This is the heyday of student engagement in higher education. NSSE has got to be the most widely recognized assessment tool on American campuses, institutions work to have a full range of engaging programs--service-learning, mentoring, leadership opportunities, etc., etc., faculty try to build engagement into their courses, we throw the word around in a way that signals that we somehow know what we are doing.
But at the same time, every person associated with a campus can think of all sorts of "engaging" activities that fell flat with students. We all know students for whom service-learning is drudgery, group work a failure, interaction with faculty paralyzing, discussion boards perplexing, or clubs profoundly upsetting.
What is at the core of this disjunction--between the evidence for engagement (it leads to learning, retention, graduation, clarity in career, etc,) and the lived experience of many students, faculty, and staff?
I've noticed a couple of things lately that hint at an answer:
1. Coagulating conventional wisdom about engagement. Anyone who attends a conference on learning in higher ed can parrot back the conventional wisdom about student engagement--students are connected all the time, they are social, they want to be engaged, old-style education is a profound turnoff. Therefore, we have to have more engaging activities. Such consensus signals to me that people have stopped thinking about the issues underlying engagement and have moved on to doing. No debate, no stories of failure, no increase in wisdom.
2. Student engagement as program-building. The portfolio of engagement activities has, by now, become clear. (Take a look at the NSSE items for the big ones.) So the main tactic of campuses is to start new programs or initiatives that align with engagement measures and the practice of other campuses. Put another way, the conventional wisdom moves directly into conventional activities.
Now I am not saying that student engagement activities are a sham. I've made a career (such as it is) of service-learning, learning communities, project-based learning, assessment, faculty development, and shepherding engagement programs to sustainability, in and beyond the curriculum. And I am certain that on the whole, students involved in these programs, and the campuses that have hosted them, are better off than they would have otherwise been.
But I have learned a couple of things--my half-witted answers to the question at the top of this post. What is engaging about student engagement?
1. It is a tailored response to an actual problem, not a conceptual response to a statistical result.
2. It grows out of my own commitments as a person.
3. It is connected to the real concerns of actual students.
4. It moves forward by questions--what moves you? what are our community's needs? what do you wish you could do more of? what do you still need to learn?--as much as by activities.
5. In other words, engagement is about creating right relationships between people who know each other.
6. At the core of engagement isn't action but contemplation. At least, for me.