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It is the last day of NCORE 2011, but it has been no less full and vigorous as previous days. There were many rich sessions this week which I did not have space to mention here and still others for which there simply was not enough time in the day to attend, but I hope this blog series was valuable for the campus work you may be doing around issues of diversity, inclusive excellence, sustainability, and global and civic engagement. While I have much to process about all of the knowledge and resources I've encountered this week, I wanted to reflect a little on a key theme I noticed through out all of the conference, but particularly today: Educators must match the goals of the institution with the needs of our students, and if those goals do not address our students needs, we must change the institution.
As our student population continues to change and grow, and as we become more aware of the complexities of our students' many identities, we must acknowledge that the American system of higher education was created by the dominant majority to benefit only those who were also a part of the dominant majority. (You may read "dominant majority" differently depending on the many interconnected identities that you bring to the table, including sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, class, religion, nationality, ability, etc.) Acknowledging that higher education was never intended or designed for specific groups of people--ie: white women, African Americans, the lower and middle class, just to name a few-- will help us realize that we cannot use the same structures that were used historically to educate our current diverse student body. We must reshape education to better fit the next generation of students instead of expecting those students to change to fit the original model that previously excluded them (and some ways, still does).
That said, while the structure and approach to higher education may need to be re-envisioned, the goals of that education are older than the United States and are essential to achieving full inclusion and undermining historical injustices. In a session titled "Engaging Black Men in Critical Conversations about Manhood and Masculinity," the facilitators, Wilmon A Christian III of Penn State University and Jonathan Cox of Wake Forest University suggested that higher education should have the following goals for students:
--fostering self awareness
--intellectual development (critical thinking skills)
--assisting in the further development of students as men and women
Christian and Cox proposed that higher education in many ways is failing to engage Black men and fully support their growth because it is not acknowledging the distinct challenges and obstacles many of these young men bring with them to college. Consequently, the goals of education are not aligning with the needs of the students. Jonathan Cox seeks to address this dilemma through the M4 Initiative at Wake Forest University (to learn more, click here and scroll down to M4 Initiative: Making Manhood Mean More). This innovative program meets students--in this case, black men--exactly where they are in order to give them the tools and understand they need to fully engage in the academic, professional, civic, and social experience of college. Christian and Cox also drew their session's ideas and thematic framework from the book, College Men and Masculinities: Theory, Research, and Implications for Practice, edited by Shaun R. Harper and Frank Harris III, which was reviewed in AAC&U's on-line publication On Campus with Women, Vol. 39, No.2. The goals of education that Christian and Cox listed certainly correlate with AAC&U's LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, particularly with "Intellectual and Practical Skills" and "Personal and Social Responsibility." These outcomes--in all their forms--are being embraced by so many people because they so clearly articulate what crucial knowledge and skills our students must have for work and for life in today's world. By remembering and rethinking the goals and the structure of a education respectively, we can meet our students where they are and support their journey to where they need and want to be.
In the final keynote address of NCORE 2011, renowned scholar Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley drew parallels between the 1980s and our current moment, citing economic, social, and political similarities. He encouraged the audience to see these turbulent times as a key opportunity to ignite change in the way we educate ourselves and our students to address the challenges around us. For instance, he said we must stop approaching works of literature by historically excluded or underrepresented authors as if they can speak for an entire group or as if our students from those identity groups will and should always identify with that author or their work. Dr. Kelley asserts that when we approach literature in that way, we take the focus off that work as an important and scholarly text with which all students should seriously engage and connect. While acknowledging the specific perspective of a work is important, it should not be the end goal and no work of literature should be framed as simply filling a gap. We as educators should teach students to see every work of literature--no matter the perspective or background of the author--as an opportunity to relate on a human level with the work, and not categorize it as another "genre" (ie: "African-American literature" instead of simply "literature"). The relatively simple act of altering our approach to the readings on our syllabi can foster a broader sense of inclusion in our students' academic and intellectual lives as well as their experiences elsewhere on campus.
By changing the way we frame our institutional practices and our classroom pedagogies, we can reshape our institutions to be more inclusive and to give all our students the knowledge, the skills, and the passion to be successful in college. And, as we all know, what we do on our campuses today can develop our students into active and thoughtful participants in our diverse democracy and interdependent world.