Expect the Unexpected

I’m not very good at that.  I’m a planner.  And a perfectionist (in recovery).  There is something very appealing to me about making a plan and having things unfold as expected.  Cue the hard reality:  life doesn’t unfold that way.  That was the big lesson of my 30s.  And I hated it…until I learned to embrace it, because along the way, I discovered that the unexpected actually made life more fun and enriching.  It led to new paths that I never would have predicted or planned.  And they were (wait for it) better than the things I had planned, in many ways.  And the ones that weren’t, I at least learned a lot from, and (begrudgingly) became a better person for it.  Pretty much without exception.

So here we are, arriving at the end of the week-long university seminar on general education.  And there have been a lot of unexpected surprises.  I delighted in hearing Randy Bass speak about the future of higher education.  And I am incredibly excited now to be (unexpectedly) participating in a symposium about Designing the Future(s) of the University, organized by his group, in a couple weeks.  I loved hearing Amy Nelson speak about the fascinating work she had done transforming her class on Russian history into a hybrid connected learning experience.  But having heard her speak at ALTfest, that was expected.  However, since her talk was live streamed, my fabulous co-instructor Dr. Amy Adkins, who is my co-conspirator on our Spit for Science class (read: she makes it all happen), was also able to tune in.  That was pleasantly unexpected.

Also unexpected for me, has been the diversity of responses to the week:  ranging from despair to delight (OK confession: the latter is me), filled with thoughtful comments and questions.   I really enjoy the back and forth exchange – especially when it happens within the same person!   But I have to confess that I don’t fully understand the depth of concern that has been raised, though perhaps I should have been more prepared, since these debates are not new.  No one is being forced to change their teaching methodologies or to change their course.  The idea of the week was to introduce new possibilities for teaching – things made possible by the introduction of connected learning practices and the use of digital technologies and the web.  And the idea of promoting integrative thinking is not new, as several individuals pointed out during our lively seminar discussions.   So why the degree of push-back and concern?  I admit that I don’t fully understand.  If you don’t want to blog, then don’t.  If you don’t want to make a course trailer, then don’t.  If you want simply to stand up in front of a class and lecture every week, then go right ahead.   Why all the fuss?  In a cynical moment I would say that there is a fear that if others start to embrace new technologies and pedagogies, there is fear that one will get left behind.  Evolution has a way of marching forward and driving behavior over the long term.  Sometimes that’s scary.  Some species go extinct.  But great teachers are great in a myriad of ways.  And universities are filled with great people.  So go be great.  And now you have a few extra tools in your toolbox.

Why I love people

They’re just so fascinating! (Says the PhD psychologist).  Don’t worry, I’m not analyzing you (standard response when people find out I’m a PhD psychologist. As an aside, never tell people on an airplane you’re a clinical psychologist; it appears to be taken as a carte blanche invitation for them to spend the next several hours in flight telling you their tragic tales).  In fact my research is focused a lot more on genetics and behavior than human cognitions or motivation.  But I do confess that I find people fascinating, and this week has been a lovely example of why.

I love how smart people, provided the same information, can come away with such different interpretations.  This was evident from day one, session one when our university seminar group watched a video about the evolution of the web.   I loved that video!  And I also found it fascinating that the first person who provided an opinion on it said something along the lines of it being “metaphysical crap”.  Now isn’t that interesting?   This is one of the things I love about academia and about inquiry in general:  that people interpret and process things in such different ways – and that there can be truth in all of those diverging perspectives.  As we have continued along this journey of exploring complex topics like general education, higher education, integrative thinking, and digital fluency, I find the diversity of thought around these issues to be deeply interesting.  I hope that through our rich exchanges, we can all come to a deeper level of thinking about these complex topics.

Then again, perhaps that is just more metaphysical crap!  But it isn’t to me.  Now isn’t that fascinating…

Connecting Learning and Life

Today I had the pleasure of participating in a series of discussions led by Randy Bass, Vice Provost for Education at Georgetown University, as part of our weeklong seminar on general education at VCU.   One of the ideas he raised that really resonated with me was that the “sweet spot” (my words, not his) for high impact practices in general education may lie at the intersection between knowledge of a domain, knowledge of the world, and knowledge of one’s self.  Can we structure our courses to sit at the intersection of these areas, and what impact would that have on our student’s learning?

It struck me that this dovetails nicely with major initiatives that are on-going at VCU.  VCU has a deep commitment to community engagement .  We are an urban university, uniquely placed in the heart of Richmond, with its deep history and challenges.  VCU’s “Make it Real” campaign emphasizes the connection between one’s learning and the broader community/world.

We also have a university initiative underway that emphasizes the connection between health and wellness (which I see as a central component to learning about one’s self) and academic success.  With the support of senior leadership, we launched the Spit for Science project four years ago, as a university-wide research opportunity for students, focused on factors that contribute to substance use and emotional health among college students.  Out of this effort grew a network of researchers from across the campuses who work in the area of behavioral and emotional health.  This fall we will launch “COBE” – the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute, which will be a collaborative space (figuratively, not literally; though if you know of any donors that would like to give us a building that would be nice too) that brings together information about on-going research in the area of behavioral and emotional health, prevention and intervention programming at the university, as well as information about events and news related to health and wellness.  The impetus for launching this institute is that behavioral and emotional health must be viewed as a foundation for student success.

So I see us as having a tremendous opportunity at VCU to connect these pieces in order to create innovative, high impact learning experiences for our students.  Perhaps what makes VCU distinct is that we can “make real” a culture of discovery – of particular content areas, of the community, and of one’s self.  What a fascinating general education experience that would be!  Though the “downside” is that we would surely have to come up with a far more engaging term than “general education” to capture that experience.

The Seminarians

Day 1:  “Greetings Seminarians”.  I loved that phrase, glowing up at me from my iphone in an e-mail from Gardner Campbell as I was hurriedly walking (ironically) out of church yesterday.  It referred to a week long seminar on general education, meant to address the big and challenging questions.  What should general education look like?  What is the purpose of higher education?  And, most centrally, what is the role of digital technology in higher education?  I love the diversity of viewpoints, and I’m excited to embark on this journey with a new group of colleagues.