November 7, 2018 | Bringing It #3

Dear friends,

This is our first Bringing It in a few weeks, following two recent e-blasts to the full contact list of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. One is the fall issue of our triannual newsletter focused on the role of creativity and creative practice in the kind of holistic, engaged education to which BTtoP is committed. The other is an infographic that offers an overview of the accomplishments of Bringing Theory to Practice in our first fifteen years. (We’ve been struck by responses to our recent survey that many friends and participants may not be aware of the full range and extent of this work.) We hope you received these; we invite you to look at them if you haven’t had the chance already.

Meanwhile, we’ve been keeping busy. On October 26th, we held a daylong retreat with members of the BTtoP Advisory Board and other thought-partners, generously hosted by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The discussion was wide-ranging and generative. Stay tuned for announcements of new initiatives.

What We’re Learning From Our Friends & Partners
We also joined several hundred attendees at the National Gathering of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA), in Chicago on October 19-21. IA is a consortium of higher-ed institutions and cultural organizations committed to democratic cultural work and the role of the arts, humanities, and design in public life. David has been active in IA since its inception in 1998, but this was Caitlin’s and Mercedes’ first time at the annual meeting. Here’s Mercedes’ reflection on the experience:

I am a newcomer to the higher education scene, yet I’ve attended enough conferences to know that Imagining America’s National Gathering is unlike any other. Taking place in Chicago, the National Gathering seamlessly interwove performance and scholarship around the theme of decarceration, policing, and liberatory futures. From the opening session—which combined discussion panels, a librarian-rapper (a “rap-brarian”), and an autobiographical performance piece—to an inspiring play, Time Alone, every event felt electric.  A number of panels and performances stand tall in my mind: for example, a discussion about knowledge production by formerly incarcerated scholars, a panel about the impact of incarceration on Chicago communities, a student-led talk about inclusive approaches to civic engagement, and a performance of On the Row, a set of true stories from Arkansas’ death row.

What I found most striking, however, was the passion in every classroom, theater, hallway, and person. In contrast to other conferences I’ve attended, Imagining America’s National Gathering offered an intimate space where everyone could afford to be vulnerable, spurring genuine and generative discussions as well as future collaborations. I’ll never forget the sense of excitement I felt as part of the overflow crowd in Campus Compact’s session on reimagining civic learning and engagement. It encapsulated Imagining America’s National Gathering for me: a classroom packed with dedicated people, harnessing an energy, sense of urgency, and collaboration that I haven’t found in conference ballrooms.  


Photo courtesy of Imagining America

We also heard from our friend Harry Boyte of Augsburg University. Harry is a long-time leader in the movement for democratic engagement in higher education; in response to our invitation for news and reflections, he offered this post about civic skill-building on college campuses. He discusses this theme more fully in a recent op-ed, “Nonviolence As a Different Kind of Power,” in the MinnPost and his new book, Awakening Democracy through Public Work.

Creating a Nonviolent Counterforce on Campus
By Harry C. Boyte

Many dynamics, including the use of social media by powerful interests and hyper-partisan politics, inflame intergroup hatred these days. Here and there, colleges are creating a nonviolent counterforce. Denison University illustrates.

Denison’s mix of students includes 40 percent students of color and many rural whites. President Adam Weinberg points out that the University’s residential communities are ideal settings to learn civic skills.

Controversies abound at Denison as elsewhere, from polarization and racial tensions to arguments over loud music. The school empowers students to work through such conflicts, teaching skills of public work. All residential staff, called community advisors, meet one-on-one with students to get to know them. This fall, they have already had more than 600 such meetings. In the process, students learn civic practices like hearing each other’s stories and sustained discussion of controversial issues.

Léna Crain, director of residential life, believes that relational skill-building is making a difference. She points to a recent student-organized conversation on controversies of “party culture,” which brought together critics of parties and leaders from fraternities that organize them. Students wrote word associations on a board—“fun,” “social,” “violent,” “unsafe”—and discussed the conflicting experiences these evoked. Then they turned to ideas for action. These included moving parties away from residential rooms into multipurpose spaces and developing student led-training. Students are planning next steps. Such relational work, says Ivy Distle, a student leader, helps to break down campus bubbles.

Such experiences could point toward 21st century nonviolence with colleges taking leadership. It also suggests a rebirth of productive citizenship that ties work, paid and unpaid, to the gritty, practical, and also elevating efforts across differences that can rebuild a sense of democracy and commonwealth that we share.

What We’re Reading

As we mentioned in the last Bringing It, we’re excited to post your thoughts about readings that might be of interest to the BTtoP community. Caroline Coward sent us this comment about Cathy Davidson’s important new book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University To Prepare Students For a World in Flux. Caroline is a librarian at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and served for many years as a librarian and faculty member at CSU Dominguez Hills; she writes:

Davidson examines long held institutional structures and practices in higher education, and explains in detail why they are no longer relevant or effective in our current society. After outlining the history of the modern university over the last 150 years, she describes examples of innovative solutions to sticky problems such as retention, GPA, diversity and equity, and time to graduation. She also advocates for tearing down the topical department-school-college structure, as well as completely rethinking the funding model, for both students and government agencies. The book just won the AAC&U Frederic W. Ness award – a feat in itself for telling such an intractable institution as higher education what it’s doing wrong - and how to fix it.

Keep Bringing Your Voice
Many thanks to Caroline Coward and Harry Boyte for answering so immediately our call to contribute to Bringing It. If you have ideas for posts (approximately 250 words, please) or comments about readings (100 words), we welcome your thoughts. We want Bringing It to serve not only as communications from us to you, but as a platform for shared work and conversation across the BTtoP community.

In that spirit, here’s one more invitation. As mentioned in our previous notes, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of collaboration among campuses and educators as a way to leverage innovation and positive change in higher education. BTtoP is already planning the launch of several collaborative projects in the coming months. But we realize that you’ll have your own ideas about issues and initiatives on which you might want to join with others in our community. So let us know: what collaborative projects would you suggest? What themes are important to you? Please send your ideas—even your half-baked intuitions—to info@bttop.org.

As always, we look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your interest and for the work you do advancing the core purposes of education.

Best,

Mercedes, David, and Caitlin