Thursday, December 11, 2014

Students Impacting the Community.

Coming to terms with my students' awesome group projects.

The Group Projects:

The basic course in communication at WNMU, the university where I teach, is COMM 110-Public Speaking. While we have a couple very part time adjuncts, I am the full time faculty member  who teaches this class. The course is required for all students working toward an associate or bachelor degree. That means that I get almost everyone.

The course is book-ended by two of my favorite assignments, both of my own design. The first I call "show and tell." It is an epideictic speech in which the students bring in an object that represents an important virtue that they then extol. I love it because it teaches me about my students in a deep way.

The class ends with a group project. In the group project, the students are divided up and asked to go into the community and use the tools they've learned in class to persuade people in the public good. Their goal is to get people to work with them to actually do something that changes the community for the better. Every semester, they do just that.

I've written about the group project before (here), and I probably should every semester. However, I don't necessarily have time to do that and sometimes I forget (I am a pretty terrible blogger because I forget that I have a blog and don't write for months at a time). Still, I remembered this semester and wanted to share some of the ways that the students actually got out and changed their community.

Class one 

My first class which gave their final presentations on Monday was divided into three groups with 6 people in each group.

Group 1   

The first group worked with the City of Rocks State Park. The park is a popular attraction, but as a state park, it does not receive nearly the amount of funding that many of the National Parks do. The trails, then, are primarily maintained by a couple of very overtaxed rangers. The group put together a team of students to improve several hundred feet of trails in the park.

Group 2

The second group was one of several who worked with the Volunteer Center of Grant County. When they asked the Volunteer Center what they could do, they were given an awesome task. Many people (around  23.4% of the population) of Grant County are eligible for food stamps. That should provide them with all they need to eat, but it doesn't. Many of those eligible also have no idea how to cook. So, they wind up spending their food stamps on more expensive ready-to-eat meals which have the added problem of not being terribly healthy. The group put together an action plan with the YVC to create a "Kids CafĂ©." This would take kids a couple days a week and help them prepare food from fresh ingredients grown in the Volunteer Center's garden. This would accomplish three things. First, it will allow the kids to get some healthy food at least a couple evenings a week. Second it would teach the kids how to cook. Finally, it would cover them at least a couple times to reduce food insecurity.

Group 3

The final group put together a winter wear drive. Because of our mild winters and cost of living, many people choose to retire in this area. Then, as they age, they move into our long term care facilities. They are a long way from family and have very little. One thing they need is warm clothes. Many of the long term care facilities offer opportunities for the capable residents who are able to get out and do things in the community, but it does get chilly here in the winters. While we are fairly low in latitude, we are over 6,000 ft and the weather can get chilly. The elderly people can go out, but they need coats and gloves. One group provided them to the resident of five different long care term care facilities in the area. They ended up gathering and donating 800 lbs (a local laundry both washed and weighed the clothes) of clothes to local elders who needed them.

Class Two

The second class was divided into four groups of five people. They also stepped up and did some amazing things. They presented their work to me on Tuesday.

Group 1

The first group did a food drive for the Silver City Gospel Mission. The Gospel Mission does many amazing things in the community. One of the things they do is operate a food bank to which many people go. The group gathered donations of food from throughout the community. They ended up bringing in the food pictured below, which will feed quite a few people.

Group 2

The second group worked with the High Desert Humane Society, and, in the end, with a number of local churches. The students put on a barbecue, raising money for the Humane Society. They were very upset that they only raised $250 (which they shouldn't have been, $250 is awesome). They had hoped to make a lot more and had, therefor made far more food than that. So, they contacted some local churches and got the extra food out to people who needed it. It was a double whammy

Group 3

The third group had a member of a popular local bluegrass band, the Silver City String Beans in it. That meant that they had the opportunity to put on a concert to make the community better, They worked with The Volunteer Center of Grant County to do that. The Volunteer Center is trying to create a commercial kitchen with all the necessities for people who want to legally give food to the hungry or cook for sale. One of the things needed for this was an industrial grade freezer. The group was able to hold a concert which put $300 to that cause.
The Silver City String Beans Perform Old Joe Clark

Group 4

The Fourth Group also did a food drive, but this one for the Volunteer Center which also operates a food bank. The group received permission to put boxes in front of Walmart, Walgreens, and Artistic Impressions (a local hair salon), The group raised what they described as "Two big trunk loads" of food. This food will help feed the hungry here. 

