programming, etc.).

It's important to note that Sunset Ridge Middle School has formal anti-bullying programs (the student ambassadors are a part of the initiative) in place; however, it was a combination of a human and technical response that made the difference.  The lesson here seems to be that the best technical responses are those that create a space for human responses to thrive.  It was the organization of an ambassador program--a somewhat technical response (although it might be a sort of hybrid response straddling the border between technical and human responses) that provided the necessary infrastructure to carry out the very human response that, in the end, made the biggest difference.  Additionally, the formal anti-bullying programming the school had been sponsoring on a regular basis likely made anti-bullying values public and accepted, smoothing the path for a group of student leaders to speak out against a very specific act of bullying in their school.

So, I stand by my argument in last week's post that for schools to make meaningful changes, both technical and human responses are necessary.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Character as an aim of higher education

"True education seeks to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also honest men with virtue, temperance, and brotherly love."

This statement from educator David O. McKay has always intrigued me.  For me, it is simultaneously inspiring and discouraging.  Inspiring because it speaks to some of my most deeply-held beliefs about the purposes and possibilities of education, yet discouraging because it seems like such a long, steep, and unmarked road for us to climb.  This aim, though not shared universally by institutions of higher education, seems to be commonplace in mission statements in one form or another (see, for example, the mission statements from Westminster College, Mars Hill College, and Longwood University, each of which address character development in their unique way); however, the cynic in me wonders how often we succeed in developing students of high moral, ethical, and civic character.  I become even more worried when I consider the ways in which the current culture of higher education, one that often views learning as a commodity and education as a marketplace where this commodity can be gained merely through some kind of transactional purchase like what we do when we go to the grocery store.  see all of the forces working against us in this effort

Clearly, though, there are thousands of students each year who graduate having had experiences which have had deep and lasting impacts upon their character development.  These are the students who leave our campuses with an appreciation for diverse perspectives, a desire to make meaningful contributions in their community, and an integrity born of hard work and overcoming challenges that arose during their educational experience.  

Those of us who work and live on campuses whose missions include a focus on character development would like to think that our institutional efforts (read:  programs, initiatives, or events) were instrumental in facilitating this kind of growth in students.  Hence, we praise the general education program with a required service-learning component, the required attendance at "chapel" or "devotionals," or the inspiring keynote lecture during "character week" as silver bullets that "transformed" students.  In sum, we often come to believe that it is our technical responses to the need for character development among students that are successful in realizing this aim.  

While there is nothing inherently wrong with formal attempts to support character development, we sometimes neglect the power of human relationships in promoting this type of growth among students.  Hence, my suspicion is that the campuses who are most successful in achieving these aspects of their mission are those who also embrace, emphasize, and value a human response to the challenge of educating students' character.  Those who know me could surely make an argument that my alma mater failed me when it came to the development of my character; however, I would like to think that I experienced some gains in this domain during my undergraduate years.  And, when I think about the experiences that were most impactful in terms of my character, it isn't participation in formal aspects of my education that made the difference.  Rather, it was interactions and associations with roommates, classmates, faculty members, work supervisors, and others that had the greatest influence upon me.  Whether it was a roommate offering gentle correction in response to less than upstanding behavior from me, a faculty member describing how he approaches his research as an attempt to answer "big questions," or a work supervisor who helped me see that there may indeed be other perspectives in the universe outside of my own, it was the quotidian of my experience and not the formalities, that had a cumulatively transformative effect upon me.

It would be a mistake for institutions to eliminate formal programs focused on character development.  The existence of these programs on a campus, if nothing else, serve as a symbolic statement regarding the high value we place on developing character among our students.  And, when designed thoughtfully, these programs can facilitate the unplanned experiences which, in my estimation, are much more powerful in shaping students.  But, if these formalities are not supported by a collective effort among the individual members of the campus community to talk about, model, and celebrate character as an aim of education--e.g. the faculty member who offers holistic mentoring outside her discipline, the classmate who refuses to silence or ignore diverse perspectives, or the administrator who models ethical behavior in all of his interactions--programs will have little impact.  

