Category Archives: Academic Affairs

Practical Competence

As I read this week’s The Chronicle of Higher Education front-page article by Sara Lipka and Eric Hoover about a developmental or remedial English class at Montgomery College, a two-year college in Maryland, it was as if I were there in that classroom. I felt the near helplessness of the dedicated faculty member, and I felt as if I were there as a student because I know what it’s like to have to separate your head and academic learning from the rest of your life. The article is titled “The Second-Chance Club,” and I think it would have unfolded as a second chance if Kenneth Okorafor, a Nigerian immigrant student, had miraculously passed the course.

As the narrative progressed toward the final decision about each student’s fate in meeting the requirements to go on to college-level English, it seemed as if Kenneth would certainly pass because he wanted to pass so passionately and he is a good person. As I read the narrative, I felt as if the music was about to swell for a happy dramatic ending since Kenneth was the last student to see the instructor about his course standing. I was really surprised at the final result because even his friend gets the green light to go on to the next level of English, and when he exits the meeting with the faculty member, he says, “Kenneth, don’t worry man, I’ll see you there OK?” Kenneth is so visibly nervous about his time with the instructor that one of the other students tells him, “Just know that, whatever happens, you’re smart.”

I think Kenneth is smart, but he did not pass the developmental course in English and he knows why. He allowed one of his essays to be published in The Chronicle along with the article, and he titled it, “My Two Greatest Obstacles.” In his essay, he admits that he allows himself to become distracted in class and he does not pay attention. He also realizes that he does not manage his time well. He stays up late watching television and he comes to class late. His realization of what may be hindering him from passing the course has come too late.

Having to retake a non-credit course puts Kenneth in the risky position of dropping out of college completely. Students such as Kenneth and some of the other students described in the class lack a critical skill for success in college and beyond, and that skill is practical competence. Practical competence is one of the seven student learning outcomes in Learning Reconsidered, a 2004 publication by ACPA and NASPA, two professional associations for student affairs.

Too many students like Kenneth can break the hearts of many faculty who feel helpless in moving them forward. I propose that student services work with faculty to offer what I call a cocurriculum laboratory that is connected to the class (read more on cocurriculum laboratories…).  In this laboratory, the objectives of the course are reinforced and there is a strong emphasis on helping students communicate effectively and manage their own affairs. Students who do not have role models who demonstrate these skills are at a disadvantage in meeting the requirements of a college education. Student services staff are trained to help students through the developmental phases of self-efficacy.

Faculty cannot do it all and could welcome the assistance of their student services colleagues who can work with students in a laboratory, of sorts, where the emphasis is on adjusting to college life and making connections with students and the student services staff on a deeper and more personal level. These students will share their stories, encourage and support one another, all the while being guided by a highly skilled student services staff member who will move students towardaccomplishing the goals of the course and the skills that all college graduates should attain. One of these skills is practical competence.

Stronger Emphasis on ‘Soft Skils’

I’m serving on a Commission on the future for our very fine local community college, and I was at a meeting with business people and community college faculty, staff, and administrators.  In his closing remarks, the business man who is chairing the Commission reiterated what the various groups were saying about the needs of college graduates.

He said that the college needed to pay attention to ensuring that more students are preparing themselves in the STEM majors, but that they also needed to be prepared with what are sometimes called “soft skills.” Expecting to hear reasons why there is not more emphasis on those skills that student affairs works to encourage students to acquire, this very wise man made the following statement:

Soft skills may not get college credit, and they might not be accredited by the people who evaluate college courses, but we need to say, ‘The hell with that!’ We need to do what we know is right for students because it’s about learning and getting the skills students need to be successful.

If I had been in church, I would have said, “AMEN!” In my speeches and presentations, I’m focusing on what skills our graduates and alumni need in order to be prepared both for careers that currently exist and those that do not yet exist, and some of these skills are those skills called “soft skills.”

When I talk with employers, they say that college cannot prepare students for the specifics for most jobs, but they can give students the foundation that will be used in learning how to learn the specifics of the job. What students do not always have is the foundation that enables them to be excellent communicators across cultures. The employers are saying they need managers, and without the intercultural communication skills, our students will not be equipped.

These skills can be learned if student affairs will collaborate with faculty in offering what I call cocurriculum laboratories.

I will write about these in subsequent blogs and will respond to any questions or comments.

Ambassadors…to China, faculty, and beyond…

Some people can’t write because they have what is called “writers’ block.” Fortunately, this is not a problem for me. I have so much I want to write about that it takes me a while to decide on what not to write about. Returning from a two-week visit to China, I have enough material to write about for some time, but I fear I might bore you, so I’ll just give you a taste.

Over the past weeks, I was fortunate to be among colleagues who participated as presenters in the Macau Student Affairs Institute, which was open to student affairs practitioners from all over China. It is believed to be the first such institute of its kind in China. A colleague created the curriculum and invited many colleagues you know (I won’t call names because these folks have not consented to be subjects in my blog) to do a series of workshops for the participants from China.

I learned an inordinate amount about student affairs in China, both from the institute and from my subsequent visits to Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shanghai as “Ambassador for NASPA”, as the Chinese dubbed me.

I was truly impressed by the institute participants because they were eager and attentive learners from the beginning to the very end of the two-day workshop in which I participated. They were active learners and they have adopted what they call “total student development.” What I envied was the interest of faculty in student affairs work. The institute included professors from law, psychology, and information technology, all of whom were eager to learn how best to help students reach their maximum potential. It was terrific to have faculty and student affairs staff all working together to support students.

I’m encouraged by my recent experiences with faculty wanting to educate and support the whole student. The day before I left for China, I was making a presentation, along with a former MUFP alum of whom I am so proud, to veterinary medical education doctors about seeing their students through the lens of student affairs. They, too, were eager to support students and to learn what it means to view students from a holistic perspective.

I think our next frontier is to engage with faculty directly in professional development that has heretofore been reserved for educators who claim student affairs as their field. Student affairs practitioners are educators primarily outside the classroom. Why not be ambassadors to academic affairs, working with faculty to use the lens of student affairs in their teaching inside the classroom?