112. The Gig Academy

Over the last several decades the proportion of classes taught by tenure track faculty have decreased while student support services are increasingly  being outsourced to third parties. In this episode, Tom DiPaola and Daniel T. Scott join us to discuss the impact of these shifts on students. Tom and Daniel are  (with Adrianna Kezar) co-authors of The Gig Academy, Research Assistants at the Pullias Center for Higher Education and Fellows at the Urban Education Policy PhD program at the USC Rossier School of Education.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Over the last several decades the proportion of classes taught by tenure track faculty have decreased while student support services are increasingly being outsourced to third parties. In this episode, we examine the impact of these shifts on students.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Tom DiPaola and Daniel T. Scott, two authors, with Adrianna Kezar of The Gig Academy. Tom and Daniel are Research Assistants at the Pullias Center for Higher Education and Fellows at the Urban Education Policy PhD program at the USC Rossier School of Education. Welcome.

Tom: Thanks for having us.

Dan: Yeah. Thank you.

John: We’re glad you could join us.

Our teas today are:

Tom: Just for this interview, I busted out my favorite Jasmine pearl tea. So, I’m enjoying a nice cup of it while we chat.

Dan: And I have a coffee. So, a caffeinated cousin. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking English afternoon.

John: And I’m drinking black raspberry green tea. We invited you here to talk about The Gig Academy. Actually, before we talk about that… You’re both graduates of a SUNY school, aren’t you?

Tom: Yes, indeed.

Dan: Yeah.

Tom: SUNY Purchase… proud alums.

John: Did you know each other before you moved to USC?

Tom: We did as a matter of fact, we both studied philosophy with some of the same folks at Purchase. So, we did know each other, though, we’ve grown considerably closer in recent years.

Dan: Yes, We’ve really been following kind of parallel career paths.

John: And writing a book together would extend that a little bit further.

Dan: …a dream.

Tom: Indeed. [LAUGHTER]

John: In The Gig Economy, you talk about the replacement of long-term employment relationships with contingent labor. Could you tell us a little bit first about your own experience in academic labor markets?

Tom: We’re sort of in an interesting position. I am in my final year of the PhD. And so I’m at this point where all of these things that I’ve been reading and thinking about and hearing horror stories in the media and through organizing for years is finally the world I have to dive headlong into. And so trying to approach the job search in a measured way that was mindful of self-care needs and of the things that I know are controllable and not controllable. But, before this, I worked at Bronx Community College, actually, and I sort of lucked into that work. I didn’t go through a crazy competitive process to do it. And then coming at it from a faculty angle now is considerably more intimidating, but hoping for the best. Everyone I know is just sending out everything… everywhere they can… hundreds of applications… while they’re trying to complete their dissertations, which is fun.

Dan: Yeah, and I’m one year behind Tom, in terms of proximity to the labor market. So I’m feeling a bit less of that pressure at the moment, but getting ready. And on my path to this position here, between completing the BA at Purchase and joining Rossier I had a few different staff support type roles in different higher ed institutions. I worked at Purchase at Borough of Manhattan Community College and in those roles I was supporting student support programs. And so, in some ways, I was a part of this growth in support staff that we discussed a little bit in the book. Some of those positions were contract positions. And so that I felt that contingency as: “I know my contract is coming up and I need to line up another job.” But others were more permanent. So, I got to experience a good range of staff role proximities to contingency.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the scale of the shifts in the academic labor market?

Tom: Sure. And I think it’s important to note right out of the gate that one of the ways that we tried to approach this subject differently in this book, is by trying to consciously move past the discussions exclusively about academic labor. And I think that we’re at a time where the amount of adjunct exploitation is sufficient enough that that’s becoming a household issue; where even non-academics know that this is a problem. And the conversation does typically tend to revolve around adjuncts and other forms of contingent faculty and PhDs who are out of work. But it’s actually a much bigger thing. And that’s sort of what we’re trying to argue here… is that this is part of a much larger restructuring project, both of the university and of society at large. And that’s partially why we thought the term “Gig Academy” was apt because it’s talking about the entire post-secondary structure, and it’s trying to link it to these other larger cultural shifts around how we value contingent work in society. So, it’s important to note that, while I’m sure we’ll spend a lot of time talking about academic labor, and that may be sort of what the audience is most interested in hearing discussions about, it’s important to remember that it’s everyone: the overwhelming majority of all non-managerial labor in higher ed is contingent, temporary, insecure, poverty waged. And the reason it’s important is because when it comes to talking about solutions and things to do about it, we have to look for all of the channels of solidarity that we have. And so that necessarily includes going outside of simply the precariat, who are instructional labor. And we need to think much more broadly about what that kind of organizing could look like because it’s a question of power and what’s happened to power? That’s the initial comment I would make. Dan, do you want to jump in?

Dan: Yeah, we know one of the most cited statistics is that nearly three quarters of all instructional staff are now contingent labor, but the shift towards contingency has been occurring among all other forms of roles as well. For example, it’s reported that 32% of office and administrative staff are now part time and this movement towards part time this and contingency happens to everyone because the compensation for every role can be cheapend through reducing benefits by shifting to part-time status and reducing hours and then also combining multiple positions into one. And then the biggest problem though, and the reason why we have these two kind of disparate statistics in a few other numbers throughout the book is that there’s not good data that has been collected about work in academia, whether it pertains to contingency employment outcomes for PhDs, or the working conditions of other staff.

Tom: Yeah, there’s only so much information you can glean from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And these are not sexy subjects of research. And folks aren’t necessarily interested in institutional research offices of aggregating this data because it could reflect poorly on them. In fact, one of the similarities you notice is in the way that this kind of mass casualization allows for a selective reporting of diversity statistics. So, institutions can give the race and gender breakdowns of their faculty in aggregate, and it looks like it’s a much more diverse workforce than it is in reality. And this is the same sort of thing that companies like Amazon do, who overwhelmingly have low wage workers of color and warehouses and overwhelmingly white male, highly paid tech workers working on the platforms, and they just combine those together to make it seem that these jobs are more equitably distributed than they are. And that’s part of how this consolidation of power over time has played out. And it’s part of this larger project of neoliberalism. And some folks are hesitant to talk about neoliberalism for understandable reasons, because it’s a word that is thrown around a lot casually and used with some, if not imprecision, at least without proper contextualization. And it’s a word that needs contextualization to talk about because it could mean anything from some cultural quality that you’re describing to mode of power or an ideological tendency or an organizational structure or chains of authority or a sense of identity… you could be talking about personal identity in terms of neoliberal tendencies. And so it’s really important to always specify upfront, when you want to invoke these concepts, what it is you’re actually talking about. So, here we’re looking at the political economy side of it, and how this interfaces with the history of higher ed, because it was in the 70s and 80s that we saw the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism and we saw this broad disinvestment in the public sphere.

This is in many ways, a well trodden story that plenty of academics know well. But it’s worth recapitulating because as this public disinvestment was happening on a large scale, and unions were ill equipped to contest it because of the way that they had, in their own history, become somewhat exclusionary and focused on backdoor negotiations as opposed to rank-and- file strategies that actually mobilize the base and democratize the process. So, all of these things converged with new opportunities for universities to seek revenue through market mechanisms and other things that get broadly roped under corporatization. But after the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which Dan could probably say a little more about, but the consequence was that a lot of resources got shifted into more higher return producing ventures around intellectual property because they could capitalize on those things in ways they couldn’t before, even when public monies is used to produce these things. And so it changed a lot of the incentives, and institutions wanted the highest return for the time and energy that was being put in within any domain. So, for faculty (for star faculty, especially) the return to the institution for them teaching an intro level class of 30 students is comparable to the return that they get when an adjunct does that and an adjunct costs $3,000 a semester to teach that course and a tenured faculty member costs $150,000 a year and lots of benefits and other things… and so in redirecting a lot of the efforts, and as part of the scientific management revolution, where the point was to optimize production, we saw a lot of the shifts and it had consequences for the power structures that increasingly guided these institutions. And so the important thing about calling this the “Gig Academy” is because even though 20 years ago, Slaughter and Rhodes had their landmark work, Academic Capitalism and the New Economy, and that sort of introduced all of this new thinking about how neoliberal restructuring has changed higher ed, they were mostly focused on this kind of external profit-seeking, venture-seeking, financialization, restructuring, some of the research and those sorts of things. And they do talk about casualization, of course, and they do talk about the workers. But, this has been 20 years of this being the norm. It’s no longer the ascendant regime. It’s actually the dominant mode through which all of this is done. And so we’re in a dangerous new state of emergence around what this means because it’s changed at such a broad structural level that it warrants a new term to account for the ways that the relations of academic production have been comprehensively restructured.

