Saturday, May 29, 2010

In praise of fiddling while Rome burns

The Roman emperor Nero is famously said to have fiddled while Rome burned, a bad thing, the story goes, and the predictor of the decline of a great empire.

I had an experience yesterday, though, that made me wonder if when we hear the phrase "fiddling while Rome burns" we really ought to be more concerned with the quality of the fiddling than with the decline of imperial power.

I was invited to a lunch yesterday with the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jim Leach.  It was a small event--the other people at the table were all major figures in Utah's civic life--3 university presidents (Westminster's President couldn't be there hence my presence representing both the college and the UHC board), leaders from the media, state government, religious leaders.

Chairman Leach is in the middle of a 50-state civility tour, in which he is trying to turn the focus of public attention to the decline of our public life.  He spoke at the Utah Humanities Council's 35th anniversary gala, and is the commencement speaker at Westminster's graduation today.

As you might imagine, the conversation around the table was strongly supportive of the view that our civic conversations are coarser, less friendly, and less productive than ever before.  After all, the people there are people whose presence immediately messes with the group dynamic of a crowd.  They were nearly all lightning rods, certain to bring out both adulation and scorn in any audience.

The conversation sought explanations (the internet, uncertainty in the economy, a polarized political system, Glen Beck and his left-wing counterparts) but the tone was nostalgic--hearkening back to a better time, when public discourse was kinder, more polite, people trusted their public officials, and those officials could cooperate more easily.  Most acknowledged that there had been times in the past when discourse had been as bad or worse (including the very recent past, truth be told--remember the culture wars?), but the story still seems to be that we are entering a dark age.   Rome is burning.

It all left me wondering about fiddling.  After all, the humanities are not just supposed to inform public debate.  That may in fact be one of the least of their roles.  Instead, they are to help sustain intellect, community, thought, creativity, and passion outside of the public sphere as well.  And this seems to be happening in at a scale greater than at any time in the history of the world.  Any casual viewer of YouTube videos sees thousands of amateur musicians plying their crafts.  Visit to see thousands of crafters plying their crafts. Blogs are but memoirs in draft form. Spirituality is burgeoning even while organized religions lose their hold on the public mind. Book clubs continue in the hundreds of thousands around the world.  A global youth culture built on hip-hop, fashion, and sports (fueled by Red Bull to be sure) means young people everywhere can begin a conversation. Millions of people have taken control of their own learning, taking advantage of opportunities to learn and content to learn about available everywhere. And people around the globe can turn their altruism to the public good--funding micro-loans, donating to disaster relief, and chatting about a million different things (only some of which are coarse...)

The story about Nero fiddling while Rome burns implies causation--Nero's distraction with music, gluttony, and vice led him to simply watch while politics degraded.  Or argued more forcefully, the degradation of Rome's politics was due to Nero's vice.  But there are other ways to tell that story today.  It may in fact be the case that the rescue of our public life will come from the fiddlers--from people who are wise enough and distracted enough to realize that the political isn't the most important aspect of our lives.

I don't mean to suggest that the massive problems facing the world (war, starvation, poverty, environmental degradation) will be solved by the humanities.  But Rome (by which of course I mean Washington DC, London, the UN, and the other hubs of the global political economy) will face vast temptations to be inhumane as it tries to deal with these problems.  The world could do much worse than hope that those hubs have will have picked up some of the perspective, good will, amateurism, thirst for learning and quirky passion of the world's fiddlers.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A libertarian/community organizing approach to student engagement

Libertarianism and community organizing are generally though of on opposite ends of some spectrum.  But in key ways they are linked--particularly since both value (1)  putting power in the hands of people to make the decisions that effect them most and (2) having those people be responsible for the results of those decisions.  Together they might help higher ed with a constant problem: student engagement.

It is end of the year report time at Westminster, and when that time rolls around we always end up in discussions about resource allocation, resource use, and student engagement.

The issue is this: most co-curricular programs have at least some responsibility for student engagement and retention.  So we always wonder whether the institution gets its money's worth from these co-curricular activities. One problem is that we do not have good metrics for this question.  How would we know if we got our money's worth?  Would it simply be measured by student retention?  By the numbers of students who participate?  By student testimonials?  By the alignment of co-curricular activities with institutional mission?  By student learning?

There is some effort in the field to respond to this question by focusing on the cost-benefit of first-year programs as they relate to student retention. By focusing solely on cost-benefit and retention, though, the Delta Cost Project's initiative overlooks some of the key goals of first-year programs--improving student learning, for example, or faculty development, or making meaning out of a messy curriculum, or a dozen other sorts of things that first-year (and by extension many other co-curricular) programs use.

We have other ways of trying to make sense of the value of co-curricular programs.  Some mission-driven institutions mandate that all students participate in some co-curricular activities.  Pepperdine University,  like many other faith-affiliated colleges and universities, requires that students attend chapel every week.  BYU-Idaho requires all students to have a student leadership opportunity. Cal State Monterey Bay requires all students to complete a community service project and take service-learning courses.  We might call this a traditional or authoritarian model of student engagement, one that uses the power of the institution to shape engagement.

The default mode in higher ed, though, is a small "l" liberal approach.  In it, institutions set up many engagement activities and each activity is responsible for persuading students that participating in its programs is a good thing.  This approach places the onus for engagement on particular programs and their staffs.  It tends to work fine with prosperous campuses ( so that questions about the amount of engagement caused by a particular program do not lead to questions about eradicating a particular programs) and with students who would naturally be engaged anyway, who take advantage of far more engagement opportunities than would naturally fall to them, all things being equal. 

