CLAS Acts July 2016


Frederick J. Antczak, Dean

“So,” I’m sometimes asked, “do you have summer off?” Well, not exactly.  In the summertime, the college office is working on a variety of initiatives like the rollicking fun of closing the books on the financial year, the portentous work of supporting orientation (squeezing any forecasting information that we can glean from it along the way), preparation of the CLAS annual report, and the larger projects attached to the new academic year’s beginning—along with, this summer, conversion of the CLAS website to CMS 4.  Meanwhile some taskforces still meet, there are building projects underway, several university searches in which a few of the staff and I are involved are coming to fruition, our international programs get some extra attention, and some of our academic year activities continue, albeit at somewhat smaller scale in the spring and summer terms.

Last month we were delighted to add more than  $8,500, a record amount for the golf scramble, to the CLAS Endowed Scholarship Fund.  I’m very grateful to the 68 participants in the CLAS on the Green outing and to the faculty, staff and alumni who worked on the committee and served as volunteers to run the largest yet version of this event.  We also had strong support of sponsors (if you would like to help us build this fund without having to swing a niblick or mashie, you can also donate directly).

Last month we gratefully wished Keesha Hardiman, a long-time PSS in our office, all the best for a grand new adventure in her visible new role in the Dean of Students Office.  You probably know Keesha in her role as our event planner, so we ask that as CLAS events come up you watch the CLAS Weekly Mailing calendar closely for your new contact for these events.

Meanwhile when you see Associate Dean Shaily Menon, welcome her back from her ACE Fellowship in San Francisco.  Tough duty; she really missed the Michigan winter!

A topic for your free moments of reflection:  I’d ask that you think about your colleagues among the affiliate faculty who do a particularly superb job of teaching.  To translate that appreciation into recognition, we are pleased to announce that a new award for affiliate teaching has been instituted.  The CLAS Teaching Excellence Award for Affiliate Faculty in the introductory level classes (100 and 200 level) is described on the Form.  I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of the importance to student success of these early course experiences, and I’m so glad that in the last year we have found ways to recognize the teaching of affiliate faculty involved in the beginning of our students’ academic careers through the award, Senior Affiliate rank, and additional support provided by a newsletter tailored for our affiliates, visitors, and adjunct faculty (The CLAS Teacher).

Wondering about upcoming dates of Start Up and fall events?  It is never too early to get these on your calendar.

I trust your summer is equally full of industry on the things that are difficult to attack during the fall and winter.  Well, maybe not quite equally—I hope you’re managing to get some sun and relaxation along the way.  Recharge on the solar energy of a Michigan summer.

Meeting them where they are— a conversation with Rachel Campbell about students now

By Monica Johnstone, PhD

As faculty consider the ways in which students in their courses now challenge their pedagogy in new ways, it is tempting to apply some sort of overarching characterization of the student body.  Whether the diversity of the “new majority”, or a generational tag such as “Millennials”, these lenses have the ability to bring some aspects of change into focus while distorting others.

Assistant Professor of Sociology Rachel Campbell began our recent conversation with a caveat, “So many individuals lumped into a cohort means a label such as Millennials captures both current students and those ten years into the workforce, and it tends to neglect the impact of class.  For instance, when we talk about helicopter parenting, we are often really neglecting the impact of other demographics such as class.  The evidence is mixed and often oversimplified—the trends aren’t particularly strong or consistent.  This is an area that needs further study.”

Rachel is interested in what influences adolescents.  One trend she sees in the culture now is the desire to find the true self.  How young people construct their sense of self undergirds her current research project.  She’s currently devising a survey to study how they feel about the persona they construct in social media such as Facebook and Instagram (and whether there is a difference depending on the platform).  She’d like to get at their sense of whether it is authentic or separate from their sense of who they really are.  What criteria do they use when deciding to put something online?

“The so called digital natives expect access.  We used to keep to a schedule to watch a tv program, for instance.  Now there is instant gratification of information on google.  Many—but not all-- are good at finding information and the ability to get instant information can create impatience.  There is a desire for fast feedback,” Rachel notes.

We talk for a moment about the implications of this expectation for fast feedback from their teachers.  We have both experienced the pressure to get the grades posted quickly and the back pressure when the feedback contains constructive criticism.

