Mistrust pervades higher education. Large segments of the public are convinced that higher ed is a self-serving scam: that its cost is too high, its quality and payoff too low, and its faculty too uninterested in job one—teaching.
Especially in red states like mine, many legislators believe that colleges and universities are filled with ideologues engaged in political indoctrination or with unproductive, ineffective and unnecessary deadwood. They’re also convinced that these institutions have bloated administrations and that their campuses consist of excessively expensive, underutilized facilities.
Many faculty members, often with good reason, distrust administrators’ priorities and believe, rightly or wrongly, that when push comes to shove, they won’t receive support from their chair, dean or provost. Many feel that faculty have lost their voice in the decisions that shape their professional lives.
Distrust is also rampant in the classroom. We’ve all had conniving students who are sneaky, manipulative, dishonest and irresponsible and, as a result, many instructors worry incessantly about students who cheat, plagiarize and fail to attend class regularly or complete readings or other assignments on time.
Many students, in turn, are convinced that many of their teachers are unsupportive, uncaring and unfair and that their grading is arbitrary or subjective. Student trust in their institutions certainly fell during the pandemic and remains low even in the pandemic’s wake. As one Inside Higher Ed headline blares, “Survey Highlights Gen Z’s Distrust in Higher Education.”
In short, higher education has a trust gap.
My fellow Inside Higher Ed blogger Matt Reed recently reviewed Tess Wilkinson-Ryan’s Playing the Fool, which describes the pervasive fear of being a sucker, a pushover, a mark, a chump, a dupe, an easy target or a fall guy. That anxiety is as widespread on campus as it is in society at large.
We are often right to be careful, cautious, watchful, wary, chary or circumspect. A certain level of cynicism can be healthy. Each of us has been browbeaten, manipulated, stage-managed, swayed and taken advantage of, and no one likes being conned, deceived, duped, hoodwinked, sweet-talked or taken in.
But distrust can also be toxic, fueling anxiety and suspicion. it is all too easy for a healthy skepticism to lapse into paranoia. Indeed, Wilkinson-Ryan’s theme is that “the ‘healthy’ skepticism we inevitably acquire as a result of experiencing fraud and living amongst bad actors may not be healthy at all and that our fear of being a fool causes us to be less generous, less kind and less compassionate than we truly want to be.” As a result, we’re less likely to give our students the benefit of the doubt.
We must remember: distrust is not conducive to learning. It makes the teacher-student relationship adversarial. Suspicious teachers are especially like to become domineering and even abusive. Mistrust also undercuts the sense of connection and community that can make the classroom a shared space where collaboration and transformation can take place. It often leads instructors to overemphasize our students’ deficits and to take too lightly the challenges they face.
So, how can we build campus cultures based on trust?
Some answers can be found in Gayle Greene’s Immeasurable Outcomes: Teaching Shakespeare in the Age of the Algorithm. Written “with passion, erudition and wit,” this book is many things. It is a cogent defense of the kind of intellectually intense, inward-turning residential education that one receives at a small liberal arts college, at a time when such an education is often dismissed as too expensive, elitist and impractical to be worthwhile.
It shows how today’s overemphasis on measurable learning objectives, assessment and accountability has undercut the true value of a college education, which is developmental and transformative and which seeks to produce graduates who are self-reflective and able to think critically. It also presents a powerful argument on behalf of a relationship-rich, humanities-infused education that focuses on the close reading of literary texts.
Above all, it is a “funny, inspirational, snarky, dead serious and hopeful” examination of what actually takes place in the author’s literature classroom.
“Entranced by the actual students she teaches,” and “furious with” much that passes as “educational ‘reform,’” Greene focuses on the challenges of making a college classroom into “a complex human ecosystem that pushes students to think more deeply and discover their own interests and potential, all while recognizing the inherent dignity in other people’s views and values.”
Greene’s account of classroom dynamics certainly rings true to me. She describes how she initially pigeonholes students into various slots only to see these stereotypes crumble as the semester progresses. She’s mortified when a student drops the class, declaring it an irrelevant waste of time.