Class Three

The third class presented their work to me on my birthday, Wednesday, December 10th. They were divided into three groups of five and one of four. Their impact on the community was just as impressive as the groups on Monday and Tuesday.

Group 1

The first group created a program they called "Kids Cause." The idea was to get warm clothes and a toy to children who might not otherwise get them. They found that the schools right here in our community had programs like "shop with a cop" which helped out kids in these situations. When they looked at some of the rural schools, however, they didn't. So, they focused on those schools and received donations of $1045. That was enough for five kids at tiny nearby school to receive the benefits. The group took the five kids, chosen by the school's principles, and made sure they had plenty of warm clothes. One little girl still had money in the budget after a coat, sweater, jeans and a toy were chosen. One of my students, shopping with her, suggested that they buy some pajamas. "Oh, that would be great!" the little girl said "I've never had pajamas!"

Group 2

The second group worked with the local Children Youth and Families Department. That is the agency that, in New Mexico, handles all the foster care situations. Many children put into foster care come to their new homes with nothing. They don't have tooth brushes, hairbrushes, towels or anything much more than the clothes on their back. The group worked with a local dental office to garner toothbrushes and then asked for donations at the entrance of Walmart for donations to get the other items they needed. From there, the group put together 100 care packages for children going into foster care. 

Group 3

A third group worked with The Silver City Gospel Mission in their cold weather men's shelter. There is not a full-time place for men to love in Silver City, but on nights when it is especially cold, the Gospel Mission sets up some cots for a safe place for the men. They are served a warm drink, a good cooked meal. and then they vote for a movie on Netflix which they watch and go to bed. The students were able to run the shelter for a night, cooking the meal, setting up Netflix, etc. One student told how the men kept telling them that God would reward them. The student was pretty skeptical about the existence of a god, but said that she really hadn't done much to deserve a reward if there was one. She was wrong.

Group 4

The fourth group decided to solicit funds for the High Desert Humane Society for a 50/50 raffle. They went to the tailgating at the last football game for the season and went from truck to truck selling tickets for $1 each. Apparently, they must have sold 200 tickets because they were able to give $100 to the humane society and the winner of the raffle got $100.

Class Four

The fourth class presented their work to me today. They were divided into three groups of five or six people. They also made a huge difference in the community.

Group 1

The first group worked with the Silver City Gospel Mission. In addition to the other things that you've read about in this blog, the Gospel Mission also serves warm meals to anyone in need. This time of year, that is about 40 people per day. The students prepared, cooked and served the meal to the people there.

Group 2

The second group worked with the High Desert Humane Society and Tractor Supply Company in what looked like a really fun way. They did a "pet adoption day" in the parking lot of tractor supply company. They brought puppies from the shelter and baked goods to sell.  Most students, when they are presenting their projects, show lots of pictures and some videos. This group dealing with puppies in the Tractor Supply parking lot looked like they were having twice as much fun as others in the group. They said that there were no puppies adopted that day, but that a representative from the Humane Society had told them that because they had been there, many people who saw the dogs and puppies came to the shelter later and did adopt pets.

Group 3

The third group did a house-to-house (and office to office, they came to mine) book drive. The idea was to get books into the hands of children in the community. They explained that children need a great many books to develop (which either has eventual diminishing returns or my daughter is going to be the smartest girl ever). They worked with the Silver City Public Library to distribute the books.

I always love it.

Now, the grades in this assignment are not necessarily related to the good students do. They are related to the extent to which they used skills they learned in class to do the good that they do. Still, just looking at these awesome assignments, you can probably guess that the range of grades for the assignment isn't going to have much in the "C" range. Much like at Lake Woebegone, all of these students did above average. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Happy Birthday to ME

Coming to terms with the past year. 

It is my birthday. It is the end of a semester. It is the end of 2014. It is a time for reflection.

My birthday last year was different. I was just back from the Newborn Intensive Care Unit with a baby still needing bottled oxygen and a wife who was in the darkest stages of postpartum depression. I was full of adrenaline and endorphin as I took care of this new precious life. I was unsure of what to do with my wife. She just wanted to lay in bed all day. She didn't seem to want to take care of this new baby. I think it really hit me how deep she was into it on my birthday.

