Diversity and Democracy

An Ethic of Listening in Higher Education

Before embarking on dissertation research, I interviewed my ninety-two-year-old grandma (who is now 103) over the course of a week in summer 2003. She agreed to be interviewed as a favor to me—I told her I needed the practice. Together, we recorded more than seven hours of oral history in which she touched on her life philosophy; stories of love, family struggles, and road trips; notions of compassion in elder care; and theories of child development that came from raising five kids. These were epic conversations, no doubt—important both as family history and as a window into a century of change.

Listening to these tapes again recently, I realized that during the first three hours of our interviews, Nanny stopped her storytelling twenty-two times to ask if she should continue. “Are you sure you want to hear this?” she’d challenge. As the stories went on, however, these interruptions ceased. Perhaps she had gained comfort in their telling and enjoyment in our rapport; hopefully, she was coming to appreciate the importance of what she was weaving.

I start the story of College Unbound with the story of Nanny in part because that’s what set me on my path—from that 2003 interview to oral history research in jazz studies to graduate school to Imagining America (www.imaginingamerica.org) to College Unbound (www.collegeunbound.org). But I also begin there because Nanny’s initial inability to value her story strikes me as relevant to the stories of adult learners returning to higher education. In College Unbound, we strive to serve these students by designing a curriculum and pedagogy based on the principles of oral history: with an ethic of shared ownership and active listening that helps students move past those first “three hours.”

Attempting a Dramatic Reframing

At College Unbound, we focus simultaneously on (1) helping students create “action research projects” that are connected to their personal, professional, and community development goals and that become the driving foci of their degrees; and (2) helping students recognize and value the epistemology of daily life through prior learning assessments and portfolios. From day one, our approach pushes against what college has been to our students, who often have had deeply traumatic past experiences in higher education. Our students have not felt empowered, enabled, or supported in college, curricularly or financially.

In the language of the catalyst paper Susan Sturm, Tim Eatman, John Saltmarsh, and I wrote in 2011, these students have not been allowed to be “full participants” in higher education. In order to succeed in college, they will need a dramatic reframing of that space. This is what College Unbound attempts: to build a learning environment and a degree pathway that is safe, inclusive, and imbued with an ethic of listening. We don’t “recruit” students; we invite potential students to join current students and alums in telling their stories at story circles and town hall meetings. These meetings are the first step toward changing how students conceive of their relationship to college. As one student recently reflected, “You’re used to [saying,] ‘give me the syllabus and I’ve got to meet those requirements….’ [But with College Unbound,] I had to start to meet my own requirements, which a lot of times are a lot higher than other people’s requirements, ‘cause I’m my own worst enemy. I asked my advisor… and he [said,] ‘Well, what do you want to do?’”

Founded in 2009, College Unbound partners with colleges to create new credit-bearing pathways for students seeking a bachelor’s degree. We have students in Manchester, New Hampshire; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Providence, Rhode Island who have been enrolled at Roger Williams University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Charter Oak State College. As faculty, we create interdisciplinary courses that speak to integrated projects of our students’ own design, which in turn speak to the worlds in which they live and work. Our students have full-time jobs as well as family and community obligations, and if they’re carving out time to work on something, it had better have meaning in relation to the real challenges they face at work and in their neighborhoods.

To graduate, students must fulfill the general education requirements of the university in which they are enrolled. But we work hard to embed those requirements within goals designed by the students that are specific to their personal and professional development. This is not the college experience students have come to expect. As one recent graduate said, “I stopped going to school at the moment [that I found my College Unbound project].” College, here, became the student’s excuse to tackle important work and the infrastructure for learning the skills to enact significant change in his community. While I served as the professor of record for many of this student’s classes, his peers and community partners shared in assessing his work. In helping each student build a “learning team” of co-faculty and assessors, College Unbound acts as a catalyst to connect and embed students within the networks of which they are a part.

More than Binders on a Bookshelf

College Unbound’s approach is time-consuming and deeply personal, and it pushes against higher education’s tendency to segregate the knowledge making that happens in the classroom from the advising and student services that happen elsewhere. Our approach challenges the very architecture of the university—current assessment practices, general education models, seat-time and credit-hour requirements, attitudes toward student services like childcare, and even FAFSA guidelines and FERPA protections. It does so in response to our students, who are demanding that the content they study be in conversation with the context of their lives.

AAC&U’s LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and Lumina’s Degree Qualifications Profile offer deeply valuable frameworks for reimagining what it means to obtain a degree. But if we use these frameworks to capture only the learning that occurs within college courses, we will be ignoring the critical thinking that drives daily practice and shortchanging the possibilities for advancing lifelong learning. Direct and competency-based assessments are important means of supporting credit attainment, but to be effective, those assessments need to be partnered with deep mentorship, care, and support. I can’t say it any better than one College Unbound student: “Basically, in a regular school you do all this work and after you’re done you put the little binder on your bookshelf. ‘Cause I have a big bookshelf full of binders of all the projects I did, and it don’t mean anything. Now, I feel like the project is me. What I’m doing at College Unbound is part of my life.” This is what Dewey called “embodied intelligence” (1927), when what we know becomes a part of who we are. It is the essence of transformative education.

The work of creating alternative higher education pathways for adult learners is urgent: there are at least 36 million adults in the United States who have started college but not completed their degrees (Lumina Foundation 2012, 3). These adult learners bring immediacy and passion to their daily practice, and their paths toward a degree need to combine the critical conditions of commitment, engagement, and joy in learning. If we put these conditions at the center of our work, then college can become the framework for students to initiate the change they envision.

At the end of those 2003 interviews, Nanny was exhausted to the point of giddiness. She had found a deep joy in sharing her story. It was no longer just a favor to her youngest grandson. In between fits of laughter she finally said, “I’ve got nothing else to talk about!... Here I am … I’m ninety-two years old … I’m the luckiest woman in the world … and you’re still taping me?” Higher education needs to strive creatively for conditions where every student can experience a similar joy of being truly heard.

Author’s coda: This summer brought both Nanny’s passing and the 2014 College Unbound graduation, in which I shared parts of the above story and this video of Nanny laughing: http://youtu.be/PpDXCC5W5xo. The two events will be forever entwined for me.


Dewey, John. 1927. The Public and Its Problems. Chicago: Gateway.

Lumina Foundation. 2012. A Stronger Nation through Higher Education. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation. http://www.luminafoundation.org/publications/A_stronger_nation.pdf.

Sturm, Susan, Timothy K. Eatman, John Saltmarsh, and Adam Bush. 2011. “Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Public Engagement in Higher Education (White Paper).” New York: Columbia University Law School Center for Institutional and Social Change.

Adam Bush is founding director of curriculum for College Unbound.

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