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Teaching with High Impact Within a Splintered Culture
Having already accepted that high-impact practices (HIPs) have been shown to deepen student learning, especially for at-risk groups of students, I ask then—how and why? If we can better describe the functionality of these practices, with the outcomes in view, then the facilitation of these practices can be improved upon. My view is that these practices empower students with the freedom to give an account of themselves within the public discourse. The practices connect with students, and give space for students to connect with each other. Empowerment comes as they find their voices and communicate more critically with others—enabling a collaborative life. However, without a better understanding of the dynamics of the social formation that develops by way of these teaching practices, our outcomes and the quality of our connections with students will not be fully maximized. The high impact will eventually diminish.
My reflection begins with the splintering of higher education and American society generally. By splintering I mean the diverse ways the social infrastructure, in both higher education and society, is ever stressed and fragmenting. As the broader culture is splintering, every part of the classroom is affected by these same dynamics. This splintering can be traced from outside the classroom—into student life, each professor, each institution.
Several books detail facets of this splintering and I need only mention a few recent studies to point out how these levels all come into play within HIPs. For example, one book, Education and the Crisis of Public Values, discusses the way national political debates seldom rise above rhetorical affect to a level of deliberative debate or even reasoned compromise for the common good. Henry Giroux, without taking sides or electioneering, finds deficiencies on both neo-conservative and neo-liberal camps. He provocatively considers how the rift created by the politicization of public education has limited the reasoned flexibilities that professional and practiced educators have claimed for the sake of public education available for all. Giroux makes helpful observations about how we lack the critical language, civic courage, and public values to address political rhetoric that coarsens education discourse by drawing lines, closing ranks, and making education a less deliberative process. There are too few places where the focus is upon imagining a culture of learning that is inclusive—one where the marginalized and less wealthy are empowered.
Another analysis of the splintering of higher education is provided in the book Academically Adrift. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa underline a lack of purpose in higher education as a key factor that limits learning by students on American campuses. This drifting compounds the disparities in K–12 education. Economically disadvantaged students, those in poorer districts or less educated families, are more likely to be less enculturated into higher learning. The authors’ data shows that college widens this gap for most who fall even further behind as they make their way through college. Arum and Roksa make plain that student time and resources are less and less used for learning and that the meaning of higher education needs further attention by all involved. This amplifies what Mark Edmundson observed fifteen years ago in Harper’s magazine in his essay, “On the Uses of Liberal Education.” He called this trend toward less academic rigor education lite (1997). What Edmundson saw as the product of student consumerism and superficiality may be more difficult to address today when it is also the outcome of a family and work life that does not value education. From Arum and Roksa’s perspective, this same drift and purposelessness is a bigger problem for students who are already behind upon entering college.
Another brilliant book, Not for Profit by Martha Nussbaum, asks about the effectiveness of liberal education around the globe. Nussbaum observes that market forces are diminishing the number of programs and graduates from the humanities around the world, while professional education is increasing. This, she says, is a threat to democracy—as a less humanistic society results. She recommends that teaching needs small classes, “or at least sections, where students discuss ideas with one another, get copious feedback on frequent writing assignments and have lots of time to discuss their work with instructors” (2010, 125). She contrasts these practices by American professors as better than those of their counterparts in Europe or other places like India that have reorganized higher education with a growth agenda. Her argument is that democracy needs the humanities to keep it alive and functioning—with an egalitarian spirit strong enough to stand up to the vicissitudes of the market. Rather than focusing on the inefficiency of the classical form of education, Nussbaum suggests the price of deepening inequality may be the survival of democracy itself.
Each of these books or essays lament the loss of the traditional “small classroom.” The push by economic forces that demand ever increasing efficiencies is certainly felt inside the classroom of our public universities that often operate en masse.
So when I enter a classroom, the students and I stand together within all of this. As authors of our lives, but also characters within a larger narrative, the splintering of society is as much a reality as anything else that we experience together. There are multiple levels of “things falling apart” within the class. If I can sometimes perceive the “tip of the iceberg” of human suffering in the classroom, it should be a reminder that a much larger part of the iceberg is below the surface, invisible and not discussed. How can we use HIPs to address this fracturing? My hope is that the practices and questions of the course can be posed in solidarity—exemplifying a faith in each other.
All of these issues also are caught up in the dynamic issues of American multiculturalism. Students can feel uneasy about coming “out” too far with their respective identities, because they experience everyday what Jeffrey Alexander calls the instability of hyphenated identities. Alexander’s The Civil Sphere makes a convincing argument that there is a moral preference or a preferred choice to be made for a self-conscious form of multiculturalism.
