Well, at Evergreen we did this thing where…

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The title of this post is something I expect folks just get tired of hearing from me… one of my catchphrases that signals ‘tune out’, regardless of whatever gem of insight is bound to come next! See, I went to school at this little place few have ever heard of, The Evergreen State College. There are no grades and no majors, just a whole bunch of faculty waiting for students to come ask. This anarchic no-structure is itself the first lesson: do you know why you are here? What are you going to come up with? Not that there aren’t paths laid down; students bound for graduate work in, let’s say, Molecular Biology must absorb some key ideas. But even in such cases, the Evergreen approach is strange: pull together several faculty, have them decide what lessons the students need and arrange those in an integrated, team-taught fashion, know students and faculty will be together 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and dive in.

Thing is, this approach pollutes one’s mind with notions of how people need to approach their interests. Or at least my mind was polluted. And while I try to avoid making other experiences suffer in the comparison, I am constantly casting about for ways to incorporate the ‘greener mentality into whatever it is I am doing. So my colleagues hear speeches that begin with that title phrase pretty frequently. For me, locally, at my little school, this unfortunately means I get into trouble with students who are looking to me for some kind of Blake Gillespie Biochemistry Information Download. Those kids are sorely disappointed to have that ball lobbed right back to them, having to face the ‘Learning It Myself’ imperative. But that’s another story; suffice it to say that Evergreen is inextricably incorporated into my pedagogical genome, and that it gets overexpressed in all my worlds.

A colleague recently pitched me an easy chance to expostulate, innocently sharing a story about another college trying to build an alternative structure, The College of New Jersey. This college is making an effort to ensure that authentic, scholarly research is a fundamental part of every aspect of a student’s experience. Now this seems obvious to me, given my conviction that students must follow their own interests to knowledge and expertise… and indeed, I’ve worked pretty hard to build research experiences into my own curriculum. Still, I welcomed the chance to chime in on a subject dear to my heart… even more so, since I worried that folks might think my little corner of Southern Californian academia is lacking in teacher-scholars!

I’m going to share my short response, below. But since I wrote it, I’ve also been thinking that providing research opportunities is already so important to my own goals, and to so many of my colleagues’, that changing the formal structure of our university to acknowledge or formalize it might just be spin, or window-dressing, or … marketing. The fact is, for those who are actually watching, CSUCI is wonderland of unique, hands-on learning. I hold myself up as a shining, if pudgy, example of a faculty dedicated to this style of teaching, regardless of the structure I find myself in! That is my nature, that is the nature of the educational virus that transformed me O! so long ago, so…

¡Viva la revolución! Maybe someday my school’s branding effort will catch up to the reality that I and my faculty colleagues are striving to create, are creating right now, have already created! But the branding kind of doesn’t matter, because the work is already underway, and the word is spreading.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote to my colleagues, and I guess I wanted to get it out there more broadly. I hope you like it and that you help me propagate the idea: students are scholars; scholars are not factoid accumulators, they are creators; school is a place where scholars create stuff.

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My contribution to the spam thread follows:

I think CSUCI [the college where I work] is well-positioned for a move like this [like The College of New Jersey’s restructuring]. Research with students is already deeply ingrained in our faculty culture; you [referring to an excellent colleague] exemplify this perfectly, of course, but the truth is you really can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting a teacher-scholar. Please skip to the **** if you want a brief review of how student research lies at the core of CSUCI faculty motivations, goals, and activities.

All the review below is merely to point out that, again, we are not limited by the number of faculty that engage students in research… CSUCI is absolutely lousy with them. What I suggest is that our limitations are structural. Faculty are constantly pushing structural boundaries to try to find ways to accomplish the goal of providing our students with the richest possible research experience, in the most diverse possible settings. But we always run into boundaries, whether it’s funding co-taught classes or finding money for authentic-research-based student travel. We are faced with faculty-hot-fudge poured over a vanilla-ice-cream structure. There’s nobody to blame for that, I think… that ship has sailed. But I see no particular reason to feel limited by that history, either.

I find the article inspirational in this key idea: we don’t have to be an Evergreen, with a from-its-inception wacko structure; we can transform an entrenched, vanilla architecture into something rich. And we can do it by empowering faculty to organize around the incredible work they’re already doing.

The article makes clear that with institutional will, the true strength of a campus like ours – faculty imagination, intellect, and energy – can be leveraged to re-vision a University into an entity with a more complex flavor.

****At the level of one-on-one engagement, I see faculty like Chemistry’s own [innocent peers’ names redacted] pouring their energies into their student-powered laboratory research programs… they are exemplars of the tried-and-true ‘learn-by-doing’ approach, but their work is reflected in faculty projects all over campus, too.

So we all know faculty-student research engagement reaches way beyond the research laboratories of Chemistry in Modoc Hall or even of tenure-track faculty… I see Biology lecturers like [another innocent spared connection with me] who, in addition to running a top notch research group, runs multiple projects that engage students in research-based courses like the ones described in the link. As well, of course, I myself have taught sundry research-centered X98 classes, working cross-disciplinarily with faculty like Professors [and still more names redacted]. But back closer to home, I regularly teach Chemistry Program-funded courses that are explicitly research-driven… our CHEM 463 is an advanced biochemistry research exploration. Classes like these seek to bring inquiry-driven teaching to as many CSUCI students as possible, within the limitations of our structures. And, of course, faculty from across campus also already leverage their own research programs into building strong, inquiry-based classroom experiences for students… the list of faculty doing this is just too deep to recount.

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2 responses to “Well, at Evergreen we did this thing where…

  1. Thanks for reading this and commenting.

    Hm… well, I’m not sure I could say what our current brand is, maybe I’m too far down in the trenches… I guess the answer is that our brand *is* as our faculty *do*. In that case, our brand is that of early and intense inclusion of undergraduates in research, and the use of faculty-student research as an instructional value/tool.

    If the external brand differs from this reality somehow, well, I’d say we faculty could work harder to rectify the disconnect. And if the University favors the brand the faculty are creating, then the University should should reallocate resources wherever possible to support and sustain that vision. Right now, that vision is primarily driven by faculty… in their own research programs, their own searches for external funding, and in individual department’s decision to materially support that work.

    On the other hand, I may have been wrong, and the inclusion of undergrads in scholarship is less pervasive than I’m making it out to be. Perhaps I’m no more knowledgeable about this than I am about what brand we’re telegraphing. In my own little world (er, mind), undergraduate research is what it’s *all* about!

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