Yesterday I spent a good chunk of my afternoon at a round table on the floor of our university’s basketball arena talking about our strategic plan, which is just starting to come into some kind of focus. Big ideas dominated, from the moment eight of us (three faculty, one administrator, two staff, and two students) took our places at one of twenty-six similarly-seated tables to the moment we rose to leave three hours later. The chancellor oriented us, offering the three “core values” that have been identified as lenses through which to view our institution’s work in the coming years, and she set us to work on the five “themes” that seem to be emerging as the strategic planning task force’s work moves forward.
Neither the values (diversity, innovation, and sustainability) nor the themes (academic rigor, student success, community engagement, organizational strength, and diversity) were unsurprising ones. They’re all buzzwordy and brochure-worthy and uncontroversial…and none of this is to say that I disagree with their relevance or importance (well…Candace and I joined several of our tablemates in expressing dissatisfaction with the choice of the word “rigor”…but that’s fodder for another post); they’re just big and fuzzy and broad. Essentially contestable.
Nestled inside of the big ideas were many, many smaller ones, the day-to-day, the rubber/road junction stuff I mentioned in my last post. There was a good deal said at our table about the enactment of service learning and community engagement, about professional development for students, staff, and faculty alike, about concrete tactics that can be used for helping students get the most out of their educations.
Of the several tactics that could be put into practice almost immediately, one in particular stuck with me after our afternoon had ended. Several times during our conversations, my colleague Samuel, with whom I’ve been closely connected through the Honors Program for the past few years, reminded us to always keep in mind the unprecedented demands on their time that our students face. “It’s good and well that we want to make available all of these opportunities and experiences, but we need to be wary of overburdening them with requirements, given all that they often have to do outside of school.”
Javier, a recent graduate of the Honors Program who now works on campus, echoed these concerns, noting that he never once had a professor start out the semester asking students what demands on their time they were facing. And why not? I found myself wondering. This simple act would help the students to know that their time is valued, and it would help the teacher to know what to expect in terms of students’ realistic ability to commit to class. Care would have to be taken to ensure that neither side misconstrues the results of such a query; busyness should be no excuse for completing a reasonable amount of coursework, but both students and teachers could benefit from a more honest accounting of time resources as they plan their semesters. And students (especially temporally profligate first-years) might just gain something from the simple act of seeing their schedule on paper in front of them.
I already ask students for their preferred name, their preferred gender, their contact info in case of academic emergencies, etc. It might be worth my while to take 15 minutes out of the first day of class to talk about what kind of time we’ve got on our hands. I’ll share, too: I’m never sure just how much insight students have into the typical academic workday.
Thoughts? I’m curious what students, current and past, have to say about this.