That is the realization I had today. I have just had a great discussion with a colleague about “real assessment” and new ideas blossomed for us as we discussed changing up a brief student survey that we do with CBL classes. We are going to ask students more directly about their relationship with the community partner site, instead of just asking them to “rate” the partner site. It seems like a simple change, but it is a profound difference which will move us a step forward on our journey toward transformational partnerships.

Then I read this interview in Inside Higher Ed. I was amazed by the sophistication of the student’s understanding, but I really shouldn’t have been so amazed. I know the wisdom is out there; I struggle with how to get at it. And Lucretia Witte explains it so simply:

More than anything, I would encourage professors to involve students in their own learning experience. Ask your students to take a pre-course survey one week before class starts. How do they learn best? What aspect of the course topic interests them most? What kind of assignments do they like? Is there any skill or aspect of the course that they feel apprehensive about? Best case, this allows professors to set the bar high for personal investment in the course, allows them to tailor the course to the students’ interests, sends a message that the professor genuinely cares about the students’ experience, and takes the first step in establishing that invaluable dialogue.

We will all be lucky if Ms. Witte joins us as a colleague in education, which she says she intends to do.  In the mean time, I am grateful for this insight, and for the encouragement from a student to keep heading down the road toward greater student engagement in learning.


There are lots of misconceptions about  community-based learning. Some people think it is just a fancy name for service learning, but it is actually a lot more. Some people have trouble imagining how it is rigorous, but because it motivates students and challenges them to make connections they otherwise wouldn’t, it is very challenging. Some people think it is only for sociology classes and it is always about social justice.

So I was really pleased that UR News did a great story on one of our CBL classes from this year’s CBL Fellows. The story of this class–and the student comments–help show how community-based learning works here at UR, and how it is different from service learning, but gets at some of the same goals. It was an honest to goodness literature class, and it used a variety of connections to the community, some of which weren’t even covered in the article. (Some of the students gave a poetry reading at the local VA hospital for their final project, for instance.)
And, dearest to my heart, is the comment by the professors that they actually discovered new insights themselves because they taught the class this way. Nice.

I had such an interesting conversation with one of our best community-based learning faculty. She is presenting at her professional conference (Poli Sci) about her CBL course that she taught last year that was really successful. And she finds herself in the position of having to explain how she knows it was successful. Ahh. So many of us are in this position now.

Yes, the students did the readings, talked in class, wrote papers, created presentations, took tests, and the results were kind of normal. Yet the class felt exceptional to her. So we pressed on. What made it exceptional? Jennifer said the students were more engaged than any before. How did she know?
1.at the end of every class there were still at least 5 hands still in the air, people with more to say
2. the students started going to lunch together after class so they could get out what they wanted to say but didn’t get to during class time
3. students spent loads of extra time, especially at their community sites, which she discovered in their presentations at the end of the semester
4. the end of the semester presentations, which synthesized data on the Richmond community where the students worked, the theories they read, and their actual experiences, were so helpful to the community partners who came to review them on the last day, that word got out and now the professor has made multiple copies of the presentations at the request of other agencies in Richmond
4. in student blogs she saw that students made connections between the Richmond area issues and national and international issues, using links that showed they were doing extra reading outside of class (not even assigned!)
5. though the class ended in April, Jennifer has had emails over the summer from former students who want to tell her about new insights and experiences that relate to what they studied.

Jennifer had actually done some pre and post surveys to monitor change in attitude. They were not too startling. She did the usual Student Evaluations of Instruction, and the course got a high rating, but these still didn’t really tell the story. I think her observations about her students’ engagement were more telling about what happened in the class.
I am just wondering if other people are finding unique ways to capture what is happening in a class where students are highly engaged? Because I know we have NSSE and CLA but I don’t know that either of those would capture what we saw in Jennifer’s excellent class.

Learning And/OR Doing?

Looking back at my posts from earlier this summer, I see that I am fixated on how liberal arts education can or should work.  This obsession might  explain why I would spend the money to buy a hardback book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work” First, a word of warning about the book: reading it feels like stepping into the mechanic’s shop, or some other “man cave.”  I found lots of the language and metaphors rough and insulting to females, and I am not an easily offended girlie-girl.  ( I can honestly say that I own no other text that uses and extends the metaphor of the “cheap whore” and I wouldn’t have paid the money for this one if I had known that was the case) Once I was able to tune out all the chest-thumping machismo noise, I was able to find some ideas worth exploring. For example, I enjoyed learning more about the history of “work” and what he sees as the turn toward separating “thinking from doing” and the denigration of craftsmanship. I found myself reflecting on various jobs I have worked, and considering more about the concept of “satisfying work.”

