How Lucky We Are: Transitions in an Enduring Calling
Frederick J. Antczak
August 25, 2016
The Founding Fathers are singing—and dancing, and rapping. In Hamilton, the biggest hit Broadway has seen in some years, playwright/performer Lin-Manuel Miranda has written and staged a rousing musical on an unlikely topic. He has his characters confronting terrifying change, the upheaval of Revolution against the world’s greatest power, right there where they were, all for an opportunity to shape their own future. And facing that fundamental change in the conditions of their lives, he has them singing “[l]ook around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
Over the next few days, our campus will ring—it will vibrate, it will tintinnabulate—with energy and excitement. A close-to-record class of students who are experiencing their first hours at College are going through the program run by Dean Sullivan’s shop called “Transitions.” But not all the transitions are confronting students. As staff and faculty, we have occasions for tintinnabulations of our own—and some might offer insight into the distinctive mission of a public university.
First, we note the transitions in three roles that directly impact our work. Not least is the Dean of Students: Bart Merkle served GVSU for 32 years with distinction in that role (he’s not gone from Grand Valley entirely, he’s teaching in the CSAL program). Big shoes to fill, but as a proud member of Eileen’s search committee I’m confident that key role will be filled with cutting edge creativity, old school steadiness and genuine academic commitment. Please say hello to Dean Sullivan over lunch. And we have a new Dean of Education, Barry Kanpol. To all those who work with CoE’s programs, let me say I anticipate many more openings to scholarly collaboration with them. What we do not have yet is a Dean of Libraries to succeed Lee VanOrsdel; that search failed over the summer, and it’s bracing to remind ourselves that not every search identifies someone good enough for Grand Valley. We’ll see that search ratchet up again in the fall, and hope to greet a successor yet this academic year.
And as we greet new colleagues, we note with fondness the retirement of Grand Valley stalwarts like Photography professor David Rathbun (who will host a big retrospective show the first weeks in October—more news on that soon), masterful artist Ed Wong Ligda, and our colleague from English Veta Tucker. CLAS is a place where AP and PSS are appreciated, and I want to note the remarkable accomplishments of a department coordinator who served over 36 years, Cindy Zehner who retired from Anthropology. In many places, we’ve made the transitions and are off to a new start. But we are grateful to those who put us at this advanced starting point.
Perhaps the biggest transition this year will be the spring retirement of our Provost, Gayle Davis. Gayle will have served Grand Valley for 15 years, which is like 225 in chief academic officer years. All of us owe our colleague in History a profound debt of gratitude. We’ll find opportunities to express our thanks over this year. The search for her successor, only the third Provost in our history, is underway. Three of the eleven-person search committee are CLAS faculty.
With all this change, it’s heartening to see old colleagues—it’s comforting in times of transition to reach for the familiar. But even that colleague might have been changing—by writing a book on Ty Cobb and American masculinity as historian Steve Tripp did, or doing research with no fewer than six student summer scholars as did CMB’s Sok Kean Khoo, or living in the jungles of Guyana, as anthropologist Chris Schaefer did in order to study the primate hunting of indigenous Waiwai people. That kind of work can bring breakthrough transitions for a teacher/scholar. You can return seriously different from Israel, Ukraine, Uganda, Ecuador, New Zealand, Nepal, England, Dubai, Germany, Nice, the studio, the lab, the library and the other places our faculty have fanned out to study this summer. Or as Hamilton might rap it, Revolution can happen right there, wherever you are.
But beyond such changes, I want to talk about larger, demographic transitions—and dispose you to engage them this year in at least three specific ways.
We’re living in a time of profound change for those who do our work. AAC&U talks about a coming “new majority”—and that’s not much of an exaggeration of the transition we must “tool up” to face.
An LA Times op/ed last year noted that while we’ve all heard that the US will be “no racial majority” by 2044, among kids under 5, that reality is already here. Among public school students, it’s already here. In about 15 years it will be the case for the populations of at least 12 states. As Associate Dean Shaily Menon said to me the other day, the whole country is looking demographically more like California.
Diversity on campus is more complex than race alone. It is socioeconomic; it involves a wider age spectrum, veterans, and those confronting—and overcoming—obstacles of many kinds. For instance, 2012 research on the postsecondary trajectory of high school graduates on the autism spectrum noted that “[f]or youth with an ASD, 34.7% had attended College.” Since then, that percentage can only have risen.
Thus, the so called “non-traditional” student (which is NOT to say a less qualified student) is now becoming the typical student in many contexts.
In the Chronicle of Higher Ed this summer, Lawrence Biemiller wrote that, “it would be encouraging to imagine that schools and colleges could band together and somehow help civilization get through this. Philosophy and logic, political science, history…languages, biology, poetry—all of these can help us understand one another and ourselves. They can help us see through fabrications, wild claims and dangerous accusations as well as our own flaws.” This seems a moment when the critical thinking we teach is especially necessary—necessary for our students to learn, and necessary for us to embody as we transition to classroom practices effective for more of our students.