So, the challenge for campus leaders becomes one of clearly articulating a set of values embracing character development, recruiting and retaining faculty and staff who genuinely believe in and work toward this mission, educating prospective students about what it means to be members of the (fill in institution name here) community, and providing a campus environment (which includes everything from co-curricular programs, to physical spaces, to curricula ) where the day-to-day experiences we have with one another have a chance at building our characters.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Scaleable "Solutions" vs. Local Responses

Yesterday, I participated in a forum with educators, administrators, and business leaders who are all interested in the use of technology in learning settings (Accelerating Innovation:  Personalizing the learning environment--thanks to k12, BYU's Center for Teaching and Learning, and TD Ameritrade Investools for making it free to attend).  It was clear that everyone there was passionate about learning and excited about what learning might look like in the future, particularly in schools.  In that way, I felt like I was with kindred spirits and appreciated having the opportunity to connect with and dialogue around important issues.  However, I always feel a bit like a fraud in these settings because I tend to be skeptical whenever I hear people talking about technology "revolutionizing" or "transforming" learning.  Further, the conversations at gatherings like the one I attended yesterday often focus on finding "innovative solutions" that can be "scaled up" and adopted on a massive scale (this seemed to be the only thing the representatives from the USDOE wanted to talk about yesterday).

Clearly, there are technological advances that have this impact upon learners and the learning process, but I think the list is much shorter than many technologists would believe.  More typical is the new "tool" that is developed in a particular setting, touted as "transformational," and then adopted only in the setting where it was developed and a few others where the challenges are similar.  That isn't a criticism of these "tools" as much as it is a criticism of the rhetoric of many educational technologists which is, in short, "we're going to change the world with this new idea."

At the core of these issues is an interesting tension that I saw playing out in yesterday's forum.  And, the tension is framed by two fundamental perspectives on educational reform.  The first is what I'll call the grand solution paradigm which seems to be concerned with finding universal solutions to big problems.  Consequently, their focus is on identifying problems that manifest themselves in virtually every educational setting and sector and then developing "solutions" that can be "scaled up" and adopted on a widespread basis.  

The second perspective operates from a local response paradigm.  Those who align with this approach are very concerned with context in that they approach problems by, first, understanding the complexities and nuances of particular settings (e.g. local cultures, historical influences, individual personalities, and available resources).  Then, they work alongside local stakeholders to respond to the challenges presented by these unique educational landscapes.

There are stark difference across these perspectives.  The first seems to be concerned with "answers" to questions and believes that finding these answers will solve problems for all educators.  They seem concerned with what has sometimes been termed in research as the "grand narrative" and aim to provide new ideas and tools that everyone can use, in nearly the same way.  These are the folks that are much more likely to see themselves as "revolutionaries" and "reformers."  In contrast, localists aren't likely to make any claims at developing "solutions" or "answers," rather they approach educational policy and practice as a dynamic dance wherein teachers and administrators are in a continual state of responding to the challenges and opportunities that present themselves.  Because this is slow and more "tribal" work, they may not see themselves as "revolutionizing" education, although their collective efforts may have that impact over the long-term.

Like most complex problems, the challenges we face in education aren't likely to be overcome if they are approached exclusively from one of these perspectives or the other.  Any sustainable changes are likely to come about in response to a coordinated effort that involves both a search for "scaleable" solutions and an openness to local innovation and responsiveness.  But, when I sit back and listen to the dialogue of the "reformers" I hear too much of the former and not enough of the latter.  Rather than spending inordinate amounts of time "innovating" in search of the holy grail of education (yesterday it was Open Educational Resources), we should be spending just as much time helping local practitioners and stakeholders join the grand dialogue, and then consider what "works" in their own place.  Innovation, while focused on outcomes, products, and ideas, should be just as concerned with processes that allow local innovation to thrive.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Something no educator should ever say

A few weeks ago I ran into one of my favorite professors from my undergraduate years.  He was (and still is) engaging, fun, concerned about students, and a great teacher.  The two classes I took from him were two of my favorites.  But, I have a bone to pick with him.

It has to do with something he said to me at the point in our conversation when we were discussing the newly re-designed Physical Education Teacher Education program at BYU (the program from which I graduated). Commenting on the utility of the teacher education coursework included in the program he remarked "you've either got it or you don't and we're not going to make much of a difference."  That was a surprising (and rather ironic) thing for a former faculty member and department chair to say and it unsettled me.  And, it isn't the first time I've heard this kind of thing from an educator (for the most recent example, see this interview with a faculty member from the media arts department at BYU where, in reference to the skill of film editing, he states "students either have it or not").

How many of us secretly harbor these kinds of thoughts, whether it is about students' ability to learn to write, learn to conduct research, learn to communicate skillfully in formal presentations, or anything else we might claim to be "teaching?"  And, in what ways might these often hidden assumptions influence the way we go about teaching or mentoring students?

Clearly, learners come to us with a variety of abilities and aptitudes and will achieve "success" in varying degrees due, in large part, to the skills and knowledge they bring with them.  However, to believe that someone "either has it or they don't" is an implicit acknowledgement that either (a) we are poor educators and not competent enough to facilitate learning for learners across the spectrum of ability or (b) that, regardless of our skill as educators, it ultimately makes no meaningful difference in the lives of our students.  I'm not comfortable with either of those conditions.

