Last Tuesday we held our third Symposium Day – an event intended to bring faculty, staff, and students together, collectively dig deeper into a specific social issue, and through our actions live the values that we espouse as a communally-conscious liberal arts college. Pulling off such a production is no easy feat, and those who organized and administered each Symposium Day deserve substantial credit for their efforts. Furthermore, as a college community we should be generally proud of our first year of Symposium Days, since participation across the college ranged from respectable to truly impressive. However, Symposium Day has also exposed the tendency among some of us to lean toward our personal inclinations rather than genuinely commit to a communal endeavor. Some of us only participated sparingly, others skipped the events altogether, and a few – despite the vote of the faculty to schedule no classes on Symposium Day – stubbornly conducted their classes anyway. And just in case you think I’m throwing stones from my own glass house, I humbly admit that I didn’t engage in the full spirit of Symposium Day to the degree that I should have, either.
I was reminded of why we chose to embark on this grand experiment that we have called Symposium Day while reviewing our recent Wabash National Study data that noted our students’ static attitudes toward civic engagement over their four years in college. So I’d like to share our results on this particular outcome in the hope that it will bolster our commitment to making Symposium Day as educationally beneficial as possible.
The Wabash Study asked students a set of questions about their interest and willingness to engage in collective action for the good of the community at the beginning of the freshman year, the end of the freshman year, and the end of the senior year. Augustana had 126 students who provided data at all three data collections points – enough for us to be confident about the degree to which these data might represent our overall student population. Here are Augustana’s average scores (on a 5 point scale) at each data collection point in the study.
Beginning of Freshman Year (Fall, 2008) – 2.69
End of Freshman Year (Spring, 2009) – 2.67
End of Senior Year (Spring, 2012) – 2.66
Essentially, the importance that our students place on civic engagement didn’t change. Equally alarming, since the response options for each question were laid out on a five point scale (strongly disagree=1, disagree=2, neutral=3, agree=4, and strongly agree=5), our students’ average score at each point in their Augustana career translates to just south of a robust “meh!” – not exactly the marker of graduates who, as our college mission statement describes, would be prepared for a “rewarding life of leadership and service in a diverse and changing world.”
So, despite our assertion that Augustana students develop a deeper awareness of and interest in making a difference in their communities, and despite our emphasis on volunteering and a marked increase in service-learning courses in recent years, these findings suggest that our students depart much as they enter – at best somewhat ambivalent about the importance of civic engagement.
This brings me back to the potential for Symposium Day to help us make good on our promise to prospective students and parents regarding civic engagement. Each of the educational outcomes that we try to develop in our students encompasses both cognitive and affective dimensions. For example, a deeper commitment to civic engagement requires a strengthened sense of self and an increasingly nuanced understanding of the interconnectedness of our world. Furthermore, students’ ability to use these skills in real-world contexts depends upon the extent to which we teach them to apply theories, ideals, and information in various real-world situations. Symposium Day as a re-occurring program – a program that students should experience twelve times during their four years at Augustana – sets up the potential for us to influence student growth along multiple dimensions and apply this development repeatedly in a variety of real-world contexts. In order to do that, experiences designed for freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors need to be developmentally appropriate, with each subsequent Symposium Day experience building on the last. In addition, Symposium Day provides a key launching mechanism for students to take things they’ve learned in their courses and put them into action to better understand and address real world issues. So students need to take least one course each term that somehow connects with the focus of that term’s Symposium Day in a way that prepares them to make the most of the experience and make meaning of it afterward.
For all of that to happen, students need to hear the same message everywhere they turn – that Symposium Day is a critical part of the Augustana learning experience. It’s not a day off, intellectually or actually, and mere attendance shouldn’t be mistaken for authentic participation. In the end, we – faculty, administrators, and staff – have to exemplify the value of communal engagement and the importance of our impact on our local community. That might mean adapting our courses to incorporate the theme of Symposium Day, even if this means a little extra prep work each year. I readily admit that this might go against some of our longstanding notions of autonomy in academia. But I hope we would all be willing to give up a little autonomy in order to foster the kind of student learning that we have long claimed to result from an Augustana education. Symposium Day is a wonderful opportunity for us to create a community of more fully engaged citizens. It would be a shame for us to miss that chance, especially when we do so many other things that appear to hit an educational home run.
Make it a good day,