“Engaging these students is tricky,” Rachel notes. “What they want and how we were educated can be at odds.  I see some resistance to reading an entire book; that makes me wonder what my goal is—is it to have them learn the concept or ‘read the whole book’?”

The literature as Rachel sees it definitely is leaning toward making class more active and that the activities connect to things outside the classroom. More abstract approaches don’t work well and perhaps never did.

Perhaps this is a sort of democratization of the classroom. The preference of those with what has historically been elite education tends toward the more abstract accumulation of major premises that privilege deductive reasoning. The shift toward building learning from community engagement and other inductive experiences tends to dismantle the stage that the sage once occupied in favor of a role more akin to a facilitator of the learners engagement with these experiences.

This shift, Rachel sees, also makes people a little nervous.  “Increasingly students want clarity of your expectations of them.  Maybe this comes from changes in education and changes in parenting. These days there is lower risk taking.  So our challenge becomes to engage our students creativity but within a structure.  Too much freedom—for some--is overwhelming. The trick we have to accomplish is to provide some structure while getting students to be creative and critical.  Grade inflation doesn’t help—many students haven’t seen a grade below an A before and don’t react well.”

Rachel notes that faculty contend now with a different set of influences on students now.  It has been said that college students make up to thirteen connections per week with their parents, while many faculty recall making a weekly call home (if mom and dad were lucky).

In general, students have the benefit of a great deal more exposure to greater ethnic and racial diversity than did previous generations, but not uniformly so. This remains a challenge for many students entering GVSU. “Generally they are more accepting and tolerant, but this also seems to lead to some white kids thinking that ‘we’re done’ with prejudice, sexism and so on.   Current students are more accepting of LGBTQ than even a short time ago. Young people can often be thought of as lacking or bad by those of us in earlier generations, but generational differences are positive too.”

Rachel particularly sees their awareness of bullying and mental health issues as positive.  So are the students of this generation worse off or more aware and unencumbered by stigma?  Rachel notes that they experience more pressure and more acceptance of needing and accepting help—and are a great deal more aware of the resources available. As the Penn State study describes, since a congressional act passed in 2004, tens of millions of dollars from a variety of funders have been invested in higher ed to prevent suicide, educate about mental health, reduce stigma, identify at-risk students, etc.  The constant reassurance from parents may raise their expectations of this sort of support in college.

Whether this means they are less individually resilient remains an open question for Rachel.  She points to the phenomenon of young people using the internet to create resources for themselves such as online support groups.  As the Penn State study showed, over the 2009-2015 period, on average the increase in students seeking mental health services at counseling centers was up almost 30%, they do not show higher numbers than previous generations on pre-college hospitalizations.  It may not be that higher numbers come to college with mental health challenges—it may be that they first experience them or address them at college.

The hotly contested issue of trigger warnings is symptomatic of the trends a desire for protection from the uncomfortable, self-advocacy, the ever widening life experiences of increasingly non-traditional student populations, academic freedom, and rigor.

Rachel feels these tugs.  “I do acknowledge that some of my upcoming material will be graphic in nature.  There is no way to prepare for all scenarios that might upset a student.  If a student tells me that they are upset by something covered in the class, I explore whether they want to be directed to a resource so they can explore that.”

As for her personal pedagogical influences of late, Rachel notes two in particular her disciplinary teaching journal and Pew Reports that talk about demographic changes.  She found useful the Higher Ed Research Institute (HERI) report called “50 Years of Trends in College Students” and Penn State research on students’ access to mental health resources and trends in concerns such as anxiety.  She also found the overview in this piece helpful: Shushok Jr., Frank and Vera Kidd.  (2015) "Millennials in Higher Education: As Students Change, Much about Them Remains the Same". Positive Psychology on the College Campus, eds. John Wade, Lawrence I. Marks, and Roderick D. Hetzel. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Rachel describes the movement in her own teaching as moving away from a sense of her role as instructor and toward a role she finds has more in common with coach.  “I’m weaving in skills like time management and am very overt in my discussion of academic integrity, both of which are things I used to think were outside my role.”

While the challenges are considerable, Rachel concludes with the observation that this generation of students is measurably more optimistic than Boomers. That may be an important resource in anxious times.