Inviting Students to the Table

Colleges should ask students to help plan curricular and co-curricular options for the fall that will work for them, writes Rebecca Vidra.

June 5, 2020
 
 
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Many faculty members are used to primarily working alone to design courses, conduct research, write papers and so forth. As we turn our attention to scenario planning for the fall, we find ourselves working in faculty-staff teams across our departments, schools and universities. We may be developing new courses, creating co-curricular offerings to enhance community and build relationships among students, or trying to figure out just how many people can safely be in our buildings at one time.

But we may be missing an important voice at the table: our students.

In recent months, students have self-organized for mutual aid efforts, to sue their colleges for tuition refunds and to petition against online learning in the fall. At my institution, Duke University, current students are using WhatsApp to share rumors of what the fall may look like and to see who is planning to renew their off-campus apartment leases for the next academic year. Student groups are meeting via Zoom over the summer to sustain their connections and plan future virtual events.

As we consider how to create rich educational and social environments for next year, our students are thinking about the same issues. We share many of the same worries: how to protect our own health as our campuses reopen, how to know which types of classes might work better in the online environment, how to create enriching experiences outside the classroom.

As our summers now commence, faculty, staff and students find ourselves bracing for decisions from our institutions. The what-if scenarios will soon give way to clearer to-do lists. My colleagues and I are anticipating our work by creating metaphorical seating charts for summer work and organizing ourselves into teams to tackle course redesign, field experiences, mentorship opportunities and student engagement, among other topics.

Our own transition to emergency remote teaching this semester gave faculty and staff members a chance to collaborate in new ways, as if we were on troubleshooting SWAT teams. Now we need to think about how to include students on those teams -- to give them a chance to help us plan curricular and co-curricular options for the fall that will work for them. Otherwise we are likely to miss the mark on some of our planning and reinforce the top-down approach that makes students bristle.

If we are truly concerned about engaging students in our campus community, let’s invite them to partner with us on creating that community now instead of waiting until the fall semester. Opening the lines of communication and inviting students to be co-creators of our work over the summer will make it more successful. And it may help all of us to feel that we are part of something beyond our individual tasks, that our campus connections are not just about place but also about authentic collaboration.

Involving students in this work is not as hard as it might be if we were having a normal summer. An hourlong meeting on Zoom is a fairly easy to schedule, and students have already expressed interest in remaining connected in this way over the new few months. For our School of the Environment, which has a large professional master’s program, we are considering different ways to engage with our students now. We are considering:

  • Organizing a series of student focus groups at different times to accommodate time zone differences, in which we ask for feedback on topics related to online course design -- such as the appropriate blend of synchronous/asynchronous activities for particular types of courses;
  • Inviting students to join faculty and staff committees on co-curricular activities, such as one that focuses on designing a set of field experiences to run alongside online courses;
  • Surveying students to gauge their interest in our ideas and to gather their ideas for community events; and
  • Communicating with existing student organizations to keep track of their plans and needs for support from the institution to carry out their activities.

We will probably come up with other ways to engage students, even newly admitted ones, on co-creating an enriching, let alone unique, fall semester.

Whichever of the scenarios our institutions choose to proceed with for fall 2020, our work will be richer and more successful if we include students in our planning efforts now. Simply asking for their feedback along the way may be enough. But if students have the passion to organize themselves to petition our universities, perhaps they also have the motivation to engage with us in making our institutions stronger, as well.

Bio

Rebecca Vidra directs Duke University’s environmental leadership program in the Nicholas School of the Environment and is helping to coordinate the school’s plans for fall 2020.

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