At a bare minimum, those who hold the view I've critiqued here should do a better job of identifying those students who "don't have it" and advising them out of programs like film and teacher education early on so they can find that field where they "do have it."  Additionally, Carol Dweck's book Mindset, should be required reading for all educators so that we can extinguish the false notions of talent and ability that get in the way of good teaching and learning.  If what we do doesn't make a difference, then what are we wasting our time for?

Friday, August 31, 2012

On the Power of Reflection

Although I am a blogger (of sorts), I limit myself to following a very short list of other blogs (generally no more than five).  Rather than emerging from some kind of elitist view that there are only five blogs worth following, it is a rule I've put in place for myself to (a) avoid being overwhelmed with information and (b) to make sure I don't spend inordinate amounts of time reading posts.  So, I was a bit surprised this week when two of the blogs I follow, both addressed a theme that has been on my mind a great deal as of late--the value of reflection.

I have long been a reflector and appreciated the benefits of taking time to step back from the busyness of life and spend time with my thoughts.  My earliest memories of reflecting are as a teenager, delivering papers to my neighbors in the early morning hours.  It was dark, quiet, and I was generally the only person out on the street.  Even as a dense teenage boy, I realized how much good thinking I could get done as I rollerbladed from house to house with a bag of that day's Salt Lake Tribune on my back.  Although my problems and concerns were relatively minor then, I appreciated having time to work things through each morning.  I always felt settled and grounded by the time I delivered the last paper to Paul and Helen Hansen and headed for home.

It was in high school that I came to appreciate the value of written reflection when Mr. Gates (who we all called "Master Gates" for some reason), my senior English teacher, asked us to keep a daily journal and write for at least 10 minutes each day.  It was Mr. Gates who I credit with helping me establish my habit of writing in a journal each evening before I go to bed.  This act of writing each night has, maybe more than anything else I do, impacted my development as a learner and a person.  It is a time where I can grapple with questions, articulate insights and ideas I've had, and reflect on my experiences and how they are shaping me.

This blog has become another reflective tool.  And, my sentiments about blogging and how it has changed me were echoed in a post I read on John Gardner's blog just this morning:

Since I became a blogger, albeit an occasional one at that, that status has affected the way I "look" literally at whatever I am seeing. . . .  Being a blogger has turned me into a reporter of sorts.  I find I am constantly vigilant to things I might want to report on.

I think it would be a good idea if more of my fellow higher ed change agents were bloggers.  It might make them more observant of their higher ed settings, force them to try to be more objective and somewhat more detached from what they are observing.

Like John, I find that I am always looking for something interesting, frustrating, or inspiring to write about on this blog.  And, I also second his call for more of us to blog, not necessarily because of how what we write might impact others, but because of what happens to us as we write.  Writing is a process of thinking and rethinking.  Meaningful patterns of words, sentences, and paragraphs do not exist until they are constructed by a human mind.  And, the process of writing creates a space in which the writer can reflect upon and clarify her own ideas.  That is one powerful benefit of reflection--it makes us better thinkers and positions us to make meaning from our sometimes disparate and fragmented experiences.  In some sense, reflection can bring wholeness and integration to our lives.

It is this wholeness, integration, and sense of purpose that is often missing from our professional lives.  In his most recent blog post, my friend Gary Daynes makes this connection and cites a failure to be reflective as one of the things which can erode one's sense of vocation in their work.  This has been my experience as well.  It is at those times when I become wrapped up in the busyness of my everyday/everyweek/everymonth cycles that I begin to lose my sense of purpose.

So, how can one stay reflective and, in turn, maintain a sense of wholeness?

1.  Find a regular time to reflect.  Frequency might be less important than consistency here.  The key, I have found, is to schedule this time and protect it.  When I'm doing my reflective writing, I close my office door, drop the blinds, and close down my email account.  I've found that if I don't, I'll be interrupted (usually by myself and my own distractions).

2.  Read often and read broadly.  This is something I learned from good mentors.  I am much more thoughtful, creative, and reflective when I am exposing myself to new ideas, particularly those that challenge my current thinking.  My reflections are much deeper and more meaningful when I am trying to connect ideas from my reading or asking new questions that my reading has raised.

3.  Find a place that inspires you.  Although much of my reflection takes place in my office, occasionally it is helpful for me to leave and go somewhere that helps me reconnect with my purpose.  For me this place is the Education in Zion gallery on my campus.  It is quiet, the seating is comfortable, and the gallery tells a story that has always been inspiring to me.

4.  Write.  This is painful for most of us.  Typically, we would just rather "think," but as I argued earlier in this post, something happens to our thinking when we try and articulate those thoughts in clear ways.  I have even adopted a reflection model to guide me in my writing because it helps me remember to look for connections to things I'm reading, reflect on meaningful experiences I have had, and ask new questions that help drive new learning.

