Friday, November 20, 2009

A Thanksgiving That Was Forever a Teachable Moment: My 9/11

Friday, November 20, is the 46th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. Like most all of my generation, this was our 9/11. I remember where I was that day, what I was doing, what I was thinking. My world would never be the same. It has remained a powerful epiphany for Thanksgiving.

On a beautiful, sunny, warm, late fall day in Marietta, Ohio, I was sitting in class in political philosophy, really engaged in what one of my favorite professors was telling us. We were reading one of the greatest works of western civilization: Plato’s Republic. We had been spending weeks discussing one of the two most central questions of that work, two questions that are still paramount in my mind each day of my adult life: What is Justice? And Who Should Rule?

That day, the professor, Dr. R.S. Hill, was about to lead us to the answer to the second question: that, of course, philosophers should be kings. But he didn’t quite get there that day because our class was interrupted with the news of the President’s assassination. Class was excused.

I went outside and briefly talked with fellow students. But I found no answers, no solace in that. So I went to where I always found solace, to the place on campus where was stored the truth of all ages: the Library. And I spent several hours in there meditating, and taking in the smell, the feel, the constancy of that holy place.

Later that afternoon a college-wide announcement went out that classes for the following week would be cancelled! I was stunned. That was the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Monday was declared a day of national mourning. So the College administration decided that because they would be obligated to cancel classes on Monday, that it seemed pointless to keep the students around from Friday to Tuesday.

The reaction: pandemonium. Sheer jubilation on the part of many of my fellow students. That Friday evening was one all night party. I was shocked. How could they be celebrating when the cause of this unanticipated extended vacation was the murder of our President? This was one more of the many clues I was getting in college that I was different from most of my fellow students and probably would never quite “fit in” outside the academy. But I didn’t know that yet.

I also didn’t know yet that that other unresolved question—what is justice----would be the guiding intellectual, social, moral, political question paramount to my life. This also became my principal professional question: what is justice—for first-year students, sophomores, seniors, and transfers.

Thanksgiving is one more occasion for us to reflect with our students on what are the most important questions we all need to be pursuing in college. For in college and life, the questions are often more empowering than the answers.

-John N. Gardner

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Power to the Peers!

The ring of the header above has to reveal that I am a child of the 60’s with its evocation of “power to the people.” I confess, I am. That was the period in which I acquired my idealism which drives me still. I was inspired by President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the early feminist thinkers and leaders, the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, the anti-war movement, in which I participated after I completed my tour of military service, honorably and with gratitude, the subject of another blog. Anyway, to the point of this blog: students have always had power.

Decades of good research has determined that the single greatest influence on college student decision making during the college years, is the influence of other students. This is one of those things like the working in college phenomena. We can’t beat it. Why not join it? This is to say, once you recognize the enormous influence of students on students, the logical conclusion should be we need to try to influence this by putting the students we want to influence other students into positions of influence to do just that.

Inspired by uses of “peer mentors” in first-year seminars that I saw at such places as Baldwin-Wallace College (OH) and Kean University of New Jersey, I decided in 1991, when I was the Executive Director of University 101 at the University of South Carolina, to personally be the first 101 instructor to use a “peer mentor” as a test case. It was a wonderful experience. I am indebted to my peer leader, Ms. Lisa Huttinger, for giving me and my students such a wonderful experience. And then I became even more indebted to my Co-director of University 101, Professor Dan Berman for picking up the ball and creating our powerful peer leader program at USC. Today, over 175 sections of the course annually have a peer leader.

I say “even more indebted” because my colleague, Dan Berman, had been a sophomore at Marietta College in 1961, when I was a floundering first-year student also at Marietta. And it was his spontaneous and generous reaching out to influence me, by showing me how to take lecture notes, and select really engaging professors, that I attribute more than anything else to getting me off academic probation. I often think were it not for my own “peer leader” I would never have been able to stay in college, and then go on to help other college students. Power to the peers!

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How Long Has it Been Since You Were in a High School?

