Thursday, October 30, 2014

Toxic Dissension I

This has been a rough couple of weeks – from just before fall break to this Friday of Halloween. The temperature of the student body has been running from hot to severely over-heated. There’s been lots of talk about not returning, about the school not being worth the investment, about how bad things are.

Each year at about this time of the fall I run small groups in my Intro class. We focus on using the Dewey method of small group problem solving, so each year I get an earful of student complaints. I don’t think I’ve ever had a year when the complaints have been so toxic. I’m wondering what’s made this year different.

There are some things the college is doing – or failing to do – that could improve the situation. We could repair things in the dorms and keep student dorm trashers disciplined. We could better communicate what we’re doing to answer student complaints (one complaint raised a week ago in Bethany Quest was the issue of lighting. After the Stand Up rally on the 23rd the President walked the campus with students, looking at the dark places.) We could tell people why the faculty/student effort to end sexual harassment got shut down. We could do a better job at clarifying policy – like continuing to stress with students that the ID classes are skills oriented. In my view we could reinforce the idea that we are interested in skills by offering a “show what you know option” to all incoming students. Of course, that would then get students riled when they didn’t pass because they weren’t as good as they thought they were.

But I don’t think that those issues are what is actually causing the toxic level of dissent on campus. There are three major changes to the campus this fall that I do think are directly involved in student unrest.

The first is our new Interdisciplinary program. That is a source of major complaint among students. What’s different about these complaints from the old complaints about General Education is that we hear the complaints en-masse, and that the students are together in these classes and get to feed each other’s negativity. Under the old system students in General Education didn’t get to voice their complaint about having to learn algebra or chemistry or art in a class of lots of other people who didn’t like and didn’t see why they had to take those General Education classes. We heard their complaints in enrollment sessions, but they didn’t get a forum to air their complaints and get support from the like minded.

What we’re seeing, in my opinion, is a bad case of “Group Think,” in which a negative attitude is multiplying among group members.

It is natural that there should be resistance to what we’re asking students to do. We are asking for something unconventional, and this is the most conventional generation, totally focused on what their education is going to cost them and how they are supposed to pay the bills after graduation. They have been aided in this by the presentation of student debt as “crushing,” and “out of control.” Even though they’re not large consumers of TV news, they seem to have cultivated a “mean world” view of the value of college and the cost of their college.

It is natural. Perhaps we should offer the students a “show what you know” option – such as I mentioned above as a way of opting out of the classes. If you think you already know how to do college level research, have mastered presentation skills, can do analytic and critical thinking at a high level, you could submit artifacts (in the first six weeks of the semester?) that demonstrate your skills. If you pass, you get a pass on the course. It seems to me, from the work I’ve seen from the students I’ve had in class, that the number of passes would be incredibly small. It might, however, quiet some of the complaints. (Maybe we’ll offer this option in ID102 – do the final project within the first six weeks and you don’t have to come to the rest of the classes).

I'm going to discuss the other two factors I see in the development of this toxic dissension on campus in the next post. I want to drop in a class session I had on "I and You" messaging a couple of years ago (Spring term, 2013). I think this may be some helpful reminders from my discipline on what we don't want to do in response to "I don't like this ID course, I don't see why we're doing it."

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