Friday, April 28, 2006

 

Limelight

As my regular readers know, my cc is trying to increase its enrollment to compensate for declines in public funding. (The other option is serious internal cutting, but that tends to become self-perpetuating, as depleted programs attract fewer students.) One of the ways we’re trying to increase our visibility in the community is by directing resources internally to programs and departments that are good, active participants in public outreach. By getting out there in the community, the thinking goes, we will raise our profile and, over time, enrollments.

I’m with the program on this one, generally speaking. Incentives matter, so it’s important to think through the incentives facing individual departments to make sure they align with larger college goals. Some departments really go the extra mile for community visibility; others can’t be bothered. It seems reasonable to me to reward the former, and let the latter connect the dots for themselves. And in some cases, the results have been what we had hoped: programs that have gone the extra mile have seen increased enrollments, which we have faithfully rewarded with increased resources (to the extent we can).

Now that the program is beyond the embryonic stage, though, it’s starting to get complicated. Simply put, some programs lend themselves to Big Public Displays more easily than others do, through no fault of anybody. A program like Theater or Hospitality Management naturally lends itself to public display. Sociology or History, not so much.

Naturally, my trusty sociologists and historians picked up on this, and have asked how they’re supposed to compete for the limelight with disciplines that (in some cases literally) have their own limelights. (They’ve also asked just how they’re supposed to help build enrollment when their own courses are already stuffed to the gills.)

I’ve suggested inviting speakers to campus, and they’ve tried that a few times. (As a cc, we don’t have the budget to bring big names.) The events have been reasonably successful on their own terms, but they just don’t compete with plays or catered receptions. A sociology speaker we can afford might bring 25-50 people from the community, along with people who work here. A play might bring 200 a night for several nights. It’s just not the same.

To make the inequality worse, staging productions or receptions is an organic part of the curriculum for programs in theater or hospitality. Bringing speakers is an add-on for sociology or history. So they believe, with some justification, that they’re being doubly penalized simply for being who they are.

A few questions for my wise readers: do you know a way for the more traditional academic disciplines to raise their local public profiles without breaking the bank? And how can we reward outreach without inadvertently punishing programs that, by their nature, tend to be lower-profile?

Comments:
My suggestion: join forces with folks in the limelight. Host a historical dicsussion after the historically-minded play. Create a series, where movies, speakers, discussions, artwork, and so on all hit the same theme. In general, the limelight folks are a medium. The rest of us can be the message.

I doubt this will level the playing field, but it should give you enough room to reward those who make a good faith effort, but not those who don't even try.
 
Two words: service learning.
 
Both earlier suggestions are good, but getting relevant experts placed in the local press also is effective. And it's not that hard. Papers especially want to talk to local experts and play up local angles to national and world events.
 
I like CSC's suggestion, but that still has the problems that Dean Dad mentions in the post - it's an add-on for instructors, doesn't constitute a central part of the curriculum of the discipline for students, and it's still not going to be as flashy or as well-attended as the play, right?

Another problem with these community outreach emphases for some disciplines is that it can turn service - which is supposed to be something by definition that is about volunteerisim and good will toward the community - into complete drudgery. For example, let's take abdmom's suggestion about service learning. What if one has never done a service learning course, has absolutely no familiarity with what it entails, and/or just has never been interested in doing service learning, but this is the only way that they can contribute to the community outreach mission of the university? So they take on the burden of a service-learning course, which is of course a LOT more work - at least at the beginning - than more traditionally structured courses, and yet still it's not flashy or particularly noticeable? I think these kinds of demands can make for a very unhappy faculty.

My thought is this: is there any way to have maybe a 3-pronged approach to this enrollment issue, with community outreach being one of the prongs, advising being another, and maybe some other sort of retention strategies (like learning communities or programming things) being a third. Each department could emphasize one or the other of these, while still doing something in the other two categories, and the measure of a department's contribution could be calculated not just on one possible way of getting enrollment up?

Can you tell that my university is all about community outreach and civic engagement? Can you tell that as a person who specializes in 20th century BRITISH literature that I've had to STRUGGLE to find ways to make the kind of service that makes sense given my expertise fall into line with the university's agenda. It's not an easy thing to achieve.
 
Some food for thought re: history faculty

Historians can investigate participating in Teaching American History grants - which entails exploring partnerships NOW (the next round will be announced within 6 months but with only a 2-month writing window that doesn't leave enough time after they are announced. Just look at ed.gov, search for Teaching American History and look at the grant abstracts that already include community colleges :-)). You can offer the hands-on participation of historians that doesn't always occur with more research-oriented universities. And by working with teachers directly, it is much easier to recruit their students and emphasize what your institution has to offer.

What about oral history projects - an easy way to start is to contribute to the Library of Congress Veterans' Project. People love to tell their stories. And it counts as service learning.
 
