The Director of MUDEC, Dr. Ekkie Stiller, periodically hosts faculty and students for receptions and dinners, which is a wonderful community building effort. Last night was a faculty dinner, my first since being here. The faculty who are here presently, all very conscientious and thoughtful people, got into a discussion about the fact that a frequent response to MUDEC visiting faculty upon their return to Oxford is asking how their sabbatical/vacation went. The immediate response was that faculty here believe they work harder, pay more attention to students, and that teaching in Luxembourg is anything but a sabbatical. They went on to describe how living in the Chateau makes them constantly available to students, about how connecting with students in small classes creates a bond that makes grading more difficult, and about how study tours and other beyond the classroom activities are time consuming but pay off in such dramatic ways.
I listened intently and silently for quite some time, partially because the animation of the conversation made it hard to interject and the remainder because I simply wanted to listen deeply. The bottom line of the conversation was that the faculty were complaining about the fact that they thought they had discovered this amazing experience of holistic learning with students and they were bemoaning the fact that this kind of thing doesn't happen back in Oxford. When I joined in the conversation, I explained that the silos that we've created in Oxford and at other institutions result in faculty not knowing how rich students' lives really are - on a regular basis. I also explained that, in large measure, attending to the very kinds of things they were describing are what student affairs work is all about. The unfortunate part of it all is that many faculty don't even know that out of class learning is underway and that, when given the chance, Miami faculty are increasingly disengaging from students - disengaging from the kinds of experiences that the MUDEC faculty had just been expressing were the core of the experience here.
Well, you would have thought I set off a bomb - a good one. The faculty were totally with me on this point and we had a very lively continuing conversation about the struggle to maintain the focus on teaching that Miami has traditionally had as a strength. There were a variety of issues posed as responsible for eroding the teaching/learning focus of Miami, among them the tipping of P&T criteria toward grant funding and research, the fact that more faculty live out of Oxford than used to, and busy contemporary lifestyles. In essence, the Luxembourg program creates the quintessential colonial college with faculty in residence and readily available for interaction and tutoring; those who experience it immediately recognize it as a superior and deeper form of learning. The unfortunate part is that the answers to how one might offer such an experience more broadly and consistely are illusive. Maybe it's enough that these faculty and students have this opportunity and it becomes personally and professional transformative. Maybe that's not enough and we need to look more fundamentally at how the nature of our learning environment and elsewhere is changing.
Note to self... Upon a bit more reflection, it occurs to me that bemoaning the loss of the idealized learning communities of the past is futile. In fact, our contemporary reality is plummeting in the other direction and this trend is not likely to reverse. That is, unless the public and consumers catch on and begin to ask more of higher education in regards to deeper undergraduate learning. The public backlash is always a possibility. In the meantime, the only way I can maintain my sense of purpose and integrity is to be engaged where I can to create deeper learning (like MUDEC) and to talk with faculty and student affairs colleagues alike about the essential values we hold in common and how we approach our work to further student engagement.