John: You mentioned that this is not just in the professoriate, but it’s more general. And in the book, you talk a little bit about outsourcing of many activities that used to be done by full-time employees of the college to other businesses outside. Do you want to address that just a little bit?

Tom: The point about outsourcing and David Wiel has a good book about this phenomenon sort of generally called The Fissured Workplace. And part of how this operates is you take auxiliary functions, non-essential functions, and you find that the easiest way to optimize and render cost effective these things is to outsource to third-party contractors. And this has a number of benefits from the perspective of the institution’s executive administration. For instance, with maintenance staff or food-service staff, housing staff, those sorts of workforces can be administered through third-party contractors (Cisco, Aramark, etc.) who manage their own hiring, who make their own schedules, who have their own internal protocols, etc. So, you’re taking, in some cases, workers who before enjoyed substantial benefits of being university employees for a long time. And there’s lots of stories about institutions that have these historical ties to the community. For example, where we go, USC has always taken pride in this and lots of local families have histories working for USC in non-academic capacities. And that that was a community sustaining way of having work and income and also participating in something that’s larger in some ways than just a service job because you’re still part of this institution. You can get tuition remission and you can have access to the health care that other workers have and so forth. And so they’ve shed a lot of these things. Most institutions have shed those arrangements in favor of these blanket arrangements with third-party contractors who can just bring in an endless procession of part- time contingent workers to do that work. And there’s very little risk of cross organizing in the way that they might fear where if you look back, for example, at the Justice for Janitors movement about 30 years ago in the early 90s (and that actually happened to involve USC) it was the maintenance workers trying to unionize while the institution was trying to outsource that work in general. And what happened was like faculty and students and local community organizations and immigrant right groups all came together and the unions and the maintenance workers themselves and so it was this broad-based effort to resist part of that outsourcing and ultimately, they were outsourced and they unionized, but even when they unionized that power that they claimed couldn’t be directed easily at the university because now they negotiated with the labor contractor. Universities who do this has its hands washed of that. It no longer has to concern itself with that. It no longer has to concern itself with whether these workers have access to health care or more than a poverty wage and so forth. They’re not part of those immediate considerations. And so they do that as much as possible in order to fragment the campus to make sure that power over these workforces is as centrally administered as possible in order to control cost and control risk. And so yeah, the outsourcing of staff… and we’ve even seen this with administrative staff… so, it’s not just the service work that we traditionally think of around food and housing and maintenance and so forth. But, even once you get into administrative staff and other knowledge work, you find these same things. So, it’s really like looking at these patterns across every stratum of the workforce.

John: From the standpoint of students, one advantage of this is it keeps costs lower, but you also talk a lot about the costs of this to students. What are some of the negative impacts to students of having this contingent labor force in higher ed.

Dan: Yeah, so the increasing levels of contingency that staff, faculty, custodial staff, professional staff, all types of staff basically, experience means that they have lower bandwidth mentally… fewer resources to offer when engaging with students. From the faculty perspective, you can’t necessarily hang around after class for a half hour talking to various students about their interests beyond what happened during class discussion. If you have to run to go catch your other job at the other university because the current one where you’re working doesn’t offer you a full-time role or doesn’t offer a role with enough pay so that you have to work multiple full-time roles and then connected to what we were just talking about in terms of the outsourcing dimension, universities are outsourcing advising staff and other staff that perform interactive and supportive, engaging roles with students as well. And so with that comes an increasing formalization of those interactions. So, that instead of me being the academic advisor that you come to, and we’re talking about your personal life, and maybe I’m sharing about mine a little bit, and there’s this kind of interpersonal connection with a permanent staff member located physically at the university. Instead, you’re dealing with someone who might be working remotely to provide advising services and is basically just trying to make sure that they cross all their t’s and dot all their i’s to satisfy the requirements of their particular engagement with you so they can move on to the other several hundred students that they’re responsible for in their caseload. And so, generally speaking then, the increasing move towards contingency and outsourcing means that staff are less connected to the university and therefore less connected to students and then they’re also just dealing with priorities beyond making students feel like they really belong and connecting them in this deep sense.

Tom: And because this is in the context of a broader devaluation of teaching, it has consequences for the quality of instruction that often get pinned on adjuncts, or other contingent faculty as lacking care when, in reality, the incentives are such that it’s almost impossible to avoid certain things being diluted. For example, there’s a lot of talk about academic freedom these days and what’s happening to academic freedom and people are scared of teaching X, Y, or Z because they’re sounding the warning alarms about cancel culture or whatever the case may be. But, for contingent faculty, the concern is mainly getting rehired. And to the extent that you are part of a lecturer pool where you’re interchangeable with a lot of other people, the folks in charge of hiring you semester-to-semester are likely to consult and put an overemphasis on things like student feedback, and also passing rates, these simple kinds of metrics that they can look to to decide whether someone’s worth rehiring, and those can be gamed, obviously. You can lower your grading standards and the complexity of your assignments. And you can avoid controversial topics that would benefit students to talk about… and that you want to talk about. But, you have these other concerns that understandably take precedence and that’s on top of all the burnout and general overwork and under pay. So, you’re getting paid $3,000 for this semester, whether or not you come up with a really thoughtful critical pedagogical approach, or if you just use the cookie-cutter syllabus that they give you when they bring you on for that course. So, there’s not a lot of opportunity to perform well and for faculty to self-actualize in that way, because those incentives are so misaligned. So, the learning suffers in that way, too. It’s not just… although it’s a huge piece of it… that you’re losing personal connections to others and to people you learn from, which we know through educational psych studies that this is important. These relationships are how we learn. Learning, absent some kind of community of that learning, is usually much more difficult, which is at least partly why it’s been tough to shift to a MOOC model of administering higher ed through these just massive open online courses, where you can get generic competencies in things. And that’s in part because your human brain needs these social connections in order to effectively learn… because you don’t just learn and it’s done. It’s an ongoing process, obviously. And we have relationships to sustain those. I mean, I’m still close with my college advisors, and I went to a SUNY school. I feel like I was spoiled by that by being right sort of in the middle of the institutional tiers where the faculty weren’t under publish-or-perish pressure and pedagogy and good teaching was valued by the institution enough that you could have these really meaningful experiences and form meaningful bonds and you got advised by your actual professors. And it was very easy to develop a romanticized view of the academy when I was 18, based on what I knew of my philosophy and literature professors at SUNY Purchase, and then you see both extremes once I started working at community colleges that were under-resourced, and I saw how much people struggled to make things work. And even when they cared very deeply about what they were doing, and the students and everything, being spread so thin… and then at the other end just like upper-elite crust of private research institutions where teaching is not valued as much because it doesn’t ultimately bring new returns to the university if you’re a great teacher; it does if you get that extra grant or you publish that extra article or so and so forth. So, the odd thing is, in a lot of cases, the higher up in the prestige of the university, the more likely you are to encounter questionable pedagogy because of these misaligned incentives, which isn’t to say there aren’t great professors everywhere. It’s just the these are structural limitations.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a little bit about academic rigor potentially being influenced by contingent faculty because of incentives. But, it strikes me that we had a recent episode with Julie Martin, Episode 104, about social capital and how social capital is really important for first-generation students. So, can you talk a little bit about how contingency across staff and faculty impacts this group or this population of students more so than some other groups of students.

Tom: We could easily make a case around how, without these connections through the institution, students are worse off. They don’t have sources of support and advice and connections. Students who are advised through this kind of highly efficient Tayloresque process where every activity has been unbundled from everything else… they don’t have that network to resort to and they can’t get that advice. And for first-gen students whose parents did not go to college, obviously they’re missing out on a lot of informal guidance that other students get and so these institutional relationships can be really important substitutes for that. Whether or not you have social capital is a reflection of your class status or where you fall in the stratum. But, as a place of intervention, it doesn’t actually help if the overarching economic and political structures are the same. There’s a lot of well intentioned interventions in higher ed designed to increase the amount of social capital that students have. And there’s a lot of like private funding behind these initiatives for good reason, because it doesn’t threaten the larger power and economic structures. Providing social capital can be helpful at a small level, but at a structural level, it’s impossible to move the needle simply by trying to supplement social or cultural capital.