Not being an academic and also not knowing where exactly you are, this may be unfeasible, but can those departments collaborate with local museums to put on programming for the public?

What made me think of that is that, for example, here in the DC area the history department could try to do something with some of the many historical sites, such as Mount Vernon or one of the upteen Civil War sites, or do an "assasination tour" or something similarly creative.
 
Dr. Crazy -- you rock my world. I really like the idea of having different departments specialize in different growth strategies. It lets each play to its own natural strengths, without letting anybody off the hook.

I admit I'm allergic to the concept of service learning. There's something vaguely churchly about it that just strikes me as extraneous to the academic mission. I don't mean to cast aspersions on those who do it and do it well, but it's not something I could comfortably get behind.

I wasn't aware of those Teaching American History grants, so thanks! I'll check those out.

csc's idea of a week of themed speakers/events looks promising, too. Imagine "sex week," featuring a psychologist discussing research on sexual attraction, a historian discussing the emergence of homosexuality as an identity (as opposed to a behavior), a sociologist discussing changes to family structures, etc. There's something to that...
 
(They’ve also asked just how they’re supposed to help build enrollment when their own courses are already stuffed to the gills.)

Ahh, now here's a bigger problem that sounds all too familiar: you need to address that issue. Where and how does your CC see it possible for this department to increase enrollments without simply punishing themselves by stuffing more people into oversubscribed classes. I could easily, easily!, enroll a hundred students in any elective course I offer whereas the English department caps such offerings at 40 or 60 students. Why should I open my door to the floodgates of students when all those extra bodies only cause a lot of extra work for me with no benefit to myself or the department?

You have to come up with a way in which such already-busy departments can see the benefits to them of increasing enrollments when they feel stretched to the maximum already. If you can't cough up the money for an extra person right now, maybe if they enroll X more majors or whatever standard, you'll be able to create new sections of courses A, B or C for them to hire in new staff?

As for encouraging community action, I expect that each department or program at your CC has a high school liasion representative? Each department should have one faculty member who phones the local boards and offers to meet with high school history classes or teachers to promote the program. We offer library tours to junior and senior level classes with a historian and a librarian to help them with current projects. We also do liasion with local history fairs (it's running next week in our Great Hall!) and have even hosted the national grade school history fair, complete with faculty workshops for teachers, a few years back.
 
I think this ties in with the transfer credit problem. Really, where the history and sociology programs have the biggest competitive advantage is PRICE. Buy your credits at the CC and pay less than a four-year school. I'd be working the high schools on that angle.
 
I'd probably go so far as to strongly encourage the flashy disciplines to cooridnate with the non-flashy...

A catered reception for a poetry reading and art exhibition.... Theme nights are always good.

I'd also work to bring more community groups on-campus to use the facilities when they are not in use... do you have an area that could turn into an art gallery?? Contact a local art group to bring their stuff in -- with the requirement that they hire the catering done by you for the opening...

Devote some real resources to service learning, i.e. hire someone to coordinate the program and develop places for students to go do the work and count the hours done. That would take the task off of the instructor's plate.

Also, devote some resources to getting community members to volunteer talents and experience to the school. If you can show that the local community experts are acting as speakers and mentors in your school, you'll be able to show that you are part of the larger community and students who go there will have great opportunities afterward.
 
Invite a historical recreation group, such as the SCA or a Civil War Reenactment Group (whatever you've got locally), to stage a one day demo at your campus. They usually welcome such invitations, and will put on a great show. Better yet, they bring with them their own advertising! One of the CC's in our area does this once a year and it provides excellent exposure for both the school and the reenactment group.
 
There have been a lot of good suggestions, but anonymous' was one of the best: pimp your professors. Work with university relations (or whatever it's called on your campus) to get your instructors airtime as experts on local radio and TV stations and citations in local papers. There's a market for all disciplines in that, and there are new stories every day.

Also, events don't have to be on-campus events, or even events you run. Get the English Dept. to sponsor a weekly open mic poetry night at the local coffee house. They wouldn't need to do more than print up some flyers to get it rolling, and maybe supply a few students to read if nobody shows up.

For any department, monthly reading groups at a local book store would also get the department out there. That might need some hands-on involvement to get it going, but eventualy groups develop a momentum of their own, so that a faculty member would just need to show up prepared to discuss the book of the month. Not much time committment, and the department's name goes on every calendar the bookstore stuffs in customer's bag.
 
LOVE Dr. Crazy's suggestion. Another history-specific idea: your history folks and their students could get involved in National History Day. NHD is a k-12 program, but involves lots of volunteers at the college level to support and sponsor district and state competitions. Might be a good recruiting & visibility tool.
 
