Friday, January 29, 2010

Blog: The Art of Complimenting

As a college professor of four decades I have attended my share of “faculty development” activities. And I have always agreed (rather than being offended by) with the notion that we do need to be “developed,” and continually so. I was not “born” a college teacher; I was “made” one, and largely by the professional development, support, encouragement and innovation of my employer: the University of South Carolina.

But in all the “faculty development” workshops that I ever participated in, led myself, or have even heard about, I don’t recall one on the topic of “the Art of Complimenting.” I think it is an art. And I think we need it (we faculty, because many of us are not gifted in this art, and because our students need it both for affirmation and motivation).

This blog is prompted by fact that this past weekend I was in a conference call with three other people, one of whom a woman who has known and worked with me on the national level for almost a decade. She made a sincere comment that I was “charming” but in the context of the subject we were talking about, I needed to be more than that! Agreed.

I think what she was probably referring to is that I love to compliment others. And I have worked and practiced at it for years. I enjoy discovering peoples’ qualities that cry out to me for a compliment. I can tell by their reactions that many people must not be complimented often or enough. I found this particularly to be true with my students. Instead of being in an environment where they were affirmed for what they knew and did, and could do, they were constantly being reminded by powerful people of all they didn’t know and couldn’t do, at least not yet.

My own self reflection on this “art” has led me to conclude that I really started thinking seriously about this as a part of my own personal intellectual quest for “the truth.” It was in my junior year at Marietta College that I was taking a political philosophy course from R.S. Hill who had us reading Plato’s Republic, one of the truly most influential books I have ever read.

I learned from Plato’s rendering of Socrates pedagogy for discovering the truth, that you have to interact with other people and discover in each their “half truths”; that there is something of worth, knowledge and dignity in virtually everyone else. And once you find those half truths, surely there is something there worth complimenting. That became intentionally one of my most characteristic teaching pedagogies.

Another lesson I learned from The Republic, was that the most important question I could be asking as a student, and lifelong learner and journey man through life is: “what is justice?”—the subject for another blog.

I think I should try to write something more extensive on the Art of Complimenting and hope I will.

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The New Normal: The Transfer Experience

I write this blog as I fly to a conference hosted each year in Dallas, by the University of North Texas’s National Institute for the Study of the Transfer Students. This will be my first time as an attendee, and it is overdue. This conference is about improving the success of transfer students.

Like all educators, I am shaped by my prior life’s experiences. These give me values, knowledge, interest, prejudice, focus, motivation. They shape the way I see and understand anything. And, in that vein, although I have taught thousands of “transfer” students, I was never one myself. And that is a limitation. So why am I concerned about this now and trying to learn more about it?

Because the transfer experience is now the “new normal.” Just over 60% of all currently enrolled college students seeking a BA degree will have attended more than one institution and then “transferred” by the time their BA is awarded.

And because most institutions and educators really know very little about this experience and these students. We just haven’t taken the time to seriously study this.

But we want these students to come to us; we want their money.

And we want this even though many of us have very strong prejudices about transfer students: they are inferior to “native” students; they are less well prepared; their success rates for BA attainment are lower; they bring more “problems” with them. Such are our beliefs, regardless of whether or not they are supported by any evidence.

I care about this issue because unless we pay more attention to these students, learn more about them, offer them more intentional support, we cannot possibly achieve President Obama’s goals to increase BA attainment rates in our country.

And I care about these students for a very practical professional reason, namely, I am the CEO of a small non-profit organization that is engaging in a national pilot this year to help campuses conduct a self study to develop an action plan to improve transfer student performance. This process is known as Foundations of Excellence ® Transfer Focus. We have six four-year colleges undertaking this pilot this year and will add a cohort of two-year colleges next year. For more information see

Another thing many of us higher educators know nothing about is a sub set of the transfer experience known as “reverse transfer.” This refers to students transferring from baccalaureate level (and higher) institutions to community colleges after receipt of an advanced degree. For example, it was reported in The Chronicle a few years ago, that one of the campuses of Northern Virginia Community College had 350 PhD’s on its faculty and about 500 in its student body: reverse transfers.

So, for me, the transfer population is my new frontier. I have so much more to learn about them and therefore I suspect that I am in good company with you. Please join me. And then let’s do something to more intentionally promote their success.

John N. Gardner

Monday, January 25, 2010

Relevance: The Week That Was

Some years ago my wife and I had moved to a new community and she was shopping for a church. I went with her a few times but couldn’t stand it. It struck me as if the well educated and likable priest, whom I knew knew there was an outside world, must be assuming his flock did not want to hear of the outside world. This made me think at the time of how many of our students may often wonder the same thing about us academics, where to many of us the word “relevance” is anathema. I am reminded of this matter of relevance in the context of the week we have just been through.

For those of us who think of the classroom as a laboratory, or at least a way of connecting our students to the outside world in order to better understand and cope with it, this past week certainly presented teachable opportunities. And, for any of us who missed it, there is still time. There are so many opportunities to use relevance to create powerful learning, and few weeks with more fresh meat than the one we have just had.

This was the week that: 1) the Democrats lost their “safe” seat in Massachusetts, a citadel of previous Democratic strength; 2) the health insurance reform bill was derailed and millions of Americans lost their chance to have health insurance, surely not for decades now; 3) the President unleashed a populist blast against the bankers and fat cats of Wall Street; 4) that and the health insurance bill demise let to the tanking of the stock market as corporate America watched the biggest corporate welfare bill in history go down the tubes; and 5) the Supreme Court put American government at all levels on sale.

Surely any discipline could relate to any or all of the above. We could examine the math of it; the ethics of it; the history of it; the politics of it; the justice of it. But many of us academics will pass on this moment, some of us out of despair. Our hopes for a new civil rights bill are dashed and we shall adjust by crawling under a rock for a while. Like many of the “haves” who voted in Massachusetts, we too are among the haves; and we are resignate that so many of our fellow citizens do not really want all to have access to health care for we feel it will cost us to provide for others. I hope our students will demand that we help them think through the implications of what this is costing us all now; for as long as all do not have equal access to health care, or as we define that in the US, health “insurance,” we will have a markedly different quality of life and set of values, and certainly not justice for all.

-John Gardner