See, my wife's primary love language is gifts. She goes a bit nuts for birthdays. For me this is kind of awkward for a couple reasons. First of all, I don't really like gifts. Of course, it's always nice to get something. It is even more amazing to give someone something they love. Still, I don't think about it much. I don't want much from people. I don't generally think to give people things. It's bad because I don't give her gifts like she does for me. Last year, on my birthday, there were not the piles of gifts she'd normally get me. I didn't mind. I don't really want gifts. I want my wife to be okay. I knew when I didn't get a pile of gifts that she really wasn't okay.

This year, I know she's better. First of all, I count five presents in the pic of our kitchen table (pictured below), but there's also a box beside it. This is the woman I know. I don't care what's in the bags. the fact that there are bags shows me that Jamie is back. That matters so much more than anything else I could possibly want.

Last year my daughter was still on oxygen. She had to keep these tubes in her nose that had to be taped on her face. The tubes were attached to an oxygen bottle which kept a constant flow to her. Besides this added difficulty, she was a newborn. That means feedings every few hours. Her mom was really in no position to help much. I loved this new little girl so much but was completely overwhelmed.
Now my daughter is doing awesome. She is a big, smart one-year old who loves to play, make animal sounds and generally enjoys life (except when she can't have what she wants). She spends most of her day with her mommy who, admittedly, does most of the work caring for her. I get to spend my evenings watching her play with her toys and learn,, learn, learn. I my still be a bit overwhelmed, but I like it. Her mommy made this video for me this morning.

At work I wasn't sure what was going on. I mostly teach the introductory class in communication. In fact, that's about all I teach. That's sort of fine. I love the introductory class. I love teaching classical rhetoric as public speaking to new students, but I'd sort of like to do more advanced stuff. So, I'd worked on this Communication Minor and it was on hold. I was on way too many committees. I was sinking, really. 

I am still on too many committees, but I've learned to say "no." I am excited about some of my research projects. The minor has been taking up by the administration and it might end up being something more awesome than I'd ever dreamed of. It all looks really good. 

I get depressed sometimes. I don't have the money I need to give my wife and daughter the life they should have. I hate that. I am a long way from many of my friends and all of my family. That makes me lonely. I still don't have a friend who I can spend time with outside of specific settings: someone who can come over and play video games, or go out with the dogs, for instance, or something. I've got church-friends who have helped me out big-time with things. I've got colleagues at work who are more than just collegial. I have old friends from other eras in my life who are a phone call and a thousand miles away, but no one who just hangs out. I think I need that.

Overall, however, I can't say things are going poorly. If I truly and honestly reflect on the last year I have to say: "life is good." 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Freedom of Religion

Coming to terms with freedom of religion.

There are different ways that faith can be handled in public. One option that many legal systems (from 18th century Europe, through the USSR to ISIS) have used is to have the governmental or quasi-governmental agencies tell you what your faith must be. Another way of doing things, is allowing whatever faith you may have, but limiting the ways that you can express that faith in public. France not allowing Muslim women to wear their hijab to school, or Chinese taking the large crosses down from their churches, or making house churches illegal are examples of this. In America, we've made another choice: pluralism. The first amendment says "Congress can make no law regarding the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." What that means (barring some extreme examples) is that I can't make you follow my religion, but you can't stop me from publicly practicing it.

Pluralism isn't perfect. It allows people to have religions really far outside the norms. There are churches of Satanism and of Flying Spaghetti Monsters (a religion that mocks religion). There are religions that emphasize biofeedback and that emphasize sitting in silence to stop all feedback. There are religions that require their adherents to give them a percentage of their money. There are religions that require all members to be celibate. If any of these religions sound awful to you, don't join them. Pluralism allows that too.

Pluralism also isn't total freedom of religion. If a Rastafarian smokes marijuana (which is an important part of Rastafarian-ism), then he doesn't get arrested for being Rastafarian, he gets arrested for smoking pot. If a Muslim wants to sacrifice a goat for Eid-al-Adha, which the Muslim would have to do, they have to be in a place that is zoned for killing animals. If they are not, it is not the religion that gets them arrested, it is the violation of zoning restrictions.

I recently heard about a student who is in trouble here at the University where I teach for openly asking God to help her with her work. Now, I don't know the details. Maybe she was being disruptive when she did this (I know the student, and that would be acting against type, but we all act against type sometimes). Maybe her prayer was interfering with other students getting work done. I don't really know. I sort of think that probably she is in trouble because people don't really understand the First Amendment. They somehow think that a "separation of Church and State" implied by the First Amendment means that a person cannot practice their religion in a "state" area. Or they think that religion needs to be silent on government issues.