Rebecca: I think you misinterpreted what I meant, because I wasn’t implying that we should have interventions but rather that when the structures are taken down where faculty aren’t playing the role of an advisor or have this ability to be integrated into the structure more, in a role other than just teaching their class.

Tom: Oh, absolutely.

Rebecca: So… [LAUGHTER]

Tom: Sorry. No… I wasn’t… I was totally in agreement with you. And then I wanted to go the step further, because I think some folks could listen to that and say, “Well, the answer to that is to just create a separate platform where we put at-risk students in touch with people who are going to increase their social capital.”

John: The focus of that research that Julie Martin had done was basically on the degree of connections that students have with their fellow students, with faculty, and with a college in general. And what her research was basically showing is that first-generation students come in with much weaker knowledge of how colleges function, and much of that information is picked up through interactions that they may not have, and it raises their probability of dropping out, failing, or withdrawing from college. And so basically, I think what Rebecca was arguing is that the impact of having more contingent staffing of colleges is likely to have a differential impact on first-generation students who are less likely to be successful in completing the degree. And that’s I think, where this impact could be fairly substantial. Because what it means basically is the people who potentially have the most to gain in terms of higher future income and careers are going to be placed most at risk, while those who come in from wealthier family backgrounds are more likely to be successful because they come in with more of that knowledge from their past experiences.

Tom: Yeah, exactly. I totally agree. And I think that’s basically what we argue in the book. I didn’t mean to seem that I was pushing back on that argument. It’s an important one, and it’s definitely true. And I think it goes even further to some extent, because the increased likelihood that someone drops out for these reasons, falls also disproportionately on students of color. And when that happens, those students are also more likely to have debt that they then are at risk of defaulting on particularly if they didn’t finish the degree. And we know there are lots of studies of the student debt crisis that show how this disproportionately falls on students of color and students of color who weren’t ultimately able to complete their degrees or who got roped into predatory for profit-schemes.

Dan: I feel like the takeaway is that whenever you reduce institutional supports for the most marginalized groups of students, whether its first-generation students, which we both are, by the way (shout out to first-gen students), working class students, racially minoritized students… Yes, the most marginalized groups always end up suffering with the removal of these formal supports because folks with capital can supplement their college experiences through college advisors, like private advisors, I mean, and through other forms of third-party support, to help them gain knowledge and help them gain navigational understanding for gaining success through higher ed.

John: What solutions would you suggest? What can be done to remedy the situation?

Dan: I think one of the biggest things is for workers in higher ed, workers in other industries, basically to start applying their own agency and concern towards addressing these issues. We’ve seen increasing levels of unionization among workers in different industries, and especially in higher ed. But, these trends are not going to reverse themselves and the executive-level decision making that has contributed to it, in addition to the broad entrepreneurial mindset that is a part of American culture, these things are not going to just go away. And so it’s important for workers to recognize that through organizing and developing collective power, we can start reshaping some of these trends. That seems like among the most important dimensions for me,

John: You just suggested that unionization rates have been increasing. Is that the case for higher ed? I know there’s been at least some increase in graduate student unionization. But, is that true generally?

Tom: It is true generally. The impact could be modest depending on which class of worker you’re talking about. I think graduate students are significant to note because they are the ones who seem to be really working to shift the paradigm around how and why we’re organizing. And as we live in a sort of post-Janus world where there are less structural legal protections around unions and unionizing and bargaining, there’s been a deserved shift back to focusing on issues of power and how you actually accumulate enough raw collective power to compel institutions to act in ways that benefit the student body and that benefit the workforce, and not just the endowment and not just the board and the real estate interests that the institution may have. And so this is why graduate workers are becoming more militant and organizing more effectively around these social movement unionism principles that has a larger agenda than simply increasing the attractive terms of our contract. It’s moving beyond this “Let’s just talk about pay and insurance and compensation. And let’s have bigger conversations around structural issues.”

We gathered some strength, I think from the K-12. teachers unions and the really inspiring strikes and other actions that we’ve seen actually yield important wins for these folks. And we’re starting to see the value of being able to actually throw a wrench into the gears of production itself in order to be heard and to have demands taken seriously and concerns taken seriously and to redistribute power. And it’s important to look at the broader social trends around labor activism and how this is getting expressed in certain circles of higher ed, and we’re trying to advance that conversation in part because for all of the controversy around unions and some people, particularly older folks who remember the decline of the union movement have mixed feelings or bitter feelings about the unions and how they act and what they do. At a really basic level, a union is just workers coming together to act collectively and exert leverage over their managers and employers, and over thus the conditions of their work. And so we’re finding new and interesting ways to push those battles and have those conversations outside of conventional union strategies like 50% plus one elections. And we’re focused more on power, which I think is really crucial, in part because of the way that this connects to the broader gig economy. And the way that we’ve normalized this idea of the independent contractor and this following your passion and everyone is their own brand and all these other ideological tendencies that end up just allowing these flexible labor markets to work more smoothly for those who are skimming rent off the top. And that’s what we see… universities are the same sorts of platforms in a lot of different ways. And for something like Uber, the contingent labor force that keeps Uber running is a temporary solution. They see it as a temporary fix for a long-term game, which is just to automate everything to have perpetually money making robots, roving the city who never need breaks and benefits. And so the drivers are really like, to the extent that they’re getting paid in peanuts to do this work… and all the maintenance costs are being offloaded onto workers, as opposed to being a responsibility of the employer, which is something we see in higher ed as well. Because, if you’re an adjunct and you have to work at three different universities, teaching intro-level classes to make ends meet, you’re shouldering all of the costs of the academic supplies you need and the car that you take to get from campus to campus and the gas that goes into that car and whether or not you have memberships with the necessary learning platforms to be able to interface with whatever student learning management system is being used. And so these are all like these micro ways that costs are being offloaded onto workers, and that this is turning into a convenient form of control for the institution at large.

John: You’d advocate basically then a larger role for unions, and then would the unions be lobbying for perhaps less use of contingent labor?

Tom: I mean, sure… In the short term, there may be ways to try to compel institutions to both improve the working conditions and pay and compensation for contingent workers. But, the goal would be to really eliminate this by democratizing the power structure. And it’s on all of us to do that, because the goal is to ensure that the decisions being made at the university are being made democratically and are being made by people who have the interests of students and scholarship at heart and not purely business or market interest. And to get there, we have to look well beyond the old structures of faculty governance. It’s not going to get us there just to bring a few nominal adjuncts into governance meetings and curriculum committees and so forth. We need to fundamentally redistribute the power at universities that had been siphoned in really small doses for so long. Because as the number of faculty in secure positions was dwindling, a lot of the responsibilities of faculty, in a kind of organic sense, were being shifted into administration. And so this is how we ended up in a situation where the amount of tenure-track faculty was languishing while the number of PhD students brought in is spiking. And the number of contingent faculty are spiking, because there are all of those incentives. And for the faculty who have security, their main concerns are doing research and trying to do an increasing amount of work that they have to shoulder among an ever smaller population… around governance and searches and so forth. So they’re all too happy to let the administration deal with hiring adjuncts and all these things. But over time, it’s been this gradual relinquishment of power to the point where tenured faculty have so little power, they’re afraid to even use it. And it should be the number one priority of anyone on the tenure track or with tenure, to stand in solidarity with the contingent workers. Because, that is the only way you can ultimately guarantee the longevity of academic freedom and all of the other rights that you enjoy, because you need that power. Without the power, you’ve got nothing. And so that’s one way we want this book to function is to make folks realize that the kinds of artificial divisions that we see among faculty who are on the tenure track who are doing the scholarly work versus those who are kept and cycled through various contingent positions, we absolutely need to bridge that gap. And it would behoove anyone with any power and security to join that fight. So, yeah, it’s going to take organizing. Unions are an important part of it. We have to look beyond unions. We have to think about broad based organizing through every possible vehicle that we can.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Tom: General strike. [LAUGHTER]

Dan: I’ll say, for the Delphi project, another avenue that we’ve been pursuing in terms of supporting shifts in the structures and political economy of higher ed institutions, is to recognize institutions who’ve made novel changes to support non-tenure-track faculty. And so we’ve been offering this award in recognition, which names their excellence and also provides a little bit of funding to them. We’ll be going into the third cycle of the Delphi award this upcoming year. Right now, we’ve been working to communicate the nature of changes that have been made for the last year’s winners. And so we’ve been recognizing that and then we’re also involved in working with graduate student union organizing, at USC specifically. So, that’s another big next for me personally. And then we have a couple grants to study, again, institutions that are making novel changes to transform the nature of teaching and learning.