5.  Review past reflections.  There is something very meaningful and uplifting about looking back at past reflections, be it blog posts, journal entries, or whatever format reflections might take.  In fact, I often learn as much by re-reading my journal entries as I do in writing them.  In looking back at where I've been, I notice growth that I hadn't before, themes that weren't apparent to me at the time of my writing, and experiences which seemed insignificant at the time, but which have proved to be incredibly important and impactful.  It some sense, looking to past reflections might be a form of "meta-reflection" in which we take an even deeper look at our experiences.

So, at the beginning of another busy academic year.  Don't forget to step back and do a bit of reflecting.  Even better, look for ways to start new habits of regular reflection.  You'll be grateful you did.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Stanford Resilience Project

I recently returned from International Conference on the First-Year Experience, sponsored by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition.  Of all the conferences I attend each year, it is slowly becoming my favorite because of the sense of collegiality I feel there and the diverse range of perspectives represented by the international delegates who attend.

One of the very best sessions I attended at the conference was a presentation by Adina Glickman, from Stanford University's Center for Teaching and Learning, on the Stanford Resilience Project.  In a nutshell, Glickman and her colleagues have started an initiative to collect, share, and celebrate stories of resilience from faculty, administrators, and students at Stanford.  Glickman explained in her presentation that they felt something like this was particularly useful at an institution like Stanford where many first-year students may arrive having never experienced significant disappointments, rejections, or failures.  The project was conceived as a way to (a) introduce new students to the concept of resilience and its importance in our lives and (b) to provide a resource that students can turn to when they encounter experiences where a dose of resilience would be helpful (e.g. that first term paper, rejection letter from a limited enrollment program, etc.).

The genius in the project is that the initial objective has been to record a number of these stories and make them available to students.  Fifteen of these stories are available for anyone to view at the project's homepage and more will become available in the coming months.  If you have a few minutes, watch a few of them and consider how hearing these types of stories might benefit students on your own campus.  Particularly noteworthy is the fact that 14 of the 15 stories featured by Stanford come from well-respected faculty members, administrators, and a wildly successful alumnus (Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora). These are individuals who students may mistakenly believe have never struggled.  Imagine the impact upon a struggling student who, in the midst of their "Woe is me, I'll never make it here, I'm the only one who doesn't get it" line of thinking, views one of these videos.  Glickman shared stories in her presentation of students whose experience at Stanford has been transformed as a result of their interaction with the site and involvement with the project.  Future plans include the ability for students to submit their own stories to the project site as well as a database of stories which can be searched using key words.

There are four core values or messages which the project is founded upon

  • Get perspective
  • Learn about learning
  • Seek Advice
  • Connect w/ Community
I can't think of any other set of messages that might be more important for a campus to convey to their new students.  Those of us who work with this population would do well to consider how we might use Stanford's work, or better yet, collect and share stories on our own campuses.  I can think of at least two times during the first year when these sorts of stories would have power.

First, at New Student Convocation university administrators and other campus leaders could share stories of resilience as a form of role induction.  Embedded in these stories would be messages about what students should expect from their experience, including challenges, support resources, and the potential for transformative growth.  The concept of role induction comes from the field of psychotherapy and refers to the idea that clients should be prepared for what will happen in therapy.  Typically, this occurs in the first session with a therapist or in some sort of pretherapy preparation.  While a very simple concept and requiring very little time on the part of therapists, it has been shown to significantly decrease attrition and drop-out from within therapeutic alliances.  This same sort of thing should be happening in new student orientation programming and convocation seems like a great venue.  

Second, as much as a campus may try to be proactive in conveying messages of resilience to students on the front-end of their experience, there will inevitably be times when students will need to hear these sorts of stories again.  While that time will vary across each individual student, campuses could be strategic by coordinating some kind of second semester programming where students are brought together to reflect on their first semester experiences and consider how resilience might apply.  This timing would ensure that students have received their first semester grades and have an opportunity to be part of a campus-wide dialogue regarding lessons learned, obstacles overcome, and positive changes that can be made in the coming months.  

Thanks to Adina Glickman and Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning for doing such great work.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Do we really need honors programs?

Promulgating hearsay is never a great idea, but I am going to do it here at the risk of regretting it later.  In a meeting this morning, where attendees discussed the future of the BYU Honors program, it was related that the President of BYU asked a provocative question:  "Do we really need an honors program at BYU?"  I was as surprised as I can remember feeling in recent memory when the story was related.  Not because I have any real affinity to the Honors program on my campus or couldn't imagine it going away, but because I've long been asking myself that question, but feared raising it publicly because of how others might respond.

