January 30, 2019 | Bringing It #8: Reflections on the AAC&U Annual Meeting, RFP Reminders, and More

Dear friends,

The three of us returned from the AAC&U Annual Meeting full of new ideas, new energy, and lots of work to catch up on. In this Bringing It, each of us gives you some personal thoughts about the conference. As we mentioned in our latest number, if you were in Atlanta, please do send us a brief post about the most important insight, session, inspiration, or worry that you took away from the Annual Meeting. We would love to publish an array of brief responses in our next number.

David’s Reflection

It’s a little perverse to love a mega-conference held every winter in bland convention hotels, but I confess to loving AAC&U’s Annual Meeting. Where else can you find two thousand folks passionate about e-portfolios, civic engagement, and undergraduate learning outcomes?

This year was especially satisfying—a chance to showcase BTtoP’s new work and strengthen our community. We offered three fishbowl sessions, on student well-being and equity, work and the purposes of college, and the future of BTtoP itself. All were thought-provoking and inspiring, despite (or rather because of) the candor with which they took on discouraging challenges that confront our students and ourselves as educators.

In each session, the featured discussants began with a mix of story and reflection. Laurie Schreiner worried that academic programs are designed for students to learn but not to thrive. Gilda Sheppard described her adult students at Evergreen State using social theory to make sense of their own job experience. Michelle Fine framed the final fishbowl by asking, “To whom are we accountable?” And each time, as many as twenty attendees tapped into the center circle to add, disagree, listen, worry, and imagine. We hoped the fishbowls would expand our thinking and our community of practice. It did that and more.

Throughout the meeting, I was struck by a recurring note of distressed but committed realism. Our fishbowls surfaced many stories of exhaustion and harm, to students as well as faculty and staff. The conference plenaries focused on the need for higher education to make the case for its value in a time of turmoil. But in the end, the sense of shared purpose—within BTtoP and with many partners—felt stronger to me than the note of beleaguerment.

The terrific higher-ed journalist Goldie Blumenstyk (with whom I also served on a non-BTtoP panel about adult students) posted this excellent set of reflections about the conference in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Mercedes’ Reflection

My most recent experience with AAC&U’s Annual Meeting was marked by risk taking. Both BTtoP and I challenged ourselves to try something different, something challenging, something that could possibly fall flat on arrival. For BTtoP, we decided to depart from our traditional discussion panel in favor of an inclusive and engaging fishbowl format. There was always the possibility that things could go wrong: Would enough people participate? Would anyone show up? Would the logistics crumble?

As I sat in the audience at the Work and the Purposes of College fishbowl, I proudly watched veterans to BTtoP and new allies alike daring to enter the circle, daring to make themselves vulnerable. I was inspired by everyone, especially our inaugural fishes, Gilda Sheppard, Laura Perna, Caroline Coward, and Allen Delong, all of whom fostered an inclusive atmosphere.  

Throughout the fishbowl, I noticed a recurring theme: the need to think intentionally about why students work and what forms of work they undertake. Inspired by our community of practice, I decided to confront a misplaced fear of public speaking and plunged into the fishbowl. I challenged our community to consider nontraditional and often invisible forms of work. Think of the student-athlete balancing a full-time course load with 30 hours a week of practice or the National Guard reservist heading to his or her monthly drill weekend or the student spending the majority of his or her time caring for a sick relative. How do we take these students into account when dealing with issues of work and purposeful, engaged learning?   

For those of you who attended our fishbowl sessions, I’m glad to have allies like you. And for those of you who were unable, I dare you to take the plunge and join us.

Caitlin’s Reflection

This was my 4th AAC&U Annual Meeting – and they get more fun every year! David and Mercedes have already beautifully described the warm and generative spirit of the conference at large, one we hope also extended to the culture of our fishbowl sessions. We gained so much from the conversations and will be working to continue building on each of the three topics. As with our fishbowl format, we welcome our community to be thought-partners in this work – feel free to send us your thoughts.