John: Well, thank you for joining us.

Tom: Thank you. This has been a great conversation, and thanks for reading the book and inviting us on here.

Dan: Yeah, thank you so much.

Rebecca: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

105. Globalizing Classes

Improvements in communication and information technology have resulted in an increasingly interconnected global economy. In this episode, Dr. Blase Scarnati joins us to discuss ways in which our classes can be modified to help prepare our students to productively participate in this global environment. Blase is a Professor of Musicology and the Director of Global Learning in the Center for International Education at Northern Arizona University.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Improvements in communication and information technology have resulted in an increasingly interconnected global economy. In this episode, we discuss ways in which our classes can be modified to help prepare our students to productively participate in this global environment.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Blase Scarnati. Blase is a Professor of Musicology and the Director of Global Learning in the Center for International Education at Northern Arizona University. Welcome back, Blase.

Blase: Thank you. Really glad to be back with you both.

John: We’re glad to have you here again.

Our teas today are:

Blase: I’m drinking my everyday green tea. Chinesegreen tea Dragonwell Long Jing.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: I have English Breakfast tea.

John: I have a pure peppermint tea. So, something plain.

We’ve invited you back to talk about your work with global learning. Could you tell us first a little bit about your role as a Director of Global Learning at the Center for International Education at NAU.

Blase: Primarily I work with faculty and departments, especially through our Global Learning Initiative, and the Global Learning Initiative (or GLI) is an across-the-curriculum global education initiative sited in all undergraduate programs and our liberal education program…also explicitly uses co-curricular experiences such as residence hall programming, department activities, community engagement, and so forth. And GLI established three interconnected and interdependent ideas that were all based and drawn upon long-standing campus values that were articulated as university-level thematic student learning outcomes around diversity education, global engagement, and sustainability. And so we kind of approached what global education can be in a very innovative way rather than just, like many institutions, privileging study-abroad-based experiences. We really broadened it out, and really defined it as diversity education, global engagement, and sustainability. And through that, when we were working to implement them at the department level, we really were asking departments not just to kind of hook up, to reach up, to those University outcomes, but rather recast them through the discourse in the discipline, so that departments truly would own those outcomes rather than just attend to them. We went about this after a lot of campus conversation for several years and it was adopted in 2010 by our faculty senate. Then we began to work with departments to implement and develop ways for them to think through…to create department- and program-level outcomes around those three thematic university level ones. And we used a backward design process: developing the outcomes, developing assessment strategies, and then determining sort of scaffolded learning experiences across the major curriculum. And especially with emphasis on reimagining courses; not just tossing courses out or adding courses, specifically. So how can you really get to the nub of modifying and internationalizing your particular courses. In 2012, GLI contributed significantly towards NAU earning the prestigious Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization awarded by NAFSA. And more recently, we’ve been shifting away from working with departments and program curricula and focusing on individual faculty and their courses. And we do everything from individual consultations and dialogues about individual courses. But, most excitingly, we’ve organized a lot of large-scale frameworks that we’re calling collaboratives that bring together faculty, undergraduate, graduate students, particular programs, community members, all to kind of begin to think through how different courses different programs can really more deeply internationalize their efforts. Jean Paul Lederach, the great peace organizer and theorist has talked about large, flat, flexible, democratic platforms. And that’s what we’re really trying to pursue because, if you have a chance to listen to my other podcast with you all, we’re really focused on a lot of strategies that are based in community organizing theory and practice and that’s been my driving approach.

Rebecca: I have a question, Blase, based on some of the things that you’ve already mentioned. Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of learning outcomes that you were using for backwards design related to individual faculty. I think sometimes we have an image of what that might mean, but might have difficulty applying it to different kinds of disciplines.

Blase: Sure, the university level outcomes are really quite broad based. And they were rather intersectional in the sense that sustainability was also leaning into diverse spaces. We’re talking about sustainable communities and so forth and cultures with an idea that it can accommodate…if we built these really large boxes that lean almost into one another like Venn diagrams, then that would offer kind of the maximal amount of space for programs and departments to dialogue and think through them. And really, the individual departments…It was quite quite diverse. Some were very, very specific and targeted about really hard skills that they might need that would help them establish careers…be hired out in post baccalaureate efforts…and others were a lot broader. In the humanities, for example, they were much more expansive, and it was really quite diverse. So all ultimately address skills and competencies, but they were framed very, very differently. And the key point for us was that they were really rooted in disciplinary discourse. So, they were truly real and meaningful for faculty in the department so they could use them as tools to help their program move and prepare their students to succeed in the world that their discipline works with students to place them successfully in.

Rebecca: You do Musicology, right? So are you in the music department at your school?

Blase: Yeah, I’m a professor of musicology…music history. I do work with critical improvisation studies, popular traditions. I teach courses in reggae and country music, and jazz…and yeah, and in music. we’ve approached them in sort of interesting ways: sustainability comes about through…for example, my wife is an oboist and between global learning and lots of pressures with urban expansion in Africa, the wood that they source for that particular instrument has become quite scarce and rare. And there’s also lots of issues about appropriating other cultures’ resources and so forth. So, that’s really driven a lot of internal dialogue about what are we doing, how can we do it and what other alternatives might be available? Initially, of course, they went to oil-based solutions, you know, looking at polymers, but then they’ve been exploring other kind of sustainable woods and just ways to go about and reimagining and still achieving really high levels of performance and expressiveness, using an instrument that will allow them to do that. But again, with alternatives and there’s been real efflorescence in the oboe world around having lots of different woods being used and explored. And our theater colleagues were looking also at green ways to save energy: reusing, using non-toxic paints in their flats and their staging. So there’s been a lot of different ways. And some of its quite strategic and often overlaps with other ways in terms of economic efficiency, given tight budgets and so forth. But at the end of the day, that’s the reality. For example, we make and create and help to enable students to be effective performers and music educators, they’re dealing with audiences and the world and they have to come to terms with that. Within that is what I can contribute about uncovering lots of issues about how does music function in and as culture? And what are the resonance around whose music is being played? How’s that identified? How is it commodified? Who owns that music? Who can speak for it? And it’s a quite fraught history in the US and and European traditions vis a vis world music. But this can help unpack a lot of social justice focused issues within disciplines. Many pursue them overtly. Some that’s kind of bubbling a bit more in the background. So in music it’s been, in spite of popular culture’s music, quite forward art traditions and so forth. It’s more akin to museum systems in the visual plastic arts. So it’s a little bit quite contested in some ways, a bit behind some other areas. So it’s been useful to help disciplines turn over the field a bit and help to move themselves in productive directions.

John: What other types of experiences have been used on other departments to try to reach this goal?

Blase: Well, when the department itself has embraced the institutional imperatives of the wind filling the sail as one where one has to complete it, it’s baked into the program reviews that occur every six years internally, and so forth. And, at the same time, what’s also driven a lot of it is student demand. Just one example… our Department of Philosophy went through this process…and all dear friends, but it was a bit pro forma. And, you know, it wasn’t necessarily the deepest engagement compared to some other departments. But a couple years later, they came back in and wanted to re-examine and reestablish new outcomes for their program to really deepen their practice and their thinking. The discipline had changed, and there was a huge student demand. Once they started opening opportunities in courses and uncovering these issues, like linking it more close to the bone of what’s gone on in philosophy courses, then students were really driving that change. So, really, to kind of get to the nub of the matter when you start talking with a colleague, and they’re saying, “Well, how can I do this in my class?” And that’s always a very, very interesting conversation because in some ways, it can be challenging because they may be frustrated, they see where things are…the state of the world. They’re driven by their own passions and values, their disciplines also, and sometimes bringing that to bear within a curriculum that they may have inherited from someone else in the department over the years, or a particular course, then how do they go about working their way through that? And that can be a very, very rich conversation.

