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You know what academic conferences need more of? Glitter.

The League for Innovation conference is sharing a cavernous and confusing convention center with a cheerleading competition, so the place is overrun by ten-year-old girls in spandex and sparkle. I’ve seen more hair bows in two days than probably in the previous two years.

It’s relatively easy to tell who is with which conference. At one point when I took a wrong turn, a hotel employee pointed and said “your people are that way.” It must have been the beard.

Glitter aside, some of the messages at the conference have been refreshingly realistic.  

Sara Goldrick-Rab keynoted, offering an excellent and helpful overview of research and recent interventions on student food and housing insecurity. I’ve seen her speak a few times over the last few years, even sitting on a panel with her once, but this was the first time I’d seen her do the equivalent of a stadium show. She rose to the occasion. She cited some horrifying statistics about student food and housing insecurity, but used humor and anecdotes to provide context. I’ll admit laughing out loud when she said that the biggest problem in discussing college food insecurity is ramen. Policymakers who attended college when it was much, much cheaper in real terms think that food stamps and ramen noodles should take care of any food issues. They don’t.

Part of the reason they don’t is that we assume, incorrectly, that financial aid only supports the student. In fact, she pointed out, it often helps support students’ families as well. That should be okay; a student who is worried about her kids or her younger siblings going hungry isn’t going to be able to focus on school. And the benefit of a degree often accrues to those same kids or siblings. But we don’t write the rules that way.

She highlighted a few, well, innovations worth copying. Amarillo College has apparently rewritten every employee’s job description to include at least attempting to help any student who identifies as being in need. Houston Community College has partnered with local providers to create “food scholarships,” by which students can get up to 60 pounds of groceries every two weeks. Those are real groceries: meat, milk, the whole thing. Tacoma CC has worked with local landlords to ensure that students get preference for section 8, on the theory that if they can get a degree, they can find work that will allow them to get off section 8.  And she made the point -- obvious, but worth saying -- that emergency aid should be quick. Putting students through weeks of paperwork for a $200 grant is silly.

The earlier part of the day featured a battery of concurrent panels of varying success. The one most worth highlighting, to my mind, actually had its title censored by the League. Jill Channing, a dean from Truckee Meadows CC in Reno, presented one called “I F&*%ed Up: Using Failure to Generate Innovation.” The League dropped the first clause. Maybe it’s the Jersey in me, but I thought it added something.

I’ve written in previous years about my frustration that conference panels are almost always about successes, but that we can learn more from failures.  Channing seized the opportunity, leading a candid discussion of “intelligent failure.” I had to smile when she asked if anyone in the room had an example from their own campus of a time that a failure led to an innovation, and the room went silent.  Old habits die hard.

She mentioned that for a culture of “failing forward” to work, there has to be significant trust both that failures won’t be punished and that the people responsible are basically competent.  The group discussed varieties of failure, which seems like it would make a great book. My favorite example was the admonition to “pave the dirt path.” On many campuses, we have paved sidewalks, and then we have worn dirt paths where students actually walk.  Those paths are students’ way of saying “a sidewalk should go here.” They’re voting with their feet in the most direct possible way. When a path like that persists, just go ahead and pave it. You’ve learned.

Goldrick-Rab’s talk was a way of telling us to do the same thing. Students are struggling to meet their basic material needs. It’s plain to anyone willing to notice. That impacts their academic performance. Meeting basic needs isn’t as flashy as glitter, but it matters a lot more. Kudos to her for saying what needed to be said, and to the League for inviting her. It’s time to start learning from failure.

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