As teacher-scholars, it’s in our blood to be part of solutions—solutions to the problems that beset not only our national discourse and institutions, but also to the challenges of having our classrooms incubate more of the skills and perspectives that support good citizenship and good lives. So this year our College will provide programs and services fine-tuned to support all our students, including the new majority. It was featured in the unit head retreat, and will be part of the content of weekly faculty mailings, CLAS Acts, New Faculty Seminars, Teaching Roundtables and Staff Roundtables. Assistant Dean Betty Schaner will devote a large part of her efforts to helping departments use the work they did last year to examine the quality of their advising and support, especially for “New Majority” students. But while we’re doing all this, I want to challenge the CLAS Faculty and Staff, led by governance and our unit heads, to take on three sorts of transitions ourselves.
1)Walk the talk on inclusivity
One of my pet peeves is the misstatement of Darwin’s theory as “survival of the fittest”; it is, in only slightly less oversimplified terms, survival of the fit across serial tests of changing conditions—changing like the conditions of our work. Now, I know, the applicability of this metaphor is limited, the theory of evolution doesn’t imply that non-human species have agency in making themselves more adaptive—their change is happenstance. I REALLY don’t want us to pin our hopes for change on random mutation in our population. Let’s just say if we humans are not to go the way of the Dodo, we must shape our own future, we must adapt—constantly and variously, and in time to survive each new change.
We know that our university has committed itself strategically to be increasingly inclusive. We also know that the whole world of higher ed is increasingly diverse. We need to make sure we help those (students or colleagues or Mesozoic administrators) for whom this is not easy or feels like disruptive change. Part of that transition will be making our inclusive values explicit in our documents. A bigger part will be enacting those values in our practice.
Let’s take a collegial example: last year the College shared with unit heads ways to dust off department personnel standards so that they’re clearer and more useful, both for evaluation and for mentoring. For example we’ve suggested that you “consider incorporating language [as some units already do] to recognize work that supports diversity and inclusion in teaching, scholarly/creative activity, and service.” Updating your personnel standards is important work for this year; for the long run, that also implies honoring those standards, and mentoring to them.
2)Upgrade your tools
You may recall that blockbuster bestseller of a couple decades ago, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It offered an allegory about a group of people given dull machetes and set to the task of clearing trees. Many continued to hack away, with increasing effort but to decreasing effect. Covey inferred that it’s advisable to examine aspects of your life where circumstances are changing and where it’s becoming wiser now to sharpen the saw—or trade it in for a chain saw—than just keep hacking harder.
So, instead of spending your office hours repeatedly catching up that stream of students who always miss the first days (“did anything happen in class on Monday?”), you might learn timesaving skills of making a video for them. Or, mindful of the changing makeup of your class, you might tweak an assignment so that it doesn’t so greatly disadvantage students who have jobs that obstruct meeting regularly outside of class for group work. Upgrade some of your tools to the task you now face, and you can refine your practice.
3)Recognize successful transitions
This year in your department, take the initiative to press the question, “how do we recognize successful transitions?” One place to start is, “how are we valuing the scholarship of teaching and learning?” In one of our deans’ caucuses, we looked at our CLAS Standards & Criteria for Personnel Evaluation document, which provides a lot of examples—but hardly any that explicitly valued the scholarship of teaching and learning, to which a number of faculty turn at some point in their career. When colleagues give us new ways to make needed changes, we as members of a disciplinary community should, somehow, recognize their leadership.
Walking the talk on inclusivity, upgrading our tools, and recognizing successful adaptation to new circumstances—these can sometimes be difficult transitions, the more so for those who’ve had undeniable success the traditional way. Respect for that success can be the taproot of collegial empathy. But our working through these transitions together can make all the difference for the students we must serve.
And that’s where we come back around to our starting place today, and see it again, or maybe for the first time. “Time past and time future,” as Eliot put it, “point to one end, which is always present.” Notwithstanding all the transitions whirling around us, all the transitions that our own evolving circumstances challenge us to meet, we are lucky to do the work we do—and that’s true for an old, stable, persisting reason. We help our students participate in the enduring promise of a public university: the transformational change that we can mean for their ability to shape their own futures.
Right now thousands of new freshmen are out there, beginning to find out what it will mean to be our students. Listen, you can hear them vibrate as they bounce off each other. Listen, and you might find yourself resonating, like strings of the same instrument. On Monday they will come to us, with dreams to become climate scientists, archaeologists, screenwriters, green chemists, human rights advocates, clarinetists, athletic trainers, historians, ballerinas, actuaries, psychologists, teachers—and the many other things that the world needs, both as professions and as voices reshaping our public discourse. Our job is not just to help them make transitions (some of which they never anticipated) but, always, to make transitions ourselves to become who we need to be in order to better serve them—all of them, whoever they are. So when you see them singing, dancing, rapping, think about how the coming transitions can actually bring us all closer to achieving this enduring promise of self-transformation that a public university offers to everyone. How lucky we are to do what we do! If Lin-Manuel Miranda were here, he might say “the Revolution is happening right here—in Allendale.” Sounds funny, doesn’t it? But that’s where Revolution can happen, right there where you are.
“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
 Lin-Manuel Miranda, “The Schuyler Sisters,” from Hamilton, 2015.
 Lawrence Biemiller is a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
 Chronicle of High Education, June 24, 2016, page A4