Neither of these are quite correct. Certainly, I, as a teacher cannot impose my religious beliefs on my class. That would be me, as a government official, establishing a religion.  Nor do I have to keep those beliefs a secret. I am not going to lead my class in prayer at my state institution. I am not going to tell them that they have to follow my religion. I certainly wouldn't be okay with someone leading me in prayer for a religion other than mine. On the other hand, if someone tells me about their religion, it's okay. And if my students choose to pray on their own, in a non-disruptive way, even to a god I don't believe in, that's fine.

And it's not just "fine with me." It has to be fine. Students have the right to the free exercise of their religion. If it's a disruption, then yes, they can suffer the consequences for disruption. If it interferes with the curriculum, then they can get in trouble for interfering with the curriculum. If it is a simple prayer, we cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion. If it is

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Coming to terms with having to laugh.

Different people find different things funny. There are a few things that get me going.
For starters, I like puns. They make me happy.
There are three guys on a boat. They have a pack of cigarettes, but no means of lighting them. The problem was easily solved. They threw one cigarette into the water. At that point the whole boat became a cigarette lighter. 

I really love the unintended puns that come from grammatical, spelling, and editing errors. Everyone makes such mistakes, including me. So I don't see it so much as making fun of the author as the event of the author's mistake. My favorite are the ones from church bulletins (like these) and signs, but even little kids' homework will due (see, get it?):

My daily sense of humor is dark and hyperbolic: gallows humor. Probably the only thing I liked from Mike Myers Cat in the Hat movie was where he said,
"There is a third option! ... It involves... murder!" 
I use that phrase anytime a person, especially a student, is presenting me with a dichotomy. I almost never cite my source. I also offer murder as an option when someone is complaining about someone else. I look them in the eye and say with a deadly serious face, "I could kill him for you." I offer robbery or sale and distribution of narcotics as a way to alleviate financial difficulties, especially for churches in which I'm involved. When I am teaching logical fallacies to my students, I look forward to teaching the slippery slope fallacy and give this story as an example:
So, you think you want to have a beer, huh? Well if you have a beer before too long you're going to want to have a cigarette with that beer. You're going to be drinking and smoking. Before long, you'll smoke a little pot. That will be awesome. So you'll try a few hallucinogens; you'll drop some acid do a little "special K." And you know which hallucinogens are best! The ones that are mixed with stimulants! So you'll take a couple tabs of ecstasy and that'll be amazing, So you'll decide to go ahead and step up the stimulants, a little meth, a bit of cocaine. And you know what goes great with cocaine, right? Heroine. So you'll be addicted to heroine and cocaine and you'll drop out of school. You'll end up stealing from, and likely murdering, your family. Then you'll have no one else to rob. So you'll to whore yourself out on the street for $5 a pop to feed your growing addiction. Do you really want to have that beer? 
I always get laughter and sometimes applause from my students after this little monologue. Joking about death, addiction, prostitution and illegal substance abuse is hilarious. This isn't because I think death and violence are funny in and of themselves. They are not. Instead joking about them is a way to lighten the load, so to speak.

Humorist Alan Mott recently wrote a blog about an event that occurred on his twitter site. He told a joke that compared him finding out that Kari Byron would no longer be working on the television show Mythbusters with the 9/11 terror attacks.
Where were you on September 11, when Allan found out that his favourite TV redhead who isn't Christina Hendricks was no longer mythbusting?
The joke is only moderately funny to me. But hey, Mr. Mott can make a living out of being funny. I can't. So who am I to criticize? Besides, the joke isn't really what I was going to discuss anyway. It is something that he said in his blog that really caught me:
At my mom’s memorial service I didn’t prepare a speech, but instead went up in front of everyone and told my favourite anecdote about the time she asked my dad what religion he was–over 30 years into their marriage. I told it because I thought it was funny and in that moment it felt better to laugh than it did to cry. To some people it might have been inappropriate. I could see them being offended by my refusal to discuss her passing with solemn, respectful dignity, but I knew that wasn’t the path I could take to endure the worst moment of my life. By making “light” of something, we are also making it less “heavy”–what might seem like a lack of reverence to some is actually a survival tactic for others. That joke isn’t intended to trivialize the tragedy, but instead to keep the teller from being crushed under the agonizing weight of it. - See more at:
I think it's like that for me too as well as for my students who laugh at the "slippery slope" joke. Drugs and I would argue government hypervigilance have devastated the rural Southwest. Drugs are where the money is. They are where the power is. They are where the danger is. People who can take a risk in the drug trade can get rich or die trying. My students are, in many ways, shell shocked. I would bet half of them suffer from some kind of PTSD because of violence related in some way to drugs. It is hard for them. It is hard for me. So, sometimes, you just have to laugh.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I love science [no expletive needed].

