Every semester I give my online classes a little survey assignment asking them typical introduction questions such as "what is your major" and "why did you decide to take this class" and so forth. I don't do it with all of my classes because the main purpose of this exercise is to walk them through the process of uploading assignments and using the software and a whole host of other technical processes without the added stress of a grade on an assignment. This is, essentially, an easy A (and still...,but that's not my point). In reading these assignments, however, I pick up some common themes. These themes also show up in my regular classes.
The first theme has to do with the reasons for taking the class. For the U.S. history survey, they all cite requirement for degree or transfer. Some say that they like U.S. History anyway, or want to learn about World War II or the American Revolution; but all cite the requirement. For the African American history survey, which is not universally transferable as a history requirement, fewer say that they have to take it and more say that they want to take it. "I want to learn about
MY history," they write. "I want to learn about MY people." People of African descent, even if they are not U.S. American, seem to feel a greater connection to and ownership of the material covered in the course than any American students feel about American history, at least at the start of the semester.
The next has to do with reading. I ask first how many hours they spend online each week. Then, I ask how much time they spend reading per week, and what they read when they do. Now, I do suspect that they underestimate the online hours and over estimate the reading hours. Still, they apologize for the high number of online hours and the low number of reading hours. The interesting point here, however, has to do with the way that they see reading and the internet as mutually exclusive. To them, the internet does not involve reading -- and perhaps I should ask what they are doing online when I ask that question. Reading, on the other hand, only involves books or magazines. Those are the reading items that they cite when answering the second part of the reading question. Some say that they also read newspapers, but don't specify if the newspapers are online or the old school print version. In other words, you read objects, not screens.
The last has to do with the question, "what usually interferes with your ability to do well in school." Every single one of them says, "work," "family" or both. Most work full time, many have children in school (even some of the men cite children as an interference), most take classes full-time. Then, they tell me that their biggest flaw as a student is procrastination. I somehow think that, while procrastination might be involved, they are saying that they are procrastinating when they are, in fact, exhausted or placing school lower down the list of their priorities than they ideally would like.
Which brings me to the title of the post. As I mentioned before, the new buzzword from the upper adminosphere is "completion agenda." (Drink!) You can trace this buzz all the way up to the President of the United States. "Completion" (drink!) in this case, seems to mean "graduation with a degree." The "agenda" (drink!) means a focus on teaching effectiveness (drink!), outcomes (drink!), and a whole host of other programs and committees and evaluations and so on and so forth that involve research and the compilation of data and numbers and graphs and flowcharts all focused upon the teaching end of the institution. While the "completion agenda" (drink!) seems like a good idea in theory, but if you look at what it means, then you start to see where the major flaws lie in pumping money into a "completion agenda" (drink!) for community colleges.
Graduation from a community college is not the goal of many of our students. For some, yes, but many others plan to transfer to a four-year institution. They are at a c.c. because it is cheaper and closer to home. Given that we are in a major city, and have yet another major city within commuting distance, with many four year colleges and university all nearby, transfer students are probably a pretty big chunk of our student body. We also have students who jump between colleges of all sizes. Some have a near full-time load at a university but couldn't get into that one class, so take it at the cc, others just take a class to take a class (generally older and not our largest group, but they are still included in the numbers). While the college wants to persuade these students to get a degree from our school then transfer, the students don't really see the benefit of that, especially if they are transferring to a school out of state. Therefore, "graduation" is not necessarily the "completion agenda" (drink!) of the students.
Second, the focus of the "agenda" (drink!) does not seem to address the context of students' enrollment. Look at what my students identify as their main obstacles. Look at the schedules they set for themselves because, first, they don't want to be in college forever; and, second, full-time is cheaper than part-time in the long-run. They work full-time because they have to, even with loans; and loans are not exactly the wisest solution to getting more people to explore higher education. At least, loans are not the wisest solution for the student. Sallie Mae may think otherwise.
Yet, I don't think that any of these "completion agenda" (drink!) plans address these very things that prevent students from completing their own agenda. Do they ask students about their obstacles? Do they investigate ways that the school could address these obstacles? Do they consider this problem from the students' point of view?
Supporting better instruction is all well and good, yet the solutions tend to mean more "study the problem" and "compile the data" work and less of the types of time-tested adjustment that actually DO support better instruction, like smaller and fewer classes for more full-time faculty. As a result, when the upper-level adminosphere issues pronouncements for such plans, the faculty instinctively bristle with cynicism at the assumption that we aren't doing our jobs, the knowledge that a lot of money and time will go into this when both might be better used toward something else, and the awareness that the real problem is much much larger than the number of people who get associate's degrees.
Most of my own cynicism comes from seeing how the previous buzzword plans have played out. We will see how this one goes. Still, I don't have much confidence that it will go differently because a focus on the college and only the college means that activity can be created in order to give the appearance that something is being done.
These buzzword plans always remind me of some of the old office jobs that I used to have wherein the amount of work that I did or did not do was beside the point, just so long as I created the appearance of being very very busy.