Friday, February 11, 2011

Reporting From Down Under

Earlier this week I was at the Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience where I had told people in several large groups I was speaking to that I was leaving right after the conference for Australia and New Zealand, with my wife, on vacation. So it surprised me and thus influenced me when probably a half a dozen or so people said to me that they wanted me to “blog from Australia”.

I was surprised for several reasons: 1) I really don’t have any idea who is reading this blog – or if it has any significant readership at all; 2) my philosophy underlying this blog is that it is a form of professional commentary and series of observations; 3) and therefore people would not have the slightest interest in my thinking while I was on vacation.

But once I learned that I had some who would be interested it changed somewhat how I knew I would approach my vacation and my use of my powers of observation during this period. I began to think of myself as a “reporter” looking for things to report on.

What if we had this attitude towards our commerce across campus? As we walked about in our ordinary course of movement about the campus, what if we kept our eyes open for remarkable things to write about in a form of reportage?

I have known the power of this for a long time. My first mentor at the University of South Carolina, President Thomas F. Jones, was fond of telling audiences which often contained me, that the student riot of May 1970 had a great impact on him when the students attempted to occupy his building and burn it down. He would recommend to all of us that “you really should observe student behaviors and see what they tell you…….” In this particular case the students’ collective behavior told him that they were angry and he realized they hadn’t entered the University that way and that we therefore must have done something to them to evoke such anger. His insight led him to form a committee to create the University 101 course to teach the students to love the University in order to prevent future riots. He ultimately gave me my big career break and appointed me as course director. In turn, I ultimately founded the Freshman Year Experience conference series and The National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. This president’s observation of student behavior really led to something!

So as I have been walking the streets of Sydney, these are some of my observations:
1. There is no better way to put your own country in perspective than to walk the streets of another country.
2. And that is the value of study abroad, student exchange, etc, for our students as we prepare them for adult lives in a global society.
3. Sydney is the New York of Australia, a city of more than four million, the country’s largest, and the center of its commerce.
4. But compared to New York City, Sydney is unbelievably quiet—absolutely no horns. What does this tell me about these people as compared to ours?
5. And in two days of wandering the streets freely I have not seen a single police officer, security person of any kind. That would be inconceivable in any US city.
6. And several of their principal newspapers which I perused carried remarkably little, by American standards anyway, news of crime.
7. But I have seen lots of beautiful young women smoking in packs, just like their counterparts in the US, aping the worst of the behaviors of the male gender.
8. The government here has a major campaign on against the dangers of smoking. It is more “in your face” than ours. I guess Big Tobacco doesn’t have a lobbying presence in Canberra like they still do in Washington.
9. Just as my wife and I see in the US at cultural events (plays and concerts), there are many groups of younger women, dressed to the nines, without men. Where are the men? In the sports bars. We had this observation two nights in a row: the first night at a play about an early 20th century American physician’s attempt to treat female “hysteria” with a vibrator! OK, so the play was about women; did that explain the lack of men? The next night we went to a world premiere of a new musical, Dr. Zhivago. Same thing. Nothing feminist in the slightest about this performance that would explain the gender imbalance.
10. I also noticed lots of middle and upper middle class looking under thirty walking around in the daylight pushing baby carriages. With universal health care and generous family leave provisions it is just fine for young women here to get off the professional track and on the mommy track instead.
11. And my visual poll of the most stylishly dressed professional women finds that by far the in fashion dress color is black. I could not note any particular trends in the comparable men other than dark hues.
12. On their lunch breaks and at the end of the work day, the people don’t seem to walk as fast as I would see in most US cities outside the American South.
13. It occurred to me more than once that this (=Australia) is what England might be like if it had a more benevolent climate; had eliminated its social class system; had not had a civil war over religious issues; had not had the flower of its youth killed in World War I; had not been bombed in World War II; and was not a small island nation with relatively few natural resources.
14. I kept wishing that many of the American southern white groups that are conscientiously and religiously opposed to every social change since 1964 could be here to see the human interaction and congress. The diversity is amazing, particularly the interracial and inter ethnicity companion, fellowship, dating, and marriage. Everyone is doing it with everyone else. How exciting. The formal color walls of Empire have come crumbling down.
15. And, just as in the US, people everywhere are electronically connected, regardless of dress, outward clues to social class, it didn’t matter. Everyone was reaching out and either touching someone or being touched, electronically, texting, talking, not watching where they were walking. But as distracted pedestrians here, they would be safer than the US because of religious observance of the rights of pedestrians.