Rebecca: It sounds like that’s the conversation we should have. So, Blase, how can I globalize my classes? [LAUGHTER]

Blase: From my perspective, there are two ways to go about globalizing your course. First off, there’s no need to scrap it, throw it away and start over. No one’s talking about doing that. There are two approaches. One is to work within the existing outcomes for the course. And the second is designing additional outcomes for your course that specifically address why your students should be globalizing their work. That might be a formal outcome that you place if you have the latitude to add that to your course or an informal one that can help you frame your thinking. So in the first one…working within the existing outcomes. We would have a conversation and frequently would just…first off, get off campus…go someplace and have coffee. You kind of break down the routine of this is me in my role, you as a faculty member in your role…I mean, I’m a faculty member too, but I come to them within this other frame…and get someplace where you can begin to think and imagine and begin to talk about what have they always really wanted to do in the course around some of these issues. So, how can you take those outcomes and find ways of moving the learning and moving and modifying learning experiences…projects…what you do…what you read…what you think about…what you discuss in the class… so that it has a more global dimension. And some of that can be shifting readings, shifting the locus of activity or thinking through a problem and where it’s sited, and then helping your students that may not have a lot of experience in that discipline, thinking about those things. So, helping them understand how you really think and work within that discipline with these issues. So the first one is the easy one: where can you substitute? Where can you supplement? Where can you modify? What can you change? The second one, it kind of gets at things at a deeper level and probably something that’s more impactful. So, if you design your own courses’ outcomes, you’re really going to have to think through: Why are you doing this? What will it enable your students to do? To what purpose? …and, given the restrictions you might have, that might be just lurking in the background, helping you make decisions about what you want to alter. What new sorts of ways of doing and knowing that you want to explore with your students, up to you just add it as another outcome and discuss it with your students as you walk through the learning outcomes in the first day when you go through the syllabus quickly and begin to consider what are we going to be doing in this class and why?

John: When faculty have bought into this, how have they responded?

Blase: Most are really, really enthusiastic and people tend to seek this out if they are aligned to the overall goals of the project. In the early days, sometimes we had reluctant departments or departments that there wasn’t a working consensus to move forward in any particular direction. And those were more difficult conversations. These days generally working with individuals or departments that they’re highly aligned with this. So it’s a matter of what more can we do? How can we do that? And the restrictions aren’t about globalizing the course or trying to internationalize different activities or projects. But, often it’s how can we do this with little to no additional economic support? So we can’t buy resources…we can’t send our students necessarily independently out. And then how can we expand where our curriculum is, and I can introduce them to colleagues in the Center for International Education and we operate not by using a service where our students pay and go abroad using a services infrastructure. Like many places anymore, we have individual departments…have reciprocal agreements with other universities that our students would go and take a range of courses in the study abroad experience and they would come back. They would transfer right in. Students are not going to be missing any time in their progression towards a degree. They pay our own internal tuition. So their scholarships and financial aid cover those expenses. We also have a very generous level of support for travel for those students in need, especially in economically challenged groups. So, there’s a lot of infrastructure that the department or the individual faculty member may not have. But we can begin to put people together in a broader network to help them as an individual faculty member achieve aspirations or collectively as a program, or our whole department. Oftentimes, it’s frequently very, very exciting because, if you kind of are talking at that level of what have you all wanted to do, then let’s figure out a way to make that happen. That’s a very catalytic encounter and a catalytic discussion because it’s full of possibilities. I always try to shift the conversation to what else is possible? What have you never had a chance to do? Don’t worry about the 1001 reasons not to do it, they’re always there. But let’s figure out what that is, then we’ll go and figure out ways to remove the barriers or to provide the resources if we can. So, it’s usually a very satisfying work. And it’s usually a very uplifting conversation, because people take that energy inside and really begin to spin it. So, they’re lit up, and how excited they are infects others in their networks and groups and it can kind of feed off of one another. And much like we were talking about earlier conversation, if you get enough activity going, and you begin to saturate the airspace as much as you have the latitude to do, you can create a locus of gravity that starts to pull others in. And that’s just based upon your active network of folks that are collaborating together.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some specific examples that you think are really powerful implementations of globalization of a class or a curriculum?

Blase: Sure. One early example that I use to open up conversation with departments because I usually would go in into a department meeting and here’s what this project GLI is all about. And then “How do you do it?” That’s the next question. One really great example was out of our civil engineering department, we have a big school of engineering of civil, electrical, and so forth. And they often have core courses that all of the different threads within civil engineering would take together and one of those courses had a bridge building project. So, it had two major components. One was you need to design the bridge. So, you need to do the mathematics…the engineering of a bridge that will span a particular distance…that will carry a particular load…and then the materials and construction management side of that. So, then how do you actually actually create that bridge. So, it was actually a semester-long project, and it was quite complex. On the surface, that sounds fairly easy, but it is very real world, because that’s what these students would do when they leave. And they would join a construction corporation and they would be building bridges and other types of projects. So, engineering wanted to globalize that project. They thought this was one place where they could really make an impact. The faculty sited the bridge building project in Kenya. And that’s a country where we have a lot of reciprocal programs and our engineering students are working and taking courses and working in programs there. So, it still addressed the very technical side of what was needed in the course. So they still design and engineer a bridge that carries load…that spans a particular distance. But now that it moved the construction and the materials management into an international frame, and in a particular country, where there are infrastructure issues. How do you ship and transport or source locally materials. And again, that actually aligns absolutely with what their students need because their graduates are getting hired by major international corporations that build projects all over the world. So, that actually gave them a richer set of tools that came out of that learning experience. So, they accomplished everything they needed. Plus, they were able to internationalize it in a way that helps students develop tools that were even more necessary, and actually more salient to their success in the future. I think that’s a very, very quick, powerful little story that gets a “How can you take something and make some changes to it, that actually brings more to it?” So it doesn’t just globalize, but it actually opens up a set of possibilities and experiences that are multiplied. So, it’s not just here’s one way that we can do this to globalize this learning experience. But then, how can we, at the level of outcomes truly, how can we develop a richer set of tools that our students can use to succeed as they go out and seek to build a richer life?

Oftentimes inertia and perhaps a department, for example, or group of faculty, they may think it’s a good idea, but they don’t see a ready quick access point. Civil Engineering, they saw it almost immediately. And they said, “Well, we can do this.” And then it led to “Well, what if we do more of this? How about if we went here, as opposed to there…just so they move down the road pretty rapidly. For example, with Physics and Astronomy, we had a chair that was actually part of our planning group that helped design the whole Global Learning Initiative. And she was very, very interested in wanting to help move the department in this direction. And they were quite split. And it wasn’t just the astronomers versus the physicists, but it was actually a more generational split and that was just peculiar to their department at the time. So, there were a lot of very senior gray lions that really didn’t want to go in this direction. They thought it was counterproductive. They thought it was beside the point. And so that opened a lot in a very long conversation. And over five years or so, there was some change, retirements and so forth. And younger faculty and then the rising senior faculty began to have conversations about what it can be within their context between physics and astronomy. And we’re lucky we’re adjacent to a number of indigenous nations, the Navajo Nation, which is as large as all of New England for goodness sake. Within that’s the Hopi reservation downstate, various Apache groups, and it’s a very rich international space that way. So colleagues in Physics and Astronomy started working with colleagues in the community college system on the Navajo reservation. And so they started bringing in traditional knowledge holders. So, within astronomy, they started offering courses around indigenous cosmologies. So, they were actually helping their students to think in very different international ways using different frames for how do you conceive the founding of the cosmos, and the workings of all that is out there. Even the most rigorous, focused astronomer that is working in radio astronomy, or some other variation of across their wide range of disciplinary practices, then they’re beginning to open up what’s possible, how and what does it mean to be talking about these things? And when I know that I’m talking about it through my contemporary U.S. international sort of frame, that’s one frame. And there are other ways that might be useful to think about the facts, the activities that we do, and what the information we receive. And then what does it mean to put it together in an argument and an explanation. And by thinking through other cultural dimensions that expands their abilities to do that imaginatively, creatively. I come out of the arts, so I’m kind of hard wired to want to do things very improvisatory creative ways. And from my perspective, the more we can all think about, how can we be catalytic and creative in our own disciplinary work? I think that’s the exciting place because it shifts you, not from the core to the periphery, but oftentimes to willfully and intentionally walk to that edge, where your discipline is interacting with all these other disciplines. And that’s a very fruitful and very exciting place to be, because that’s where new knowledge can come about really quickly, as you begin to fuse and think differently and expanding what’s assumed. For me, that’s personally and intellectually this very, very exciting work. And believe me, I can’t follow the details of my colleagues in physics and astronomy when they start unpacking things, but I can get and be really lit up by the direction that they’re going, and their excitement and what they’re seeing as possibilities. Because once colleagues find that this is a fruitful path, then that leads much like we found with physics and astronomy, and certainly the example from engineering, that leads to “what else is possible?” So, you just keep opening and opening and opening. And that’s where we all want to be, especially in a time when most or institutions are getting squeezed in terms of economics. That’s a very empowering place to be.

