Thursday, February 11, 2010

What’s Your Big Idea?

I write this as I fly to an annual meeting I organized initially 29 years ago, and first hosted in February of 1982, what is now known as the Conference on The First-Year Experience. This year more than a thousand higher educators will gather, in spite of this winter of all winters, and in spite of our terrible economy, to once again come together to learn from each other how to better help struggling first-year college students be successful. And since then we have organized these conferences in many cities and countries and more than 100,000 educators have participated. Now, the concept of “first-year experience” is ubiquitous in both the higher ed lexicon and practice. This is no longer a “big idea”, but it once was. And, it was my idea, one of my few original creations in life. What’s your big idea?

This notion of “the big idea”: let me report how I came upon this. Almost a decade ago I met an outstanding foundation executive, as good as they come in the genre, Susan Conner, former Executive Vice President of Lumina Foundation for Education. Susan spoke often in my presence about the search for “the big idea” and she could and did constantly name people who had shown her “the big idea”. This made me think much more intentionally about “the big idea”. That was a real gift from her to me.

Somebody else’s big ideas are all around us. Think of the roller bag I am hauling with me today out to Denver. Why didn’t I invent the roller bag? What a back saver? Or the bottled water that we all pay more for now than we do the same quantities of petroleum products, or alcohol! Who would have ever thought that in developed countries people would pay dearly for water?

My big idea came in 1981. I had just been promoted to full professor at the University of South Carolina and now I had to decide what I was going to do for the rest of my life—i.e. now that I was fully professionally grown up. And I was trying to decide if I was going to continue to direct a first-year seminar, our fabled University 101 course. I decided that if that work were going to remain energizing of me I needed to think of some way to create professional development opportunities for me in this field. But there was no professional literature about this curricular innovation. And there were no conferences where I could learn from fellow educators new ideas to enrich this unique course genre. So I decided to organize a conference to teach myself. If I could learn, others could too. Then I followed that idea with one to create a national higher education center to provide “resources” to educators wanting to improve the beginning college experience. I was on a roll. And I don’t need to further enumerate my big ideas.

My colleagues who know me best have always said: “If John can do it, anyone can.” And they are absolutely correct. So look around you. What’s your big idea for helping our students? What have you tried that no one else has and realized positive results for students and educators? There is no monopoly on good ideas. They don’t have to come from high status places and high status people. And there is huge demand for big ideas. Look at all the problems we struggle with in higher education and the broader society. Surely there is room for your big ideas too.

-John Gardner

Monday, February 8, 2010

Keeping A Stiff Upper Lip: How Truthful to Be with our Students?

Just what is this all about? What does “keeping a stiff upper lip” (implying putting a better spin on things than you really perceive them to be) have to do with being truthful to our students? For that matter, how could we consider anything other than being totally truthful with our students?

I never thought I would be asking these questions again. “Again,” because I asked them during my second year of college teaching and thought when I got beyond that, I would never have to ask them again. Quick context: I was an adjunct instructor on a small regional campus of the University of South Carolina. The year was 1968. The Tet offensive had shocked the American people with how ferocious our enemy could be in Vietnam after our being told for years we were “winning.” My male students were loosing their draft deferments if their GPA’s fell below a “B” and I had a number of them begging me for better grades to keep them out of Vietnam. Then Martin Luther King was murdered. And riots followed. Our country was coming apart at the seams. And I was on active duty in the US Air Force as a psychiatric social worker.

One evening before my class, the campus Dean called me into my office and told me he had been receiving complaints from some of my students that I was “anti-war” and a“n----- lover.” I acknowledged that I indeed love people of different hues from mine and had devoted my class immediately following the assassination of Dr. King to a reading from his works. And I explained that I was not “anti-war” and, in fact, had volunteered for my own military service. But, I also explained that what I was doing was explaining the truth to my students, as I saw it, in answer to their many questions.

The Dean explained to me that I really shouldn’t be so truthful; that the male students especially really didn’t need to know the truth because they were going to be drafted anyway and sent to Vietnam and it would be wrong to disillusion them about the sacrifices they were going to have to make. He went on to explain that because of South Carolina’s long history of discrimination against Blacks, and their resulting inferior education, that their failure rate on the Selective Service examinations was very high, thus causing a much higher draft rate for white males. He urged me just not to be truthful about how unnecessary this war was and how badly it was being waged.

I did not take his advice. And began looking for another location for my college teaching.

But here I am now in 2010. And not coincidentally, just after the devastating quake in Haiti, and all the press descriptions of Haiti as a “failed state,” there are more and more references to the US as a “failing state.” This is due especially to the paralysis of the Congress, where even the party with the largest majorities in recent history still cannot achieve the passage of major legislation. We seemingly cannot come to terms with our greatest problems. And the hue and cry about our federal deficit is rising, just at the time we need more government spending to stimulate employment and relief. Millions of Americans are suffering. I have a 58 year old brother who has been unemployed for a year; a sister who was cut from full-time to half-time employment; and a nephew with seven children who lost his job in November. We all have stories like this. Our politicians just don’t seem to get it. They are not hungry. They have the best health insurance and pension plans money can buy—our money.

I am not ready to join the Tea Partyers. But what should we be telling our students? They are REALLY worried, even the best of the partyers among them. Should we keep a stiff upper lip? Urge confidence, hope, optimism? Put this in perspective and remind them this is the great country that fought World War II, conquered past scourges like polio, survived the Great Depression? Our students can’t relate to any of this. All most of them know is what came in on their most recent text messages; and the fact that they and their families are scared to death about the directions they see before them.

I do believe we should be talking about these issues with our students. I hope you will be honest with them. I believe that educators should be teaching a “learned optimism.” And I feel for you in terms of how difficult that has become to do, honestly.

-John N. Gardner