Refocusing on the Connections Instead of Just Making Better Parts

This is the second of three posts about our need to reframe, refocus, and refine the way that we operationalize (i.e., deliver) the liberal arts. Near the end of last week’s post (where I suggested reframing how we deliver the liberal arts around enabling our graduates to thrive in the midst of change) I suggested:

So the learning experiences that matter the most may in fact be the things that we consider the least. Right now we focus the most time, resources, and energy on the classes we offer, the activities we organize, the experiences we sponsor. Reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts means placing increased focus on the way that students connect these experiences and apply the ideas from one experience to succeed in another. Moreover, it means guiding students to strategically set up the ideal set of inter-experience connections that best prepare them to achieve their post-graduate aspirations.

When Augustana was founded, the connections between classes (at the time considered the primary, if not only, learning experiences offered by the college) were a foregone conclusion because the curriculum was virtually identical for every student.  New content assumed the delivery of prior content and students moved in lockstep from beginning courses to advanced seminars.  Only near the end of their schooling were students allowed to deviate from the central educational path to take courses that fit their vocational intentions in law, medicine, the clergy, civil service, etc.  Furthermore, extra-curricular experiences weren’t seen as potential learning experiences since they didn’t have anything to do with the content delivered through the curriculum.

This earlier version of a liberal arts education and the one that we now endeavor to provide could not be more different.  While the curriculum of yesteryear was almost entirely predetermined both in terms of the courses one took and when one took them, today (although some majors are more prescribed than others) I doubt you could find two students who took the same courses in the same order during the same year – let alone throughout an entire undergraduate degree.  In addition, we now know that students develop, learn, and grow at least as much through their courses as they do through their out-of-class experiences, resulting in the wide support for everything from student organizations to study abroad.

In the context of all of this curricular and co-curricular opportunity, it’s no wonder that students’ effort to convey the impact of their college experience on a resume often devolves into a list where the length of that list is assumed to convey something about an individual’s preparation and potential for future success.  Of course, those considering recent college graduates for graduate school, employment, or long-term service have figured out that these lists are a ruse and can be a red flag for someone who is more surface than substance.

But if we refocus the way that we operationalize the liberal arts so that students highlight “why” they chose the experiences they chose and how they took charge of constructing the person they have become, the grocery list of college experiences (AKA resume) suddenly comes to life as a story of perpetual improvement. This doesn’t mean that they are perfectly constructed when they receive their diploma.  But it does mean that those students can probably tell their own story in a way that shows an emerging clarity of purpose and an accelerating sense of momentum toward it.  We all know from our own experiences that those students stand out even when they aren’t trying to make an impression.

So how might we operationalize the way that we deliver the liberal arts to highlight this new focus?

First of all, we don’t need to go back to the days of an overly prescribed college experience.  With the diversity of our students’ pre-college experiences, learning needs and interests, and post-graduate aspirations, treating our students as if they were all the same would be stunningly foolish.

Instead, we begin by mapping every activity and every course that students can take in terms of what learning is intended to emerge from that experience and how that learning contributes to the larger learning goals and mission of the college.  Since this mapping is intended to be an iterative experience, the exercise may well result in adapting, adding, or even subtracting some courses or experiences.  It might also result in altering some experiences to more specifically meet certain learning goals.  The primary result of this exercise is not just to produce a complete catalog of the learning experiences in which students can engage.  Instead, the goal is to produce customize-able flow charts that show the variety of ways that different types of students can identify a sequence of experiences that together cultivate the learning that each student need to fully prepare them to succeed after they graduate.

These maps become the primary tools for the college to help students construct a college experience that builds upon their pre-college experiences and abilities, fills in the areas in which they need additional opportunities to learn and grown, and gives them the best chance to be the kind of person they aspire to be when they graduate.  Ultimately, the totality of each student’s college experience can be conveyed through a cohesive narrative that tells the story of his or her college journey from start to finish.

The challenges to making such a refocus work are not without consequence.  Most important, we have to actually enact our commitment to student growth and development in everything that we do.  That likely means changing something that we currently do (even if it is something we really like to do a certain way) to make it more educationally effective for students.  We often ask the question during planning conversations, “But what are we going to take away?”  This mapping exercise often identifies things that we could and probably should take away.  The challenge is whether we are willing give those things up.