Coming to terms with "Science."

I really do love science. This might surprise some people. Students and faculty members alike have heard my stock answer when confronted with any number of empirical arguments: "I'm not a scientist." And I am not. I am a professor. Some people might even call me a "researcher" although I much prefer the term "scholar." When I hear the former term I imagine a person in a white coat running frantically through a lab adjusting instruments and possibly laughing maniacally. When I hear the latter I imagine a person indulging in a snifter of cognac and a cigar in a cushioned chair surrounded by books, possibly chuckling pedantically. I don't smoke and only ever tasted cognac once many years ago (it was good, I think), but I identify more with the "scholar" archetype. Even if a person were to appellate me as a "researcher," no reasonably educated person would say my work is "scientific." It is decidedly philosophical, humanistic, and subjective and I like it that way.
Eduard Grutzner (1846-1925)
A Monk in the Library
Oil On Canvas

My love of science is an on again, off again. As a kid, I loved science because I saw vast potential for super powers and interstellar adventures. I didn't love science when I was in college because I believe Zoology, the first of two lab classes I was required to take, was taught incorrectly at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in the late 1990's. When I say that it was taught "incorrectly," I am not saying that the professor lied to us. I think he shared with us the latest concepts in Zoology, probably even at a freshman-level understanding. Still, I'd say he taught us "incorrectly" because I think he used poor pedagogy and because while he told us all about grasshopper's tympanic membranes, how we know that or why we care never entered into the discussion. He taught facts, not process. I was tested on taxonomy and little else.

That is exactly what an Ohio legislator wants to be required. He wants the students to be taught "facts" without explaining the process by which they arrived at them. He wants this so that he can limit "prohibit political or religious interpretation of scientific facts in favor of another." This sounds like an admirable goal. It would be an admirable goal if a common misconception about science were to be believed. That misconception is that scientific rhetoric somehow sits in a vacuum outside the political and religious discussions of its time and place. The misconception exists that science can somehow be "objective" and "unbiased." It is sort of an idolatry of science that makes it the all seeing, all knowing, god which is no respecter of persons, places or ideas.
I have no idea where this piece originally came from or
who created it. I wish I did

There were a couple things that brought me back to a love of science. One was reading Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That book taught me a great deal about science, real science. See, science is not really about "facts" at all. What scientific "facts" even exist are always held tenuously. Science offers answers to questions, but the answers are always tenuous, qualified, and recognize that they are the answer for now, but are open to being proved wrong later. It was Kuhn's book which popularized the term "paradigm" and "paradigm shift." Science works within paradigms. As long as those paradigms work, they keep using them. When they stop working, a new scientific revolution takes place. Things go crazy. A new paradigm is found. Through Kuhn I discovered a science that was fumbling towards truth. That was something that resonated with the philosophical work that I'd already begun as an undergraduate.

The second thing that brought back my love for science was a mistake in advising or more likely in my understanding at the end of undergraduate school. I thought I had graduated. Then I got a letter saying I needed more science. So, I went back and took one summer class. I would have taken any class that met the science requirement, but the only one left was Physics. I remember groaning. Physics, I knew. was hard and boring. Probably, I assumed, even more hard and boring than Zoology had been.