Rebecca: You’ve mentioned this is a fruitful place for new knowledge. That seems like a good transition to thinking through the lens of students and seeing the world in a different way.

Blase: Yeah.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the student impact that you’ve seen, or maybe even a specific student or a specific story that might help us envision how this plays out?

Blase: I work with faculty who work with the students, but I just get that energy and how they’re able to create new things. And then especially as I see colleagues being able to morph and continually transform what their course is, so that it’s not just, we take something static, we’re going to do some window dressing, and job done, and that’s good for another 20 years. But, once you start moving the pieces, that energy, that motion, that kinetic sense just keeps going and flowing, and students are really excited about it. And what I hear are those more collective pressures to do more. And we have some assessment too: that we had over 80% of our undergraduate programs in just three years out of 91 of the programs at the time, complete the program level GLI process that comes with outcomes assessments and a curricular map of learning experiences. Study abroad, because what we did was we talked to study abroad and asked the departments to position a semester in the program in their sequence of courses where students could go abroad, take courses at institutions that they have confidence in courses that they’re taking, and come back so they’re not losing any time towards the degree. And we saw 136% increase in the number of students going abroad over eight years between 2011 and 2018. And also those students that went abroad, I owe this all from my colleague, Angelina Palumbo, the Director of Education Abroad here in the center. But students that go abroad also have a 87% graduation rate, which is about more than 10% higher than our average graduation rate, which is not bad, but still, that’s quite impactful. Everything from the example when I was talking about colleagues in philosophy, where once they started opening up some of these issues and giving voice to them, their students were asking for more. That’s sort of the level that I encounter.

John: Was the expansion in study abroad programs due to the global initiative.

Blase: Well, I mean, you know, it’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing. We had a new senior international officer (using the jargon, SIOs), Harvey Charles, who was a really, really innovative colleague. He was our SIO. I was working with him. We brought a whole bunch of people together. Basically, he established a presidential task force to help to internationalize the campus. The President was behind that. And working with Harvey, we brought from two or three of us that were focused on curriculum. Out of that task force, we invited 40 colleagues to come together to draft this Global Learning Initiative. And part of that was a concerted effort to expand study abroad. But what had been holding it back was the very things that we were able to address through the curricular side of GLI, that there was many programs didn’t have a targeted semester where their students could study abroad without falling behind. They didn’t have any particular countries or institutions that they had reciprocal relationships and confidence in their curricula. So, it was all at the same time, everything coming together. But the details of how many positions were added it actually tripled the number of positions working in education abroad. But again, that was in response to the huge increase of number of students that were going from our campus. And then also they were busy recruiting international students. We have a couple of thousand international students on campus. And that’s other parts of the infrastructure within the center that GLI wasn’t directly related to or focused upon.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit about economic barriers being a barrier for faculty and making change. Did you come across any other barriers other than maybe you talked about generational differences too?

Blase: Yeah.

Rebecca: Were those main barriers or did you see faculty coming up against some other barriers that they had overcome?

Blase: Some disciplines are just really deep…their disciplinary ways of thinking and knowing they’re highly aligned, right? They’re there…sociology, politics, and international affairs. There really wasn’t much of a discussion in terms of, they’re already doing a great deal of it, then let’s maybe see what else is possible. For a lot of other individual faculty, when we talk to them, or programs that are thinking about picking it back up…it’s kind of a reluctance either, like we’ve talked about before, I’m not sure how to go about moving and making further change, and/or this is a time when everybody is really stressed. On our campus, we’ve lost 60% of state funding in a decade, which is a radical truncation of our support. We’ve shifted to pretty much tuition-based funding, and that’s created enormous pressures…that level of tenure density has plummeted. So, there are a lot of lecturers and a plurality that’s a one-year non-tenured position here on our campus. It’s created a lot of internal pressures and schisms and issues and many faculty don’t have the additional emotional capacity to want to willfully step forward and say I want to create more change and uncertainty and chaos in what I do. When I was referring a little bit earlier to inertia, it’s not just intellectual laziness, it’s often just exhaustion. What’s happening nationally, I think has been exhausting many in the academy, and our politics, the level of incivility that’s increasing and rising on campus. Arizona… you just have to have one person agree in a public forum so that you can videotape and that could be the person behind the iPhone, if they’re agreeing to do it. And that’s all this needed. And of course, these courses and classrooms are public spaces. So, we’ve had lots of faculties classes being put up and being pilloried by different websites, various political perspectives, and some of its been in the Chronicle over the last couple of years. So, it’s been a challenging environment. There are many things going on that are tapping people out. But, for me, what has been the thing that always allows us to continue to succeed? If you’re talking about very mechanical things, or this is an obligation…we need to achieve these program outcomes, that doesn’t stir many people’s souls. But, if you actually have, in advance, thought about how can you position your initiative so that it’s focused and grounded in the values of your community, your literal community or your institution, then people can connect in ways that aren’t just focused on disciplinary interest or compliance. You know, you’re tapping into their heart and what they care about as a person and what motivates them. Again, sustainability in my own discipline of music, there’s a discourse there, and there are ways that one can think through it. But those colleagues (and I count myself) that are very passionate about the future of the planet, we’re motivated to do much, much more, and we’ll seek that out. So amid all the turmoil and depletion of energy and the exhaustion, if you can find ways to shift that conversation into this catalytic space that talks about possibilities, that taps into what people believe and what they value and what they care about deeply, then you’re feeding that conversation from a place that will enrich and nourish rather than just take away, exhaust, and grind you down into submission.

John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?

Blase: Well, what I’m doing next is continuing on and more and more explicitly going back to the well of community organizing methods, strategies, and theory to help us come together collaboratively. For me, faculty on our campus, and I know a lot of places, feel increasingly radically disempowered either by state legislatures, distant boards, priorities that may be economically driven or politically motivated that are not aligned with where many faculty are themselves. And we tend to wait until we grow quite gray for change to come from the top. So, I’m a firm believer of coming together with colleagues to focus on what’s possible, what can we do together, and actively doing that. And good administrators will be happy to jump in front of that train and take all the credit they want. God bless them. But, just what can we do together to make this a better place, a richer educational space for our communities and for our students? That’s largely pretty much everything I’m doing. Of course…presenting, publishing, writing and more writing, but like everybody else, that’s the thing that really kind of keeps me lit up.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us.

John: Yes, thank you for joining us. That was a very good discussion.

Blase: Very much appreciate it. Thanks so much.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Kiara Montero.

104. Social Capital and Persistence

Students who are the first members of their family to attend college often arrive with less information about navigating the college experience than students who had a parent that attended college. In this episode, Dr. Julie Martin joins us to discuss the role that social capital plays in student success, retention and persistence.

Julie is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University, and former Program Director for Engineering Education at the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Engineering. She has conducted a wide variety of studies on factors associated with the under representation of women and people from minoritized ethnic and racial backgrounds in engineering education, and she is a new Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Students who are the first members of their family to attend college often arrive with less information about navigating the college experience than students who had a parent that attended college. In this episode, we discuss the role that social capital plays in student success, retention and persistence.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Today our guest is Dr. Julie Martin. She is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University, and former Program Director for Engineering Education at the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Engineering. She has conducted a wide variety of studies on factors associated with the under representation of women and people from minoritized ethnic and racial backgrounds in engineering education, and she is a new Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. Welcome, Julie.

