By Maia Herriot, Maple League Student Fellow, Mount Allison University
On February 18, 2020, Maple League faculty and students gathered at Acadia University to discuss the 2016 book The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. Leading that discussion was one of the book’s authors, Dr. Peter Felten. Dr. Felten is based at Elon University as the assistant provost for Teaching and Learning, director of the Center for Engaged Learning, and a History professor.
The morning began with participants going around the room introducing themselves, and, at Dr. Felten’s request, stating a topic related to undergraduate education that they would like covered in the discussion. Participants ranged from vice-provosts to chemistry professors to English students, and their concerns were similarly diverse. One professor said he would like to discuss how we can develop practices of higher learning on two totally different and equally necessary time scales: the slow pace of taking the time to help learning and foster relationships and the fast pace of adaptation to a changing future. Another professor wanted to know more about how to accommodate for the added time commitment of experiential and service learning.
Before he got to answering those questions, Maple League Executive Director Dr. Jessica Riddell asked Dr. Felten to start from the beginning and tell us how the idea to write The Undergraduate Experience came about. Dr. Felten explained that the idea for the book started the way lots of good things in his life do: over dinner with his colleagues. He and his peers were frustrated with the sense that they could do something better for their undergraduates if only an external factor changed, such as funding. He said that there are two problems with that mindset: “One is that it’s debilitating for us to think ‘We will change, in the future, when suddenly public higher education is funded better.’ Good luck with that.” The second problem is that it’s not entirely true. He said one of the benefits of visiting so many different campuses to research how they deal with these issues is that he gets to see “really cool stuff happening and amazing people and great students everywhere. And lots of times we don’t notice that on our own campuses because it’s just what we do… We don’t notice how amazing it is.” With this book, he and his co-writers wanted to “speak back to this narrative in higher education that says, ‘We can’t do anything, we’re bad at what we do, et cetera.’” That involved going to schools and instead of looking at what are we doing wrong, finding out what is going on that’s already good and how we can expand on that.
Borrowing a concept from diversity studies, Dr. Felten said, “If you bring assumptions of brokenness to students, you find that. And if you bring assumptions of assets and capacity, you’ll find that too, and your students will find that.” He also described these two mindsets amongst professors as “a narrative of constraint” versus “a narrative of growth.” He explained you can have people with contrasting narratives in the same faculty or department, and it’s not that one narrative is true and the other is false, “it’s that one enables certain things and the other doesn’t. And these are learnable things.”
Dr. Riddell then asked what Dr. Felten has learned from taking his book into the world and bringing his ideas into communities like ours. He told a story that occurred about a month after the book came out wherein a university provost from England sent him an email asking him to visit. When he did, she presented him with a draft of a strategic plan for her university. The draft was a six-point plan directly based off what Dr. Felten and his colleagues identify as the six things that “matter” for building a better undergraduate experience in their book.
What he often sees universities struggling with is internalizing the idea that we must have the discipline to say which few things matter. He said his own university often has 47 annual priorities, which is so many that it removes the meaning from the word priority and makes them much more difficult to align with each other. On alignment, he noted that students often assume university operations are completely aligned across departments and between faculty and administration. This caused an understanding chuckle in the room, acknowledging that that is rarely the case. Dr. Felten asked why it can’t be the case. Why don’t these various areas of the university talk to each other more?
He also mentioned his upcoming book, for which he and his writing partner Leo Lambert, President Emeritus of Elon University, interviewed 400 people across the United States about how relationships shifted and formed their education. They sat with students and colleagues and asked them about powerful educational relationships they had. Dr. Felten noted that many students are just one positive relationship away from dropping out and often for students the most important question any person in their higher education life asks them is, “How are you?”
Dr. Riddell asked him to expand on how to build a culture of meaningful relationships on campus, to which Dr. Felten replied that “Culture begins with you, as a set of practices, and you can start small. You are creating a culture with your activities,” he said, repeating the example of just asking students how they are as a way to build a culture of welcoming. He said too often we think of the culture of a place as happening “out there,” away from ourselves when really it’s very immediate: “If something becomes a thing ‘we’ do, it becomes the culture.”
Dr. Felten said one benefit to a cycling student population is that they don’t know if our culture used to be something different; this gives us the ability to reinvent and always aim to improve. He noted that professors tend to think of a student’s university experience starting in first year and finishing in fourth year when the lived reality for students is that their experience starts and stops every year, divided by summers. This mindset means professors should be expressing renewed welcome and offering new opportunities each year.
He described these efforts as contributing to a commitment to relational teaching which can still be supported by your institution as a whole. According to Dr. Felten, institutions should ask “What are the practices we want at the heart of our culture?” and recognize that those practices don’t need to be justified by the same reason for everyone involved in upholding them. Encouraging a culture of welcome can be motivating by an administration’s desire to retain students and a professor’s desire to build stronger relationships with their students.
Dr. Felten’s final message of the morning was to set realistic expectations for yourself and your students, reminding yourself why you are doing what you are doing. He told professors to recognize which aspects of their work are most vital and “do less, better,” reminding them, “don’t just show up for meetings, show up for your students.”
This discussion was part of the Maple League Teaching and Learning Committee’s monthly Brown Bag Discussion series. The series utilizes the Maple League’s teleconferencing rooms on each campus to bring Maple League community members together to discuss a topic related to teaching and learning. This event is part of the Teaching and Learning Committee’s commitment to connecting faculty and community members across all four campuses to pool educational resources and create stronger systems of mentorship and support.
Thanks again to Dr. Felten for joining us out East.