Even though Greene has produced at least 11 books and published articles in such highly visible venues as Signs, The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, The American Prospect, Counterpunch and Times Higher Education, she makes it clear that teaching is, for her, priority one. Although she has written extensively on feminist literary criticism, in her classroom she steers clear of explicit theorizing. Her goal is to get her undergrads to work out their own interpretations.
In stark contrast to most other books on teaching, she offers no explicit list of pedagogical prescriptions or examples of best practices. Still, valuable advice runs through her book, of which the single most important message is that teaching is an art. Here is some of the counsel that I found in her book:
- Be attentive. Take careful note when individual students engage or disengage. Don’t let a single student, no matter how insightful, dominate the discussion. Tap students’ energy and enthusiasm. An effective teacher combines “the intuition of a psychic and the charm of a salesman.”
- Refrain from talking too much. Or answering too many of your own questions. Or waxing philosophical too long. Allow a classroom to be silent, for silences give students “space to figure out what they’re thinking.” Another piece of wisdom: “Never say anything as a statement that you can phrase as a question.”
- Foster classroom chemistry that emphasizes trust, pleasure, playfulness and goodwill. Be supportive and encouraging, but also be careful with praise. A classroom instructor must be “a parent, a pal, a mentor, a role model, a guide, a taskmaster, a judge.” An instructor’s responsibility is “to delight and instruct, to capture kids’ attention, spark their imagination, to deliver and get them to deliver, all at once.”
- Be prepared to improvise. Classes in the humanities are inevitably unpredictable. When teaching, there’s “no pause button, no retakes.” An instructor must adapt on the fly, figuring out “how long to let a discussion go on before moving to the next question … or how you deflect a go-nowhere comment—and there are no rules for these.”
- Conceive of teaching as you might think of yoga instruction. When we’re young, the works that we can relate to are few. Students’ interests will remain narrow unless they are stretched. Your goal should be to extend your students’ reach, broaden their range of movement, improve their flexibility and offer opportunities for them to grow.
- Teach your students to read, not raid. When we raid, we skim and snatch up information. Reading, in contrast, requires concentration: seeing how a text’s parts fit together, recognizing patterns and placing ideas, imagery, incidents and individuals in context.
- Don’t throw a lot of theory at students. Throw art at them. Let them find themselves in a book. Give them a chance to find “joyful enlightenment through engagement with a text.” Greene explains, “When we feed our students the thin gruel of theory, we surrender the field of the senses to popular culture … we offer nothing to compete.”
- Take a genuine interest in your students. Take them to lunch or dinner. Invite them into your office to chat, go over their writing or offer advice. Help them carve out a vision of their future. All too many undergrads do not feel in control of their lives. They’re anxious and stressed out. They feel overwhelmed. They’re fearful about their futures. Help them imagine the life of purpose, meaning and consequence that lies ahead of them.
- Introduce your students to the difference between opinion and informed opinion. The key is to get students to explain the basis for a particular argument or interpretation.
Greene is highly critical of accreditors’ calls for assessable learning outcomes, which she dismisses as time-sucking, demoralizing B.S. Ironically, Scripps has what I consider the gold standard of assessment: it requires every student in every major to write a senior thesis, which receives written and oral comments from two or more readers. I can’t think of a better way to ensure that students can complete an extended piece of research and writing and support their arguments with evidence. But this approach, to my disgust, is not deemed an acceptable way to meet accreditors’ student learning outcomes requirements. Talk about distrust!
As Greene puts it, “The way to greater social equity is not be heaping more accountability demands on a faculty already groaning under them. It is to give greater numbers of people greater access to quality education, well-resourced schools with small classes and engaged faculty.” Amen.
The learning outcomes Greene seeks are the hardest to quantify. Judgment: the ability to deal with complexity, tolerate uncertainty and sort out information from disinformation. Vision: gaining critical perspective on one’s life and times and envisaging new possibilities. Civic engagement: developing a sense of social responsibility. And wisdom: making choices that don’t lop off essential aspects of oneself.