The Honors experience at my institution is, no doubt, built upon good intentions.  And, for a student who fully engages in the program, they are likely to have a tremendous undergraduate experience.  This is largely because of the requirements laid out to graduate with University Honors.  In addition to more rigorous course requirements, Honors students are engaged in the arts (and write about these experiences), participate in meaningful service, submit a portfolio demonstrating their academic achievement, and write a thesis in conjunction with a research or creative project conducted in their specific area of study.  In short, because Honors students are required to engage in activities which promote deep learning, they (in theory) learn a great deal more than they would have otherwise and have a more transformative experience.  Most Honors programs also boast of small class sizes and courses taught by the very best faculty on campus.

This all begs the question, why wouldn't a campus want an Honors program?  Aside from the frequent reports that actual experience of an Honors student is likely to be far different than what is advertised in the glossy brochure (for example, on my campus many of the honors courses are actually taught by adjunct faculty, which isn't inherently negative, but far different than what is advertised to students), I can think of at least two often overlooked reasons, as to why any campus should think twice about sponsoring an Honors Program.

The first has to do with resources.  Honors programs, because of all of the opportunities they often afford students (e.g. small courses, subsidized participation in campus arts events, research opportunities), are expensive.  But, a lot of the things we do in higher education are expensive, so this alone shouldn't be overly concerning.  The problem I see has to do with the distribution of resources among students.  On my campus just under 100 students per year graduate with University Honors.  So, not only is the BYU Honors program expensive, but it devotes a large number of resources to a very small percentage of the overall student body (the incoming class hovers somewhere around 6,000 each year).  It may be naive to think that taking the resources devoted to Honors and redistributing them across the entire student body would make a difference (and, I'm willing to admit this); however, these resources could be reallocated to one or more other programs which do have an impact on a much larger group of students.  If nothing else, spending inordinate amounts of money on 100 students a year feels wrong to me in principle.

The second and more important reason I feel the way I do has to do with the implicit message that the mere existence of an honors program sends about the rest of campus (the non-honors portion of campus), which is that everything else we do here is "average," which the larger society (the various Lake Wobegons where we each live) has really taught us to see as sub-par.  As an example, I took the following text from the website of an honors program from another institution just this afternoon.  Consider what it seems to imply about the quality of the courses and learning experiences outside of this particular honors program:

What if your classes were designed around the concept of helping you practice the habit of thinking? Of helping you develop an authentic writer's voice, so that your words have "the feel of you about them," as Irish poet Seamus Heaney once remarked? Of helping you challenge yourself to such a degree that you learn things about yourself that you didn't know existed? If these questions appeal to you, then you've come to the right place.

I can't help but chuckle at the thought of a student reading this and thinking "Do I not practice thinking in my other classes? Maybe I'm at the wrong school."  What I'm getting at here is that when a campus creates an  honors program and then boasts of the great experience it provides, it sends an implicit message to the rest of campus (students and faculty alike) that it is okay for everything else to be less than great.  In the worst cases it provides an excuse for a campus to provide an educational experience to the rest of the student body (which in the case of my campus is a large group) which is lacking in some way.

So, to be more clear, I have no problem with the things that go on in an honors program.  They are educationally purposeful and potentially transformative experiences that we would want for any and all students.  And, it is this point that is at the core of my argument--we should be providing an honors experience for all students on a campus.  Of course, on a large campus like mine that may mean scaling back the honors experience to scale it up to the entire student body.  However, we owe the very best experience possible to every one of the students on our campuses.  Why couldn't every student be required to submit a portfolio, participate in service, write a thesis, and participate in the arts (even if we couldn't make all of their classes small)?  I'm not saying that this is an easy experience to craft or provide, but the institutions that figure out how to do it (or, which already are) will be providing a service to students which the rest of us can only pretend to be offering.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A clever solution for disengaged communities

‘The idea for Play Me, I’m Yours came from visiting my local launderette. I saw the same people there each weekend and yet no one talked to one another. I suddenly realised that within a city, there must be hundreds of these invisible communities, regularly spending time with one another in silence. Placing a piano into the space was my solution to this problem, acting as a catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of a space.’

This is a statement from Luke Jerram, an international artist and the brainchild of an art installation called "Play Me, I'm Yours."  Quite simply, Jerram's idea was to place pianos all over a city and then provide the public with free and open access to them (see the picture on the right).  The project has been well received and has already made an appearance in 25 cities across the globe, with Paris, Geneva, London, and Toronto slated for this summer.  And, as this Salt Lake Tribune article reports (there is currently an installation in downtown Salt Lake City), there are some amazing stories that have come out of the project.

