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Issues in Higher Education and DePauw University

AAC&U (American Association of Colleges and Universities) Annual Meeting

Posted in Reports

The AAC&U (American Association of Colleges and Universities) annual meeting, San Francisco, January 24-28, 2017

Attended by John Caraher (Physics and Astronomy, chair of Curriculum), Tamara Beauboeuf (Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Faculty Career Mentor, presenter), and Anne Harris (Vice President for Academic Affairs)

AAC&U 2017 General Comments – Anne Harris

The overall theme of this year’s AAC&U meeting was “Building Public Trust in the Promise of Liberal Education and Inclusive Excellence” and allowed participants to engage in the crucial issues surrounding liberal arts in the public sphere. Pragmatism and agility, speaking outside of our own idiom, and connecting education to demographic changes in the United States within a shifting global society were at the forefront.

These topics connect with not just why we teach (prizing the interconnected interpretive frameworks of liberal education) but how we teach (the discussion-based aspect of education and the experiential component of a learning community) and whom we teach (the changing demographics of American culture and its interconnectedness with other nations and educational systems). As DePauw’s own demographics change, we have been thinking about how our students, staff, and faculty connect and interact, how they create a community in which they learn together and from each other.

A highlight for DePauw was the paper presented by Tamara Beauboeuf and her colleagues Jan Thomas, Senior Associate Provost, Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies, Kenyon College and Karla Erickson, Associate Dean of the College, Professor of Sociology, Grinnell College within a research session devoted to mid-career faculty, and entitled “Rethinking the Mid-Career Malaise: New Lessons from Post-Tenure Liberal Arts Faculty.” This eye-opening research was featured in Inside Higher Ed the very morning of its presentation. Below is a description of the session.

The post-tenure career stage is a time when we ask deep questions—who am I as a professional? What work am I particularly well-positioned to contribute? What will be my legacy?—at the same time that our institutions rely on our labor and leadership the most. Drawing on a survey of over 200 post-tenure faculty and 60 in-depth interviews at three liberal arts institutions, we identity a basic tension between the need for faculty to remain engaged while navigating what we conceptualize as “institutional trenches.” Our research challenges the notion that post-tenure is primarily or inevitably a period of dissatisfaction and malaise. We suggest the need to reconceptualize the post-tenure period as an active phase of navigating meaningful versus futile service, identifying new pathways in teaching and research, and finding synergies between organizational needs and one’s own creative and intellectual contributions.

The closing plenary, “The Half-Life of Freedom: Race and Justice in America Today,” was given by Dr. Jelani Cobb, of Columbia University and connected the mission and history of higher education with changing political landscapes. The changing face(s) of higher education speak to the significant shifts in the participation of women and people of color in higher education brought about by period civil rights movements – shifts that will continue as demographics continue to change and the mission of higher education continues to respond to the society it serves. The keynote ended on a powerful note as President Trump’s travel ban went into effect for the first time and protests gathered in east coast airports. The session turned to what institutions of higher education can do to safeguard their academic missions and articulate their values.

AAC&U 2017 Summaries – Tamara Beauboeuf

I found my first time at AAC&U to be a very good experience with a welcoming and curious group of administrators and faculty who believe in the liberal arts approach to education.

I attended the opening plenary (Reclaiming the Racial Narrative) and was taken by the remarks of Michael Roth (president of Wesleyan) about the concept of the ‘pragmatic liberal arts.’  This may be part of his recently published book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. What I got was the sense that the liberal arts allows us to take action, should dovetail with experiential learning, and is essential to reconceptualizing higher education beyond the common view that it is a private commodity rather than a social/common good.  He also cautioned about parochialism which might lean left and overlook other routes to social justice. Additionally, I appreciated former Spelman president Beverly Daniel Tatum’s reminder that education as a public good continues to be at the heart of the motivations of her students and many students of color.  This suggests to me that with an increasingly diverse student body, we actually may have an important opportunity to bring the social and public wellbeing back into our enterprise of higher education.

This panel also talked about little things that matter big.  Tatum said that we “need opportunities for sharing each other’s narratives,” and Lynn Pasquarella (AAC&U President) spoke of listening and humility as civic virtues that should be cultivated in higher education. I like this language.  It resonates with our emphasis on affective dimensions to college, including belonging.