I was thinking about the outreach everyone else has suggested for the lower-profile departments, and I wondered if any of your departments had balked at funding issues. So here's a suggestion:

Every state has a Humanities Council, which was founded and is funded (primarily) by the National Humanities Council. The state HCs exist to make sure that every state's humanities programs are equally funded. Maybe the professors/departments could work with local organizations (e.g. libraries) to get some funding for the talks/outreach?
 
Without going so far as full-fledged service learning, why not encourage faculty to include assignments that take students out into the community? While students may grumble at first at having to work in groups and make new contacts in the community, my experience has been that in the end, students find such experiences to be fun and rewarding.

This might include oral history, as Kelly suggested, but it could also include interviewing people for other reasons as well, then putting together temporary exhibits in the library or other public space on campus or hosting a community open house that showcases student work on posters (and that offers, of course, something of even more explicit value to the community--I'll let you imagine what that might be).

When I was a journalist at a community newspaper, I was grateful to receive press releases announcing similar events. They were easy for the newspaper to cover and/or promote in advance, and it was always a pleasure interviewing bright, motivated students, faculty, and community members.
 
The Humanities Council idea is a good one, especially for disciplines that don't necessarily lend themselves to outreach. And I do think that people are offering a lot of good potential ideas for bringing the community to campus and for taking the campus out into the community.

That said, I'm going to come in and be the cranky English professor for a moment to say that while yes, some of these things are things that I could do or that people in my department could do, I don't think that it's fair to burden faculty with these sorts of initiatives to the exclusion of other kinds of service. For example, it makes absolutely no sense for me to guide my students through making posters for display. Why? That is not something that we do in my discipline, and such projects do not reflect anything that will help students in my discipline. They are busy-work - period. To _require_ faculty to do these things just doesn't make sense to me - just as it wouldn't make sense to organize an event in which chemistry professors were expected to shepherd students through writing and presenting 15-minute long conference papers, which is what we do in my field.

Also, there IS the issue of funding for these kinds of events, and there IS the issue of the time commitment expected from faculty. While the idea of a weekly poetry open mic is great, I know at my university (4-year, but primarily commuter) any such endeavor would be pretty much rest solely on the shoulders of a faculty member. With a heavy teaching load, commitments to committees within the department and university, and research, I would NEVER agree to take something like that on. Not because I'm a bad citizen or because it's not a great idea, but because there just aren't enough hours in the day.
 
Another way to increase the institution's profile while serving as a great professional development activity for faculty is "Back to Industry" opportunities....The faculty go out into the world and work in their field for a semester.

Typically, the college uses either adjunct funds or prof devo funds to pay the adjuncts who take over the courses. The faculty get up-to-date, relevant experience that they can pass on to their students. The added benefit is that faculty see what a great gig teaching is!
 
Let me just note, re: DD's skepticism of service learning, that it's the whole idea of "service" in there that's the problem. When "service learning" becomes mostly about service and little about learning, it is indeed drudgery and can easily slide over into a kind of paternalism to the community.

On my campus, our program is "community-based learning." The idea is to get the undergraduates out into the community (which can even include the broader university community itself) but to bring those experiences back into the classroom learning environment. It's not just about "doing service" but rather it's about connecting their learning in the community to their learning in the classroom through creative pedagogies, especially very carefully constructed journal assignments, that ask them to continually reflect intellectually on their community experiences and tie them to course readings.

A key part of this is that the work students do must also contribute back to the community. It's a mutually beneficial relaltionship. As an example, we have a group of students taking a course on Native American family structure who are working (and in fact doing part of the class time) on the nearby reservation. Their "payback" to the community is that they will write first drafts of grant proposals to get funding for needs that they see on the reservation, coming out of their experiences there and their classroom study.

This sort of work is both great for making community connections AND valuable for student learning.
 
I am not familiar with the term service learning. Is that the same as the four year college internships? Usually students go out after several basic courses and get SUPERVISED experience with the supervisor, who, in consultation with the instructor of record provides a review of the work effort. The faculty who supervise the interns usually makes site visits and gets the view first hand. Is that the same as service learning?
 
Dumb question -- what's the marginal cost of a new student vis a vis his or her tuition, and what assumptions are you making to reach that figure? Is there any reason to think that the marginal cost of a (for example) CS or chemistry student might be larger than that of a math or history student? That is, aren't there some departments you really want recruiting and others you want to keep a little more on the dl?
 
How about scheduling visits with local high school juniors and seniors? All programs do it twice each year.

Also, at my CC, we have advisory boards for each program, made of the local dignitaries and business representatives, many of them our alumni. Businesses help financially as well send their employees for training.
 
(They’ve also asked just how they’re supposed to help build enrollment when their own courses are already stuffed to the gills.)

This, to me, is the key question. If they are already stretched to the max, why should they be trying to increase enrollment in their courses? Or is the complaint that they aren't increasing enrollment in other courses?
 
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