Saturday, September 13, 2014

Education Done Right? – Part II: Making Choices

Different Kind of Student

Institutional culture alone does not completely explain the differences in my experience of these two educational institutions. Much of the distinction lies in the demographics of the students themselves.

I often describe my classes at Osceola as teaching ethics at the United Nations. Osceola County, like neighboring Orange, is a majority-minority county and there is no single ethnic group numerically prevalent there anymore. The college reflects that diversity with representatives not just from the Caribbean and Latin America, for whose cultures I hold a decided affinity, but from India and Pakistan, Southeast Asia and Africa as well. Diverse learning communities like these tend to be highly generative primarily because they lack a dominant cultural understanding. There is no “common sense” to default to.

For the most part, my students are working class to middle class people. They range in age from the dual enrollment high school seniors to the empty nester adults I love to see come through my doors. What they hold in common is an understanding of the importance of education to them, not just to secure employment but to become better human beings and active participants in their community. For most of them, the state college (né community college) is their only shot at getting a higher education. And, for the most part, they take that pretty seriously.

This is a very different reality from the predominately white upper middle class kids right out of high school who make up the majority of my classes at the university. Many of those students see college largely as a foregone conclusion, an entitlement and an obligation, a requirement to get a decent job that they are compelled to endure and get through as quickly and painlessly as possible. They are largely hypercompetitive, self-promoting, disengaged and largely alienated from each other, all marks of the professional middle class. Whatever community emerges there does so in spite of the institutional culture, not because of it.

My students at the college don’t tend to use Ratemyprofessor to pick their classes. They don’t evidence the enormous senses of entitlement I observe to be a normal part of life at the university. They are generally very respectful and express gratitude readily. And thus far they haven’t used student ratings at the end of the term or grievance proceedings to get even with instructors who have not met their demands regarding work load, grading and feedback.

Many of them struggle through the term with ungodly work schedules and home commitments. They come to class tired, holding cups of coffee and energy drinks needed to keep them alert for another three hours before they go home to their next job as Mom or Dad. But for the most part, they give their best to the learning process. And the vast majority of them are a joy to teach.

It’s tempting to see this kind of congenial working environment where real teaching and learning are actually possible as a luxury that is too expensive in a state without a fair, reliable tax base or a socially responsible citizenry. But there are more pragmatic reasons for seeing this example of higher education as a model worth emulating. In my experience: It gets results.

Last semester, in the same ethics course, I had 20 students from around the world. They worked hard and we held some outstanding classes together as we wrestled with ethical dilemmas from nursing to public policy to criminal behaviors. The night of the final, I took them to the cafeteria and paid for a soft drink for each of them and then took them out by the campanile in front of our building to take a class photo. Before I handed out the final that night I told them that I was in their debt, that they had given me a great gift – for the first time in a very long time I remembered why I loved being a teacher.

Of the 20 who began the course, 20 completed it. Of the 20 who completed the course, all but one managed to get the C they needed for their program requirements. I worked with that one student right to the day I submitted grades but the student just couldn’t hold a chaotic life together long enough to get the final exam done.

Like the true teacher I am, I still grieve the one that got away. 

Lessons to be Learned

Clearly it is important not to romanticize the Valencia experience too much. My first semester class in Ethics at Osceola a year ago was a very different experience. I faced a class composed largely of full time employed working class women, some still in high school, some just graduated, many of whom struggled with the critical thinking and creative problem solving aspects of the curriculum.

I lost about ¼ of that class to withdrawals and often deliberated about how generous I needed to be in my grading of their work. Not everyone who shows up at open admission colleges is ready to be there. And the potential value of achieving success has a downside as well when lack of readiness leads to failure thus confirming one’s suspected shortcomings.

I also hear from my former colleagues at Osceola that this campus may be a bit of an anomaly in the Valencia constellation. Apparently as the original two campuses have grown they have begun to exhibit some of the same problems with impersonal relations, competitiveness, ambition and anonymity that the second largest public university in the country suffers from.

Conversely, despite a largely adversarial institutional culture (one of my university colleagues actually calls it toxic) that tends to alienate students and faculty alike, there are some real success stories occurring at the university in terms of research and individual educational achievement among faculty and students alike. At some level, success in the face of alienating competition is even more commendable.

Could the university learn from the Osceola experience? Is it possible to cap class sizes to create genuine learning communities, create a less hostile system to negotiate, actively support instructional staff and students, and insure an economically and ethnically diverse student body from which critical thinking and creative problem solving could be generated?

I wonder.

Do We Care?

The first step would require a gut check – do we really care? Do we want a higher education in which all students actually have the privilege of learning enough to provide the context to make it possible for their teachers to actually teach them? Do we care about the ones that get away, particularly the up to 1/3 of all online students who end up withdrawing?

Second, if we care, what do we really care about? Do we really value learning or is mere training for the work world with a veneer of higher education sufficient? Do we care what our students bring away from our classes beyond a grade and credit?  Do we want our students and faculty to actively engage each other? Do we want students to learn to think critically and creatively express their understandings?

What is it we want our students to come away with and why? And how much is it worth to us?

Third, are we simply inclined to acquiesce to the status quo simply because changing it requires too much from us? If we care enough to change, how much are we willing to invest in that process? Are we willing to invest the time, the courage to critically assess what we’re currently doing and why? Are we willing to identify the values that surely inform any decision making regarding higher education - Cui bono? Good for whom? And at whose expense?

I recognize that a lot of considerations – many of them economic, political and ambitious in nature – came together to create the current reality I observe. All of these would have to be reconsidered in recreating a corporate megauniversity as a true learning community. Even this idealist is realistic enough to recognize that the inertia of the status quo alone gravitates against such a shift.

And yet, the example of that small campus in Kissimmee with its United Nations student body and its collegial faculty and staff working hard to provide their students with an opportunity to become educated human beings suggests that there are always other choices. And every choice has its consequences.   

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Religion and Cultural Studies,
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee
Adjunct Instructor: Valencia College-Osceola

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This class was made up of real learners attempting to grow intellectually with what the professor could relate.