Thursday, March 28, 2013

Selling Teaching: A Modest Proposal

This week my family has been anxiously awaiting the decision letters and e-mails from the universities to which my oldest daughter applied this spring.  For the past year we have been touring campuses, browsing websites and reading promotional materials, and dreaming about where she will find herself in the fall of 2013.  That process has been an illuminating one for me to observe as a faculty member and as someone who writes about higher education, since I have learned about plenty of interesting initiatives and programs happening on other campuses.

But what has struck me most deeply throughout this process has been the light attention paid by the admissions guides and published materials to what probably strikes most faculty members as the central activities of the college or university: teaching and learning. Most of the college tours we took spent time walking us through sample dorm rooms and spoke extensively about life on campus; only a few of our tour guides took us into classrooms or laboratories, and spoke in any detail about their experiences in the classroom.  What does that convey to the prospective student, and to the parents who pay our bills, about our priorities?

I'm not surprised to find my daughter training her eyes on the living quarters or social lives of the schools she plans to attend; she's 17, after all, and those issues loom understandably large in her perspective.  And I understand perfectly well that colleges have to tailor their marketing campaigns to late adolescents, and so an emphasis on the quality of the dining hall food or the weekend social scene makes good business sense.  But it seems to me like the education we provide to our students should perhaps begin before they ever arrive on campus, if we can help shape the way they think about their college experience.  It seems to me, in other words, like we can probably do a better job of educating prospective students and their parents about what matters most deeply around here, and about why they should care about it.

I want to make a very modest proposal to admissions offices about one way in which they could begin to shift this balance of emphasis more toward the heart of the college and university enterprise, where I think it belongs.

At the beginning of the year, ask your student tour guides to think about the three most powerfully charged learning experiences they have had on campus.  Have them write those experiences down, and practice narrating them.  Work with the guides to ensure that they understood what made those experiences so powerful, and how those learning experiences were--or were not--connected to the good work of an educator on campus.  Then ask those tour guides to make sure that their tours include stops at three locations which will allow them to tell those three learning stories, and offer the kind of passionate statement about learning on campus that will inspire prospective students to think a little more clearly about what they will be doing in college.

An initiative like this one could have a ripple effect into the college, as it inspires the tour guides to think more carefully and deeply about their own learning, and that may inspire other students to do so as well.  It could also end up providing a rich set of materials for the institution to draw upon in their promotional materials, as well as helping to identify faculty and staff on campus who are making the biggest difference in the lives of their students.

Touring another campus as both a parent and a faculty member, I know where to train my eyes in order to get a sense of the teaching and learning environment on campus.  Most parents will not have the same experience in dissecting a college campus, and could use our help in gaining a clear picture of what their sons and daughters will experience in the classroom.  We should be doing a better job of giving them that help.


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