All of us are products of the intersection of hyphenated groups that are fluid and often in competition. “Yet just as hyphenation can be pushed backward to assimilation and even exclusion, it can also be pushed forward to more even-handed, more reciprocal understandings of incorporation.” (2006, 461) If pushed forward enough, then a society can be organized around difference and diversity rather than around conformity. This presents a wise teacher with the opportunity, even on the first day of class, to strategize assignments and practices as a way to push forward reciprocity and fairness to all. Here one can begin to develop benchmarks on the journey toward an authentic multiculturalism that includes the right to mutual expression, reasonable disagreement, and eventual acceptance of the position of others even beyond the pursuit of consensus.
A working knowledge of all these sources of splintering, the rifts that are present in any classroom, helps inform a facilitation of HIPs. I propose that the ongoing work of memory studies has benefits in our classroom pedagogies. This begins with an awareness of the complexities involved, but also gives us a valuable clue about the function of HIPs as narrative splints for the splintering souls that compose our culture of learning.
Facilitating High-Impact Practices
Key Elements that Make HIPs Work
Using the research that informs the developments of HIPs to address the societal splintering requires faculty members to create a classroom society—a little culture of learning in which this splintering is at play for our re-imagination, a place where the freedom of the other is welcomed and structures are built to provide the space for discourse. Likewise, there is similar wisdom in administrators at all levels of higher education who endeavor for the same empowerments and liberation within a university’s culture of learning.
For example, one general education class I teach every semester at University of Wisconsin–Whitewater is required of all students after attaining junior status and before graduation. The course entered our curriculum around 1995 when an innovative team of faculty developed it with a pilot study. Today, it seems many universities are catching up to the innovation of a capstone general education humanities course for all students.
The course, imaginatively named World of Ideas, is designed to foster integrative learning. Students are able in their junior or senior year to reflect upon their studies and bring them into a more cohesive and at the same time a more pragmatic perspective. Students are exposed to a variety of perspectives as the faculty are given freedom to choose their primary texts but are asked to include something ancient and modern, something religious and philosophical, something Eastern and Western, topics and texts that are literary, and something from the daily news.
Crossing the Boundaries of Classroom and the World
Key Elements that Make HIPs Work
My main writing assignment is scaffolded and dispersed throughout the semester and the class is writing intensive. Students are given opportunity to decide between a prescribed research format or a written script that is accompanied by a produced and edited short film. The first format is especially helpful to students preparing for graduate school. “You can’t write too many research papers!” I say. The second format assists students entering professions where they will be asked to produce increasingly sophisticated presentations with new media. Even as an academic, I show examples of presentations at conferences that include a self-produced short film that complements the research paper.
Regardless of the chosen format, my simple instruction to students is the same: “Relate the inside of the classroom to the outside life.” Students can begin in either direction, but the boundary between academic learning and worldly living must be crossed, transgressed. They can start inside the class, perhaps with an analysis of a text like Hamlet or Antigone that leads them to raise their issue. Then they must relate this to society today. Or, they can reverse the order from outside to inside, beginning with a description of an issue that they face in the world today. Students find their approach to the issue by learning to contrast competing ideas and theories of ethics that we discuss throughout the semester. By asking students to relate this text to their lives or to larger society, students not only learn to critique but also they learn to identify their own convictions. The discovery is made that the greatest texts from all cultures narrate the splintered life in ways that reconnect with the present culture.
This integrative writing assignment has one central goal—to give freedom to the student for development in unpredictable directions. This is not a linear development, moving from point A to point B, but growth more like a starfish that moves out from its own center. My point is that HIPs function at their best to provide space for the intellectual and moral development of the student first. This purpose is more likely achievable when there is a deeper cognizance of the many levels of social splintering today—from the political, to the economic, to the juridical, to the changing media of today, to the plethora of competing social and moral paradigms. All of these are interrelated in the college classroom. Great writers of the past give us texts that creatively draw in an audience to engage their damaged life by adding their own interpretations and responses to a splintered culture. These narratives come from all cultures and inform the educator’s composition of assignments where students are likewise welcomed to join in the life of the mind that is capable of response when provided a similar space.
Alexander, J. C. 2006. The Civil Sphere. New York: Oxford University Press.
Arum, R., and J. Roksa. 2010. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Edmundson, M. 1997. “On the Uses of a Liberal Education, I: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students; II: As a Weapon in the Hands of the Restless Poor.” Harper’s, September 1: 39–50
Giroux, H. A. 2012. Education and the Crisis of Public Values. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Nussbaum, M. 2010. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
David Reinhart is a lecturer of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.