I am teaching a course on community organizing and social change right now.  One of the tenets of most organizers is that responsibility for organizing and change lies not on the organizers themselves but on the community members.  Our class talked about Myles Horton last night who made this a practice at Highlander Folk School.  But the same approach runs through Saul Alinsky's work and that of many other efforts to support communities as they become engaged on their own terms.

This approach has potential in higher education as well, especially since we often proclaim that higher ed works with students to help them define and make sense of their lives as individuals and in community.  Yet we rarely put the onus for engagement on students, preferring to have locate it either in the institution or in its programs.

But imagine, for example, that you gave every student a voucher (the libertarian part of the equation) each semester worth, say $5000 of engagement time--roughly their proportion of the overall spending on engagement activities.  The student could use it to buy the outside of class time of faculty members, or to participate in programming run by a particular center, or to start her own initiative.  Students who spent more than $5000 or less than, say $4000 would be penalized the following semester with a reduction in their engagement budgets.

What might be the results?
  1. Instead of a few students using a disproportionate amount of the engagement resources of the institution,the amount of  participation in engagement activities would be roughly equal across all students.
  2. The institution could get a better sense of how students value particular engagement activities  and thus do a better job of aligning resources with demand.
  3. Students, being responsible for their own engagement and with power over that engagement would develop both greater creativity and greater responsibility for their use of resources.
  4. Groups of students would organize themselves, bringing a much needed student perspective on the overall focus of institutions.
  5. Learning gets better, because engagement grows out of the students' passions as well as the institution's resources.
Vouchers for community organizing in higher ed, anyone?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Officially wasting time

My kids get out of school next Friday, but school shut down for them a couple of weeks ago.  For my high school daughter the end of school was really the day she finished taking AP Exams.  Since then, her AP classes have been watching movies, talking, etc.  And even when they have looked at content, the kids can hardly engage because the big things have passed.

My daughter in junior high school finished learning about a week ago when the school started its end-of-year celebrations and teachers asked students to turn in textbooks.  An my daughter in elementary school is into the field trip/ field day/teacher appreciation part of the year.

Given that public schools are required to provide 180 days of instruction, and given that those 180 days are generally seen as being insufficient, at least for struggling students, it is a mystery to me why school wraps up several weeks before classes end.  Of course I am not the only person to ask this.  Legislators, parents, and teachers ask it all the time.

I do not want to argue that there is something wrong with doing little in class on particular days.  Every course I teach starts with 1 to 2 class periods spent connecting students, discovering their hopes and fears, and building relationships with them, before we dive into official "learning."  And the final day of class is often given over to reflection.  And it seems likely that lulls in learning both help prepare students for more, and give them space to process what they have learned.

 So my question about shutting down early in public schools is not why it happens exactly, but what end it serves.  Is there some intellectual/social/cultural/interpersonal benefit to ending learning before school ends?  If so, what is it?  If not, are there better times to "waste time" in the classroom? Is it better to do it at the beginning of the year?  At the end?  Or is it better to waste it with older students than with younger ones?

Friday, May 7, 2010

In Memoriam: Gary Hatch

Gary Hatch's funeral was today. He was a professor of Rhetoric and Composition at BYU, and, for the past several years, an administrator who oversaw first-year writing courses on campus.  Our paths crossed regularly, first when we were both faculty members teaching a lot of general education courses, and later as administrators while I was with Freshman Academy, BYU's learning community initiative and he with First-Year Writing.

Gary was unlike most administrators I know (and very much unlike the administrators I knew at BYU).  Though he had all the intellectual bona fides that open the doors to administration at the Y (he was an Honors student as an undergraduate, a well-respected scholar, and a faithful member of the LDS church), he always seemed a bit foreign to the administrative culture of the campus.  That was to his good.

Gary was omnivorous.  At his funeral two types of stories drove home this point.  The first was about his reading.  He read passionately, and he read everything--scholarly works on the theory and practice of writing, the classics, science fiction, young adult novels, religious works.  And he ate omnivorously.  Though he loved to travel in Europe, his food passions were American.  Two speakers told the story of Gary's gastronomic goal: to eat at every diner along the length of US 89--the two-lane highway that runs from Utah's northern to its southern border.

Gary loved young people.  In the end, it was this love that drove his decisions about academics.  He became the Associate Dean responsible for first-year writing because he loved working with young people.  He became a national leader in the Advanced Placement world, eventually becoming chief grader for the AP English test because of his hope that writing could help young people lead richer lives.

The audience at his funeral bore out this love.  Beyond family and colleagues there were hundreds of young people--many of whom looked like former students, and dozens of whom were young men in Boy Scout uniforms.  For most of his adult life his responsibility in the LDS congregation where he attended was to work with young men.  He took them camping and hiking, he helped them earn merit badges, he befriended them, he taught them about what it means to be a good man in a hard world.

So while any gathering of administrators was peopled with motivations of all sorts, Gary was always grounded in his love for students.  This love, and his wide knowledge, made him a clear thinker, calm in the face of things that appeared to be crises, and ready always to return to higher education's high purpose--shaping people by exposing them to the best thinking of human kind and to the best possibilities of human life.

He left behind a wife and three children.