Pedestrian are my observations you say………..? Well, you should come and make your own.

My next blog will be from New Zealand.

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thirty Years and Going Strong

I write this as I fly to my first ever February vacation, with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, destination: Australia and New Zealand. Betsy and I have just attended the 30th annual Conference on The First-Year Experience organized by the University of South Carolina. This event drew approximately 1600 higher educators from around the globe. This meeting is the latest in a series which I founded, with my colleagues at USC, in 1982.

I will focus in the brief posting on some general observations and conclusions drawn by me:

1. Approximately half the attendees were what we call “first-timers”. I conclude from this that both the series and the movement continue to welcome, attract, and assimilate many new members and practitioners. Naturally, I find this very gratifying and confident about the future of the movement which I have helped found.

2. This is one of the few meetings I attend where there are an abundance of young faculty and administrators and staff, who mix very well with more seasoned and therefore older higher educators. I found this extremely valuable to me this year. It has been a long time since I did not have power. And since I was very low in a collegiate organizational hierarchy. It was useful for me to hear how the younger, more junior colleagues view and feel the brunt of many policy decisions made by us older and supposedly wiser hands. It would appear that they think we do some very stupid things! The kind of candor expressed at this meeting is different from many back home work settings where those less powerful would be willing to engage in the kind of conversation I was party to in this setting. These conversations though are exactly the kind that senior folks need to expose themselves to however that might be possible.

3. I was struck by how empowered these younger educators seemed to feel to take steps to improve student performance, regardless of available resources or their individual positions in the institutional hierarchy. There was a sense of optimism that these educators really could improve student success and I found this very inspirational.

4. The demographics of this meeting, those gathered who have in common their commitment to nurturing new students, were strikingly and overwhelmingly female. Where are the male educators? What are their values? What are their rewards? What are their purposes?

5. Compared to the late 80’s, early 90’s, there are it struck me that there are far fewer really senior educators participating in this conversation, e.g. presidents, chief academic officers. What might explain this? Perhaps it is that they are already aboard. They get it. They know the importance of paying attention to new students and they have delegated the care and feeding of these students to their subordinates. This audience looked very different to me from those I see attending the annual meetings of the regional accreditors, which are over represented by the powerful of the academy. For me, this is further confirmation of my belief that the first-year improvement movement needs to be better connected to the work of the regional accreditors. That is what gets the attention of senior campus leaders. And therefore, that is what gets the resources.

6. There was surprisingly (to me anyway) little talk in the sessions about the impact of “the cuts”. Instead, it was just taken as a given and so what I saw was the result of increased productivity very much in keeping with recent press reports of another quarter just completed of significant rises in the productivity of American workers. I heard many many anecdotal reports of increased teaching, counseling, advising loads, and of filling the gaps led by formerly but no longer existent programs and staff.

7. And finally, this movement has really taken on the dominant values of the society: it is now totally integrated with shameless commerce, for profit companies selling products and services to increase student success (or so it is touted anyway). In like manner, the mantra of the movement is overwhelmingly about “retention”, a business and revenue model. In many of the sessions, it seemed to matter little what students were learning as long as they were staying and being “retained”. That troubles me profoundly. Higher education for what?

8. So, in conclusion, what is the purpose of all this energy to improve the first year. Yes, it is still about the students. About helping, supporting, challenging, changing them. But it is also about the quintessential American obsession of making money. Perhaps the few Canadian educators there from the Province of Ontario say it best. They have their own conceptual version of the American concept of “FTE”, full-time equivalent: “BIU”= “Basic Income Unit”. I left the meeting gratified and inspired, thankful, but wondering if this was the purpose I had been working for over these last four decades……?

-John N. Gardner