With all the evidences of under preparation and negative attitudes towards learning that we see in some of our students, it sure is handy to have the public schools to blame! Where would we be without them (in more ways than one)? This observation reminds me of a professional student affairs officer (Mark Shanley, now of Miami University of Ohio and once of my beloved original USC) who opined to me: “John, it is a lot easier to just sit back and be critical of the abuses of fraternities, than it is to do something constructive.” By “constructive” he meant serving as a faculty advisor to a fraternity. So he conned me into doing that—for 16 years. That’s another story. But what about doing something “positive” with our colleagues who are preparing to send us our new students?

Last night I did such a thing. I did a presentation (be glad to send you a copy) for 9th graders and their parents at the local high school in the community where I live. I so enjoyed these families, their optimism, concerns, and appreciation for how important they know college is to their futures as families.

The fact that I could be there at all still amazed me. I say this because back around 1994 I decided that it was high time I offered to do some “volunteer community service” in the small South Carolina city where I was living, Lexington. I thought, well what could I do? What skills and knowledge do I have that might have any socially redeeming value in my community? My answer was to go out to the local high school, meet with the director of guidance, and offer to do a pro bono workshop for college-bound seniors. She was stunned that I would make such an offer and said that she would not be empowered to make such a decision and that I had to see the principal. So I did. And he sat stone faced, arms crossed on his chest, appraising me as some commie, pinko, liberal educator wanting to come in and contaminate his kids, whose job his was to protect. So he declined my offer.

Never taking “no” for an answer very well, I thought about how could I get my knowledge in that school. Then I had an inspiration: put it on video and sell it to the school. And, that’s what I did, thanks to USC and the wonderful talents of South Carolina Educational Television. They produced a video “Your College Experience” which was sold all over the country, generating high six figure revenues, and hopefully helping some college bound students.

This time in Brevard, North Carolina, there were no such roadblocks. And this has become a significant form of community service for me. I have met with college bound seniors and parents, rising juniors and parents about college choice, and ninth grade students and parents about why go to college and how to prepare for that over the high school years.

Any of my readers could do this too. And/or you could do other things to bring your expertise and good will to our partners in the secondary schools. I hope you will consider doing so. It takes a whole village to raise a successful college student.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why Does the First-Year Matter?

More than ever this is a story we must be telling. Like the most important things in life (e.g. “I love you”) the most important messages must be delivered repeatedly and explicitly. I raise this because almost daily I am hearing anecdotes about the ravages of the “Great Recession” on first-year programs—and their reduction or elimination.

I have seen this before: in the recessions of 1980-82, 1990-92, and 2000-2002, but this one appears to be more extensive. First-year programs are often vulnerable for multiple reasons: they are newer, may be led by younger and non-faculty educators, often disproportionately serve disadvantaged students; are not based in traditional academic departments with more power, and have more part-time and marginalized employees, etc.

So in these times you need a mantra that cannot be said too often. Why does the first-year matter? Because it is that critical period of transition when:

1. Students receive their foundational coursework

2. Students form their attitudes towards faculty, staff and the institution

3. Students do or do not develop college level study habits

4. Students may or may not overcome negative attitudes towards formal education acquired during their previous educational experiences

5. Students are assessed to give us base line assessment data in order for us to determine how we add value and to demonstrate accountability for such outcomes

6. Students should be introduced to service opportunities

7. Students learn our institutional mission and the roles and purposes of higher education

8. Students have their first college experiences which form the “foundation” for ultimate mission attainment

9. Students choose those all important relationships with other students that will influence their success

10. Students make important choices about which groups to affiliate with and thus be influenced by

11. Students begin the acquisition of lifelong adult habits of mind and behavior

12. Students develop and improve time and other self management skills

13. Students decide whether to persist or drop out.

How could there be any doubt that the first year matters? Unfortunately, the question is not asked often enough. What matters is that you develop your own mantra and rationale. I hope this will inspire you.

-John N. Gardner