by Tom Ott
OK, so maybe we don't want to hand out lemonade and cookies to students standing in long lines during registration (do we?) and valet parking conjures up images almost too frightening to be funny, but William Palmer's sketch of Betty Siegel's experiment at Kennesaw State is consistent with efforts begun here at Community College to make our institution more, well, inviting and is worth considering.
Let's start at the end: Palmer concludes his article by warding off a concern which I will roughly paraphrase as: If we're so busy being all warm and welcoming, what happens to academic rigor? Siegel's answer, of course, is that “...when invitational education functions well, students are motivated to work harder and to meet a teacher's expectations.”
But certainly the image of the professor as the absolute authority peering over a lectern at students whose names are unimportant is so long faded that it is no longer available to us even as a caricature. Isn't it? In its place, perhaps, is the slightly less severe description of professor (as opposed to teacher, perhaps) as one who takes the stance that s/his job is to transfer information, with a smile, perhaps, regardless of whether the audience is up to receiving it. Yet even this image, it seems, is one Betty Siegel's efforts would hope to alter.
Now, I don’t read Siegel’s experiment as Mary Poppins Meets Algebra, despite the lemonade and cookies. Rather, it seems as simple as saying that people respond better when they are treated well, and creating a stark context for students that seems to say, “here, learn this or fail” doesn’t seem particularly good treatment. An alternative, of course, is the one presented by Bachus and Eirich in the last Journal. In that article the authors write,
“In the past, faculty conversations have tended to place the teaching of skills in opposition to the process of enculturation and transformation of the student. Our view is that there need not be a conflict between the two objectives. Neither do we de-emphasize to the students the necessity to acquire the requisite skills within the fourteen week semester to pass to the next level. However, since the indications are that unless the classroom environment offers the kind of support and cohesion talked about above [see the Journal, Vol. 2 no.1], the chances of those students remaining in college long enough to acquire these skills are greatly diminished.”
While Siegel’s definition of invitation as “a message that tells people if we like them” is no more apt in the context of Developmental Education than anywhere else at our institution, if the term “at- risk” is more than just a convenient label, then how our students are treated in the course of their academic experiences would seem especially critical.
We have talked a great deal these last few months about enculturating our students to academic life. But I wonder how much we have reflected about what that culture, our culture, really looks like. Do we have something approaching a collective attitude toward each other, our work, our students? Is there a message that we wish our students to hear; and if so, what vehicle have we chosen to transmit it? If not, why should we expect our students to engage happily the work we value?
The college seems presently to have a new face of welcome high on its agenda. New signs clearly direct students to locations throughout the college, an elevator to accommodate handicapped students has sprung up in a convenient location in the Bonnell building, a plan to more fully develop our physical plant is almost complete and promises more than simple cosmetic changes a Welcome Center is planned. And come to think of it, there do seem to be more flowers around campus. Now I wonder just how carefully we are cultivating what’s happening within the academic environment.