Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A New Beginning

There are so many reasons that I am so glad I am an academic. And one that is very high on my list is that I constantly get the opportunity to have new beginnings. What prompts this observation and reflection is that tomorrow, July 29, I will experience another new beginning. This time it is not exactly like those I experienced every time I began a new school year at the University of South Carolina. But it is a new beginning for a new year with new kinds of “students.”
I refer to the fact that I am privileged to be engaged in the capstone work of my four decades long career in a new beginning each year whereby I get to work with a new cohort of four-and two year colleges who send teams to what we call “Launch Meetings”. These are held in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, which has become most recently a site for presidential vacations (as in the Obamas).
These institutional teams convene to commence an approximate year long process of rigorously evaluating their institution’s entire approach to the beginning college experience, either for the conventional meaning of “new” students, and/or for transfer students. The goal of this rigorous evaluation process, a form of “assessment”, is to come up with an action plan to improve new student learning and retention. And then the most important part of this process is to actually implement the plan. We have learned that when colleges finally develop what they never had before—a plan—and then they implement it, well, very significant retention gains follow.
So to kick off this process I work with my colleagues to start another academic year for us by “teaching” these new “students,” who are really fully credentialed academics, how to do this kind of assessment. I have been doing this “launching” process now since 2003 and find it to be the most exciting work I have done in higher education. This overall process is known as “Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year” and/or “Foundations of Excellence Transfer Focus” and will now have involved just over 200 institutions.
This week we do a two-day “Launch Meeting” for 12 four-year institutions, and then next Monday and Tuesday we repeat this process for 22 two-year colleges. And the cycle renews, so they can experience the challenges, benefits, and joys of institutional renewal, even in hard times.
Even when I was a college student myself, I came to realize that the academic lifestyle gave me the marvelous opportunity for “a new beginning” each year. After my first year of college, I especially needed one! Everyone, every institution needs new beginnings, renewal, a clean slate, that rare tabula rasa. I tell our institutions now, just what I have always told my students: what you do going forward matters much more than what you did or didn’t do in the past.”
Back in the 1980’s my colleague at USC, Jerry Jewler, and I wrote for our first-year students about this concept of “a new beginning” in a text for them entitled “College is Only the Beginning.” And therein we quoted from a Washington Post piece written by a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, Charlotte J. Patterson, entitled “With Fall, a Fresh Start.” I was moved when I first read her thoughts on a new beginning and I share them with you now to put this piece of mine in some kind of closing perspective:
“And that is why I like this day. For all its obvious, outward specialness, it is really no different from any other day. We are always ending something, and we are always beginning something else; we are always cherishing hopes and hiding fears, always searching for a new life and a new birth. Freshman arrival is a reminder that we are always, as Gertrude Stein once put it, “beginning again and again”---that insofar as we are fully human, every day is always fresh. Freshman arrival changes everything, and it changes nothing; it makes us stop to look at what was always there for us to see.”
And as I look forward to my new “launch,” I realize that for these campuses with which we will be working we will be asking them to do exactly that: stopping to look at what was always there for us to see.
John N Gardner

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What is it That We Do For Students That Matters?

I blogged the other day to raise a question of what would a faculty or staff member have to do to be remembered by former students with sufficient fondness and respect that a student would want to come back many years later to pay a visit to convey respect. This blog continues that theme.

I received a message today from a former student that leads me to reflect on “mattering” behaviors. What is it that we do, can do, to let them know they matter? Here is what one of my former students recently wrote me that prompts such reflection:

“I was so fortunate as an undergraduate at X and a graduate student at the University of South Carolina to have professors who really cared about not only their discipline, but their students. You have always stood out from my other USC professors to me; you not only challenged us intellectually (the case study exercise and presentation you assigned our class was the most engaging and rigorous of any of the other assignments I had in any other course), but you also encouraged us as individuals. We knew that you knew us, and that you cared about us. I remember you also took me to lunch after I graduated at the faculty dining room …… and advised me on investing for retirement! So in many ways you've been like a father (a young father!) to me, being someone I could seek both personal and professional advice and support from, and I have greatly valued that.”

When I read this, of course I recalled the student, the outstanding quality of her work, where she had gone to undergraduate school, what I recalled knowing about her family—but I did not remember at all, can’t believe this now, that I took her to lunch, let alone advised her on planning for retirement! But what matters is that this student remembered, and it meant something to this student.

So, you never know what you have done, will do, until you get some reinforcement, specific feedback. I was fortunate, very fortunate, to have taught at a great university where we had a faculty development program for faculty like me to prepare us to teach our University 101 course. And we did have activities in such training to get us to reflect on, understand, and make commitments to communicate to students how they “mattered” to us. I am so glad I did. The best teachers are “made” not “born”. My university “made” me, and the above is one result.

So, what do you do to let your students know they “matter”? I am sure you do all manner of things that you may have no insight at the time that they matter, but they do.

-John N. Gardner