Publicly own where you've failed and move forward with a real and visible commitment to doing better to create the conditions for faculty and staff engagement.
I first met Gretchen Robertson, a Basic Education for Adults (BEdA) faculty member from Skagit Community College at an event hosted by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). The event was a Pathways Institute, part of AACC’s Pathways Project, which supports colleges committed to rethinking how they serve and support students.
Gretchen approached me following a presentation I delivered which stressed the importance of engaging frontline faculty and staff in any serious change effort, and doing so early, often and authentically.
Gretchen asked what advice I had for a college that may not have attended as carefully as it should from the outset to deep and authentic engagement of faculty and staff, and as a result, was now experiencing hostile pushback from those whose commitment would be necessary for real progress. It’s a question I get a lot, and I gave Gretchen my standard answer: publicly own where you’ve failed to meaningfully engage, and move forward with a real and visible commitment to doing better to create the conditions for faculty and staff to become true co-owners of the hard work of change. Expect it to be hard, but don’t be deterred by that.
A few months after this initial meeting, I ran into Gretchen at another Pathways Institute. This time I was moderating a session with faculty from colleges implementing guided pathways, which AACC defines as “coherent and easy-to-follow college-level programs of study that are aligned with requirements for success in employment and at the next stage of education.”
During the session, a faculty member became visibly distressed by the conversation as she realized that, for her college to do this work seriously, it may result in some of her courses not being taught as often or perhaps at all.
As the conversation unfolded, and became increasingly heated, Gretchen raised her hand and intervened. It’s impossible to capture here exactly how that conversation unfolded, but I was struck by how constructive and empathetic Gretchen was as she explained how she thinks about this work and why.
Following that session, I asked Gretchen if she’d be willing to talk with me more about her experience of being a faculty member engaged in an ambitious change process. The following edited interview captures the highlights of our ongoing conversation.
As I recall when we were in that session at the second Pathways Institute about the faculty experience of Pathways, the upset faculty member was grappling with the threat of losing the ability to teach courses she loves. She was worried about that, but she was worried about other issues too. And then when you raised your hand to weigh in, the conversation started to transform. What caused you to speak up?
As I was listening to her talk, I could just feel that visceral fear, really, and that frustration and that sadness that maybe she would be losing this thing that she loved and probably had poured her heart and energy into. That is a reality we’ve been kind of glossing over regarding work to improve student pathways through college and to a career.
We need to honor the fact that, as instructors, our specialty courses become a sacred part of us. We pour ourselves into our course design and content and they become a window into our schema, our passions, and our values. It’s important for colleges to recognize that there needs to be a time of grieving as instructors confront the reality that as we redesign our work around what’s best for students, we might not get as many sections or maybe not even have the opportunity to teach those specialty courses.
The exciting thing is that within pathways work there are endless opportunities for creativity, and as instructors, we have the opportunity to fix systematic structures that are broken. For instance, pathways work gives us the chance to rethink the entry-level courses that are currently disconnected from students’ programs of study and in which less privileged students struggle in high numbers because they do not get the support or the inspiration that they need to be successful.
To me, that’s tragic. I see my students going into entry-level courses super, super excited about pursuing their careers and their education and then just leaving flattened and feeling really discouraged.
Pathways work should allow us to breathe life into those entry-level courses and re-imagine how our students can experience that first contact with our discipline. In order to do that we have to ask ourselves, why do so many entry-level courses block students from continuing forward? We need to create spaces in entry-level courses for diverse students. Unfortunately, many of these courses were designed to keep students out of the higher-level classes, and that’s a serious problem when we’re looking at student success and equity.
This is such an outdated model. The reality is that disciplines themselves are institutions, and maybe we need to make changes to our disciplines. We can do that. We can decide that our disciplines are outdated and classist and racist, but that’s a really hard pill to swallow. It will require us to examine where our students are headed. We need to look at outcomes, decide what we’re preparing our students for, and then ensure that the entry-level courses are truly honoring the end goal of employment, citizenry and social justice.
It sounds like you’re describing a process of loss and gain for faculty, one that isn’t very well understood or attended to in the way large scale reforms like Pathways are pursued. And it sounds like you’ve also hit your own challenges in effectively engaging faculty. What’s it been like for you specifically?
I work with the most underserved students, and I immediately saw how better pathways would impact their lives and lead to their success, so I was just super excited about it and didn’t foresee how other instructors would respond.
I was naïve in moving forward with it because I was like, “Hey guys, look what we’re doing. This is so great!” and I didn’t anticipate that sense of loss that comes with this work for many instructors. This was unintentional on my part, but I think that some of my colleagues felt like what we were saying was that the work that they’d done thus far was not focused on student success, and it was not focused on transition and retention, when in fact it was. People care deeply about these things, but the way I talked about pathways made people feel that their work wasn’t being respected.
Going back in my mind now, I wish we had spent more time honoring the work that people had already done, and then pointing out the ways in which what we were doing with Pathways was actually building on that foundation that they’d already laid.
This is one of the key lessons we’ve learned on the ground, too: the first-order importance of honoring people’s professional commitment and expertise. What else have you learned?
I’ve been thinking about this and the issue of equity just keeps coming up. I have learned that it is challenging to navigate faculty equity and student equity. That faculty member that you were talking about in the session, she was talking about equity in terms of equity for instructors and equity for disciplines, and I think that’s really important. However, we also need to recognize that there’s an equity issue for students. In conversations with my colleagues this issue keeps getting bypassed.
For example, the woman in the session was commenting about the power dynamics between the business department and her discipline, women’s studies, and her worries about the impact of her department’s marginalization on student opportunity.
Those are serious institutional conversations that we have needed to have for years. It seems so vital that these things come to light. Doing the work of pathways is an intense process precisely because it facilitates these conversations. I think for it to be authentic and real and to actually make change, it has to be an intense process. I wonder how we can bring faculty together to have those conversations in a civil and open way.
I know that one thing that worked for me was I started an inclusive pedagogy faculty learning community. I intentionally recruited people across the disciplines. It was an incredible way to talk about the issues because we would bring in speakers, watch videos and read texts. It was really transformative. One of the evaluations that I got afterwards said, “I realize now that it’s not the students that are the problem; it’s my curriculum design and the institution that’s the problem.” This sort of feedback is from people I never thought would get to that place. I think part of it is creating a safe space for people to have this conversation. It was really interesting, because a lot of what came up was tensions between adjunct and full-time faculty, and then the different disciplines, and the hierarchical structure within those different groups.
That’s a fantastic idea, and another important strategy that I could see people overlooking as “non-essential” in the pathways work. But what you’re talking about here are the day-to-day practices of communication and collaboration that make it possible for faculty to find themselves in pathways work. I’m convinced that finding creative ways for faculty, staff and administrators to experience each other’s work and points of view, in the context of doing the day-to-day work of building clear and coherent pathways for students, will be essential for long-term, positive outcomes for learners from all backgrounds. Thank you for your work and wisdom, Gretchen. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation, and to learning from you and other front-line faculty and staff involved in the Pathways Project.