Thursday, January 25, 2018

Slipping Past Security: a Dispatch from the AAC&U

Okay, the title is a slight exaggeration. But it’s true that the AAC&U has historically been focused largely on four-year colleges and universities.  This year I was invited to do a session specifically on community colleges.

I had some hope going in.  Kate McConnell, who made the invitation, had me send her some prompts to start the discussion.  She put the prompts into PowerPoint.  She and I walked through them on her laptop a few hours ahead of the panel, to make sure that the order made sense and to choreograph who would do what.  In the middle of the dry run, a man neither of us knew approached us, identified himself as coming from a technical college in the midwest, and asked when the presentation was.  That was a good sign.

The presentation itself became sort of a cross between a faculty meeting and a good class.  The crowd seemed mostly to be community college people, which suggested that the AAC&U is doing a better job of reaching out than I had remembered.  The group indulged me a couple of my pet obsessions to warm up, but quickly turned to a discussion of remediation.

Someone later tweeted that the session was “evocative.”  I went with “lively.”  It felt a little like a dam had broken, but in a good way.  Plenty of people spoke, often with a mix of pride, frustration, and curiosity.  Many were proud of what they had done, curious about what others had done, and frustrated either that some of the issues have been around forever, or that worthy solutions have gone unacknowledged.

The palpable frustration that many people showed helped me crystallize something I’ve sort of noticed, but hadn’t quite put together yet.  We have presentations on “the XYZ program at Hypothetical State,” and we have presentations on “remediation and social justice in America.”  But we don’t have a lot of comparative presentations or studies.  We have the local and the conceptual, but something in between is missing.  We don’t compare qualitatively.

I tried to get at that in the discussion, but it wasn’t quite formed yet.  I mentioned how we have good national statistics on remediation, and we’re getting a much clearer picture of what the common issues are.  But I haven’t seen a similar discussion about ESL.  Someone responded, seemingly offended, that her department did a great job with ESL.

Which may very well be true, but it doesn’t address the issue.  There’s a yawning gap between “some colleges are doing a great job with x” and “we don’t address x systematically.”  Do ESL students progress like students in remediation, or like students in a major?  Does an ALP-like model make sense there?  Does it vary by region, or according to the first language the students speak?  What makes, say, contextualized ESL work well at one school and poorly at another?  And are there policy issues raised that need to be revisited?

At conferences, we tend to get a lot of “best practices” or “local successes” presentations, and sometimes some large-scale statistics.  (The audiences for the two types are often different.)  But we don’t get much of the in-between kind, the kind that explain why a project or tactic that worked well in one setting didn’t work as well in another.  

A comparative approach can be useful for myth-busting, and it can draw attention beyond the usual suspects.  It can also be much more accessible to many audiences than in-depth statistics.  I’d love to see more faculty at these discussions, too.  If there are wildly wonderful programs or approaches in other states but nobody elsewhere knows about them, the impact is limited.  Let’s give credit where credit is due -- the hunger for credit was striking -- and also start to develop a fuller sense of what everyone is actually doing.  Localism can be a virtue, but not when it becomes provincialism.

I realize that I’m asking for some people to own failures in public, which is asking a lot.  But honest progress requires honest acknowledgement when things don’t work.  The entire point of a tenure system is to allow honesty.  From the liveliness of the interaction on Thursday, it’s clear that there’s a real hunger for honest discussion.  We shouldn’t have to slip it past security, even in jest.