The part I was most affected by, however, touches on ideas of learning, and most of those ideas he draws from a work by Iris Murdoch called “The Sovereignty of Good.”  Crawford says:

Iris Murdoch writes that to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of  “unselfing.” “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity, and realism is to be connected with virtue…[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” (99-100)

His interpretation of this is that by working on a problem with an objective reality and real consequences, (as doctors and mechanics do) brings to the worker both humility and

“the pleasure that comes with progressively more acute vision and the growing sense that our actions are fitting or just…” “[It] is achieved in an iterated back-and-forth between seeing and doing.  Our vision is improved by acting, as this brings any defect in our perception to vivid awareness.” (100)

This is the whole idea behind active learning, isn’t it?  And I am 100% behind us increasing the amount of active learning, both K-12 and also in higher ed.  But I have to disagree with the notion that the only way to do this is through the trades for this reason: life is more than work.  People may or may not find a way to earn money in a way that “their deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger” as Buechner would say.  But they will certainly live among other people and have to sort out relationships and make decisions as citizens, and in all ways live a life.  And so I have always believed that the liberal arts is a way of studying that goes beyond curriculum and that addresses how to live a life. (At least, that is how many of us see it, as in this article in Insider Higher Ed today)

And here is my “real life” example: my son just came back from working at a camp for special needs kids, and he was describing to me the challenges of figuring out how to work with a severely autistic young man who was about the same age as he was.  He had to find ways to get through the mysterious veil that seemed to surround the boy, and my son did find some success at this.  But he was forever changed, I think.  And he said “I couldn’t help but remember the stories I read by Kafka, and sometimes I would get upset thinking of what it must be like to be stuck inside your own mind that way.”  Kafka’s stories were an anchor for him, a way that he had experienced a little of what his camper might be experiencing.  Contrary to the implication that reading books is the same as living in your own head, reading stories is a way to get inside someone else’s head, to experience what they experience, maybe to touch what we call “universal human experience.”

My conclusion, then, is that a good, rich, full, useful education can not be one or the other–learning or doing.  Rather, it is by definition, a combination of learning and doing, reading and visiting important places, making mistakes, moving forward, getting uncomfortable and talking about it, reading what someone wrote hundreds of years ago, and realizing that it is still true, and that we all struggle, every day.

Early on in my work as a faculty developer I realized the scarring that occurred from SEI’s (student evals of instruction). I knew myself that I had to always get some distance and a stiff drink before I could read mine, but I found out that I was not alone. We all focus on the one less than glowing comment, and that makes it hard to use the SEIs as “data” in the way we could.

In my next stage of development, I decided that we just had bad SEI forms and weren’t asking the right questions. The forms have been revised and now we can add our own questions . But it still didn’t feel like I was getting the kind of rich information about learning that I wanted to get.

One day in class I asked students to chose three of their blog posts from the semester that they felt best showed learning happening, and then write a brief explanation of why they chose those posts to highlight. Blank looks. Finally, one student said “How do I know which posts to choose?” I replied “Well, how do you know when you have learned something?” I asked. He replied “By the grade I get on the test.” A great discussion followed in which we tried to  define “learning” and what it looks like, and how, other than grades, a person can assess their own learning.
So my current belief is this: we need to do more to help our students take ownership of their own learning, and we need to raise with them the big questions about knowledge and life. We need to take more responsibility in educating our students in ways that help them become better members of our learning communities.

This article by Ken Bain and another professor at Montclair, Paul Zimmerman, talks about “good teachers” versus “popular teachers” and they say it is important for us, as teachers, to understand what “good teaching” is:

Student ratings have their limitations, and it is precisely those limitations that call for clearer notions about what we mean by good teaching. If we think of excellent teachers as those people who help and encourage their students to take deep approaches to their learning, we can begin to identify, as we have done in this essay, those practices and perspectives that achieve those noble ends.

I completely agree.  But they also say in the article that not all students appreciate deep learning, that many are surface learners.  And surface learners do not like deep learning.  My question is: can we change students from surface and strategic learners and make them deep learners?  If so, how do we do that?  Until we adress the student awareness of their own learning and students and professors alike agree that deep learning is desirable, we are still stuck in SEI hell.

Steve’s response to my last post inspires me to bring our  conversation around to his original post which started this conversation.  Steve was writing about  creating an environment and the resources that will enable the faculty to pursue excellence in teaching.  I should have said this to begin with: I agree heartily with all  of Steve’s ideas about how to do this, and the importance of a Center to making it happen.  But I have experienced how difficult it can be to change the culture of a place.  I think we have to be very honest about the challenges.

Steve admits there is a tension between the culture of research/expertise and teaching  students in the way that the concepts of liberal arts espouse.  I do not think this is an unresolvable tension, and I do not advocate for having only “interdisciplinary PhD’s” or something along those lines.  I actually see a lot of value in the hard intellectual work of completing the PhD, and in continually learning and producing knowledge in one’s field.   I believe that the disciplines do each have value and contribute in significant ways to collective knowledge. In fact, many scholars feel (as Libby does) that their research inspires their teaching.  The  key, then, is to be a scholar and at the same time to realize that teaching demands even more from us–as Steve said, being a scholar in a field is “necessary but not sufficient.”

I think that, in order to change a culture, it would be a significant step to get faculty to think of their teaching as something worthy of scholarship in the same way that  their disciplines are  legitimate areas of scholarship.  And this scholarship of teaching and learning is a scholarship that we all share, across our disciplines.  Steve’s notion of making our teaching public is an important step in this process.  There is no one teaching strategy that works for all teachers and courses.  The important thing is to try innovations, study the effects, and share our results.