When I read about what inspired Jerram with this idea (i.e. the laundromat story above) I immediately thought of college campuses (at least the one where I work) and the "invisible communities" that seem to exist there.  On large campuses especially there often seems to be a sense of loneliness and isolation. Students attend classes with one another, without ever speaking; or sit next to the same students in the library day after day, never reaching out.  There seem to be lessons in Jerram's artwork  for those of us interested in building community on college campuses and engaging students with one another in meaningful ways.  While most campuses have clubs, intramurals, and Greek Life, and these initiatives play some role in campus life, I'm not sure that they do much at all (if anything) to address the "invisible communities" of students who study, attend class, and eat together, but who never connect.

Maybe I'm particularly sensitive to this because of an experience I had this week that helped me clearly see that I am a part of one of these invisible communities.  I typically arrive at my office around 7:00 a.m., long before most others get to campus (this is intentional, I can get more done between 7:00 & 9:00 than I do the rest of the day).  And, almost daily I pass one or more student custodians as I walk into my building.  They are usually just finishing their shift that begins at 4:00 a.m.  Occasionally I will smile or nod at them as I walk by, but rarely do I make any real effort to acknowledge or converse with them.  Last Friday morning, one of these surely sleep-deprived students, who I'm sure I have seen and walked by countless times without ever saying hello, knocked on my door and asked "Are you related to any of the Buntings in Kanab, Utah?"  Well, I am, and it turns out that we are second cousins.  We talked for about 10 minutes about her family, my family, and the little town where our parents grew up.  I've seen her just about every day since then and we've smiled, said hello, and chatted briefly a few more times.

I've thought about this experience a lot over the last week and (a) been embarrassed that I don't reach out more often to those around me and (b) what a difference it made for this student to reach out to connect with me.  And, I now wonder how much more often these kinds of interactions might occur if our campuses were designed to in ways that might catalyze conversations between strangers.  In the case of my experience, it was my nameplate that started the conversation (the student saw my name, realized it was also her mother's maiden name, and then started a conversation).  What other kinds of things (like Jerram's randomly placed pianos) could an institution strategically place in the physical spaces of its campus--especially those places where people anonymously congregate--to bring people together?  

Here's one example from a blog post I wrote a few years ago.  I think we would be surprised how little effort it might take and how positively students might respond.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Pathways to graduation: The need for both control and coherence

In a column in this morning's Inside Higher Ed, professor Vincent Tinto makes an argument for attending to student "momentum" when it comes to issues of college completion.  The take-home message is that gaining and maintaining momentum is a key factor in determining whether or not students complete college.  The logic is that the faster students move through their experience, the more likely they are to persist and finish.  Tinto also points to the work of The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges as an example of how institutions and policy makers can use student completion data to identify "momentum points" or milestones that, when reached by students, significantly increase the likelihood of completion.  In many states (Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, to name a few), this work has led to an increased focus on increasing curricular structure and developing "pathways" that are associated with successful college completion.

While completion isn't a tremendous problem on my campus, time-to-degree is and we see increasing numbers of students taking 12 or more semesters to graduate.  Additionally, because of my work with new students, I see the problems that come in the absence of well organized curricula and clear pathways that can guide student decision-making as it relates to course selection (I recently commented on this issue here).  So, I have always been a proponent for increased curricular structure, constraint, and coherence, particularly with regard to the general education aspect of the student experience.

However, there is also a need to balance structure and constraint with the equally important need for students to be able to exercise some degree of control over their educational experiences.  I was reminded of this recently as I began reading Daniel Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness.  Although I'm only a few chapters in, I've read enough to know that Gilbert's premise (backed by plenty of research that he cites in the book) is that we are pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy.  Gilbert opens the book with the argument that, while we believe we know what will make us happy and chart courses we believe will lead us there (e.g. I'll be happy when I have lots of money and am a partner in a law firm, so I'll go to law school now so that one day I can be happy), happiness is more dependent upon a much simpler factor--the degree to which we feel we have control over our experiences.  Of course, there are countless aspects of our lives we cannot control; however, if we perceive the inability to exercise control in too many instances, we become depressed, reactive, and unhappy.

So, my question after reading Chapter 1 of Gilbert's book was how institutions can preserve choice and an appropriate degree of control for students (especially with regard to curricular decisions), while still providing enough structure and guidance that students' experiences are both cohesive and efficient in terms of time-to-graduation.  Like Dewey argues in Experience and Education, I'm of the mind that complete freedom for learners is likely to be fragmented and wandering, ultimately resulting in experience which is "miseducative."  Additionally, too much freedom often leads to anxiety, resistance, and extreme frustration for learners wishing for guidance from a more knowledgeable other (I still remember the backlash against the professor who taught my Western Philosophy class when he gave students complete freedom to determine what we would do for our final projects--although they may not admit it, students often want someone to tell them what to do and how to do it, particularly when grades are on the line).  Consequently, there is a need for educators to consider how freedom and constraint can be balanced and integrated in ways that provide an experience that is both personally meaningful and educationally purposeful.

