There are many good ideas and opinions about how to ensure student success here at KSU. I would like to share some broader, more systemic thoughts on the question. First, I want to emphasize that this comes from both my disciplinary training in sociology, as well as my perspective as a sixth-year tenure-track faculty member.
I see three related issues as obstacles to student success. The first, and most serious, is that undergraduate learning is not a major priority for our tenure-track faculty. This is clearly communicated in the merit pay formula: research accounts for 50%, and teaching and service both account for 25%. Yes, undergraduate teaching and learning counts for the same amount of merit pay as the service work that is generally viewed as the lowest priority for T-T faculty. While I appreciate the opportunity to earn additional pay for meritorious work, it is disheartening to know that every minute I spend talking to undergraduates outside of the classroom costs me money, quite literally. Whether students want to discuss class material or graduate school, or more personal matters, they deserve our time. And yet, doing so directly impacts our paychecks.
The university’s priorities are also clearly seen in the “Strategic Plan to Establish Kent State As a National Research University” that was circulated to faculty in April, 2012. Quality teaching is an afterthought in this proposal. As a brief illustration, “research” shows up 484 times in this 40-page document. “Teaching?” Just 18 – any many of those references are in regard to enabling high-quality researchers to teach even less.
The university’s priorities clearly do not stop many of us from working hard on behalf of our undergraduates. But it clear that we do so in an environment and culture where this work is not truly and completely valued. My next two points both illustrate and serve as symptoms of the university’s priorities in terms of quality undergraduate learning.
Second, how do we know that our efforts are working? We survey students when they enroll and when they graduate (e.g., BCSSE, CLA, graduating senior survey). What about along the way? For example, I teach a large section (100 to 250 students) of Introduction To Sociology every semester. I also taught a First Year Experience course four times. As such, I have reported many students to the Early Alert system. In fall 2011, I asked for any findings on how well that program is working. At the time, I was told that such information was forthcoming. I have yet to receive it, and I cannot find it on our website. Again, what is my incentive for continuing to participate in this system?
Last, and related to the second point, we do not seek out student feedback on a regular basis. (If we do, I am not aware of it, nor can I find it on our website.) Other than the Student Survey of Instruction, what opportunities do students have to express their opinions on what works and what does not? Why do we not have an annual student survey or regular focus groups? For example, students frequently told me how much they disliked the FYE course and did not find it of value. For the most part, they did not report this on the SSI forms because they did not want me to look bad. Yet, they perfectly good reasons for why the FYE course, as currently designed, is not helpful to them at all.
I recently returned from the annual meeting of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (ISSOTL), where a major theme was engaging undergraduates as partners in teaching and learning activities and in university planning. It was inspiring to see the projects that other universities are engaging in in this regard. We seem light years away from this. We have many programs and slogans, but are they want students need or want?
I believe that these three issues lead to a situation where most undergraduates can receive an adequate education, but not an outstanding one. Our first-year retention and six-year graduation rates, as compared to public universities that are known for their excellent undergraduate instruction, such as Ohio University and Miami University, seem to support this. Our graduating senior survey, in which “satisfied” is the modal category for most questions and roughly one-third of students answer “very satisfied” for any item also supports this. (Anecdotally, I was told by a senior administrator that we have one of the lowest alumni attachment ratings in the MAC. However, I have not been able to find any publicly-available data to support this.)
It is my sense, which is supported by conversations with faculty and staff around KSU, that we focus on helping students at each end of the bell curve – we have systems to help struggling students, and we recommend the outstanding and Honors College students for graduate school – while allowing many students in the middle to drift through without much outreach or attention on our part. While it is true that students are responsible for their own agency, it also the case that around 40% of our students are first-generation. Plenty of social science research supports the likelihood that lack the cultural and social capital necessary to approach faculty members in a confident and beneficial manner. (Students often tell me they are scared to visit my office, despite my reputation as a friendly professor. They also tell me that they feel as though I must have better things to do, which is a sad comment on our faculty members’ priorities have been communicated to them.) I see far too many students who drift through four years at KSU with no attention or outreach from faculty, and graduate with a 2.5 GPA and no real skills or plan for the future. Again, students are responsible for some of this, but there is no question that we could do a better job in this regard if it were truly a priority.
In closing, I want to stress that I do not wish this to be read as criticism of the many good faculty, staff, and administrators who work hard on behalf of KSU’s students. It should also not be read as an implicit criticism of my department. Our chair and my senior colleagues have been extremely supportive of my efforts to become a high-level teacher. My critique is aimed squarely at our institutional priorities. Until we strive to do better, and until we reward faculty and staff for work that benefits undergraduates and leads to a deeper level of learning and engagement, little is likely to change. (If you are not clear on the effects that institutions and their priorities have on individuals, watch The Wire.) I have many ideas for improving the undergraduate experience in my department. However, until I am more established in financial and reputational terms, there is no incentive whatsoever for me to undertake such work. Sadly, I am confident I am not alone at KSU in this regard.
I recognize that this forum is closing in a few days. I hope that some of you will have a moment to respond. If I am completely off-base, please feel free to correct me. I will look forward to reading your thoughts. Thanks for listening.