Thursday, September 30, 2010

The importance of being earnest

Doomsday averted.

This morning's Writing Intensive Subcommittee meeting was wonderfully productive (we plowed through a TON of tasks), and the pre-meeting conversation I had with the Student Government Association (SGA) rep who's been in conversation with me for the past few weeks (let's call him Kenyon) was even more productive.

I think we're on the same page now. I had a bit of a "come to Jesus meetin'" with this young man, and we were both very honest and open about our concerns. I realized early on that he's more the messenger than the source, and that his intentions are good ones. "We have to be open with each other," I insisted. "We can't sneak around, we can't take part in romantic revolutions are crusades. We have a number of common concerns, I'm sure, and we can work on them together...if we choose to talk to one another about them." He agreed.

He sat in on our meeting, and though I think he's got a thing or two to learn about note-taking, I admire him for following fairly well the course of a rather convoluted proceedings. We hit everything under the sun, from the minutiae of WI proposal wording to the philosophical underpinnings of the WI mission itself...and faculty development and assessment in between. A real trouper!

We agreed by the end of the meeting that it would be worthwhile to establish some sort of "liaisonship" between SGA and ILSOC (or some of the willing subcommittees thereof) in order to open, maintain, and benefit from a dialogue between faculty and students on issues pertaining to ILS and other academic affairs which affect us all. He invited me to attend this evening's meeting of the Academic Affairs Committee of SGA (on which he serves, and for which he's been running his little end-runs).

So I went. I'm glad that I did.

The meeting, held in the SGA offices in the student union, was attended by six members of SGA and me. It was unassuming and informal, as Kenyon assured me it would be. The students took turns reporting on their progress on their individual "homework assignments" from the previous week. One had been sent to data-mine various sets of statistics concerning the ILS Clusters, in the hopes of finding correlation between students' choice of topical clusters and their majors. (Undoubtedly such correlation exists...and as it happens this is one of the students' primary concerns, to which I'll return in a bit.) Another reported on the SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, our accreditation agency) meeting he had attended. I commended him for his ability to bust out all of the buzzwords.

Kenyon discussed his meeting with me and his attendance of the WI meeting, and I took a moment to explain our feelings about establishing a "liaisonship" between SGA and ILSOC. I'm not sure that everyone at the table was sold about the efficacy of establishing such a dialogue, but one of the student leaders (the Vice President, Samantha), was totally on board. She pleaded vigorously and eloquently for our case, and I'm glad that she did. I think her advocacy helped the case considerably.

As the meeting went on I became a little more annoyed by the continued reluctance of the students simply to come out and say what concerns they were having, and it soon came to the fore why it is they have this reluctance. Historically, it appears, every time they've brought complaints to faculty, they've either (a) been blown off or (b) been told that they need "data" to back up their claims.

So they've been gathering data.

I let them know that they were likely talking to the wrong faculty back then, but that they should feel safe in talking to me and to the other members of ILSOC. At this time, ILSOC consists of very active, engaged, and motivated faculty who are heavily invested in meaningful interdisciplinary learning and fully committed to the spirit of the ILS program. They won't need to sell their story; we've bought it already, and we're eager to talk. I assured the students that we are the people they need to talk to. Samantha was resold, and once again Kenyon put himself forward as a liaison.

After the meeting I lingered a bit and talked some more with Samantha. At long last I learned a bit more about their specific grievances. For instance, it became evident that their primary concern with the LSIC Colloquia is strongly related to our own: uniformity of the quality of instruction across all colloquia. Knowing this, we can talk about it openly and brainstorm ideas together.

It also became evident that the students' primary concern with ILS Clusters is that students aren't getting enough incentive to be daring in their choice of clusters: because they're so pressed to finish their majors with the number of credit hours they're given (lest they pay egregious overage charges), they find they have to select topical clusters focused on topics cognate to their majors. These students would like to see greater incentives (more flexible rules for "double-dipping" courses? Elimination or lowering of overage fees?) offered to students to try out clusters more distant from the safety of their majors, thereby engaging in a richer interdisciplinary learning experience.

Honestly, this perspective is far more mature than that of many members of the faculty, who simply want to scrap the clusters altogether. (Admittedly, this contingent of curmudgeonly academic extremists is getting smaller each year, as the fogyish stalwarts retire one by one.) I was thoroughly impressed with the students' position, and I told them so. We can definitely work with them on this.

Ultimately, as I said above, I'm glad that I went to the meeting. A lot was accomplished, and I'm excited to see the directions in which this heads.

Before I go I should mention one more (not wholly unrelated) incident. Late this afternoon, while sitting in my office, I overheard a couple of my Linear students (sitting in the near end of the Math Lab) quietly voicing their frustrations about not being able to keep up in class because of the way we'd plowed through the definition and derivation of eigenvalues and eigenvectors. I guess we'd been moving a bit too fast. Although I felt a bit uneasy about admitting to my eavesdropping, I sneaked across the hall and joined in the conversation.

"You've got to let me know," I told them, "if you're having trouble with something."

"I'm just not one of those people who can pick it up really fast," one of them said. "I have to think about it and let it sink in before I understand it."

Although at first the conversation was a bit strained and awkward (I had been eavesdropping, after all), after a bit it warmed up. I agreed to keep tabs on the pace, and to throw in a few more examples and explanations here when needed. They agreed to let me know if things get moving too quickly again.

"I understand that you can't change the way you teach the class for just one person," the more outspoken student said.

"True," I admited. "That's what makes it hard, hearing, as I do, from all of you all of the time. It's awfully hard to teach a course at any sort of pace when I don't want to leave anyone behind. On the other hand, though, I can take your perspective into account and use it, along with everyone else's, to come up with a sort of 'normalized' perspective. If I only hear from the people who are chugging on ahead, I can't help but think everyone's all right with the way things are going. I need to hear from folks like you."

I know it took courage for them to have that conversation with me, and I'm really impressed with that courage. I told them how much I appreciated their earnestness and forthrightness. I think that conversation, a difficult one for both sides, was a fruitful one.

Students, please remember this: there's no shame in taking a little more time to learn something than some of your peers. It's okay to be confused. If anything, there's shame in not owning up to your confusion in the first place.

I guess the moral of the story (by now a twice-told tale) is: if you've got a tale to tell, tell it. Someone will be willing to listen.


Anonymous said...

If they're too shy to talk to you about their problems face to face, they can always comment on your blog ;) .. I know from previous courses that you read these comments. I have voiced my (insert intensely emotional adjective here) opinions on here before, not to avoid face to face interaction with you, but to avoid creating problems in the classroom with fellow students. And you listened every time! :)

DocTurtle said...

I try! And I think that most of the time I succeed. I truly do care about how well people learn in my courses, just like I truly do care about the overall academic (and emotional, physical, psychological...) well-being of the entire campus community. I'm heartened that the students care as well, and I hope our dialogues can continue.