My university is in the midst of transformation to a model of education based on “strategic clusters,” interdisciplinary hubs in which students, faculty and staff work with community partners on real-world problems and intellectual and creative endeavors. (Information here, here, and here).
As we reorganize to facilitate partnerships across and beyond campus, one of my dear colleagues frequently asks, “How will reorganizing into clusters help me do things that I can’t currently do within the existing structure?”
My answer has been: By having a campus-wide ethos of collaboration, we will be more apt to—and able to—build bridges and ease communication between Student Affairs & Academic Affairs, between the campus & our region, etc. Of course, my colleague responds that we are already doing these things in many ways. And that’s true.
But recently I’ve noticed how the rhetoric of clusters and collaboration is tangibly affecting the decisions I make, and therefore the work I do, and what the university becomes.
It’s a great example for me of how intention itself is a powerful driver. Even though I am still in a traditional department, for now, and even though our curriculum still looks the same, for now, I am making small but important decisions slightly differently than I would have two years ago, before these conversations and plans began.
I have two examples. I’ll share one tonight and another next week.
Recently, a group of people, mainly in Student Affairs, started a campaign called “Panthers for Peace.”
Frankly, I don’t even know if this campaign would have gotten on my radar two years ago. I confess that even if I had received notification of it, I probably would have seen it as a “Student Affairs” thing and would have believed that my Academic Affairs work needed my attention, and that would have been it.
But this campaign did get on my radar thanks to some deliberate choices on my part to learn more about Student Affairs. I currently serve as the faculty observer to our Professional and Technical Staff meetings, so, naturally, I heard people talking about Panthers for Peace. But also, by being on the Plymouth State bowling league, attending Jazzercise classes downtown, etc., I have developed friendships and connections with my Student Affairs colleagues that make us “rounder” and fuller, as humans, to one another. I care more about what “they” do, honestly, because I care more about them.
And, also, of course, it makes sense for us to know each other and what we do so that students can have a more cohesive experience at our university.
But my point is that this group threw into relief how my pedagogy is already serving this initiative. Rather than taking on “more work” or changing the work that I’m doing so that I can work with this fabulous group of people on their projects to promote a kind culture on our campus (as I was at first tempted to do), with reflection, I now see another way. I can share with my Academic Affairs colleagues how our curricular and pedagogical choices can contribute to this effort, Panthers for Peace.
To be honest, I didn’t even know (for sure) that my pedagogy was contributing to a culture of kindness on campus until recently, when two separate students shared anecdotes with me.
Last week I was a guest speaker in a Medieval Philosophy class that had one of my former students in it. Happy to see her again, we joked about a particularly vivid and adoring “validation” she had received from a classmate in Arthurian Legends—a Gen Ed course that draws students from all different majors. She said, “People from that class still come up to me and say that! It’s so funny.” I was tickled that, six months later, students would still feel kinship with one another, and that this student would continue to be (rightfully) validated for her awesomeness.
A few days later I mentioned this encounter to another former Arthurian Legends student—our student worker in the English department. She said, “Oh yeah—I still say hi to people from that class. Which is weird because I never talk to or remember people from most of my classes.”
Wow. You can imagine how happy this made me.
I’ve always been doing what I think is best for students, and I’ve hoped that they carry dispositions of curiosity, bravery, humility, and comaraderie into the wider world, but it never occurred to me that the way I do “class participation” could simply and importantly encourage students to be kinder to one another after the course is over.
And so maybe “clusters” aren’t yet helping me do things I couldn’t do before. But they are helping me see more value to what I do and to what I have felt I had been doing in isolation.
Knowing that the institution I serve is committed to kindness, collaboration, and creative-problem-solving has thrown into relief the small ways I can contribute to those causes without serving on more committees or overhauling my courses (though I may be doing that, too).
Intention does affect action. And words do matter. More soon.