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Anne Dalke's picture

Expanding our Educational Mission

Alice Lesnick and Alison Cook-Sather initiated a discussion of "expanding our educational mission" by asking each of us to do some "informal thinking on paper" about whose education has traditionally been addressed @ the college. How and why has such a focus been maintained?

The descriptions of Bryn Mawr's educational mission that emerged covered a range, from "reproducing the elite," to "not teaching for job-related learning," to the "mixed messages" both students and faculty get about what limits there are on what they can learn. One respondent suggested that Bryn Mawr had long enacted a "traditional belief in education as producing 'movers and shakers,' a belief that presumed and relied on an assumption about the rest of the world being made up of the 'moved and shaken'--that is, the uneducated."

Counter stories arose from participants' experiences in the Teaching and Learning Initiative, which focuses on "building relationships, honing skills, exploring and giving validity to a variety of talents." A challenge to the concept of elitism was posed: what a "snobbish word," one that might apply to rock stars, but "surely not a word educated people would put on themselves? If you were truly educated, why would you want to set yourself up above others?" Wouldn't you have "a more liberal outlook," a more complicated concept of what you had achieved than the assumption that "because I have an elite education, I am the elite"? (Doesn't that sound like "I have a good t.v., so I am a good person"?)

It was also suggested that "the mission of the college had traditionally been directed to students and their parents, but only "cc'ed to the faculty and alum, and bcc'ed to staff," whose job was to support the mission, not to participate in it directly. Traditionally, classes at Bryn Mawr have been a means to an end (like: being a doctor); they have not focused on community building and reciprocal relationships. "We pretend it's not two-way, when it is." Traditionally, at Bryn Mawr, "life skills is not education."

In light of--and in sharp contrast to--that history, the T&L Initiative has attempted to open the educational mission of the college, addressing more people directly, seeking to grant everybody access to education. Given the mission of the Initiative--to create new spaces where all members can interact as teachers, learners and colleagues; to collaborate and create relationships that move beyond the limitations of our traditional roles; and to link everyone in the college community to educational opportunity and the opportunity to foster it for others--we were asked to write about the risks involved: for faculty, staff, and student participants, for coordinators and facilitators, and for the College as a whole. We thought that everyone, in all these roles, was making themselves vulnerable to change, by exposing themselves to public scrutiny (being revealed as they tried out new things; making "abject" and public" what was usually private). Power dynamics are shaken up and reversed in this new dynamic; we need to learn new forms of communication that are constructive, not destructive, not shutting others down. How to hear what is said?

There was some discussion of how the vocation of education denies faculty space for family and "other life"--so they might feel threatened by an invitation to "teach or learn in an area where they have no certified expertise." How much "space" will we allow members of our newly imagined community? Can we grant that space, without always tracking what others are doing? What different forms might community take? How might we engage in morale-building in a department without (for instance) requiring everyone to attend a common social event outside of working hours?

Other named risks included those of time (how to fit it in? even for faculty, who "have more personal control over their busyness" than staff do?) and the risk of disappointment (the Buddhist understanding of disappointment as a keynote of life, that we need not to be scared of, was evoked). We discussed the dangers of "promising more than you can deliver," and the ways in which the structured relationship of a classroom protects tenured faculty members from "failed promises" (i.e. the assumption that if a student performs poorly, it's her fault)--though this works differently for adjunct faculty members, who are more vulnerable (and so perhaps more responsive?) to student critique. It was suggested, too, that the audience for our mission is often "ghosts": students bring with them into our classes the burden (for instance) of disappointed parents. "Change is risky, but not changing is also risky. If a structure doesn't work, no one knows how to say 'stop!'"

It was suggested that the T&L Initiative represents a challenge to Bryn Mawr's traditional institutional identity, and its institutionalized inequalities. We discussed whether "the real challenge that T&L poses" is asking participants to "give up on their hard won elite status, the assumption that what we have worked for is worth it." It could certainly be "psychologically debilitating" to give up a conviction of one's "inherent eliteness," and assumptions that one has established thereby that one is better than others. It was also suggested that you "can't give that up," that the accomplishments you have already earned are "part of you." The challenge is rather to "humble yourself," to "look outside your personal box at all you are, at the complete person beyond the purely academic." We ended with further musings about how threatening such an invitation might sound to academics, who have spent so much time "becoming focused and specialized in our work that we have foregone any other life."

With the semester's end, our series of discussions about risk-taking also comes to an end. Stay tuned for early 2008, when we hope to sponsor a new sequence of conversations about "looking through different eyes."

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