I Feel Seen: The persistent accidental sabotage of higher ed jargon

Change is the only constant in life.
Heraclitus, Greek philosopher


Change must happen for us to sustain. Especially old ~stuff and things~ that we’ve kicked down the road can-style for years. Whether a lack of priority at the time or basic ‘that’s going to be nightmare I’d rather die or retire first’ knowledge and everything in between, change must happen. Not dumb change. Not (fingers tick)administrivia(fingers tick) change. Deliberate, thoughtful, scalable change that will serve as a bridge to whatever is coming next. That all said, this is my fourth higher education institution to join and, once again, it’s a déjà vu chill swirling all around me.

Spoiler: I don’t have the answer for what I’m about to discuss, but I’m ready to hear everyone’s thoughts. If we can’t get to the bottom on how to move forward WHILE avoiding sabotaging all of our necessary next steps and services, we’re all going to be in a world of hurt.

First, online learning. It’s not less-than. It won’t cheapen a brand. It won’t systemically eliminate teaching. In fact, just the opposite. Unless you refuse to embrace it until it’s too late then get reactive about teaching online. It is different than face-to-face teaching. There is a bit of an art to engaging students online. But it fills a legit gap in today’s world. And there’s no better people to do it than faculty because – well – they’re the best at this kind of thing. Any additional training is the best investment you can make as a university. Online learning is capable of meeting students of today where they are, being responsive to individual student need leading to improved retention/graduation and generating a good amount of revenue for an institution. Online learning is not bought-and-paid-for-on-Amazon degrees that are easier than face-to-face coursework. And it should be curriculum designed by your best and brightest faculty. It’s simply different. And that’s OK. Students are different today. K-12 teaches kids how to learn in the online environment. Online allows non-completers to finish their degrees while drowning in 40-50 hour work weeks. Online learning can help bolster the future of higher education by developing an appreciation for attaining a degree across a broader base of students.

Second, using technology in the classroom. I’ve heard many faculty state that they’ve been teaching for decades, one style, very effective, highly impactful. I’ve also heard some faculty share that they shouldn’t have to learn a new way to teach. Except…students are learning with technology from kindergarten on. As a parent with kids in elementary and middle school, I can attest my children use tablets and thrive in flipped classroom environments and this started in/around first grade. If you plopped them down in a lecture class they wouldn’t know what to do. Not because they’re stupid, entitled or spoiled but because this is how they’ve been taught to learn. This isn’t to say that orators and teachers for hundreds of years aren’t amazing, because they are. But with a teacher’s goal being to educate students it makes sense to want to teach so that the students can consume learning. And students learn differently today than when I was in college. It’s not better or worse. It’s a magical challenge to find the material-retention sweet spot. I’m not saying we need smart boards on every wall and only machine learning. Quite the opposite. I think smart boards are faddish and silly and soured everyone’s taste in tech in the classroom a decade or so ago. But there are techniques to better engage. And IT needs to be a better partner in teaching and training our faculty to rock these new-to-them areas. There I said it. IT has a responsibility here.

Third, all that is student success. This is the second institution in a row where I feel like ‘student success’ is equated with a willful absence of faculty. I get it. Student this, student that can be very ‘Marsha Marsha Marsha’, but by my estimation – students cannot succeed without faculty. Again, in bold uppercase, STUDENTS CANNOT SUCCEED WITHOUT FACULTY. When students graduate from an institution, 20 years later they’re not recalling with fondness the University CIO (much to my chagrin). They are in all instances remembering the faculty that made an impact. Mine was Dr. Rea. I will never forget the impact he had on my life. I will never forget my drama professor Ombra (I just found out she is no longer with us – boo). I wasn’t a drama major – or even close – but she made me get so far out of my comfort zone that it absolutely contributed to my ability to succeed today. How do we continue to use the phrase ‘student success’ and ensure it clearly communicates the vast village of faculty required to help students reach success and that – without faculty – student success is unattainable? I’m at the point where I think we might just need to scrap the whole phrase and start over… Scrap the phrase, not the effort because we have to serve our students better, faster, stronger.

Here’s my truth: I’m moving forward. And I will drive, push, advocate for, rally others, drag, provide resources, literally tap dance my way across today’s finish line if that’s what it takes to get an institution where it needs to be because, guess what? Tomorrow is a new day and we need to keep moving in the right direction. But these terms and these initiatives. How can we do better in avoiding descriptors for needed efforts that trigger a blanket of personal attack feels? I’m not minimizing those feelings either. I recognize we went through a sprawling minimum-decade of ‘change for the sake of change’ when all those articles came out about change agents, etc. Remember the smug faces and crossed arms, posing with their backs against a wall of robots (or whatever)? It wasn’t that long ago. How do we ensure we can move forward together, lockstep, with dareisay excitement? My guess?

We need to have the conversations. Call out the buzzwords and, if necessary, stop saying them. We need to build confidence and trust. We need to SPEAK ACROSS ALL LINES OF EVERY ORGANIZATION. And we need to build a bigger table for this conversations. Unfortunately in business and the tech world, buzzwords happen. And they stick like super glue. And they are triggers like it or not. For such contemplative environments, we sure empower catchphrases to muck up our best efforts. Let’s do better. Together.