Thursday, April 09, 2009

Going Home

They say you can't go home, but I think I managed. It's an oddity to have done three degrees at one institution, and it means I have a ten year history with the people and places there. It worked out that way because I discovered a math prof I knew I wanted to work with, abandoned a EE degree and started grad school. As it turns out, my advisor was stuck in an airport yesterday, somewhere left of the Mississippi. But I roamed around making new friends at the university.

There was that moment where the brain plays tricks with the smells of the familiar buildings, which zapped me back to that period of life just for a moment. It's poignant because of the latent possibilities, almost all of them stillborn because we're permitted only one reality per life. So I wallowed in the big picture while sipping a latte in the student union's inevitable new Starbucks.

I noticed the signs were still there. For at least twenty five years, the university has stuck these little red rectangles with white lettering on all the doors, reading "No Animals or Bicycles Allowed in Building." That was a target too rich to ignore in graduate school. One day I took correction fluid and slightly amended several of the signs to read "No Animals on Bicycles Allowed in Building." They stayed that way for a long time, but have all now been replaced with shiny new signs.

I thought perhaps I should finally break down and buy a cap and gown from the bookstore. I about fainted at the price tag, however (about $600 the lady said). I bought an umbrella instead.

I found an academic dean and asked him about assessing learning outcomes. He dodged the question and pointed me to one of the math faculty, whom I'd had a nice chat with already. So I asked about general education, and got another name. That turned out to be a long and delightful conversation, ranging freely over many aspects of student experience and how to assess and affect it. The university has a very successful program of attaching a supplemental education session to courses that are barriers to continuing. Things like college math. These sessions are required, at least for some students, and have dramatically improved the success rates for them. Another cool idea they've implemented is an integrated studies capstone to the distribution requirements. The only problem is figuring out what to do with transfer students, which they have a lot of.

The general education curriculum is constantly reviewed, with course syllabi and final exams reviewed on a five semester cycle (I assume these rotate by discipline, and it isn't all done at once, but I didn't ask). They use some standardized testing for benchmarking.

We both lamented the negative effects of the beaurocracy of higher education. For example, we train students to think of coursework as confined to a particular timeframe and context, so that when the math course has been passed, students don't necessarily see it as relevant to their chemistry course. We briefly entertained the question of what would education look like if we started with goals and built the minimum administration needed to attain them... That's a thought to muse on during the long drive home.

I also had a nice chat with a librarian who's interested in information literacy. She pointed me to Primo, the ACRL site, and Augustana College, as well as Project Sails for assessment.

After a lovely dinner with old friends at the best Chinese place in town, I found my way back to my parent's place to discover that my daughter had talked her Nana into baking cookies all day.

No comments:

Post a Comment