It was awesome. Sure, I had to learn formulas and calculations, but the professor always explained them in context. In a lot of ways, it was as much a history class as a physics class, although the history was non-linear, which would be an odd way to teach history. The professor was an "old" man. I don't know how old, but he was gray and balding and to me that meant old. He was clearly excited about the stuff. My favorite thing was when I'd ask him a question and he didn't know the answer off hand. He didn't reply with the standard "Let me find out and get back to you." Instead he'd say, "I don't know, let's find out." I remember stringing together a full hallway of parallel lights so that we could measure just how many we could put on the battery before we saw a measurable decrease, and then figuring out from there how many we'd need to overwhelm the battery altogether. Why did we do this? Because I asked how many. He didn't know. We made a big mess. Then we knew. I don't remember the answer a bit, but I sure remember the process.
See, that's what is interesting about science. That's what's fun about science. That's what's interesting about science. Science is process. Scientific facts are silly. In fact, in my life (and I'm not old) I've seen scientific facts change. Pluto was a planet, now it's not one. Pandas were "actually not bears, but a kind of raccoon" and now they're bears. Eggs were really bad for you because they raised cholesterol levels. Now they're good for you because the cholesterol they raise is good. We were told to stay away from Ritz crackers because they contained coconut oil, which was HORRIBLE. Now, it's good. Whatever. The facts change as the process develops but it is the process that matters. 
That's why the Ohio law is so very bad. Facts don't matter. Facts are just landmarks on the way to truth. They are not the truth itself. Science is not the truth either. Science is one of the ways that we are all fumbling towards truth. It's not the only way (that might be a blog for another time), but it is one way. Lastly, I want to point out the dumbest thing about the Ohio Republican's reasoning. He wants the facts without the process because he doesn't want political ideology to enter. Specifically, he'd like to avoid evolution and global warming discussions. Here's the thing, however. What he's arguing is the exact opposite of what makes those scientific "facts," which makes every scientific fact, debatable. That is that while the vast majority of scientists would agree that climate change is being caused by the use of fossil fuels and that all life evolved via natural selection from a single celled organism, they all know that a new discovery could change this over night. Science is meant to be wrong. If it weren't wrong, we'd never discover anything new. So, if you believe that you have a revealed truth that is higher than what scientists believe, you might  very well be right. If that is the case, however, teaching facts without process moves people further from your point of view (if it is truth). 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Beautiful Memo from the VPAA

Coming to terms with beautiful memos

I wouldn't normally share an intra-office memo, but I feel like this one had so many interesting beautiful and philosophical points, that I had to. I got permission from Dr. Jack Crocker, the VP of Academic Affairs who sent the memo to share it more widely. Here it is:
Dear Colleagues,
I am taking this occasion of “labor day” to thank you for all the good work that you do, to raise positive awareness that we have the opportunity to work, and to give an example of data that show the value of your work.
Fist, thanks to those of you who have labored for many caring years in the cultivation and delivery of education to students at all levels, and to those of you who are just getting started in the profession.  While what you do (or the perceived results of what you do) frequently is criticized and attacked, the essential importance of your work cannot be denied or diminished.  Your labor, conjoined with others across the globe, is an island of hope for the advancement of civilization worldwide.  Yes, there is cynicism, failures, and depressing challenges, and the noble context I mention may be taken as sentimentally exaggerated, or even fraudulent, but envision for a moment a world without higher education. Not pretty.  Even if media saturation says the world is going to hell in a hand basket, it is your labor that offers one of the few chances to reduce the size of the basket.
Without going into details,  if we reflect on our local situation in the context of global pandemics of human suffering and loss of hope I think we become acutely aware that the opportunity to work, to celebrate a “labor day,” is a condition to be thankful for.  Almost all the stresses and problems we have are within the realm of amelioration.  In Paradise Lost Milton sees the expulsion from Eden as a “fortunate fall.”  I would say at WNMU our problems rank as fortunate.
That being said, let me return to the real world of what  you do best, and that is take students at all levels and successfully move them to success.  The following data are a good example of who we are and what our “labor” accomplishes.  Notice the number of students in each of the “at-risk” categories in relation to the total number of awards.  For example, 192 students in the “low income” at-risk category achieved a certificate or degree making up 41% of the awards. First generation students represent 44% of the awards. 
Based on the Fall 13-Spring 14 Degree file just submitted to HED, 450 individuals produced 474 awards as follows: (Thanks to Paul Landrum for the data.)
Risk Factors
Deg Level
Total Awards
Low Income
1st Generation
Readmit Stop outs
All 4 Risk Factors Present
Grad Cert
These numbers reveal that we are an open-access university, enrolling a high number of students with at-risk factors.  More importantly, the results reveal that you not only accept the challenge of working in an open-access institution but also that your commitment and abilities are evidenced by the success of the students.  Some would look at the percentages as low, but in comparison to other institutions our “value-added” ratio is exceptional.  In other words, on the at-risk scale you consistently are successful at helping students persevere despite considerable odds, moving them to success at a much greater distance from entrance to exit.  This is a foundational narrative of who we are and what we do.
So, on this labor day weekend it is a fitting occasion to say thanks and to take pride in your work.
Best regards,
Lots is going on here. It was like a Psalm to me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Five Core Questions in Program Prioritization

Coming to Terms with Program Prioritization.

