by Katherine Jo
Katherine Jo is a doctoral student specializing in Philosophy of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the ethical dimensions of liberal learning and the roles and responsibilities of teachers in students’ ethical development, particularly in higher education.
Editors’ Note: This essay is the third in a series of pieces reflecting on a 2017 AACU seminar entitled “An Unbridgeable Gap? Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Public Trust.” This session engaged some important questions about the perception of Higher Education among various stakeholders. We hope you enjoy the sustained conversation.
I agree with Eric’s observations and will just add a few of the lasting impressions the seminar made on me. As a doctoral student in the Philosophy of Education who focuses on higher education and spends a considerable amount of time reading critiques of higher education, I found the seminar both illuminating and heartening. It was illuminating because I am not privy to what goes on in faculty and administrator meetings, nor have I had extensive conversations with many faculty and administrators about their views on the current state of higher education and their work. Eric and I weren’t sure how many people would attend, so we were delighted that the seminar was filled to capacity (we even had to turn people away). More importantly, it was clear from the enthusiastic participation of nearly everyone in the room that the issues we were discussing are a pervasive concern among faculty and administrators from a variety of institutions. I sensed that the participants were hungry for a space to not only voice their frustration and discouragement but also to work toward solutions. A number of people came up to us afterward, expressing deep gratitude and an interest in working with us to continue the conversation.
The seminar was heartening because, not only did participants not express hopelessness, as Eric wrote, but also the conversation never devolved into finger-pointing; instead, it had a tone of genuine searching, including searching within. One participant pointed out that perhaps one of the causes of this gap is evident in the way the seminar and the Chronicle piece we drew from were framed: that academics see themselves as separate from “the public.” She suggested that we might be served well by moving away from this us-them dichotomy and considering how academics are also part of the public. The participant’s point encouraged us to move toward finding common ground, which I think is important, but I think another way to think about it is what Eric mentioned above—how academics and higher education institutions feed into the very attitudes and narratives we say we’re fighting. For instance, another participant pointed out that academics understand their work in terms of knowledge production (i.e., business terms) rather than student success.
Although there wasn’t enough time to discuss any suggestions in depth, the participants seemed energized by hearing a few practical ideas, some of which Eric mentioned above, and seem to me fruitful topics for future conference workshops. I found the idea of helping students become ambassadors for the value of their education particularly compelling. In addition, we briefly discussed how we, as teachers, could work to shift students’ instrumental attitudes toward their learning by directly confronting them with the question of what their purpose in college is, which few students are ever directly asked to reflect on, and questioning the credentialing model of education. This is something all faculty can do at the beginning of the semester as a way of framing their course and the very process of learning. In my own experience as a teaching assistant (in a course on the historical and philosophical foundations of education), the professor’s frankness about what the educational process has become and that professor’s insistence that student learning has been stripped of meaning in many ways by the system resonates with the students. They gain a sense of agency about a process that they have largely been subject to.
In light of these two suggestions, I would love to see workshops that help faculty both find compelling ways to invite students into a new way of experiencing their education in their courses and develop specific assignments that help students reflect on and articulate the ways that their education is shaping their lives. It seems to me that these are changes that academics can make in the short-term that can have a direct impact on students, and perhaps, in the long-term, could be part of closing the gap between “academics” and the “public.”