Monday, February 25, 2013

"This I Believe"

Family Dinner Night, hosted by the Arcadia Volunteer Corps in October 2012 on-site at one of our after-school partner programs (photo by Mark Olenki)

Creo en la empatía. “I believe in empathy.”

So began one digital storytelling project last fall in Advanced Spanish with Community-Based Learning. Instead of a final exam, we challenged each student to produce a compelling, digital "This I Believe" narrative in Spanish. The parameters? Relate some topic we covered in class to personal beliefs; narrate and describe in Spanish; and share the story with peers in a public presentation.

Among us instructors, “I Believe in Empathy” went viral. Deeply reflective and creatively illustrated, it shares a story of learning, growing, choosing to be vulnerable to change. The student producer connected class discussions to local realities and global context. She connected co-curricular experiences to academic work. She connected herself, her education, her life, to the community. And she told a great story.

We were speechless. Then, like Oscar recipients (prize = final projects to grade?), we realized we had thanks to give. Language and technical assistants in our department. Two colleagues who inspired us with their "This I Believe" assignment in a civic engagement seminar. The Interfaith Youth Core, brought to Wofford under the auspices of a Teagle-funded initiative that mobilized dozens of students, faculty, and staff to advance a culture of pluralism on campus. The presenters at a digital storytelling workshop hosted by the Center for Innovation and Learning. Mentors from The Space team who supported social entrepreneurship projects, including one featured in the “I Believe in Empathy” video.

What do I believe? I believe in a liberal arts tradition where we share ideas, encourage curiosity, set the bar high, and invite students to grow. I believe in a community of people who each day make my work better, smarter, and a heck of a lot more fun. That includes students who leave me speechless … I believe in you.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Out of the Box, ready for the global commons

Wofford students presenting at The Space launch party at Wofford (Feb '13)

In the arena of liberal learning, this question demands an answer: How do we go from a 20th-century curricular “box,” comprised of majors and disciplines, to integrated forms of learning for what AAC&U Liberal Education authors have called “stewardship of the global commons”? Twenty-first century liberal learning for the global commons must create and support innovations that integrate curricular, co-curricular, and vocational preparation. We need to graduate thoughtful citizens with a sense of purpose, a vision for the future, and the dispositions necessary to let their ideas take shape in dialogue with others.

We’re making great strides in “getting out of the box” at Wofford College, and I’m proud we’re doing it in ways true to our liberal arts roots and our sense of community. A weekend event highlighted one place on campus hospitable to thoughtful innovation: The Space in the Mungo Center. At the Saturday launch of the Center’s new brand “The Space,” I had the pleasure of seeing students I know pitch entrepreneurial and social entrepreneurial projects at a gala event. My favorites (I’m biased) are students who’ve taken ideas related to my subject area and, through teamwork, turned those ideas into concrete action to meet a local challenge. There’s Let’s Read, a project that aims to improve early childhood literacy among kids in immigrant families, and Get Moving, which tackles childhood obesity through play and mentorship at a majority Latino elementary school. The launch event featured many, many impressive projects, all of which garnered support from guests and kudos from faculty as biased as I am toward learners we support as teachers and mentors, in a community where each of us matters.

Those students challenge us educators to prepare them for their future, as Cathy Davidson says, rather stay in comfortable grooves from our own educational past. Here in our community, those students have found “the space” to dream big and reflect deeply. Our learners at Wofford are leading by example. So now it’s our turn as faculty, family, friends, and fellow citizens to respond to their challenge: do we have the will and courage to articulate our values, tune in to the world around us with respect, and turn our ideas into thoughtful action? 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Does your leadership empower others?

Deer grazing in the early morning on the Berry campus

Her face shone with enthusiasm. Her words came faster, and her hands left her lap and moved to the rhythm of her speech. “And we had the conversation entirely in English,” she concluded.

I recently conducted an external review of the Department of Foreign Languages at Berry College. External reviews in academia generally involve a site visit by one or two reviewers who comment on program strengths and opportunities —from an outsiders’ perspective— to faculty, staff, and administrators. They’re among my favorite activities in higher education because they involve a chance to listen, learn, and strategize. The best reviews renew a sense of purpose and foster more excellence in each person who wants to do their job better, reviewers included.

A high point of my Berry visit was a conversation with the student director of the ESL outreach program for adult English-language learners in the community. She understood the value of the program she directed, and she told us a story that drove home the point: a learner she taught in her first year as an entry-level, beginner-class student instructor greeted her one evening three years later. She was student director; he was on his way to advanced class. “And we had the conversation entirely in English.” Bam! Mission, message.

That Berry student embodied great leadership traits. She defined her success by how much she helped others thrive. She had a succession plan that involved erasing herself from leadership; the next student director was shadowing her to carry on the legacy. Purpose was clearly more important than ego. Like the directors before her, she worked to leave a program that would flourish without her. She also knew the power of a good story to spark emotion and give others a much-needed sense of progress in meaningful work, something that HBR authors Teresa M. Amabile & Steven J. Kramer point out is critical.

My conversant was also a perfect illustration of the Berry mission of educating “head, heart, and hands.” She made that mission all the more meaningful because she directed her personal fulfillment of it toward the benefit of others –not just her “clients” but also the team of students that serve them. If you’re a leader, are you defining your success by how much others excel? Do you have the confidence and courage to enable your team so much that they don’t need you anymore? And finally, are you telling a good story, and is the protagonist someone other than you?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Educational Value

Students in the 2010 Community of Service Interim project

I sit reading student essays in my office. First prompt: write an e-mail response to Teju Cole’s tweets on the White Savior Industrial Complex. The essay I click open is insightful, sharp, a bit angry. Second prompt: evoke your most memorable experience from the month of service. She begins with India, laughter, smells. Then … death. Body burned. “Finished.” Youth embracing child: a flash of that child’s present, future, etched in memory, forever.

Essay two is raw honesty, with beliefs stripped to their core. I’m over-caffeinated and over-energized; otherwise, I’d be in tears as I read. I’m still jazzed, though, from the morning I spent debriefing with Community of Service January term participants. They completed three weeks in service and civic engagement projects the world over and close to home. Now they’re back, re-entering routine. In our meetings together, we use storytelling to process experiences, to articulate to ourselves what we value, what we hope, who we are, in light of new experiences, in light of future dreams.

Essay Two comes from that group. And Essay Two delivers to me one of those floored-by-the-trust, immensity-of-the-privilege, best-job-ever moments. I tell a friend. She tells of a student who writes that, like the protagonist of the story they’ve just read, she, too, has stolen food for her family. They live impoverished, hungry. My friend and I marvel at the trust, sharing, the making-sense-of-life together.

What do we value? What do we hope? Who are we? In the swirl of conversation about higher education in an Age of Flux, let’s each be clear in the answers we give. I value honesty. Experiences. Collaboration. Reflection about stories we tell and how we tell them. Willingness to change and be changed. “Can you articulate a core value, relate it to your experiences, tell a compelling story?” I ask my group. Can we?