Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Re-Examining Academic Expectations: Using Self-Study to Promote Academic Justice and Student Retention

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Re-Examining Academic Expectations: Using Self-Study to Promote Academic Justice and Student Retention

Article excerpt

With the current national and state economic strain and budget cuts in higher education, enrollment at universities has become an important issue. One way to boost enrollment is to maintain enrollment, retaining students who might otherwise discontinue their university studies. Although students leave for a variety of reasons, it is often due to academic discouragement. As some students are less prepared for higher education than others, learning and disciplined study may be more challenging for them. Now, more than ever, faculty members are called on to assist their universities with student retention. Student retention requires a shift in our expectations, how we view our roles, and how we approach our teaching. Many of us cannot teach the way we were taught, nor can we afford to have the unjust expectations of yesteryear if we want to retain our students. Gone are the days of saying on the first day of class, "Look to the left; look to the right; only one of you will still be here at the end of the semester." This elitist tradition causes some students to be academically disenfranchised. By finding ways to help students succeed rather than weeding out unprepared students, we create social justice in an academic sense. For the purpose of this article, the authors define the term academic justice as recognizing students' individual intellectual and cultural capital, and scaffolding their knowledge and skills with available resources to give them equal opportunities for success. We must shift from expecting students to predictably distribute themselves along a bell curve of academic performance to one of re-examining our teaching practices to maximize their likelihood of success. But it can be a rocky road during the first couple of years as new professors. Pitt suggests that "hopelessness and helplessness" among new educators are recurring themes. (1) We are not automatically wired for such introspection while coping with new job duties and learning the ropes of life on the tenure track. Frustration and other negative emotions can preempt self-examination. However, in response to Pitt's claim, Liston discourages educators from dismissing such negative emotions by suggesting that "... sustained conversations about new teachers' and veteran teachers' sense of hopelessness and helplessness should be welcomed, encouraged, and engaged." (2)

Believing as does Liston, that there is value in exploring these feelings as part of our professional growth, rather than sweeping them under the rug, we were led to ask, "How do the thoughts of new junior faculty change over two years' time to provide academic justice for their students, regardless of preparation, skill levels, or life situations?" This research question frames the following self-study by six new tenure-track professors.

The impetus for this study originated in a casual conversation between the authors. While sitting around a table in the faculty dining room, we began relating stories concerning our first few weeks of teaching. Each of us acknowledged similar experiences with students, articulating the stress, frustration and anxiety that many new faculty face. We began to search for solutions. The synergy produced by this ongoing group inquiry has produced understandings that each of us might not have gained by ourselves. Palmer and Zajonc suggest that "we often reflect, understand, and act in solitude. But we thrive on what arises between us--and never more so than when we are thinking and speaking about ideas and people for whom we deeply care." (3) As a result, our view of those people, our students, and how we teach them changed.

In her work The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer identifies five psychological states, "mindful states" that promote understanding: (1) openness to novelty, (2) alertness to distinction, (3) sensitivity to different contexts, (4) awareness of different perspectives, and (5) orientation in the present. (4) This description of mindfulness provides insight into the reasons that new faculty and their students might not initially share similar expectations or fully understand themselves or each other. …

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