This idea of little mattering big was also the theme of the second major session I attended, Practice for life: Making Decisions in College.  Reporting on their longitudinal research with students at seven liberal arts New England colleges, the authors pushed the audience to see that college is a serial decision-making process and that our focus on ‘the major’ often overlooks the importance of the full breadth of choices that students make during their college careers.  As one interviewee expressed, “It’s not just four years of school.  It’s four years of everything.  We need to get a lot more out of this than just academics.”  What the authors take from their research is that students start and restart their colleges experiences (their lives and identities) many times.  This, to me, signaled the importance of office hours as a space where kids often work out the small decisions that feel very consequential to them – questions about the use of time, connection to others, home, advice, and levels of engagement with the campus.  To use your language, belonging takes place through these tiny choices made over and over in various domains of their college experience.

I also attended the Networking Luncheon for Faculty and Administrators of Color.  Michelle Asha Cooper (President, Institute for Higher Education Policy) insisted that colleges own their data.  As she stated, you have to “know and accept your numbers.  They are the facts.  You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.  You have to own your facts.”  And these numbers (e.g., about retention) should guide our decisions.  She and others made mention of a USA Funds organization based in Indy that funds higher education projects.  

AAC&U 2017 Summaries – John Caraher

Incorporating Equity-Minded Access Strategies for STEM Success and Retention: Progress and Challenges
Presentations on efforts at Arizona, Montana State and Wooster to improve success and retention in STEM among underrepresented groups. Wooster in particular created a “STEM Zone” for tutoring and office hours as well as a major declaration shindig for sophomores. Faculty initiative that is showing early signs of reduced DFW rates and higher STEM retention, correlated with STEM Zone visits. Hub for STEM community.

Interdisciplinary Capstones for All Students
Presentation of interdisciplinary programs at Boston University, Elon College, Portland State and Champlain College. All aimed at capping the liberal arts core curriculum using a variety of models, but typically focusing on engaging teams of students with real-world problems.

Beyond Reading, Writing and Arithmetic: The Case for Value Driven Institutional Learning Outcomes for Whole Campus Engagement
Discussion of the adoption of institutional learning outcomes based not on student skills and abilities but on values by Finger Lakes Community College. Values are operationalized for purposes of planning and assessment, but the values (vitality, inquiry, perseverance,and interconnectedness) are primary. A motivation was to differentiate the institution from peers in the system.

Revealing Value:New Directions for Assessing the Impact of Undergraduate Research
CUR-led session concerned with assessing and expanding the base of knowledge regarding the impact of undergraduate research, not only for individual students but for faculty, institutions, etc. A hope is to advance understanding the effects of undergraduate research to the point where it could become a practice listed on the Department of Education’s “What Works Clearinghouse,” which can be important in securing grants.

Critical STEM Leadership for Such a Time as This, Session I
A talk by David Leonard, Professor of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies, Washington State University exhorting STEM faculty and academic leaders to work from a place of discomfort in tackling questions of race (mainly). Included critiques of concepts such as “allyship” and “cultural competence” as inducing complacency because they represent skill sets or identities and can draw focus away from action.

Critical STEM Leadership for Such a Time as This, Session II
Adriana Medina, Associate Professor of Modern Languages, Linguistics and Intercultural Communication, University of Maryland, Baltimore County led participants in an interactive participatory learning exercise aimed at demonstrating the origins of stereotype andthe effects implicit bias can have on even very simple cognitive tasks. Discussion includes thoughts on how to recognize and reduce the impact of implicit bias.

Improving Low-Income Access and Attainment at Selective Liberal Arts Colleges: Lessons from Successful Colleges
Representatives of Ripon College, McDaniel College and Austin College shared characteristics of their campuses as specific strategies they believe have proven most effective in their institutions success in helping low-income students succeed (indicated primarily by their having graduation rates substantially in excess of what one might predict among their Pell-eligible students). Discussions among participants (grouped by fraction of Pell-eligible students) focused on relevant sharing efforts and concerns from their respective campuses, with a significant focus on early advising (including working with incoming classes during the summer before their first semester).

The Teaching for Transfer Writing Curriculum: Supporting Student Success through Key Terms and Reflective Practice
Kathleen Yancey and collaborators presented continuing research on their Teaching for Transfer writing pedagogy, with a focus on students’ use of key terms in building and evolving their individual theories of writing and how students apply those theories, particularly in writing contexts outside the classroom.

Open Discussion on Integrating the Arts, Humanities, Science, Engineering and Medicine
Led by researchers with the national academies, the focus was on soliciting (or developing strategies for obtaining) evidence for the benefits of integrating arts and humanities study with STEM curricula. In the course of this discussion a variety of models for implementing these integrated curricula were introduced by participants.


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