Thursday, October 15, 2009

Seeing Like a Student

This article in IHE contains a lot, and is well worth pondering. It has several posts' worth of material, actually, but for today, I'll just focus on this:

To better promote success, it appears that not only do particular student support services need to be in place — including in-depth orientations, proactive advising, early warning systems, and well-organized tutoring and other academic supports — but those services must be well coordinated among themselves and with academic programs. Seamless integration of programs and services from the student’s perspective and collaboration among faculty, staff, and administration are what seem to contribute most to student success. (emphasis added)

It sounds obvious, but it's incredibly hard to implement.

Like most large organizations, colleges are organized into silos. Each silo has its own function and its own imperatives. Although that sounds obviously perverse, it actually makes sense; each area has its own specialization, and the idea is that the gains from a division of labor will accrue to everyone involved. The physics department doesn't package financial aid, and the facilities department doesn't grade papers. That's not because those functions are unimportant; it's because they're complicated. Specializing allows for considerable expertise in each area, without expecting anyone to be superhuman. (Of course, with recent budget cuts forcing job consolidations, that's becoming less true in some areas. But the basic idea hasn't changed.)

But the students don't experience silos. They get everything as a big, messy whole.

I remember noticing that in my first semester teaching at PU. A number of students, including some relatively good ones, asked if I'd mind if they left class twenty minutes early every day to catch the bus. They explained that the next bus wouldn't come for two more hours. (I later found out they were telling the truth.) I objected, of course, and even took some offense at the question. But from their perspective, there was something to it; they were looking at total time on campus, rather than time in class, and they judged the cost of twenty more minutes of class to be out of line. In that case, the local bus schedule was drawn up without an eye to our class schedule, and it put all of us in a series of no-win situations.

In administration, of course, silos are the bane of my existence. It's one thing to meet enrollment demand by running more class sections at non-traditional times; it's quite another to get the financial aid office, counseling, tutoring, and the other areas to stay open in support of those times. This is especially true when the number of sections at a non-traditional time is relatively low. The marginal cost of adding a section balloons if you suddenly have to add staff hours in the various support roles, but if you don't, some students will be left marooned.

Even if you have the money, though, it isn't that easy. In a unionized environment, "terms and conditions" of employment can only be changed through bargaining. That means that anything that materially affects somebody's work environment -- reporting lines, hours, etc. -- can't just be changed because it's a good idea. The speed bump undoubtedly prevents some lousy ideas, but it prevents some helpful ones, too. And don't underestimate the resistance of an employee who has maximized her corner-cutting in her current role. Those folks will trot out every argument under the sun to protect their sinecures, and will usually go on offense when they don't have a good defense. All of that internal energy then gets diverted from actually helping students.

In a for-profit setting, there's a relatively straightforward rationale for organizing the enterprise around the student's perspective. Dollars follow students, so if students don't get what they want, the dollars walk out the door with them. But in a nonprofit setting, where the mission is diffuse and the funding complex, that kind of clarity is harder to maintain. That's especially true when students come and go, but employees stay for decades.

Still, if we don't take the students' perspectives seriously, others will. And there's something to be said for remembering why we're here.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen ways for efforts to 'see like a student' actually succeed at your campus? I'd love to steal an idea or two...