I haven't blogged for a while. That's because I am bad. Maybe this will get me back to it.

I found out yesterday that even though we basically only have one class (I've been fighting for more), no minor or major in the catalog (I've been fighting for one), and only one full-time faculty member (me), that Communication is a "program" at my university and therefore subject to Program Prioritization. That is the process by which programs can be cut, grown or ignored. Most "programs" who found out that they were subject to "prioritization" were pretty ticked about it. I wasn't because I don't think that we could be moved to a much lower priority from where we are. It is time to move up or out, in my opinion.

Those programs subject to "prioritization" were required to write answers to five "Core Questions." Here are my answers with portions referring to specific names redacted.

Question 1:
What was the Communication Program created to do in the first place?

                Of course, we could begin this description in ancient Greece on the island of Sicily where a Communication teacher named Corax began the very first of what could be considered “college level teaching.” We could start hundreds of years later with Aristotle’s text On Rhetoric or much later with Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herrenium which together lay out the basic structures of western studies of Communication and its five canons of Invention, Style, Arrangement, Memory, and Delivery. Perhaps it is best to begin with Augustine and his argument that Communication classes be required for all clergy and the way that morphed into rhetoric (which was and is Communication) being one of the seven basic liberal arts which became the basis for the entire concept of the University. Perhaps it could be discussed that for generations Communication devolved into mere writing devoid of the classical canons of delivery and memory and found its way into English departments, but reemerged powerfully with the Elocutionists of the 19th century. Maybe, an answer would begin with Herbert Wicheln’s 1925 seminal essay "The Literary Criticism of Oratory" which finally separated written rhetoric as taught in those English departments from the full range of rhetoric and Communication more broadly understood, especially speech. All of that would provide a very good understanding of the purpose of a Communication Program, but would take hundreds of pages to do properly. Indeed, many excellent books do just that.
                Instead, it would be good, I think, to begin in 1994 when WNMU officially created their own Communication program. Much of the original purpose of the Communication Program must be ascertained by conjecture since little institutional memory exists on the campus regarding its construction. However, the history of the larger discipline and the university documentation available can provide some indication about why the Communication Program came into existence. According to old catalogs, previous to 1994 WNMU had a “Speech” program and it seems that faculty members were reassigned and many of the classes in that discipline were being renumbered as COMM classes. This reflected a larger trend that was taking place in the discipline. In this same decade, the “National Speech Association” also changed its title to “The National Communication Association.” This was done for a powerful reason. Rhetoric, we were recognizing again, was indeed much larger than the truncated version being taught in English programs and even larger than what could be taught in classes which limited themselves to “Speech.” At this point, the National Communication Association stated as its mission that it would address “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry.”
                Since it was in this era that Western New Mexico University also created its program, it is reasonable to assume that the reason for creating a “Communication” program from the old “Speech” program was much the same at the local level as they were at the national level.  Just teaching writing and public speaking was not enough to function as a University. To be engaged in sound pedagogy and preparing students to communicate in the diverse and technologically dynamic world into which they were moving, a “Speech” program is not enough. Instead a “Communication” program was necessary in which students could learn Communication in “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry,” not just speech. Thus a Communication Program was born.

Question 2:
What is the program doing now?

                A history of staffing difficulties, budget constraints, pressures from the state, accreditation requirements, and a probable lack of vision seem to have deviated the Communication Program at Western New Mexico University from its lofty origins. It has moved more to the background and functions as a service to the larger university. The Communication Program at WNMU now serves two important and necessary functions for the university.
First it allows the students to meet their Area 1 Core Competencies specifically in the areas that require oral and presentation skills. These core competencies are required in the state of New Mexico for all students. This is an absolutely necessary function. Second, it provides a number of competencies in non-print media and oral rhetorical skills required specifically for entry-level Language-Arts teachers to receive their teaching licensure in the state of New Mexico. Given the historic place of WNMU in the training and development of teachers, this is also absolutely necessary.

Question 3:
Should it be doing what it’s doing now?

