Observational Course Journal #4

Part 1: Worksite: Monday morning we had the first Student Athletes Interest Group (SAIG) of the year. This group was formed last year as an informal group of libraries faculty and staff who are interested in supporting student athletes at JMU. It was started in part to address student athletes’ struggles with passing the MREST. They are one of the four groups that are at the core of my problem of practice. While I am focused on transfer students for my work in the graduate program, what I learn from student athletes informs what I think about transfers as well. This year we have added an athletics advisor (Scott, responsible for field hockey, golf, baseball, and I think volleyball?) who is a liaison between the libraries and Athletics.

Before the school year started we created a “course” in the Canvas course management system that includes all of the tutorials and quizzes that are available for MREST prep. We haven’t done any formal evaluation of the course, but Scott reported that it seems to be really successful. He thinks that nearly twice as many of “his” freshman have already passed the MREST, compared to previous years. This is really exciting to hear, and supports our informal theory that the athletes struggle in part because they don’t take the main course that supports the MREST until the spring.

Scott also reminded us, as we were editing a paper for submission, to be careful not to imply that these students do poorly because of a lack of intelligence. Absolutely not! This is a great reminder for me for the transfers as well – I need to make sure I’m aware of my words (thank you, Kwame Alexander, words matter) when describing these students and their difficulties with the test.


Part 2: Observation: JMU’s longtime provost, Dr Jerry Benson, is retiring at the end of this fiscal year. We are in the late stages of a national search for a new provost, and are holding interviews this week. Monday 11/14/16 was the open session by the second candidate; Tuesday 11/15/16 he held a question & answer session for the A-Team (the associate deans) and the Academic Unit Heads (our jargon for department chairs). At present I’m acting AD, so I got to go to both sessions.

The open session was held in the concert hall of JMU’s theater complex, the Forbes Center. This is a gorgeous space with comfy audience seating, lots of honey-colored wood, and a great sound system. Most of the 100+ attendees were deans, associate deans, AUH’s, other administrators, a smattering of the more engaged faculty (many of whom I knew), and a lot of my colleagues from the libraries (about 12; easily more than 10% of the total attendance). The session had been heavily advertised on the faculty announcement lists, and deans and associate deans had been asked to drum up attendance from their units. Apparently we were more successful at this than any other department!

The session started with a semiformal talk by the candidate that covered both his background and his response to the prompt (something along the lines of “Describe your thoughts about how JMU can achieve its vision of being the national model of the engaged university.”). He attempted an active learning exercise that I think was meant to illustrate a point about shifting from a profit-maximization to a loss-minimization model. This didn’t work well, I think because it was outside the expectation of the audience for the speaker’s behavior. He then moved into a discussion of Bolman & Deal‘s 4 Frames model (structural, human resources, political, and symbolic), with which I am familiar both because of the Harvard LIAL program and because my dean is a fan. He concluded with a quick discussion of how to get engagement woven into the fabric of the university, through curricular reform, advising guidelines, fundraising and financial development, and diversity.

At this point the session shifted to question & answer. The questions ranged across a variety of topics. The main thing that I noticed was that the candidate did not answer these questions. At the time, I was not clear as to whether this was because he did not understand what was being asked, or if he was overly dedicated to specific talking points.

I got my answer in the A-Team/AUH meeting. He was clearly not expecting the group to be so large (there were about 15 ADs and about 35 AUHs present), and also did not realize that nearly all of us had been present at the open session. First he repeated the portion of his opening remarks that focused on his background, nearly verbatim from the previous session. I started writing notes to myself that I do not choose to report here. Looking around the room, my colleagues were not impressed; they were checking their phones, refusing to look at him, and one person I think may have fallen asleep. It reminded me of a class that has already heard everything I’m trying to teach them before – apparently you can lose the attention of senior faculty just as quickly as sophomores. Things did not improve for him; most of his answers to questions duplicated what he had said the day before. The worst example of this was when a colleague asked him to expand on his question from the open session about the provost’s role – and he got (according to my notes) the same answer as before.

I had a lot of revelations in observing these two sessions not just from the point of view of an engaged faculty member and member of the middle administration, but from the point of view of completing this review. Number one: it’s not enough to be really smart and have a lot of great stuff to say. If you don’t match it to your audience’s interests and needs, you might as well be talking to yourself. Talk about losing internal accountability!


Part 3: Reading:

Delpit, L.D. (1992). Acquisition of literate discourse: Bowing before the master? Theory into Practice, 31(4), 296-302. doi: 10.1080/00405849209543556

I loved this article. It grabbed my attention and made me care from the beginning. One of my favorite courses in college was linguistics. The idea that words have power, and that grammar is important, is not a new one to me – but this article put that idea into words much more powerful and elegant than I’m able to produce. I particularly like the three roles for teachers:

  1. value students’ home languages, without attempting erasure.
  2. recognize that students may be resistant to learning a new Discourse because they fear losing their identities, not because they are incapable of learning.
  3. be open about the unfairness of Discourse, and that it is used as a means of enforcing class and race-based status.


Part 4: Integrations: This week I’m thinking about two different themes. First, I wonder about the intersections between the four different groups of interest to my problem of practice (transfers, athletes, international students, and African-Americans). I know that there is a population of athletes who are also transfer students – how do the unique barriers of these two groups interact with each other in students who fall into both groups? Second, the bad experience with the candidate who missed bonding with his audience, paired with the idea of students choosing not to learn because it threatens identity, reminds me that I need to make sure that I’m not imposing solutions on students without listening to them and involving them in the solutions first.


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