• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



Getting students engaged.

February 10, 2014

A few months ago, The Girl’s teacher assigned the students to pick a writer they liked, and to write her/him a letter.  The Girl picked Erin Hunter, the (pseudonymous, collective) author of the Warriors series, which is about a set of wild cats.  Last week, Erin Hunter responded with a long and thoughtful letter -- an actual letter, on paper -- and The Girl was thrilled.  Yesterday she told me that Erin Hunter is her favorite author.  (“Except you, Dad…”) 

It reminded me of an assignment I used to give in Intro to American Government.  My major teaching challenge there -- compounded by the fact that I was teaching it to students who had no intention of majoring in anything close to it -- was student disengagement.  So a few semesters in, I started requiring the students to send a letter to some elected official who represented them.  I didn’t care if it was local, state, or federal, as long as it was someone in whose constituency they lived.  I offered extra credit if they received a written response and brought it in.

The idea was to demonstrate that elected officials will usually offer at least a token response, if only to prevent alienating a potential voter.  Many politicians count on effective constituent service as a way to gather votes across ideological or partisan lines.

I had underestimated the power of a response.  Students who had seemed like masters of the thousand-yard stare suddenly came alive when they brought in the responses they got.  I was especially struck by one adult student -- he must have been in his forties -- who had previously acted pretty unimpressed by it all.  He had written his mayor about people speeding on his street.  His street was residential, but it connected two highways, and many drivers used it as a cut-through. 

Not only did he get a written response from the mayor, but he noticed police cars stationed at either end of the street, aggressively ticketing speeders for several days.  From that point on, he was fully and enthusiastically engaged in the class.  He saw the point.

I’ve felt something similar with the academic blogosphere, and then the twittersphere.  (My apologies to the English language.)  At academic conferences, conversation across status divides is largely defeated by nametag-checking.  If you aren’t known, and the institution on your nametag doesn’t inspire deference, then you’re fighting an uphill battle.  I noticed a difference at APSA between the responses I got with a Rutgers nametag and the responses I got with a DeVry nametag.  With DeVry, it was as if I had cooties.

But in the corners of social media that academics have staked out, that’s much less true.  This is where grad students can get responses from presidents, and where muckety-mucks can get taken to task, publicly and effectively, by people who normally couldn’t afford to attend the same conferences they do.  Some of that, I think, stems from the caution that people in high-level positions have to exercise.  It’s easier to lob grenades when you have less to lose.  But it also seems to be part of the nature of the medium.  There’s something wonderful about being acknowledged through the virtual sphere by someone who you normally wouldn’t even get the chance to talk to at a conference.  And when virtual connections pave the way for real-life connections, even better. 

I’m wondering if we’ve fully tapped the potential of social media as a hailing device to give our students a sense of standing.  Community college students often feel ignored by the powerful -- largely accurately -- and that feeling can become self-fulfilling.  But a little bit of ‘hailing’ from a different corner can have a remarkably empowering effect. 

Wise and worldly readers, have you found effective ways to use social media to help students get tangible acknowledgement and a sense of empowerment?

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Matt Reed

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