                Without a doubt, meeting general education and teacher licensure requirements is a necessary and proper role for the Communication Program. However, examining the current role of the program and comparing that with the probable reason for the program’s creation provides an opportunity to consider a fascinating semantic distinction between what is “necessary and proper” and what is “essential.” Things which are “necessary and proper” need to be done, should be done, and if they are not done represent a significant failing. Things which are “essential,” however, are things which are constitutive. They are what provide the “essence” of the program. Without them, the program is empty and meaningless.
                What makes a “Communication Program” a “communication program” is the broad teaching of “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry” as referred to by the National Communication Association. The current faculty member in the Communication (hereafter referred to as “I” or “me”) has published work and presented at conferences in areas such as media ecology, internet law, interpersonal communication, popular culture, communication pedagogy, general semantics, and classical rhetorical theory while at WNMU. This more than qualifies me to provide essential teaching to constitute a true Communication Program. The official teaching of communication, however, has been limited by course requirements and providing necessary and proper teaching of speech.
Certainly, the Communication Program must continue doing what it is doing now, however, it must not only be doing what it is doing now. The Communication Program must provide something more than these necessary functions. It must also provide its essential functions.
I would have to argue that in its current condition the Communication Program at WNMU is doing things that are “necessary and proper” while ignoring things that are “essential.” If the Communication Program is to continue as anything more than a vestigial appendix of a bygone dream this must be addressed.

Question 4:
If not, what should it be doing?

Option 1: the preferred option.

                The Communication Program at WNMU should continue to fulfill its necessary and proper role by providing introductory Public Speaking classes which meet the Area 1 Core Competency requirements for the state of New Mexico and provide the necessary competencies to teachers seeking licensure as Language-Arts teachers. It should also be fulfilling its essential role as defined by the National Communication Association to teach “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry.”

Option 2: a less preferred option.

                The Communication Program at WNMU, being unable due to administrative constraints to fulfill its essential role of teaching “all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry” should be dissolved entirely and the COMM prefix should be removed from the WNMU catalog. The Area 1 Core Competency and Language-Arts teaching requirements should be fulfilled through a different department or departments whose essential components can also be met.

Option 3: the worst option.

                The Communication Program at WNMU can continue exactly as it is. It can continue to fulfill its necessary and proper role by providing introductory Public Speaking classes which meet the Area 1 Core Competency requirements for the state of New Mexico and provide the necessary competencies to teachers seeking licensure as Language-Arts teachers. It will continue to “function” as a program without an essence, without doing what a Communication Program exists to do.

Question 5:
How should it do what it should be doing?

Option 1:

                A proposal for a minor has been presented to the VPAA early in the spring semester of 2014 and awaits his approval to go to the Curriculum and Instruction Committee. If approved this would restore the essence of a Communication Program while continuing to provide the necessary and proper services to the students. Another proposals aimed at restoring the essence of a Communication Program, specifically an Associates of Arts in Communication which will provide two year students with a broad range of skills and knowledge in Communication that they can put to work immediately and that would also provide the basis for a number of Baccalaureate disciplines, is also being studied by the departments. This second proposal would require no more additional classes than the proposed minor. The best possible scenario would be for both proposals to be accepted. If neither of these proposals are accepted, option 1 would be difficult to achieve.


                The Communication Program should be dissolved as follows: I should be reassigned with the current title to a different program. The speech class should follow me into that program and renumbered to meet that new placement. That can be done in a couple ways I can see or perhaps in other ways.
While Communication departments separated from English departments in the 1920’s because of the limited focus of the English discipline, it would be inaccurate to say that English still has that limited focus. Perhaps I should be moved programmatically and officially to English where I could continue to teach Public Speaking under an ENGL prefix to meet the necessary state requirements and other appropriate upper level or graduate classes in rhetorical theory or criticism.  I would continue to be “Assistant [or perhaps by that time ‘Associate’] Professor of Speech and Communication” but in the English program.
Another possibility might be to place me in the newly created Cultural Studies program. Cultural Studies has a history similar to Communication Studies and at many major universities they share faculty. My particular background in media and ethnography might make sense there. I would continue to teach Public Speaking under that program’s prefix to meet the necessary state requirements and other appropriate upper level or graduate classes in cultural studies. I would continue to be “Assistant [or perhaps by that time ‘Associate’] Professor of Speech and Communication” but in the Cultural Studies program.
Other possibilities for my placement exist and these are just two possibilities if the Communication Program were to be dissolved.

Option 3:

                We’d just keep doing what we’ve been doing and it will probably be okay, but something deep and profound will be missing.