Where is an undergraduate most likely to achieve those outcomes? At a small liberal arts college with a teaching-oriented faculty. In Greene’s words,
“New athletic facilities or posh dorms may bump up a college in the rankings, but for long-term value, the conditions that promote learning and the qualities of graduates’ lives are what count most: small classes with well-resourced educators whose primary commitment is teaching.”
You might well ask whether the kind of intense, intimate, inspiring educational experience Greene depicts is possible at institutions like yours or mine, where the classes are much larger, the level of undergraduates’ academic preparation and background knowledge is more uneven, and students commute and juggle their studies with work and family responsibilities—and where the atmosphere of distrust is more deeply rooted.
The answer is yes, but that will require your campus to take certain steps. Institutions need to:
- Articulate a clear sense of mission. Forsake the generalities that characterize most mission statements. It’s not enough to define your campus’s mission in generic terms. Virtually every college or universities claims to strive to create a diverse and inclusive community of learners and researchers; produce critical thinkers, lifelong learners and graduates prepared for leadership in their communities and careers; and to develop innovative solutions to global challenges. Instead, commit your institution to specific goals. Here are a few:
- Enroll and graduate a student body that reflects the region or state or nation’s diversity.
- Offer an inclusive curriculum that reflects the diversity of cultures, religions, abilities, gender identities and sexual orientations.
- Instill the skills, knowledge, literacies and competencies expected of a college graduate.
- Provide the support and mentoring needed to succeed in the most demanding fields of study.
- Produce job-ready graduates who are well prepared to succeed in their careers.
- Above all, offer educational experiences that are engaging, immersive and experiential.
- Be much more transparent and open in communication. Be open about institutional decisions and priorities. The best way to combat misinformation and rumors is to regularly share information.
- Embrace shared governance. Give all stakeholders a voice in campus decision making. Encourage participation in committees, working groups and task forces to nurture a sense of ownership.
- Encourage civility, inclusion and respect. In campus communication, stress the importance of respect, dignity and acceptance. Ensure that all campus members understand what kinds of behavior are unacceptable and what constitutes civil discourse in disagreements or debates.
Even these steps are not enough. Here are some other ways to build the sense of community that a learning-centered campus needs and create the sense of community and connection that Greene writes about:
- Enhance onboarding. Ensure that every new student has a point of contact and a degree plan. Provide targeted programming for specific groups of students, including transfer students, veterans and international students. Schedule orientations at times convenient for the students and consider inviting parents, partners, siblings and children.
- Make better use of data analytics. “Process analyze” the student journey to identify roadblocks and red flags. Optimize course offerings and scheduling. Use data to drive proactive interventions when students are off-track.
- Enhance advising. Respond immediately to red flags. Adopt a case management approach to advising and create a one-stop shop to address the multiple issues—academic, personal and career-related—that students encounter.
- Promote belonging. Place more students in cohort programs, learning communities, research initiatives, special-interest groups and pre-professional units. Incentivize faculty-student interactions, for example, by funding student-faculty lunches.
- Strengthen career readiness. Offer students more windows into careers and integrate career-aligned skills and certificates into existing classes and degree paths.
- Create structured degree pathways. Develop more coherent degree paths that better align gen ed requirements with majors and that include integrated, synergistic courses.
- Institute the high-impact practices that maximize student engagement. These include mentored research experiences, supervised internships, participation in a learning community and experiential, project-based and service learning opportunities, Also devise ways to integrate the rich extracurricular activities that are often the most memorable part of life on residential campus into the curriculum at commuter institutions. Consider converting some three-credit-hour courses into four-credit classes to accommodate more lab and co-curricular experiences.
- Facilitate graduation. Offer completion grants and appoint a graduation concierge who is empowered to contact students nearing graduation and modify requirements to ensure that they graduate.
It’s not enough to build a caring and supportive campus one classroom at a time. The challenges are ultimately institutional. Misguided priorities, ill-advised incentives, academic hyperspecialization and insular, siloed departments all contribute to a student experience that is anonymous, bureaucratic, impersonal and soulless. We can certainly do better even with the resource constraints our institutions face. But that will ultimately require cultivating a culture of trust.