Julie: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Julie: I’m not drinking tea. I’m drinking water.

Rebecca: Well, that’s a good healthy choice. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s what tea is mostly anyway

Rebecca: Yeah

John: I’m drinking black raspberry green tea,

Julie: And I have Oolong today.

John: Wow! You’re really mixing it up this week

Rebecca: I know. I am out of control.

John:
We invited you here to talk about your research on engineering education, but could you tell us first a bit about your path to an engineering degree?

Julie: I think I really had two motivations for getting an engineering degree. And the first one was really personal. Since I was a toddler, I have had a pacemaker which was needed to make my heartbeat regularly. And somehow I grew up understanding that engineers, along with doctors and other folks, contributed to designing and making those devices and improving that technology that really affects my quality of life every day. And then the second part of it was that I also had adults in my life that were encouraging my interest in math and science. And it was something that I was good at and enjoyed, and they helped me connect those interests to majoring in engineering when I got to college.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what prompted your research interest on barriers for women and other underrepresented groups in engineering, specifically?

Julie: Well, the obvious first part of that is that I was a woman studying engineering. And then, early in my career, I worked at the University of Houston and that was a fabulous place to work. The student population there…. really diverse… there are many students who come from the Greater Houston area and that’s a really diverse city. So the students I work with, they came from a variety of cultural backgrounds and economic backgrounds. And many of them were first-generation college students. And my position was as the Director of Recruitment and Retention for the College of Engineering. So I was talking with students who were considering engineering as a college major and then I was working with those same students who were already engineering majors or the students that later came in as engineering majors. So, I started to see all of these, I guess I would call them structural issues, that were really making it difficult for them to succeed. So, there were students there that worked full time, on top of taking the full credit load of 18 hours of engineering courses, because they had to pay for their tuition or because they need to contribute to their family or both. And when I’ve talked about structural issues, one example of that is most professors’ office hours were only offered at specific times. So, if a student was working, in addition to going to school, they might not be able to get to the professor’s office hours, because they were working at that same time. So they couldn’t even get there when they had a question. This is, I think, an example of how a particular group, in this case working students, can unintentionally get marginalized in engineering education. Those professors weren’t trying to put up those barriers for the students who worked, but it was still a real challenge for those students.

Rebecca: Did you come across any other structural barriers other than some of these time conflicts?

Julie: I think that that’s sort of an example that cuts across a lot of different groups of folks… students that are working. Some of the other kinds of things, I think had to do with generational status in college. So some students who were first-generation in their family to go to college or maybe the first person in their family to go to college didn’t necessarily understand how to navigate the university system. And that was from everything from the application process, filling out the FAFSA (Federal Application Form for Student Aid), and all the way to even necessarily understanding what office hours were, and that it was a time that you could go talk to the professors about anything related to questions that you had in class.

John: You’ve done quite a bit of work on the effect of social capital on persistence in engineering degrees. Could you tell us a little bit about what you were looking at? And as part of that, could you explain what is meant by social capital?

Julie: I was initially drawn to the idea of social capital because it’s really about relationships, and that’s something that’s really important to me in my life. So the way that I define social capital is the resources that you have in your social network, in the relationships that you have. And so this research that I’ve done is really based on my belief that everybody needs access and support to making informed decisions about their academic and career plans. So by studying social capital, what we’re really looking at is: how do people get the information and resources that they need to succeed? So to achieve their goals. And in the context of getting an engineering education, achieving their goal would be getting an engineering degree.

John: What did you find in terms of the impact of social capital on student persistence?

Julie: One of the things that I’ve looked at a lot in my research is studying social capital from the perspective of looking at students’ generational status in college. How is social capital similar or different for different groups of students? And when we look at students who are the first-generation in their family to go to college, first-generation college students versus students who have parents that went to college, which I call continuing-generation college students, there are some interesting similarities and some interesting differences as well. So, for example, for those two groups, students who are first-generation college students, and those who are continuing-generation college students, many of the same people are in their social networks. Many of them have teachers and family members and peers and other educational kinds of personnel. But sometimes the role that each of those different groups of people play can be different. For example, continuing-generation college students may have parents that know things like how to navigate the application system to get into college or how to navigate a university campus or a university system. And first-generation college students, their families may not have that same kind of what we call instrumental knowledge to help them succeed, but they have shown like really, really strong emotional support. And we call that expressive social capital. So when their families really encouraged them to get a degree… Many of the students talk about how their families are behind them 100%. And so they receive a lot of support for going to college and for getting an engineering degree from their families. It’s just a different kind of support than continuing-generation college students received from their families.

Rebecca: What role do faculty play in terms of social capital for these two groups? Because I imagine, in some cases, it might actually be really different without us realizing it.

Julie: Yes. So I think one of the really interesting things is that I think faculty have an important role to play for all students. And this can be especially powerful for first-generation college students. One of the things that we see is that sometimes first-generation college students experience a delayed access to resources because they don’t know necessarily how to navigate the campus system or the university or the educational system, they might not know for example, that there is an Academic Success Center or a tutoring center, or they might not know that it could be important to join study groups or student organizations. And as a result, it might be a few semesters before they figure that out, kind of to have to figure it out the hard way. And so professors and faculty can play really important roles in a couple of different ways. I think they can help make sure that some of what we might hear called the hidden curriculum of going to the university and some of that intrinsic knowledge that folks that work in the university system or have families that went to college might know, is available up front for all students, so they can do things like connect students to places on campus, like I mentioned for academic resources. They might be able to share opportunities that they have for undergraduate research or other kinds of things like that, that helps students get involved. Faculty can encourage students to join student organizations. That’s one thing that’s been really shown to affect students persistence and their sense of belonging… and encourage students to form study groups… and faculty can also help students build their professional networks. And this can be something that can be really important, not just while they’re getting a degree, but after they get out and get a job or during their college studies, if they want to do a co-op or an internship. And then some of the things that we may not think about as faculty have turned up to be really important. So, just faculty sharing their own academic and professional experiences are things that students refer to and say to themselves like, “Well, you know, if she can do it, then I can do it too.” Or it can also help normalize students’ feelings about maybe the difficulty of their courses or the difficulty of persisting in an engineering program. Those kinds of things can really be just as important as some of what we call instrumental actions that are actually connecting students to resources and information on campus.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve experienced in my classes…I’m a designer. So it’s related to engineering in some ways… we have some of the same kinds of behaviors in the field… is that students don’t always understand what professional development opportunities can be, or what the benefit of going to a conference is. And it may be just because the students never had a family who did things like that. It just wasn’t a part of their everyday conversation. So sharing what it’s like to go to one of those kinds of events and what you get out of it, and then personally inviting a student who seems hesitant, but might really benefit from it, nd then also helping them find the resources to go… can be really useful.

Julie: Exactly! Those are exactly the kinds of things that I’m talking about. So not only helping the students understand the value of it, but then putting that extra bit in there… making sure that it’s accessible and available to all students with respect to finances and those kinds of things.

Rebecca: It also sounds like the social capital things that you’re talking about would be particularly important in first-year classes or gateway courses into a major.

Julie: I think some of these things that we’ve been talking about with first-generation students may have delayed access to some of the resources that are on campus… it’s just because they haven’t been made aware that they exist. So, first-year courses can be really important for that. Absolutely.

Rebecca: What are some of the barriers that you find with continuing-generation students that we might not expect?

Julie: So I don’t know that I’ve necessarily identified barriers there, but one of the things that’s really interesting to me is the roles that families play, and how that is different for these two different groups of students. I mentioned that first-generation college students have really staunch support from their families often for going to college and feel like their families are behind them 100%. And that kind of expressive support, that emotional support, can be really important. And certainly continuing-generation college students report those kinds of things as well. Sometimes it has a bit of a different meaning because first-generation college students are often motivated to get a college degree to have a better life than their parents did. And they might define that as just a more stable job or more stable income or being able to work in an area where you’re not, for example, doing manual labor. So, what’s interesting for me, then, about continuing-generation college students is how often they start out with the family support that’s able to give them specific information and resources about applying for college, about going to college, maybe even about things like selecting their coursework. And what we see is that through time, students who have been in college longer report that the role that their families play changes during the course of the time that they’re in college. They’ve come to rely more and more heavily on their peers and actually, both groups of students talk about that… that the support that they get from their peers, the information and resources that they get from their peers is really important. And these family roles change from a parent who might be helping the student with everything, with filling out the financial aid application, with filling out the application,with selecting the courses in the early years, to the friends becoming the people who the student really relies on, and the families then providing the emotional support to persist and to finish.

