This morning I had the honor of attending another commencement rehearsal breakfast, a twice-a-year tradition at our school at which the achievements of graduating seniors are celebrated before they’re herded like sheep to the quad and told what’ll go down at graduation ceremonies the next day. Though a personal errand across town prevented me from staying and reading the names of this year’s recipients of Distinction as a University Scholar (signalling successful completion of the Honors Program requirements), I stayed for about forty minutes and chatted with many of our soon-to-be grads.

I’m gonna miss these kids! This crop is “my class” of Honors students, the students who entered the program the same year that I took over as Director. As hard as I try to not play favorites, I have a special affection for this group. They’re bright, they’re hard-working, and sometimes, as well as I think I know them, they can still surprise me.

For instance, one of the quietest students in my 478 class submitted a sprawling response to my prompt for an end-of-semester reflection, a piece in which I ask the students to look back on their service-learning experience, on the interdisciplinary education they’ve received in the Honors Program, and on our class’s consideration of global citizenship to answer the question: what next? What obligations do we have as global citizens?

Though I ask the students to craft a coherent narrative that brings all of these ideas together naturally and organically, most students’ responses are lightly-polished lists of bullet points…

  • Service-learning experience
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Global citizenship

…with a smattering of oblique references to course readings thrown in for good measure. Quincy’s reflection was far-ranging, more than twice as long as most of his peers’, bringing in ideas from several courses he’d taken (including a couple he took during his first year at the university) and from nearly every reading we’d done.

And his reflection was subtle and deep, and daring, treading boldly into areas like happiness, discomfort, personal identity, and evolutionary psychology.

In every class I think about happiness. In my many animal ecology classes I thought about the capacity of happiness in nonhuman creatures, the evolution of emotion, and the role that it plays in the success of a species and an ecosystem. In Humanities 214 I thought about the people of the desert in the Muqaddimah and how they found happiness in the harshest of environments. In my Universe Through a Telescope class I pondered the strange way that learning about the universe and its immensity was simultaneously fascinating and deeply saddening for me

Our senior capstone class inspired my ponderings further. Our discussions about discrimination and acceptance made me consider the role of happiness in those concepts. It took me so long to realize that so many of the issues I had with people or negative sentiments I associated with them were based on my own insecurities and dissatisfactions. Thinking about this made me realize that understanding oneself and one’s emotions is an integral part of being a global citizen. While there are many reasons for hate and discrimination, I believe that happiness (or lack thereof) is a major contributing factor.

Quiet as he was, I feel I didn’t get to know Quincy well this term, but having read his reflection I feel I can safely say he’s ready to move forward from our school and do well in the world.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided I’m going to move ahead with some changes to the 478 curriculum the next time I teach it (likely in Spring 2017). I’m dropping the number of readings (yet to be determined, but likely to include Alexander, Chambers, and a well-chosen work of post-colonial fiction), freeing up more time for discussion on each. I’m going to require, rather than merely recommend, that students coordinate their presentations on the reading they’ve chosen to focus on. I’m going to offer richer opportunities for reflection on ongoing service learning. And, mostly excitingly to me, I’m going to ramp up the multimodality, bringing maker materials to every class and encouraging participation through drawing, sculpting, building, making, making it easier, I hope, for the quieter students, like Quincy, to actively engage in class. I want every class meeting to dance, to reflect the dynamism of ideas the students bring.

So many changes! I feel now is a good time for change, for change is in the air around us, and it’s more than the explosion of spring. For instance, our university is on the verge of adopting a new strategic plan, several months in the making. Though the details aren’t yet public, we know that this polestar piece focuses on four primary goals (also called “strategic directions” by our Chancellor, who presented the plan at the faculty senate meeting I attended yesterday): (1) academic excellence/rigor, (2) student success, (3) community engagement, and (4) organizational capacity. I understand that this sort of document is vague-by-design, a flexible framework, a skeleton onto which bits of meat and muscle will be plopped in the months and years to come…

…yet I can’t help but think of these goals as so airy and uncontroversial as to be meaningless. I mean, what university doesn’t want to achieve student success through academic excellence while bolstering and building up its capacity to do this? The only point that strikes me as at all daring, and therefore meaningful, is (3), and I single this one out because historically we’ve not done a good job at establishing connections with the community. Everything else…? Well, I’d hate to think that we need to remind ourselves to offer excellent learning opportunities to our students or to prepare them to succeed after graduation.

In any case, details TBD. Ultimately, the faculty senate will be the body charged with implementing the plan, and its members proffered a unanimous endorsement in the form of a “sense of the senate” resolution at their meeting yesterday. No breathless, sweat-faced hallelujahs, but no mutters or grumbles either.

One more tale of forward motion, and I’ll call it a day. I closed my last post by vowing “to stay ever cognizant of the privileges and powers promotion [to the rank of full professor] grants to me, and to redouble my efforts in advocating for educational access for all students and equitable treatment of all educators.” To that last point: I talked for a bit yesterday with my colleague Doreen, who, after serving three consecutive one-year contracts at our school, was recently given a three-year contract, giving her a bit more job security and therefore the freedom to commit herself to more meaningful work. “I want to make a serious effort to act and advocate on behalf of contingent faculty,” I told her. “I don’t want to be one of those tenured faculty who just wrings his hands and moans, ‘if only I could help, but that’s the way it is!'” She let me know about her own efforts to bring contingent faculty at our school together, and about the drop-jawed reaction of some tenured folks on hearing of the issues the adjuncts and lecturers face regularly. (“It can’t happen here!” “Well, it happens here.”) I asked her to share more about these conditions, when she gets a chance.

I suspect that the first thing I need to do is educate myself about the issues, both locally and globally. Various organizations (like Faculty Forward) offer resources for learning more about challenges facing part-time faculty (did you know that 22% of part-time faculty live below the poverty line, compared to only 2% for full-time faculty? or that 25% of part-time faculty receive some sort of public assistance like Medicaid, TANF/SNAP benefits, or Earned Income Tax Credits? This and much more here), but I suspect I’ll learn more about the situation on the ground if I ask my contingent faculty friends to share their own stories. I’ve already invited some of them, including Doreen (who, incidentally, will be teaching the sole section of HON 478 in the fall!), to write guest pieces here.

For now, there’s laundry to fold and hummus to make, and I’ve got to get in touch with one more reference for the finalist in my search for a new Honors Program Assistant. Forward, ever forward…

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