Rethinking “Student Engagement”

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Faculty Day 2014, Plymouth State University
Robin DeRosa

If I have a guiding principle in my own pedagogy and scholarship, it’s probably related to the idea that the question on the table usually masks conflicting and more compelling questions underneath. I always value it when a student undermines one of my well-intentioned assignments because she’s figured out that the terms of that assignment were limiting or problematic. In that spirit, I want to take a stab at subverting the terms of the discussion just a bit, and undermining the familiar definition of “student engagement.”

To explore that phrase on a more structural level, I’ll begin by quoting my former undergrad university president and the current president of the Carnegie Corporation, Vartan Gregorian:

“A major failure of our higher-education system is that it has largely come to serve as a job-readiness program. College has become a chaotic maze where students try to pick up something useful as they search for the exit: the degree needed to obtain decent employment. Today’s students fulfill Gen Ed requirements, take specialized courses in their majors, and fill out their schedule with some electives, but while college catalogs euphemistically describe this as a ‘curriculum,’ it is rarely more than a collection of courses, devoid of…coherence. In fact, mass higher education is heading toward what I call the Home Depot approach to education, where there is no differentiation between information and learning.”

I think one significant problem (among many) with the Home Depot approach is the fractured nature of these educational bits. If we extend the metaphor—and probably I am fixated here because Phil and I just finished a 14 year home renovation project—we can draw a comparison between the atomization of knowledge in the academy and shopping at your favorite home supply superstore.

You have to renovate your kitchen. You buy countertops, appliances, sheet rock, adhesives, wood, fixtures, paint. They’re all in different aisles and the associates in each section only know about their own aisles. You leave with a heaping cart, and complete knowledge about sheet rock and adhesives—but no idea how to put it all together to build a new kitchen. The American university functions much like the separate aisles in a superstore. Majors are mostly separate from Gen Ed, disciplines mark their territories like dogs, and the sciences and the humanities and the social sciences reject each other’s methodologies if they even take a moment to acknowledge them.

The current movement toward Open Badges, which favors smaller digital commendations for specific skill sets over larger and more ambiguous “degrees” demonstrates the enthusiasm in our Common Core culture for segmenting units of knowledge from each other and expecting mastery from students and experts alike.

Little wonder, then, that we need to tap dance to teach our students to scan a sonnet. Or design a web page or tie a safe belay knot. I’m not talking here about the tap dancing I might have to do to engage one ornery kid who thinks I am personally responsible for the impending heat death of the universe. I am talking about the flotilla of apathy that I sometimes face as an entire roster of students looks at me like my class is about as worthwhile and stimulating as a trip to the proctologist. We struggle to use our individual pedagogies to respond to this flotilla disengagement, but I think the systemic issue is that these isolated bits—the sonnet scan, the site design, the knot—these skills may be marketable to specific employers or grad schools. But if that one future you’ve trained for eludes or disappoints you, what are you left with in the rubble of those bits?

One 1999 study of college students demonstrated that more than 80% of them wanted to “make a positive impact on the world.” I think we would be wise to shift the emphasis away from “job training” and towards the idea of “vocation”—which includes employment, but also passion, dedication, service, and calling.

I agreed to speak to you today about the Humanities. If that includes fields that study human culture, I can hardly imagine any field that wouldn’t be encompassed in some way by the Humanities, since at the very least, humans and our human ideas power even the most empirical of scientific inquiry. Traditionally, the Humanities have always served to remind us that understanding and information are not the same thing, that education and mastery are often at odds with one another…and the further one goes in the STEM fields, the more these principles seem spot-on.

Learning is not only a path towards mastery, but also an ability to frame and explore questions. I think when students disengage, they are identifying something broken not within themselves, but within the fragmented, elite, specialized job training that we call college. We need to attend to that disengagement, but individual pedagogical solutions won’t address the kind of structural problems I am outlining here. Systemic solutions demand systemic questions. These questions sound abstract, but listen closely. These are practical, concrete, and inexpensive measures that would radically refigure our mission.

How can we reintegrate knowledge so that the historically constructed boundaries between fields can be made porous? Can we insist on team-teaching in an institution that can’t figure out how to organize that? Can we encourage interdisciplinary projects so students can not only get specific jobs, but so they can make new cultural shapes and create jobs that we can’t even imagine right now? Can we cohort students across majors and help them forge connections that will allow them to solve cultural problems together in the future? Can we open our scholarship, reevaluating tenure, promotion, and awards guidelines to reward not those who publish in elite presses or academic puppy mills, but those who disseminate their work publicly, share and collaborate, and find ways to use their work to make the world gentler, smarter, safer, wilder, more compelling, more just? Can we reduce the costs of education by refocusing funds towards teaching and learning and away from corrupt publishers, carrot-dangling bell and whistle schemes to attract students, and overly complex and redundant institutional structures? (Click here for practical examples of how we could begin to address these questions:

Student disengagement should be a wake up call for us all to rethink the very essence of what a university is and can be. I’ve never seen anyone have to work to engage anyone else in something that is truly fulfilling. Partnering more with each other as scholars, bringing our students together around themes and ideas and problems and issues that they face today, asking the disciplines to challenge and collaborate with each other as much as they specialize independently, and using technology to open access to shared educational materials—essentially redoing the American public university in order to help our students engage with their world—this could be PSU’s true success story, a public university with a public purpose.


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