Progress Report: SNU Arts and Culture Learning Community

We completed the first semester of the first iteration of the SNU Arts and Culture Learning Community project.  In this project we took in 40 students most of whom had a strong interest in the arts.  We created a faculty team with expertise in composition, oral communication, computer applications, fine arts and literature and created a curriculum for the students that fulfilled General Education requirements in composition, speech, computing, and either fine arts or literature.  The faculty taught as a team in a pair of strongly integrated courses Rhetoric I and Aesthetics.  These two courses will be followed in the spring by Rhetoric II and Christian Faith and Life.  Students and faculty attended co-curricular enrichment experiences related to the arts together.  In the Spring they will work with students at a local economically challenged elementary school, Millwood Elementary, helping students paint a mural at their school.

The faculty did a great job constructing the curriculum focused intently on student success.  We chose to measure student academic success against respective university-wide general education learning outcomes, retention and student connectedness.  At the end of the first semester we retained 80% of students to the Learning Community and 90% to the university.  Students reported developing close friendships that transcended the class experience.  Faculty reported that end of semester work in the Aesthetics course, though students were still at the mid-point of progress toward the first major outcome communication measurement, was “as good as any end of semester paper in Intro to Lit (a sophomore level course)”.

The overall project was a pilot designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of integrating curricular and co-curricular activities.  Early successes reported by faculty led to inclusion of an item in the university strategic plan indicating a desire to support the expansion of the project beyond a pilot.

Additionally, I observed the following:

The faculty involved in the ACLC have developed into a passionate team.  They’ve embraced their role as guides leading new students into our larger Christ-centered community of scholars.  For the participating students, growing together into this community during their freshman year led by passionate full-time faculty who work together as an integrated team for the good of the community and supporting one another in that endeavor is as good as it gets anywhere.  This is the kind of thing we can do better than anyone else, if we just will.  This is the kind of thing that emerges from our core values and the identity that we share inside our community and with our constituents.  It’s very different from the typical freshman experience in many places where the odds favor of having 3 or more of 5 courses in the first semester taught by contingent faculty or TAs.  That happens too often, even here, due to chronic understaffing in areas that guide students in learning composition, speech, computing, general mathematical, social science, history and the general education religion/philosophy area. Again, we are not unique in struggling to meet those kinds of challenges.  Yet, students in our LC project groups (thematic and Honors) are getting the best we have to offer; we are meeting their expectations; they are learning and staying. We also feel that we are providing the kind of educational experience that our students’ parents expect us to provide their children.  That’s what they believe they are paying for.  Being a part of bringing together these people around these values has made life great as we work together in this great cause.

These faculty have created in me confidence that we can reproduce something similar to that with another team of existing GE faculty.

Adding additional LCs does increase administrative burden. The participating faculty meet every week together for about 2 hours outside of class to ensure that they are providing the best educational experience. That’s extra work; they’ve done it because they believe in the value of what they are doing in the LC. They don’t get paid extra for that or load released. That needs to be addressed. Their willingness to do it arises out of their passion and their commitment. That’s a cost of doing things to the level of quality that we intend to deliver. We sure are fortunate to have these folks.

That said, we need additional assets, envisioned as elements of load contributed by faculty already in the institution, to recruit new students into the next year’s program at the very time when our LC faculty are pouring themselves into transforming this year’s students, to manage evaluation and feedback of curricular and co-curricular activities to ensure that we are always making today’s best better tomorrow, and to actively recruit and incorporate additional faculty into the program, both for the additional LCs and to short circuit burnout and stagnation.   These additional assets are necessary to ensure that we can do two LCs well.  I believe that after we get our feet on the ground, those same assets can utilize their skills to support more than two LCs.  I’m thinking maybe four, but that’s still not clear.

I’m looking forward to gathering an analyzing additional data at the end of this semester comparing the academic success of LC students and that of other freshman students.

Leading Your Student Tribe: Excellence v. Greatness

In a recent Tribal Leadership Coaching Challenge course, participants were asked to distinguish between excellence and greatness. I began to think about that in light of the educational experience.

One of the things that emerged among the twitter conversation on the subject (#tlcc) was that excellence is a competitive, individual aspiration while greatness is something that groups of people achieve as they work together toward a common, noble goal.

In the classroom, I have seen see this happen. Some days some of my students, perhaps even many of them depending on the day, perform excellently. They aspire to do so. Those with that aspiration engage the topic, answer questions, etc. I like it when students do that. What I’ve become sensitive to, though, is that it is a very dyadic interaction, me (the prof) and one student, then another student, then another student in the presence of a class full of students. At the end of those days, I sometimes believe that I did a competent job, but I am tired from working hard managing the class, which includes trying to engage the disengaged and be encouraging, but controlling the over-engaged.

I also know that there are days when I have walked out of a class saying, “Man, that was a great class today.” I feel on top of the world and so do the students. Reflecting on those in light of Tribal Leadership perspectives has led me to realize that those were days when I disappeared from the class, that is my role as classroom manager disappeared. On those days, We engaged learning together, triadic conversations developed. On those days, the synergy left me and my students energized, not drained.

I’ve seen it happen and now I see my task is to develop strategies to shift the classroom culture from stage 3 to stage 4 quickly so that we can experience great days together, not merely witness excellent individual performances.

I can see now why John King, one of the co-authors of Tribal Leadership is so excited and hopeful when he talks to members of orchestral and dance groups. In those settings, individual performances may be excellent, but unless everyone is working together toward a great overall performance, it’s hard to listen to or watch them. The same is true, though less obvious in the classroom.