Campuses wishing to preserve control, while attending to completion agendas might consider the following:  :

  • Choice architecture:  Campus policies and systems result in choice systems for students.  When these systems are designed in thoughtful ways, they can leave room for students to exercise control while increasing the likelihood that students will make choices that are associated with positive outcomes.  For example, effective general education programs increase the likelihood that students will achieve learning outcomes by limiting the number of courses which fulfill a particular requirement (my institution has yet to learn that lesson), while ensuring that this list is long enough to allow adequate diversity when students make their choice as to which course to take.  
  • Decision-making tools:  As much as we complain about the poor choices made by students, we often are to blame because of our failure to provide students with the information they need in order to make informed choices.  And, giving students the information is only half the battle--we also have to be thoughtful about how the information is delivered.  The day of static webpages and poorly written catalogs is over.  Students want and need dynamic tools that can use student-specific data (provided by the student) to suggest customized actions or paths for students, based on their needs and interests--think "Choose your own Adventure" for course registration.
  • A Clear institutional mission:  An institution which is clear about its values and goals is well positioned to determine where student choice can be allowed and when institutional imperatives will rule the day.  Once campus leaders have clearly articulated what their uncompromising values are, they have a foundation from which to work and can go about determining how choice can be facilitated around these goals.  Additionally, when campuses work to create a culture on campus that aligns with these values, and then repeatedly and explicitly communicate these values to students, decisions are likely to be better and more in line with the hoped-for outcomes.
  • Mandatory and effective advising:  This may be the most important element.  Well-trained and knowledgeable advisors are the human element that can make everything else work.  Advisors can provide students with accurate information regarding campus policies, educate them about learning outcomes and institutional aims, and engage them in dialogue about their own academic goals.  An advisor who both understands (and supports) the institutional mission and values the importance of student self-authorship, can assist students in developing academic plans that allow them to meet both their own as well as institutional goals.  I have yet to see the decision tree, online tutorial, orientation session, or incentive system that can do that as well as a live human being.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Why educators should be experts at apologizing

Earlier this week I finished reading Better by Mistake:  The unexpected benefits of being wrong, by Alina Tugend.  The book explores our fear of making and owning up to mistakes as well as the difference that a bit more honesty and humility can make for individuals and organizations.  It's well-written, engaging, and insightful--probably the best thing I've read on this topic since Carol Dweck's book, Mindset.  In the closing chapter of the book, Tugend discusses the relationship between mistakes and apologies, specifically the role that apology plays in learning from and being changed (in productive ways) by our mistakes. That topic seems very appropriate as a conclusion for Tugend's book, because her overall message seems to be that the very best learners (be it individuals, families, organizations, etc.) recognize they make mistakes, acknowledge them when they occur, and leverage them to facilitate learning.

There is an implication in this line of thinking for those of us who call ourselves "educators," which is that we should be apologizing a lot more than we do.  Apologizing should be a common practice on our campuses, not just because it is the nice or civil thing to do, but also because it is an integral aspect to the learning we experience both individually and collectively.  Like Tugend points out in her book, our problem is that we, typically, perceive apologies as either (a) an admission of weakness or incompetence or (b) a "confession" that will get us in trouble at some point in the future.

Think of the last big mistake that was made on your campus, particularly one that effected the work of a large number of people and/or left a sizable portion of the campus frustrated.  What was the response?  I'd give you three to one odds in Vegas that it included some kind of vague, impersonal statement (probably sent via email) that included some version of the sentiment "mistakes were made."  No real responsibility for the mistake is taken by the sender of the email (who generally has no name, but is speaking on behalf of a faceless entity like "the university" or "the administration"), no explanation for what led to the mistake is provided, and very little is said about how the mistake is being addressed or what steps will be taken in the future to avoid a similar occurrence, just a "steps are being taken" statement that doesn't leave anyone feeling any better.

This happened on my campus over the last week.  A team of engineers in the Office of Information Technology performed some kind of systems upgrade or maintenance overnight on May 23 and in the midst of those upgrades a number of critical campus servers were impacted in unexpected and disastrous ways.  While I was only impacted in minor ways (I couldn't access a network drive my department uses), our student employees along with more than half of the full-time employees on campus lost all of their saved/sent emails (which I would never have thought would be that big an issue, but is actually tremendously problematic, for all sorts of reasons), our Campus Accommodations department couldn't bill or accept housing payments, and I even heard yesterday that one of our academic colleges lost nearly 150,000 data files associated with ongoing research projects (they were told by OIT representatives that the data is irretrievable--at which point I would have begun throwing shoes at heads).