Well-Being and the Equity Imperative: Our fishbowl session touched on individual vs. community well-being, systemic racism and inequity, self-care, faculty reward systems, and student voice & agency. It was a jumping off point for pursuing this topic as a key BTtoP initiative. We’ll be offering a 3-hour pre-conference workshop on the same theme at AAC&U’s Diversity, Equity, and Student Success conference; and we’ve organized a working group of scholars to design a collaborative project on the same topic, as well as offering a webinar through AAC&U next spring. Stay tuned.

Work and the Purposes of College: BTtoP has had a complex history with the term “work.” We reject the notion that college is a pathway to a job alone or that learning is a means to an end instead of inherently valuable; but we also acknowledge that work can provide life purpose, be intertwined with civic engagement, and contribute to a learner’s sense of agency – not to mention that many students are already working full or part-time in both traditional and nontraditional ways. We want to continue exploring this theme, and we’ve dedicated the summer issue of our triannual newsletter to the theme of this fishbowl. (Reminder that you can always reach out if you’re interested in contributing a piece!)

Building the Community of Change: An Open Call to Envision the Future of Bringing Theory to Practice (and Higher Education): Our third fishbowl invited the audience to imagine the future of higher education and the implication of that vision on BTtoP’s work and mission. Challenges were named and commiserated over – but I found a comment from our “fish” Tessa Hicks Peterson particularly meaningful: that the act of noting problems or even creating fissures in the landscape of higher education is important and necessary. We can call out injustice and find joy in that achievement, believing that the work we do with students will leave the ground a more fertile place.

Something I’d like to point out from all of our sessions was that while we did a lot of talking about students, students themselves were notably absent from the room. BTtoP has long been an advocate for student voice, but we want and need to do a better job at systemically committing ourselves to including students in our strategic thinking and planning. We’ll be noodling with how to involve students in our collaboratories, how to develop a student network and models for student groups in our projects, and playing with new ways to reach the student population, like podcasts and social media. We invite your thoughts and advice.

Finally, a few shout-outs: thank you to our brilliant initial fishes and to all who contributed so thoughtfully and provocatively to the fishbowl discussions. Thank you to all who were able to make time to join us at our Annual Reception – it’s an event we look forward to all year. And last but certainly not least, a huge thank you to our friends and partners at AAC&U, who work year-round to make the conference possible (and fabulous)!

Final Reminder to Apply for Our Multi-Institutional Innovation (MIG) Grants

Last December, we announced a new funding opportunity for colleges, universities, and other higher education organizations: Multi-Institutional Innovation Grants, with awards of up to $7,000. These grants will fund multi-institutional collaborations that use innovative practices, programs, policies, or research to advance BTtoP’s commitments to educating the whole student, equity and inclusion, and creative innovation. Proposals are due by Monday, February 4th, and awards will be announced by March 15, 2019. For the complete RFP, please visit: https://www.bttop.org/grants-funding/funding-opportunities.

Stay Tuned for a New Request for Proposals: AMP Grants

In mid-February, BTtoP will issue an RFP for a new grant opportunity: Amplifying, Disseminating, and Increasing the Public Reach of Research and Practice (AMP) Grants. AMP grants will offer between $500 and $3,000 for activities that increase the public reach of work previously supported by BTtoP. These grants may be used to support a range of activities, including campus-to-campus consulting visits, multi-campus convenings, public writing, and the release of digital and media products. Proposals will be accepted on a rolling basis starting March 1, 2018, with award announcements beginning on April 1, 2018. Once released, the full RFP will be available on BTtoP’s Funding Opportunities page. We hope you’ll stay tuned and start brainstorming!

David Presenting Free Webinar on Adult Learners in Higher Ed

David will be presenting a webinar on adult students—“The Crossroads of Change: Why Adult Learners Are So Important to the Future of Higher Education (and Vice Versa)”—on Monday, February 11, 1-2 PM EST. The webinar is sponsored by Empire State College, an adult-serving college in the State University of New York, as part of its “Revisioning Adult Higher Education Webinar Series.” Here is a flyer with more information on and a link to the webinar; all are welcome to attend, and no registration is required.

With thanks and warm regards,

Caitlin, Mercedes, and David