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Monday, November 23, 2009

Trinity Faculty Going Downhill (Part 3)

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
Part 3: What Works
The 2006 Upper-class Task Force explored issues related to residential life for sophomores, juniors and seniors. The final report made several recommendations, including ones related to increasing faculty interactions on campus. Professors, staff members, and students discussed at length the benefits of a blended educational experience and ways to make that happen. Ironically, those with the most to gain from having faculty down the hill are relatively ambivalent about it. In a survey last year only about half the students questioned saw value in such interactions. They agree with about half the faculty. Perhaps this is because neither group can articulate how meaningful these interactions can be until they happen. When programs have been assessed this year, the responses from professors and students alike have been encouraging and exciting.

The formula for success is simple. The interactions need to benefit the students and the professors, they need to be meaningful, and they need to be convenient. If they are initiated by the faculty, they are even better.

There are several classes that have residential components. All of these were suggested by the professors. In addition to the Humanities 1600 class (a six credit combined writing workshop and seminar on classical studies) mentioned in part two, there is a first year sustainability class and learning community, and one associated with the entrepreneurial program. There is also a Chinese language floor where students can speak the language with others trying to learn and can benefit by native speakers as well.

Dr. Stephen Field explains elements of the program: “The first activity of the year for the Chinese Language Floor of McLean Hall was a lecture on Fengshui given by me on Sept. 3. It was well attended, and students appreciated the chance to see if the rooms I assigned to them were “auspicious” or not. Since then the hall has hosted the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival celebration, which was held on the McLean roof. Finally, we held the inaugural class for the Chinese Cooking Demonstration. Melissa Pinchback (Residential Life Coordinator) was instrumental in helping to organize this event.”

Professors Mike Fischer and Diane Graves have been utilizing the electronic classroom on lower campus and provide this input: “We teach a FYS course called: Forever Young: The Life and Times of Bob Dylan. Because the Witt classroom is remote, we can play Dylan’s music (or covers of it; see: Hendrix, Jimi. “All Along the Watchtower”) at the volume we choose, without fear of annoying other classes—or making them jealous! This classroom has everything we need: state of the art technology, plus chairs and tables that can be easily rearranged. We enjoy walking to the lower campus, seeing students and colleagues along the way, and getting to know the Witt Center staff. Students love being close to their rooms, especially when it’s their first class of the day and they can arrive straight from bed (even though the class starts at 11:20 a.m.!). After class at 12:35 p.m., Mabee Hall is one minute away for lunch.”

Residential Life Office staff members invited advisors of new students to come to the residence halls to spend time with their advising groups, which are housed together. The REAL LIFE program series features a section called “Educational Success.” The advisors were invited to help plan, lead, and attend these sessions. Over 31 professors participated in these programs. One Resident Mentor comment was “Many residents remarked on the evaluation surveys that they attended the programs because the advisor was going to be there. Overall, feedback was very positive.”

Feedback from one professor read “I was impressed by the turn out and some of the questions I received. One student asked me about strategies for developing short term memory...! I was thrilled that such a surprise question came up (although I wasn't completely prepared to answer it), and it makes me think that students were truly thinking about real issues related to their academic success in preparation for the discussion.”

Interestingly, several professors felt the success of these programs was directly related to the involvement of the Resident Mentor, while these student staff members linked program success to the involvement of the professors.

In its second full year, the Sophomore College has found success in the Major Meals program, which brings faculty members, seniors, alumni, and sophomores together over meals in the Skyline Room to discuss potential majors for sophomores. Nearly 200 students attended the meals over a couple of evenings and met with faculty members from 15 departments. In follow-up surveys nearly two-thirds of the students in attendance found the program to be beneficial in selecting their majors.

Finally, at a wine and cheese reception for seniors and professors held in the Lightner Tea Room this month, students and their mentors were able to mix socially as the senior year begins to wind down. Some unsolicited faculty feedback offered this: “I thought last night’s gathering for celebrating seniors was one of the most successful I’ve been to at Trinity. The setting (going to their dorm) and the actual space (which was fantastic), the mix of so many faculty without a deluge of undergrads, and the requirement of drinking in an adult manner really gave the whole event a mature, cocktail party-like atmosphere (and not just an academic-like or bar-like or house-party-like atmosphere) which was enjoyable for me and important for the students. Other events don’t quite have this nice balance or feel to them and don’t educate the students so well. I’m all for more of these.”

Faculty members have had a strong presence as members of Team Trinity on move-in day. They serve as judges for Trinity Idol and Spotlight. Two faculty members are serving in the Class Marshal program (Dr. Angela Breidenstein for the Class of 2012 and Dr. Harry Wallace for the Class of 2013).

Our program and our students benefit greatly from these and other interactions with professors. These exchanges, on top of what takes place in the classroom and during office hours help create an enriched experience throughout campus. Not just up the hill.

2 comments:

The MacGregors said...

Forever Young: The Life and Times of Bob Dylan sounds great! Are the FYS classes still randomly assigned? I lucked out and got the History of Baseball. We discussed how changes in baseball mirror what's happening in the US. I loved it! But, sometimes I think if students could pick, they would enjoy it even more.

Anonymous said...

That's good. I don't recall ever having seen a professor anywhere near the residence halls (I graduated in 09). At times I suspected whether many of them had ever even been to lower campus. It would be nice to have them being a bit more present in that area. Believe it or not, they would not be as unwelcome as your research might suggest.