Bringing It #98: A Gathering of Changemakers, Planning and Action Forums, and a New Colleague
We were in San Francisco last week, first for the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) and then for a weekend strategic retreat of our Paradigm Project’s Working Group. The AAC&U meeting was, as always, full of sessions and conversations with colleagues who are “reclaiming liberal education” (the conference title) by making it more equitable, engaged, and innovative. One highlight: an extraordinary presentation-performance by the playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith, centered on her own practice as a teacher and on empathy and presence as the heart of equitable education. Kudos to our AAC&U friends for hosting such a generative conference.
The Paradigm Working Group (PWG) retreat was something special. The PWG has been meeting virtually since last summer, but this was our first opportunity to have sustained, embodied conversation and planning. We explored the values of the Paradigm Project: the aspirations we have for all students, our vision of systemic change in higher education, our commitments for guiding the project itself. We discussed what might count as success at the end of seven years. We distilled key activities, partnerships, and ‘deliverables’ that, working together, could get us there. And we reminded ourselves that (as Anna Deavere Smith might have put it) this change-work requires and rewards empathy and presence. The retreat was a powerful mix of visioning and practical planning; we will bring you some of those visions and plans in coming issues.
Peter Felten, a member of the PWG, offered this reflection on the Working Group retreat and the change-work we discussed.
Weavers, doulas, and radicals: Who are the changemakers in higher education?
— Peter Felten, Elon University/Carleton University
This past weekend, the Paradigm Working Group met to talk, dream, and plan together. We used a variety of words to describe change and change-making. My notes are brimming with vivid language: Renewal. Unlearning. Grief. Harm. Braid. Humble. Playful. Daring. Inflection.
Some of my favorite words from our dialogue describe change makers: Weaver. Teacher. Stylist. Ancestor. Fellow. Scholar. Doula. Advocate. Learner. Radical. Mentor.
These words paint quite different pictures, evoking varied images and identities of change makers. At face value a “fellow” seems to be something distinctly different than a “doula.” And what about a change-maker as a “stylist” who, as one Paradigm Working Group member suggested, helps us see things in ourselves and in our world that we didn’t imagine were even possible?
Beyond playfully reflecting on the imagery and meaning of these words, I’ve been wrestling with the position of change makers – and of myself – in the current system. What does it mean to think of myself as a weaver or an advocate or a radical at this moment? What do those terms enable, and what do they obscure? To put this in stark terms, if American higher education is fundamentally inequitable and inhumane, if we are failing to meet the urgent needs of our students and the grand challenges of our world, what have I been doing with my career? How complicit am I in this broken system? Who am I to be a changemaker when I have–and continue to–benefit from the current paradigm?
This academic year, I have the privilege and pleasure to be on a Fulbright fellowship at Carleton University in Ottawa. One of my colleagues here, Professor Alexis Shotwell, has written and spoken brilliantly about this issue of complicity. I encourage you to read her 2016 book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times–or, for a brief introduction, to dig into this interview of her from The Atlantic.
Shotwell writes about climate, ecology, and economics, but her insights seem resonant to me in our work to reimagine and reinvent higher education: “if we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid.” She urges us to think less about our own individual responsibility for the current situation, and to embrace “distributed ethics” where the central question is not “‘How am I going to solve all these huge and enormous things,’ but instead ‘What can I work on? What’s within my reach? What am I connected to?’”
Shotwell is not conceding that we must accept the current paradigm. Instead, she invites and urges us to work together toward fundamental change by embracing who and where we are–and by taking on the role that inspires and connects us, whether we see ourselves as weavers, doulas, or radicals.
CLDE Planning and Action Forums Continue
The CLDE Coalition and the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy are hosting a series of five Planning and Action Forums called College Civic Learning for an Engaged Democracy. The second forum, “Bridging the Divides, Including All Students: Diversity, Equity, and High-Impact Civic Learning Pathways, will be held Feb. 6-7. (David will be a member of the plenary panel kicking off the event.) Find the full agenda and registration details online. The forums are virtual, free, and open to all. If you were unable to attend Forum One, you can find the recordings here. Encourage your colleagues to join you, and use the forum to develop your institution’s priorities for making college civic learning both expected and empowering.
Introducing Grace Richey
We are thrilled to welcome Grace to our team as a Communications Intern. She is a second-year student at Elon University studying Strategic Communications and Digital Art. Grace is also a member of the Public Relations Student Society of America, an on-campus student-led group focused on networking, professional development, and other skills useful for students studying communications. Her energy, skillset, and classroom learning will inform our social media, the BT2P website, and the Bringing It bi-weekly email. Welcome, Grace!
Thanks for staying in touch, contributing to our work, and for all that you do,
David, Paul, Todd, Tammy, and Grace