Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Another View of The Great Recession: A More Detached View Most Cannot Afford, Some Upsides

Partially as a result of my good fortune of having been born a child of privilege; but more so as a result of my own hard work and good luck too, I can afford a more detached and sanguine view of the “Great Recession.” In this respect too I am very different from most of our students who have suffered greatly along with their families in this recession. I am struggling to find some upside in this terrible societal upheaval. Here’s how my thinking goes:
  • The biggest movements forward in the past half century to improve success of new students were born in crisis such as
 Civil rights movement which led to the Higher Education Act of 1965 and Title IV to provide federal financial aid finally making higher education possible for millions of Americans
 Anti-war movement which led to the establishment of the University 101 course at the University of South Carolina in 1972 and then ultimately an international movement urging higher education to pay more attention to “freshmen”
 The recession and demographic declines of numbers of traditional aged college students in early 1980’s which were catalysts for taking more steps to enhance student retention. The declining number of students also partly explained the great response to the Freshman Year Experience conference series which I began in 1982
 And now, the convergence of forces that led to results of Nov 08 elections, the financial collapse, etc.
  • This is a really humdinger of a crisis. What an opportunity to reengineer
 most important societal transition since the civil rights landmark transitions of 1964 and 65
 again war is a catalyst for social change, fueled this time by additional factors such as massive economic upheaval and a populist revolt against three decades of redistribution of wealth
 for a second time we have elected an ivy league grad, young intellectual of a minority group, who is engaging in precedent setting behaviors to change societal perceptions of what minority members can and cannot be and achieve
 everything now on the table—can expect massive resistance to change, e.g. health care reform—we are all going to have to decide which side we are on
 so many of our institutions and systems have broken down: the schools, foreign policy, the banking system, the credit rating system, the real estate and home financing system, student lending industry, and health care
 future areas of emphases appear to be those most closely aligned to what higher education can best support: education, health care, the environment, alternative energy sources, foreign service and diplomacy as opposed to military intervention, social and public service
 more attention to be paid to the needs of the poor
 more legitimacy given to Affirmative Action
 increased financing to make higher ed more affordable and accessible (e.g. pending legislation to end subsidies to lenders to make more money available directly to students);
 probable redistribution of wealth through revision of tax code
 more growth of government regulation and accountability (e.g. through USDOE and regional accreditors)
 who is in the White House has always mattered and will continue to influence what students want to major in
 huge projected increase for performance of national service
 hopefully less demonizing of illegal immigration and more steps to embrace and assimilate immigrants
 more support for basic science and use of empirical data as a basis for public policy rather than ideology
 the President is asking Congress to adopt public policy to drive more students to start in two-year sector and hence more demand for transfer opportunities; and President Obama is asking Congress for 12 billion dollars to enhance our community colleges.
 increased demand to be more able to finish in former two-year sector, what I am calling the “comprehensive college” sector
 more outsourcing of the first college year to the two-year sector
 demands to reduce cost and time to degree completion rates which makes the demand for three year BA inevitable

Bottomline:
1. All of this suggests to me the time is ripe for expanded efforts on student success.
2. There are enormous opportunities and needs for a reengineered higher education.

~John N. Gardner

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Gift of Self

The “season of giving” has me thinking about gifts. And “giving” is one of those potentially hot button words for academics in their own world of the culture wars. “Giving” at best is loaded with ambiguities.

Unfortunately, with reference to faculty/student relationships and interaction patterns, “giving” as in faculty “giving” students something too often connotes students receiving something from professors that students don’t deserve, especially grades, or other “favors” or acts of dispensation. The term “giving” has come to mean a kind of lowering of academic standards. I regret that the concept of faculty “giving” to students has taken on such negative connotations, other than “giving lectures.”

In my own experience in teaching thousands of students in South Carolina over my 32.5 years there of active teaching employment, I had countless opportunities to run into my students, often years after I had taught them. It was easy to do that. South Carolina is a small state, relatively, about four million people. The state is one big happy family reunion. And most of my students, wanted to remain in South Carolina after college, even if they hadn’t originally come from there.

Whenever I would run into my former students they would regale me with stories, recollections, anecdotes about what I had “given” them: lots of homework; challenging exams; required newspaper reading of foreign newspapers such as The New York Times; writing assignments based on the belief that yes, they could indeed write even if they hadn’t been asked in high school to write; interesting field trips; outside of class assistance during office hours; “northern” and other “liberal” attitudes and beliefs; perspectives on US politicians that they would never hear at home; attention; support; friendship; concern; empathy; and for some smaller classes, a group dinner in my home.

Eventually, I figured out what the consistent theme was that they were giving me in their feedback. What they remembered most was that I had given them myself: the gift of self. They could and did recount all kinds of ways that I had given myself to them, and simultaneously held them to high and exacting standards which they came to appreciate.

On one occasion, I ran into former student whom I had taught one summer in Upward Bound, when he was about 16. I met him 25 years later after he had graduated from college and medical school and returned to Columbia, S.C. as a family practice physician. He told me that before he took my class in Upward Bound, circa 1971, that no high school teacher had ever given him a writing assignment (SC public schools were not racially integrated until 1970 and hence he was a product of a de jure segregated school system where it was assumed that African American students had no need to learn to write). His feedback was that I was the first “teacher” who believed he could write and that he had any ideas worth writing about. And until that time, he had not believed he could write, or had anything worthy to say in writing.

I came to realize that it was much more likely that my students would remember me as a person, my gifts to them, than the cognitive information I was teaching at the time.

The end of the calendar year is a great time for resolutions. I hope you will think more consciously about what gifts you are giving your students. What gifts do you want your students to remember you for? Resolve to be more intentional about giving those gifts in 2010. This is something entirely under your control, unlike many aspects of faculty-student relationships which involve things not totally under our control. Consider the possibilities. They are virtually (no pun intended) unlimited.

John N. Gardner