Monday, June 30, 2014

CUR, Day Two: Translation

Monday’s theme at the CUR conference was translation.  How can people with very different vocabularies, assumptions, and interests talk to each other productively?

I was glad to see it wasn’t just me.

The day started with a panel of provosts, on which I felt like a bit of an imposter.  (HCC doesn’t have a provost.)  It featured Ellen Junn, from Cal State Dominguez Hills; Kathryn Westcott, from Juniata College; Philip Rous, from UMBC, and me.  For those keeping score at home, that’s two from public universities, one from a private liberal arts college, and one from a community college.  

The institutional differences were apparent quickly enough; it’s one thing to include undergrads in the research that you need to do anyway, and quite another to come up with an extra project in the context of a 5/5 teaching load.  But the gist of the discussion was helping the faculty in attendance come up with the most effective ways to garner administrative support (and funding) for their projects.  And the answers were remarkably consistent across the board:

- Build in assessment mechanisms from the start.  What would constitute “success,” and how will you know if you achieved it?

- Connect the project to larger institutional goals.  In a context of limited funding, “boutique” projects -- those that direct a large amount of money at a very small number of students -- are difficult to sell.  Internal funding is already largely committed; shifting it to something new usually involves moving it away from something else.  That means the burden of proof is much higher than “this is a good idea for the six students it will affect.”  Lots of things meet that description.  The ones likelier to win favor are the ones that stand to affect lots of students, preferably either across multiple programs or in some really large program.  

- Even if it starts small, it should be scalable.  Pilot projects as “proof of concept” are great and relatively cheap, but what if the pilot succeeds?  Could the institution support it at scale over time?

- External funding is a major plus, since it gets around the “who should I rob to pay for this” problem.  But grants expire, and often require commitments to maintain programs after the external funding goes away.  Even in the context of something fundable, be sure to address issues of scalability and sustainability when the external funding goes away.

Jenny Shanahan, from Bridgewater State University (MA), led a discussion of UGR projects in the humanities; that, too, quickly became an exercise in translation.  CUR was started by chemists and biologists, and it still leans pretty hard in a STEM direction.  Defining UGR projects as producing “original knowledge” works pretty well if the undergrads are taking soil samples; it’s not as obvious how to create original knowledge in a literature class.  

Translation even came up in the discussion.  In a discussion of the “flipped classroom,” one professor noted that students absorb her mini-lectures much more thoroughly and effectively when they’re in video format than when they’re live.  That’s true even when the video is nothing more than her talking head.  Nobody had a convincing explanation at the ready, but for whatever reason, that format seems to make an otherwise opaque lecture clear.  If it works…

Finally, I caught a presentation by Heather Bock, of Finger Lakes Community College, about the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative.  It’s a loose network of a couple dozen community colleges that trade tips on ways to make UGR projects sustainable on their campuses.  Unsurprisingly, given community college teaching loads, the consistent answer seems to be to embed the research projects within already-existing courses.  That way you don’t have to deal with issues of transfer credit, financial aid eligibility, or faculty workload (beyond the initial redesign).  Translating the ambitions of UGR into the aggressive schedule of a community college requires a willingness to read the spirit, rather than the letter, of the guidelines.

For all the translating going on, though, I was struck again by the goodwill here.  It’s conspicuous, particularly when compared to most other conferences.  Community college folk are few and far between here, but obviously welcome, and the organization clearly wants more to join.  It’s much easier to muster up the patience for translation when people are actually listening.  Here, they are.