Experience, Education, and the Public Sphere in a Pandemic
“We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.” John Dewey, Experience and Education
Dewey once said that the isolation of school is a type of isolation from life. He was arguing that the school needed to value the lessons from home, to bring the real-life of students and the things they are doing and feeling into the classroom, not separated from the classroom. What happens when school has to be from home? For us, watching our kindergartner start her first day of school via zoom felt like a little bit of death, and yet, there she was, happily singing and dancing to the days of the week with her fellow students in their little picture box windows like a Brady Bunch introduction. Kids are better at rising to the occasion in which they live –– perhaps they know no other way. And while most of the talk about fully online college is about what doesn’t work well –– our fears about student equity gaps, about students not feeling like they belong, about not creating the best situation from which to learn –– still, there are so many amazing things happening and that could happen. Perhaps the greatest democratization of our education system comes from our ability to learn from anywhere.
And yet, we have spent so much time at our university rebuilding spaces, redesigning classes, rethinking pedagogies, trying to help our students feel they belong, creating a sense of place and attachment to our community and campus. We have worked to erase the “town and gown” divide in a city that loathes and loves our students. And now, they feel gone. We all feel gone. We write this from our home offices, our remodeled garages, and teach with our virtual backgrounds of our campus to feel like we just might still be there. All of us.
In the First-Year Experience Program at California State University, Chico, we have worked for many years to create huge Public Sphere programs to reach as many first-year students as possible (if not all), to help them develop academic identities and a sense of belonging. First and foremost, we have Public Sphere Pedagogy events connected to courses every first-year student must take. For Political Science (American Government) we put on a large Town Hall event where students study policy issues all semester, and toward the end of the semester, we put them in large rooms with local policy experts in those areas to share and discuss ideas. For the Communications Department (Small Group and Individual speech), we offer a Chico Great Debate where we take over the city plaza and the City Council chambers to host themed speeches, debates, conversations, and expos where students share work about a specific topic with other students and community members in a public space. We also do a large-scale public event around sustainability issues. However, on top of the events, we have embedded peer mentors in specifically designed courses that are flipped and project-based. In all, we reach 2,000 students each semester and employ 40-50 student staff members to make this happen.
When COVID-19 first started to grow and we began sending students home early to spring break, none of us thought we would never come back. Still, we modified, we worked with faculty to see what and how we could alter our programs, and a lot of them were canceled or greatly reduced. Our own staff scattered and we tried to hold on to them, encourage them, find work for them. In the end, we operate under the idea that the problem is the work. It has been a mantra of ours. Perhaps, like Dewey once said, “the path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made.” Our program exists to solve problems, problems of retention, belonging, engagement, and more. We tell our faculty that we are here to help them help their students better. We have taught our student staff to love the problem and to realize they are part of a system working to make education better for everyone.
And so, we have moved forward, offering all our Public Sphere work online. We learned from a few successes last semester when everyone had a lot of grace, and we are building upon that. In fact, and this is hard to say even for us, perhaps this is even better. Perhaps students mentoring students from completely different parts of the state works. Perhaps bringing students together to give speeches, with their parents and siblings in the background, actually bridges gaps for first-generation students. Perhaps it is easier for more community members and policy experts to log on, turn on a camera, and listen to students wrestle with policies and offer suggestions. And perhaps we learn to belong to something even larger than a university or a community –– to a system of ideas and thinking and cooperation. Maybe we are foolish optimists, but isn’t that why we all teach anyways –– because in each student we hope they, too, will help us make incremental changes of good?
The problems abound us. If not a global pandemic, we have forest fires –– massive, choking fires that send our communities fleeing. Often it feels like the entire north state has been burning non-stop. A few years ago, the local dam almost gave way, and again, people fled and sheltered. In one of Dewey’s more famous quotes, a quote that guides us in much of our work, he said we must give students something to do, not to learn, but something that demands thinking and connecting and that learning will naturally follow. He goes on to say that what they do must not be “routine or capricious” and that the real litmus of what they are doing is in the quality of the problem. Life abounds us with problems with which we need our students’ engagement. We don’t love the problems, but we love how purposeful we can make our education in the process.
The First-Year Experience Program at CSU Chico is led by Director Ellie Clifford Ertle, Program Coordinator Aralia Ramirez, Assessment Coordinator Nate Millard, Faculty Fellow for First-Year Pedagogies & Partnerships Lindsey Serrao, and Office Coordinator Rana Marshall. Learn more about Bringing Theory to Practice’s work with the First-Year Experience Program at CSU Chico.