John: It seems like helping to develop a strong network on campus is helpful. Could we do that perhaps by encouraging more group work and more peer interaction and peer instruction, especially in introductory courses, but perhaps all the way through?

Julie: Yes, absolutely. And even when it’s not something that happens officially in the class, it’s really important to help students form these networks outside of class as well. So, one of the things that I think is so interesting about studying social capital is that it’s studying the student experience in college, not just from the perspective of what’s happening in the classroom. That’s a really important part and we can apply the social capital ideas to what’s happening inside the classroom. But as soon as the students leave your classroom, after 50 minutes or 75 minutes, then what happens then? …and that’s really when the majority of the college experience takes place. And the majority of the learning and the majority of the things that can affect students persistent, so that part’s really important too. So anything that we can do that helps students connect with their peers, and their near peers, students that may be a few years ahead of them or graduate students in class, but also keep those connections out of class is really important, and that’s one reason I mentioned supporting and promoting student organizations. So that’s one thing that most faculty may feel like is not really part of their job description, is to encourage students to become involved in student organizations. But even doing something as simple as making announcements about when student organizations are going to meet in class can lend that weight from a faculty member to encourage students to do things like that outside of class as well.

Rebecca: So we focused a lot of the discussion on the difference in terms of first-generation and continuing. Can you talk a little bit about some things that might specifically impact underrepresented groups?

Julie: When we start thinking about social capital, the theory of social capital talks about the fact that typically people who are not in the majority position can have different kinds of access to social capital than people who are in the majority position. And in my work, we focused on the generational status in college because that’s where we have seen the difference. I’m absolutely not trying to say that being a woman in engineering where women are at best about 20% of the population or being from an underrepresented ethnic or racial group is not important. All of those identities are important for students and they intersect and have different effects based on whether you, for example, might be a woman who is from a minoritized ethnic or racial group. So I’m not trying to say that those things aren’t important, they absolutely are. What we are focusing on is generational status in college, because that’s where we see the biggest qualitative difference in the way that students talk about their experiences, selecting engineering as a major and then persisting in the discipline.

John: One of the issues that often come up is that, in engineering and STEM fields in general, we see a lot of people dropping out along the way; that many people start the discipline, and then they either drop out or change their majors into other areas. And the rate of return to students investing in education in these fields is pretty much the highest that we can get in any field. And yet we see a lot of people dropping out. Is that more common for first-generation students? And, if so, why might that be occurring?

Julie: I think that there’s multiple reasons that students leave the major. And there’s been a lot of work done, over the last at least 40 years, to study that. I think that the benefit of looking at it from the social capital perspective is that we’re able to think about how the things that happen in the classroom and the things that happen outside the classroom can help students be successful. And so I wouldn’t say that it’s more common or less common for first-generation college students. But when we think about it from this perspective, we can think about what are these ways in which we can help students tap into the information and the resources and the emotional support and all of the assets that they have in their social networks, in their relationships and then help them make informed decisions about what they want to do. Some students leave engineering because it wasn’t the best choice for them to start with. And honestly, I’m fine with that. I’m really interested in helping students make the most informed choices about what they want to do with their college major and their career.

Rebecca: So, for those who might not have families who are doing the rah-rah-rah-like support of education, there’s a lot of students who don’t necessarily have that particular support network, are the ways that we can help foster that on campus for students?

Julie: I think we can foster it on campus for students regardless of what kind of support they have at home. One of the things that we’ve seen in my research when we’re looking at first-generation college students in particular, is that there can be adults in the lives of K 12 students who are really important and even though they’re not their actual relatives, we call them fictive kin because they are really influential in their lives. So, this may be somebody who works at a STEM summer camp that the student attended, or at an after-school program. And those are people that are providing information and resources for the students about what they might want to major in college, and giving them information and resources to help them make informed decisions about what they want to major in in college.

Rebecca: I certainly felt that as a student… I had people outside my family… I was a first-generation college student. And so I certainly had people who were in that network of people. I had a faculty member in my high school who wasn’t even a person that I took classes with, but who just kind of took me under her wing and made sure I knew how to navigate certain systems because my family didn’t really know how to navigate those systems and supported me in the idea that I could do things that maybe didn’t occur to me.

Julie: And I think the really important lesson from that is that everybody can have a role. If you’re a scout leader, or you’re a summer camp teacher or you’re someone in the community, everybody can have a role in supporting students.

Rebecca: I guess the trick then becomes, how do we help everyone realize that?

Julie: Yes, that is the trick. And that’s one reason why I worked really hard in my research to try to provide a lot of implications for practice. So, you know, taking the research back to “What does that really mean for somebody who’s a faculty member? What does that mean for somebody who’s a scout leader? What does it mean for somebody who is an academic advisor?” And so really helping people understand that everybody has a role and maybe giving them some examples of the types of things that they can do, even if those are not things that you’re able to do in your own particular role. Hopefully, it can inspire you.

John: What are some specific things that faculty might be able to do to provide a more supportive classroom climate. We’ve talked about some, but are there any additional methods?

Julie: I think one of the things that faculty can do, and many of us don’t necessarily do very often, is talking about the kinds of things that are available for students outside of the class. And not just academic resources. So most faculty will say “well if you need tutoring, you go to this place and these times” but the kinds of things that can really help student persistence and really help them develop social capital with people all across the campus might be things that faculty normally aren’t really involved in. So those might be the student organizations on campus that I mentioned, or encouraging students to form study groups, so that they’re working with their peers, and developing those really important relationships that become critical. And those kinds of things are just as important as the kinds of things that happen inside of the classroom.

Rebecca: Sometimes I’ve had discussions with students who are struggling with time management or these other kinds of things that connecting them to the fact that there’s a gym on campus to relieve some stress or to build that into their schedule. And just pointing out that there are yoga classes or that there’s this other kind of group that has nothing to do with academics at all, might be a great place to find some relaxation and support in a really different kind of way. And I think they’ve always been surprised at me saying, “Well, did you schedule in something like that?”

Julie: Yeah, you know, what I love about that is that’s thinking holistically about the student as a person. That’s thinking about all the things that they need to be happy and fulfilled and ready to come to class and to learn and then to go be involved in other campus activities. And so I think that that approach of thinking about students holistically and not just thinking about what’s happening with them, in that brief time that we have with them in class, it can be really critical for student success for everybody.

Rebecca: I’m really curious about how someone who’s coming out of engineering comes across the idea of social capital as a way to study this.

Julie: That is an interesting question. So my degrees are in material science and engineering. And I actually, as an undergrad, did a minor in the humanities. And my reason at the time was very simple. I wanted to be able to have at least one class a semester that I didn’t have to bring a calculator to. [LAUGHTER]……But I have always enjoyed reading and writing and thinking about things that aren’t related to engineering. And it wasn’t until after I got my degree and started actually working in academia, teaching engineering, that I started to realize how I could sort of marry those two interests. My very first teaching job was at Virginia Tech, and I was there during the time that they were forming one of the first departments of engineering education. So even though at the time I was really focused on just teaching in the first Engineering program. It was really interesting because I was hearing all these things about this new area of research interest. And so I started to begin to get some training in that area and eventually, by a few years later, had moved my entire focus over to engineering education.

John: The reason I approached you about doing this topic, is I saw on Facebook that you had received an award recently for your work in this area.

Julie: I think the award you’re referring to was the Betty Vetter Award for Research from the WEPAN Organization (Women in Engineering Proactive Network). And that’s an organization that I’ve been really involved in over the past number of years, that is supporting culture change in the culture and climate in engineering education.

John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?

Julie: I have just started my position at The Ohio State University. And I’ve just started my position as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. So those two things are going to keep me quite busy for the near future.

Rebecca: Well, sounds exciting, a nice new adventure.

Julie: Absolutely.

John: And you’re doing some really important work, and I hope you continue to be successful with this.

Julie: Thank you.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a great discussion.

Julie: Thanks. It’s been a lot of fun.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.