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Friday, October 30, 2009

Trinity Faculty Going Downhill (Part 1)

At Trinity University, some believe that drawing faculty members physically downhill – from the upper campus academic area to the lower campus residential area – can create an enriching and meaningful learning environment for students. It is a sometimes controversial issue because faculty members can only be stretched so far and students often like to separate, rather than integrate, their in-class and out-of-class experiences. This three-part series will take a look at the history, issues, and current standing of the blended educational experience at Trinity University.

Part 1: The set-up
In 1996 ACPA, a student affairs professional organization, released the Student Learning Imperative. This was a bold document signaling that the student affairs profession was about more than room assignments, dances, and campus activities. In truth, there has long been an educational slant to programs outside the academic area. These are done to support students and help them become engaged, which translates to retention, which translates to success. This call to new action, however, has further entrenched the role of student life staff members as educators.

The expectations for student affairs staff to add value to the learning experiences have increased dramatically, as demonstrated by the Student Learning Imperative and its follow-up, Learning Reconsidered. The landscape features outcomes-driven programming and assessment in which the staff must demonstrate not just that students enjoyed a program, but that they learned something, and can articulate that learning. Students and parents expect, and institutions promise, the shaping of global citizens who are prepared to interact and contribute to the greater good in the world. There are many such opportunities outside the classroom, such as through service learning, through how students treat others and are held accountable for their actions, and through campus organizations. Collaboration with faculty members is seen as a “best practice” and expected, if not demanded.

There was a time when faculty members did all campus administrating and coaching in addition to teaching, but the system evolved to a faculty/staff system to allow professors to focus solely on teaching while others could focus on student services and campus life. The paradigm has shifted again, though, to one in which learning is seen as happening everywhere and all the time, and is the responsibility of everyone on campus. Most professors probably wouldn’t want to deal with hazing anymore than I want to tackle differential equations with students. But we can probably all agree on student learning, development, and growth as our primary and shared goals. Strict compartmentalization of upper and lower campus may not best serve our students.

Anyone who has ever sat through a student commencement speech quickly realizes that students see their own learning as comprehensive. Their experiences in the classroom are supplemented by the ones in life: whether this occurs from talks about their goals and ambitions over tacos at 3 a.m. or how they dealt with difficult roommates. Students reflecting on their college experience will discuss their decision-making, relationships, involvement, and exploration and experimentation as critical to their education.

I have long compared the university to a sports franchise. The faculty members are like the players. Without them, there is no product. The quality of the team or the faculty determines the quality of the team or university. The students are like the fans. Without them, we are left with a group of older people playing with a ball and drinking Gatorade or reading a lot of really complicated books. For students, there is not a guarantee that the game will always be good and likewise, there is no guarantee that every class will be a buzzer-beating thriller. Finally, the staff members are like the coaches, management, and cheerleaders. The students and faculty actually could live without this group for a short while. But eventually someone would need to prepare schedule, make the arrangements, provide the food, manage the Web page, deal with the disorderly, and collect the money.

The student affairs profession has tried too hard, sometimes, to legitimize itself to the faculty rather than accept serving in this important support role. This role has evolved beyond one of providing services to students, and has become one of educator. In becoming educators to improve the student experience, staff members have worked to break away from their silos, expand their roles, and collaborate with the faculty. By seeing the student educational experience as a shared responsibility, faculty and staff members can work together to offer the best in student learning.

Coming in Part 2: Collaboration

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