Friday, January 15, 2010

Check List for Starting a New Term

This blog is inspired by fact that I discovered last week that to start something properly, that I start repeatedly, I need a check list.

After a nice long holiday break, last week I had to take my first business trip by air. The flight was at a ghastly hour in the early morning and as I was half way down my mountain road to the airport, I realized I had left my wallet at home. So I had to turn around, race back up the mountain and get my wallet.

When I arrived at the airport, I found that that all important “hook” that is supposed to perch on top of your roller bag was gone. This was a near disaster. It meant that I know had to roll two bags, using both arms, through airports instead of hooking one on the other and greatly simplifying my movements.

On my return flights from this same trip last week, I left my priceless pocket calendar on an airplane; and I left a beautiful silk and cashmere scarf in an airport lounge. What is happening to me?

I decided that I have not been practicing one of the keys to success: using a check list. And I really should have been inspired to have been better organized because I had seen only three days before this trip, the incredible new film with George Clooney, “Up in the Air,” about a metaphoric symbol for our times in the Great Recession: a man who aspires only to earn 10 million frequent flier miles on American Airlines as he flies from city to city earning his living by firing people at businesses whose managers have retained him to do the deed.

You’d think as a 3.5 million miler on my airline of choice that I would already have had at least a mental check list. Well, now I have a paper check list, just like the pilots that fly me, and I am going to use it prior to every departure. I am an adult. I learn from my experiences.

This has made me think: what kind of a check list do we need to start a new academic term?

More importantly, what kind of a check list do our students need? If you, my reader, are a college teacher, could you work with your students to make up a “check list” for them to complete to insure their success as they prepare to fly with you this term? Sure you could. I hope you will. Otherwise, many of your students will be “up in the air” and not well grounded in your course where you want them to be.

-John Gardner

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Great Recession’s Toll on Our Students

Many of our students have never had it easy in college and it has always been a struggle. But my sources at the front tell me that things have never been as bad for students in contemporary higher education as they are now during the “Great Recession.” And, of course, we are having our own very distracting problems, particularly with the impact of institutional budget reductions and with the impact of the Recession on our own loved ones outside our work in higher education. In my case, I have a brother who has been unemployed since last February and a sister whose job was reduced from full-time to half-time, but none of her expenses. But what about our students?

These are some of my thoughts, concerns, perhaps. Please compare these with yours:

• under more stress than ever (implications for demand on your counselors and all helping professionals)

• huge family pressures due to recession

• more need than ever for financial support and jobs on campus and connections to off-campus jobs

• going to have to ramp up Financial Aid offices and stop running them like sweat shops with all info now just on the web

• need more help in career planning—many of the old jobs aren’t going to be there anymore, vocational landscape is changing—implications for staffing of career centers—students need more help in vocational decision making

• students being drawn to public sector work—the government is hiring! Greater appeal of service professions especially teaching. (Raises questions of who is going to produce all the teachers? Universities haven’t stepped up which is a reason why in number of states community colleges are being authorized to offer teaching degrees). These careers have the only defined benefit plans left.

• students struggling to figure out what should their values be and many taking multiple gap years to do so: the quintessential American chase for riches has proved to be ephemeral

• students need us more than ever: they can’t function in the knowledge economy without us

• implication: they can even less afford the typical first year with its Vampire Economics (August train wreck) and Curriculum Roulette (high probability of high DWFI grades in first year across sections)—means first year has to be shaken up

• higher education is going to have to be more focused on the public good vs emulating the culture of capitalism and the relentless pursuit of increased wealth

• going to have to be more connected to employers

• going to have to rethink our curriculum and how we prepare students particularly in fields that have caused our financial Tsunami: banking, finance, real estate, auditing, insurance, law, public policy, and government service. Just think of the implications alone for the MBA curricula!

• we have to reduce time to degree completion rates which means we have to accelerate the BA degree and produce a real “three year” degree.

• we must pay more attention to the increasing numbers of students who are arriving on our campuses who have sacrificed the most for other Americans, our recently discharged veterans, as well as active duty military. The time for counseling, advising and other forms of understanding and support for America’s newest GI’s is now. And, it is worthy to note that they also have other student transition needs because they also come to us as “new” students, transfers, sophomores, etc.

I think I am just glad I was an undergraduate student in decades past. I really didn’t have to cope with any of these variables. Does this give me adequate capacity for empathy for my students today?

-John N. Gardner

Monday, January 11, 2010

Happy Anniversary to My Adult Self

Today as I write this blog, January 10, 2010, I reflect, that this was the first day of the rest of my life that really matters, back on January 10, 1967. Forty-three years ago tonight I “cleared” in to my new base in the US Air Force, Shaw AFB, South Carolina. I had arrived at a place I had great hesitation about coming to, a base in the “Deep South” which I thought would be like a foreign country from my vantage point as a young, white, “Yankee,” liberal, arriving about two years after the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. But if I hadn’t come to South Carolina that night, I never would have discovered my true vocation.

How do our students “discover their true vocations”? Mine was largely due to circumstances beyond my control. But I had taken maximum advantage of opportunities I had been previously offered to some day be able to take maximum advantage of circumstances beyond my control. That’s what we have to prepare our students to be able to do.

In my case, I had been the recipient of a fine liberal arts education at a small liberal arts college (Marietta). Then, to escape the draft, I decided to go to graduate school. But I was drafted in grad school anyway, and hastily finished an MA in American Studies before being voluntarily inducted into the US Air Force. Because I had that liberal arts masters degree, the Air Force had to give me special consideration for a duty assignment. And they needed psychiatric social workers due to the Vietnam War buildup and I became one.

After being sent to my permanent duty assignment in SC, and on base less than 24 hours, my squadron commander called me in and told me that he had been reviewing my record and had discovered that I had more education than anyone in my squadron except the physicians. In turn, that made him give me a direct order to become a college teacher in the University of South Carolina Extension Division.

I explained to my commander that I was not a college teacher and had no teaching experience anywhere. He said that was alright and that the Air Force believed in having people like me “volunteer” to perform “public service.”

I was 22 years old. No one had ever asked me to “volunteer” before, let alone perform a “public service.”

So two days later, on Saturday, January 13, 1967, I had appointments with multiple personnel at the University of South Carolina in nearby Columbia, which my commander had the Base Education Office arrange for me. To my amazement, I was approved to teach five different courses on an adjunct basis, four in history and one in sociology.

Two weeks later I started my first college teaching, at a small, rural, open admissions regional campus of USC in a similarly small, rural textile town, Lancaster, S.C. Initially, I was very nervous. I taught on a Friday night and was so nervous I couldn’t eat before class. I looked and was younger than many of my students, and had no hair. After about six weeks I noticed my nervousness subsiding and then disappearing altogether.

And I realized that I was looking forward to teaching that class more than anything else I could even imagine doing. Why? Because college teaching, I had discovered, gave me the opportunity to do the four things I loved most to do, and be paid an honest wage for doing honest work. What four things? Talking, reading, writing, and helping people.

And that’s what I do today, all thanks to the US Air Force, and not the career planning I should have had in college but didn’t because it wasn’t provided by any college at that time. Colleges didn’t believe that that was something they needed to provide for students! We have come a long way baby. Happy Anniversary adult John.

-John Gardner