In broader terms, this means that we have be able to “zoom out” and see the forest instead of the trees.  There will be a myriad of ways that a student could put together the learning experiences necessary for post-graduate success. The most important goal here is that the students can lay out their path, retrace their steps and explain why they took each one of them, situating the reasons for their choices in the context of their post-graduate aspirations. Of course there will likely be students who, despite all of our best efforts, don’t follow the guidance that we provide for them. But if all of our students learn the value of thinking about their own lives as a strategic effort to grow and develop, the chances are pretty good that they will all be on their way to succeeding in life and embodying the results of a liberal arts education when they walk across the stage to accept their diploma.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Reframing How We “Deliver” the Liberal Arts

Last week I promised to spend the next several posts unpacking what I meant by “reframing, refocusing, and refining the way that we operationalize the liberal arts.” At the outset, let me emphasize that the focal point of these posts isn’t some new-fangled definition of the liberal arts. Instead, I want to concentrate on the way we make that learning happen; the way that we deliver the liberal arts.

To give this post some context, let’s begin with some data. (What did you expect!). Earlier this year, I asked my two student-workers to review 25 years of Augustana alumni data and identify those people who were working in a profession unrelated to any of their majors. Over four weeks we examined 10,680 files from the Augustana Advancement Office. As you can imagine, this is an inexact science, so we decided to be conservative in deciding whether someone worked in a “matched” profession (something that aligned with one of their majors) or not. For example, we assumed that a person who majored in art and was listed as a teacher was likely an art teacher and therefore we counted them as a match. Conversely, if an English major was listed as a park ranger? Bingo.

After categorizing and counting all of these alumni, we found that 4,137 of our 10,680 Augustana alums are working in professions completely unrelated to their majors – about 39%. In addition, while we found that alums from pre-professional majors like CSD, education, pre-med were working in a corresponding field somewhat more often than alums from traditional liberal arts majors like philosophy, history, english (for somewhat obvious reasons), we have a healthy dose of “mismatched” alums coming from virtually every major. For example, 41% of our former accounting majors are no longer accountants, 33% of physics majors aren’t physicists, and 20% of education majors aren’t teaching (the same is true for pre-med majors).

Yet these individuals are anything but failures.  On the contrary, many of them are quite successful, by any definition, and are clearly in positions of substantial responsibility. Others seem to be doing quite well in fields that simply did not exist when they graduated from Augustana (e.g., an early 1990s grad who now works in cell phone technology). Still others appear to have lived remarkably interesting and satisfying lives. I have to admit, as we looked through this list of alums I sometimes felt little pangs of envy, imagining the stories that some of these people probably have to tell.

So what does this data point mean? First of all, I think it suggests that the inclination to measure our institutional success by linking the major per se to a job and a salary is fundamentally misguided. Our graduates are supposed to leave Augustana with an array of opportunities that they did not have when they arrived. Moreover, those opportunities aren’t supposed to sit along a single path, nor are they supposed to avail themselves all at once. A metric that treats a major as a narrowing mechanism just doesn’t match our institutional mission.

Second, the fact that 40% of our alums are in professions other than their major corroborates what we know about present day professional life. The very concept of the career as 40-plus years in a single profession is almost extinct. Although the claim that a person will have seven careers a lifetime is up for some debate, it is clear that most people will change jobs on more than one occasion – especially during the first decade after college. So it seems to me that our educational goal for all graduates should ultimately be to prepare them to thrive in the midst of change. Sometimes that means adapting to new responsibilities and shifting conditions. Sometimes that means making the leap to a new and completely different opportunity. And sometimes it means resiliently responding to disappointment (or worse) in a way that turns lemons into lemonade.

And what does all of this have to do with reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts?

A liberal arts environment is an ideal setting for developing students’ ability to thrive in the midst of change, but only if we use the breadth of disciplines and the epistemologies within them as starting points for learning rather than an end in and of itself. This breadth of disciplines should become the tools that we use to develop our students’ ability to see a hypothesis, a claim, a problem, or an opportunity from a variety of perspectives and deepen their understanding of the issues at hand. While the knowledge of content within the discipline is a necessary precursor to understanding, as our graduates’ lives move them further from their final term at Augustana, the skills they developed to thrive in the midst of uncertainty or change will inevitably become more important than the content knowledge they acquired.

So the learning experiences that matter the most may in fact be the things that we consider the least. Right now we focus the most time, resources, and energy on the classes we offer, the activities we organize, the experiences we sponsor. Reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts means placing increased focus on the way that students connect these experiences and apply the ideas from one experience to succeed in another. Moreover, it means guiding students to strategically set up the ideal set of inter-experience connections that best prepare them to achieve their post-graduate aspirations.

Finally, reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts won’t matter much unless students grasp the value of this reframing. This means that students need to know, from the very beginning, the strategy for why they should consider one choice over another – or even to engage that choice at all. While an increased focus on the spaces and connections between experiences might seem daunting, fully developing our ability to help students understand this new way of thinking about a college experience may be even more difficult.