While I have no doubt that these problems were unforeseen and that OIT is working tremendously hard to fix the problems, the way the mistake has been handled and managed publicly has been poor.  Although updates on "fixes" have been provided on a daily basis since Tuesday morning, no real remorse or regret has been expressed, no explanation for what led to the problems has been provided, and nothing has been said about how OIT will adapt its practices in the future to avoid similar failings.

I'm trying to stay optimistic and hold out hope that this information is coming, after all, it has only been a little over a week; however, my experience has taught me that large organizations (like my university) are unwilling to make mistakes public and open, such that they can be learned from.  Rather, swift decisions are made, people lose their jobs, and we attempt to forget the mistake as quickly as possible so that we can go back to thinking that all is well.  The irony in all of this is that, for a setting where learning, improvement, and growth are so valued among students, we rarely take an approach to institutional or administrative mistakes that yields those outcomes for ourselves and our work.

One more story.  I've seen this same phenomenon at work in a more personal way over the last few months as a close colleague of mine (who has been a tremendous mentor to me, both personally and professionally) has been, from my perspective, treated very poorly by administration and, essentially, forced into retirement.  The situation has been mishandled on a number of levels from her being notified of the decision with the words "the university is not interested in renewing your contract," to miscommunications regarding when the action will be official, to an awkward dance where she is still working in her position while her replacement is invited to committee meetings she attends and included in intra-departmental communications (which she learns of after-the-fact).  Not surprisingly, she feels hurt, betrayed, and unappreciated--she is even considering legal action because she previously signed a contract indicating she would be in her position until Aug. 31, 2012 but her tenure in her current administrative role is set to expire on June 31st, which creates problems in terms of compensation.  I can't help but wonder how different things would be if someone would take the opportunity to talk with her face-to-face, acknowledge mistakes they made (which they were), express regret for the way it has all made her feel, and talk with her about how similar transitions could be handled in the future.  Of course, it wouldn't change the superficial features of the situation--she would still be moving on and still be sad about that; however, my guess is that both my colleague and those administrators involved would feel better about the whole situation and learn something.

Warren Buffet is a good example of how leaders can and should apologize when they make mistakes.  Commenting to his shareholders in February 2009 he said

During 2008 I did some dumb things in investments.  I made at least one major mistake of commission and several lesser ones that also hurt.  Furthermore, I made some errors of omission, sucking my thumb when new facts came in that should have caused me to reexamine my thinking and promptly take action.

Buffet went on to provide detail as to what mistakes he was referring to and taking full responsibility for the errors.  Maybe someone like Buffet can get away with that, while the rest of us don't have the luxury of calling ourselves dumb.  However, there seems to be something endearing about individuals and organizations who can say "I was wrong."  More importantly, that kind of candor and humility can't help but lead to learning for just about everyone involved.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The day I found myself on Google Scholar

I have never considered myself a writer, a researcher, or an academic.  Although I do a lot of writing, have started to develop a research agenda, and am a doctoral candidate, none of the above labels have ever really come to mind when I think about myself and the work I do.  I still struggle to explain to family and friends what, exactly, it is that I do all day.

But, I feel slightly more academic today because I just found myself on Google Scholar.  I'm not the Bryce Bunting with a ball valve patent (he lives in Georgia and owns a manufacturing business--I know that, in part, because he emailed me once and introduced himself as the "other" Bryce Bunting.  Oddly enough, we are both from Utah), I'm the one that comes up a little down the list with an equally uninspiring entry for an academic paper ("Understanding the Dynamics of Peer Mentor Learning") published in the most recent special edition of the Journal of the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition.

The study explores what undergraduate peer mentors learn through their experiences mentoring first-year college students.  It's been a bit of a journey as well.  The data were collected in 2004, led to a conference presentation in 2005, a pretty shoddy draft of the article was written shortly thereafter, and the manuscript was rejected by a journal in 2009.  In 2010 we got serious about getting it published and started the hard work of revising the manuscript.  After about six months of work we submitted the article for publication in May of 2011.  In August we were asked to "revise & resubmit," which we did.  The article was then finally accepted for publication in December of 2011.  Three more revisions later I received my copy of the finished article just yesterday.  I never realized how much work goes into scholarly writing.  It's been an eye opening experience for me, but one (strangely enough) that I hope to have again.  I never thought I would be saying that, particularly when I graduated as a PE major six years ago.  

So, somehow, today I feel like I should be acting a little smarter and more scholarly to justify my existence on a search engine that uses the word scholar.