This kind of large-scale change doesn’t happen without extra-doses of motivation, and what I am suggesting is that for a widespread culture change to happen, for faculty to re-envision themselves as scholars of their teaching, I think they need a compelling reason.  This is where resolving the tension comes in.  I believe that if faculty could see clearly that the WAY they teach may have even more impact on the majority of their  students than the CONTENT they teach, then they would feel compelled to explore new techniques.  For instance, research shows that one effect of using a service-learning pedagogy is that students develop self-efficacy, a sense that they can have an effect on things around them.  Students in a Biology class that incorporates service learning then benefit in tangible ways from the course even if they never work in a field that uses biology knowledge in any way.  And that, to me, is the spirit of liberal arts education.  We aren’t just about teaching our content; we are about developing our students.  The two happen naturally together IF we are intentional about discovering our best teaching selves.

I grew up hearing my father say to my brothers when they performed small tasks: “Why, thank you!  You are a gentleman and a scholar.”  This told me two things: it was an honor to be called a “scholar” and being a scholar was something the wealthy class did. (And a third thing too– “ladies” were not scholars.) But if you could HEAR him say it, you would get a truer sense of his meaning.  His thick West Virginia accent, learned growing up in a “coal hollow” and never unlearned despite 4 years studying speech at Marquette, carried a certain sarcasm, an ambivalence toward wealthy intellectuals.  Real praise in our household was reserved for actual hard work and earning money,  not small tasks.

I work in the Ivory Tower, and live in a country that shares my father’s love/hate relationship with intellectuals.   I sometimes wonder how we got to this place, where scholarly professors and higher education are  the gateway for students to make more money in better jobs than their peers who got off the education train at high school.  As one professor friend puts it: “I can’t advise students about jobs outside the academy; I’ve always been in the academy.”

One thing we are all clear on here: at a liberal arts institution, we are not about mere “job training.”  We are about preparing people to live thoughtful, meaningful lives.  But I think it is time we looked at this claim more closely.  PhD’s spend years learning a more and more specialized area of study,  becoming a “literature scholar” or a “biologist” –and then they become professors in the department that houses others in this discipline, and attend weekly meetings with those folks, and spend a lot of energy continuing their specialized research and creating a curriculum for majors, etc.   So they have moved away from being generalized scholars, just as their students also move to to being mini-experts by completing a major, in the footsteps of their mentoring faculty.

I have heard faculty claim that they are clear that they are not training their students to go on to graduate school, or at least not all of them.  But  then, considering faculty’s specialized expertise, what ARE they preparing students for?  How does being a novice literature scholar prepare one to find a career other than as a lit scholar?  It does so through things like “critical thinking” and “writing skills.”  So it is not the content itself, but the subskills that matter.  At least, that is the gospel as we preach it. Here is my confession: I think I have lost the faith.

I have worked for years in cross-disciplinary contexts–Writing Across the Curriculum, faculty development, teaching and technology, and now civic engagement.  And I have seen faculty in these contexts alternately defend their own discipline and beat others over the head with their disciplinary beliefs.  Anthropologists don’t think literature students can record people’s stories, because they need to be trained in oral history technique and go through the IRB, as one example. I have also heard people excuse what would otherwise be unacceptable behavior, saying “well, she is a brilliant scholar, so we just have to let that slide.”

When these kinds of things happen, I believe it is evidence of us moving away from being “scholars” and into being “experts.”  The first two definitions of “scholar” are actually pointed toward learning:

from the OED:

1.”One who is taught in a school”

2.”One who studies in the ‘schools’ at a university”
Only the third leans toward “finished” learning:

3.”One who has acquired learning in the ‘Schools’; a learned or erudite person”

This matters because, for liberal arts education to work, we cannot get caught in expert mode.  We need to listen to the voices that accuse the academy of being arrogant and disengaged from reality, of being only the “sphere of polite learning” (which are the words the OED uses to define “scholarship.”)  In this video, Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College, makes a compelling case for rethinking liberal arts in America, for returning to the Jeffersonian vision.  She makes some great statements about the problem of “learning more and more about less and less” and about the way education can go wrong when it “engenders a sense of learned helplessness, rather than to create a sense of empowerment.”

I’ll leave you with a quote from a student who participated in one of our community-based learning classes this spring: “I used to think the problems in the world were so huge and that I could not do anything to fix them so why would I try?  But now I don’t feel that way; now I believe in my own efficacy.”   He didn’t believe he had all the answers or was an “expert;” instead, he believes he has some tools to learn about things, and a right and a responsibility to be part of a community.  That did not happen in a traditional class, but one which was intentionally designed to actively engage students, inside and outside the classroom.

We have to be clear with ourselves.  What are we doing for our students?  HOW is their work in our classrooms going to equip them to live well?  How can we innovate and better design courses and curricula that serve our students, and not merely march them down a content path to be an “expert” in something they will never actually pursue?