But if we don’t roll up our sleeves and take on this challenge, it will continue to be more and more difficult to explain why a family or a student shouldn’t just accumulate the necessary number of course credits by any means necessary (AKA for the cheapest cost possible) in order to obtain an undergraduate degree.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Wait . . . why focus on life after college?

In the last few years several prominent liberal arts colleges have made post-graduate success a central measure of the institution’s educational quality (for example, see such plans or programs at St. Olaf College and The College of Wooster). Despite what some old school moon-howlers might have you believe, this move isn’t driven by a rejection of the liberal arts or an administrative coup d’etat. (If we’d given up on the liberal arts, we’d have all gone for higher paying gigs at some fly-by-night for-profit a long time ago, and – with all due love and respect for my administrative compatriots – we aren’t nearly smart enough to pull of a decent coup d’etat.)

Rather, what most of us have come to realize is that in order for the liberal arts to thrive into the next century, we have to reframe, refocus, and refine the way that we operationalize the liberal arts in the context of our current social, cultural, and economic conditions. Just like the approach that drove the successful emergence of small liberal arts college during the 18th and 19th centuries, we are again faced with the need to adapt our commitment to developing creative and innovative problem-solvers through interdisciplinarity and the synthesis of great ideas.

In the next three posts, I’d like to explain in more depth what I mean by reframing, refocusing, and refining the way that we operationalize the liberal arts in a 21st century context.  But for now, I’d like to highlight one data point that I think underscores a need to strengthen our focus on preparing all students equally for life after college.

In the 2013 administration of our recent graduate survey (alumni surveyed nine months after they’ve graduated from Augustana), we asked our alums about the degree to which they thought Augustana prepared them to succeed in their current endeavors.  Since we had already organized the survey to take those who had chosen to go to graduate school and those who had pursued immediate employment to separate subsets of questions, they answered two different versions of this questions, each worded to more specifically get at the relationship between their Augustana education and their current path.

The difference between the proportion of alums who felt they were prepared well depending upon whether they went to grad school or went to work seemed large enough to consider further.  Among those who went to grad school, 78% said that they were “fairly well” or “very well” prepared for their grad program.  By contrast, among those who went to full-time employment, only 65% said that they were “fairly well” or “very well” prepared for their first job. (The other response options were “somewhat,” “a little,” and “not at all.”)

Why might this be?  In digging further into the data, it appears that some initial suppositions don’t always hold true.  Pre-professional majors don’t always feel well prepared for their subsequent path (whether it be work or grad school) and more traditional liberal arts majors don’t always feel less well-prepared for their subsequent path.  We didn’t find a strong correlation between a student’s final GPA and their sense of preparation. Moreover, both groups of respondents (grad students and full-time employees) were scattered across a range of programs or professions, so it didn’t appear that any specific undergraduate programs were driving the results one way or the other.

Interestingly, it appears that the students who got a preview of what life would be like during the next phase of their own post-graduate path were the ones who felt best prepared by their Augustana experience.  Alums currently employed in a job who also participated in an internship while at Augie tended to feel better prepared than those who did not do an internship.  Similarly, the alums currently in grad school who also participated in a research project either with faculty or on their own tended to feel better prepared than those who did not have any research experience.

In general, this data point suggests that we might need to improve the degree to which we prepare students who go directly into the workforce after college.  In some ways, it doesn’t seem particularly surprising that an institution largely governed by faculty with Ph.D.s from elite research universities would be better at preparing students to succeed in grad school than in full-time employment.  This might be simply a case of something where we have to put a more concerted effort into preparing the students who aim for a full-time job right out of college just because our frame of reference would likely advantage graduate school preparation.

This finding also seems to provide some insight into the kinds of advice that we ought to give students based on their post-graduate goals.  Students intending to go into the workforce might be better suited for internships while students with plans for grad school might be ideal candidates for an extended research experience.  And while some of these experiences might be credit-bearing, in many cases they are outside the scope of the curriculum; another reason why it is important for advising to be conceived as a means of developing students holistically instead of merely selecting courses.

In the end, I don’t know that this finding demands a wealth of professional development for faculty – although if done right such assistance is not a bad thing.  Instead, resolving this gap may require little more than recognizing the extent of our own experiences, adjusting for our biases, and explicitly connecting students with the  right resources that uniquely fit with their post-graduate aspirations.

Welcome back to campus!  It’s lonely around here without you.

Make it a good day,

Mark