Telling Stories

Storybooks on a shelfLast week I participated in a workshop sponsored jointly by the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) and Swarthmore College.  It was an intense three-day experience, in which about a dozen participants were taught the basics of constructing an effective narrative using images, music, and voice.   The folks from CDS (Andrea Spagat, Lisa Nelson-Haynes) were just wonderful – skilled, patient, experienced – as were our ITS staff members who supported the workshop (Doug Willens, Michael Jones, and Eric Behrens).

I had wanted to learn more about this technology to see if it might be a useful way for IR to share information with the community.  I can envision short, focused instructional vignettes, such as tips on constructing surveys, everyday assessment techniques, or even how to interpret a particular factbook table that is vexing.   (Generally, a table that requires instructions ought to be thrown out!)   We may try one of these and see how it goes.

I learned about the technology, but I also learned some amazing stories about my Swarthmore colleagues who participated with me.   These stories often reflect important personal experiences, which could have been difficult to share if it weren’t such a supportive environment.  An unexpected outcome of the workshop is that a group of colleagues all got to know each other a lot better!

Catching our breath…

A lynx resting
photo by Tambako the Jaguar

It’s hard to believe that this semester is finally drawing to a close.   The multitudes of followers to our blog may have noticed our sparse posts this spring…   Shifting responsibilities, timing of projects, and just the general “stuff” of IR have left us little time to keep up.

Part of my own busy-ness has been due to an increased focus on assessment, as mentioned in an earlier post.  This spring, the Associate Provost and I met with faculty members in each of our departments to talk about articulating goals and objectives for student learning.   In spite of our being there to discuss what could rightly be perceived as another burden, these were wonderful meetings in which the participants inevitably ended up discussing their values as educators and their concerns for their students’ experiences at Swarthmore and beyond.  In spite of the time it took to plan, attend, and follow-up on each of these meetings, it has been an inspiring few months.

Spring “reporting” is mostly finished.  Our IPEDS and other external reports are filed, our Factbook is printed, and our guidebook surveys have been completed (although we are now awaiting the “assessment and verification” rounds for US News).  Soon we will capture our “class file” –  data reflecting this year’s graduates and their degrees, and that closes the year for freezing and most of the basic reporting of institutional data.

We also are fielding two major surveys this spring, our biennial Senior Survey (my project) and a survey of Parents (Alex’s project).    Even though we are fortunate to work within a consortium that provides incredibly responsive technical support for survey administration, the projects still require a lot of preparation in the way of coordinating with others on campus, creating college-specific questions, preparing correspondence, creating population files, trouble-shooting, etc.  The Senior Survey is closed, and I will soon begin to prepare feedback reports to others on campus.   The Parents Survey is still live, and will keep Alex busy for quite some time.

As we turn to summer and the hope of having a quieter time in which to catch up, we anticipate focusing on our two projects that are faculty grant-funded.   We don’t normally work on faculty projects – only when they are closely related to institutional research.

We are finishing our last year of work with the Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant.  IR supports the assessment of the peer mentor programs (focusing on the Biology and Mathematics and Statistics Departments) through analysis of institutional and program experience data, and surveys of student participants.   We will be processing the final year’s surveys, and then  I will be updating and finalizing a comprehensive report on these analyses that I prepared last summer.

Alex is IR’s point person for the multi-institutional Sloan-funded CUSTEMS project, which focuses on the success of underrepresented students in the sciences.  Not only does he provide our own data for the project, but he will be working with the project leadership on “special studies,” conducting multi-institutional analyses beyond routine reporting to address special research needs.

I wonder if three months from now I’ll be writing… “It’s hard to believe this busy summer is finally ending!”

Autonomy and Assessment

Swarthmore presents an interesting mix of uniformity and decentralization.  As a residential, undergraduate liberal arts institution, it is easy to summarize.  Our size is small, and retention and graduation rates are very strong so that enrollment is very predictable from year to year (about 1500).  There are no graduate students.   Generating enrollment projections can be downright boring!   Standards are high for students coming in and going out.  Our faculty is heavily reliant on tenure lines.  There are no separate schools creating the silos that are so vexing to my counterparts trying to do institutional research at larger colleges and universities.

But due to a history and culture of very strong faculty governance, our departments are among the most autonomous that I’ve seen, even at very similar institutions.  The most important decisions are made with considerable input by and deference to the faculty, if not by the faculty itself.    On one hand that means that members of the administration are generally regarded in a collegial manner, and that once decisions are made, they are truly made.  On the other hand it can be a delicate matter to introduce change, especially change necessitated by external forces.  Though occasionally frustrating (and quite slow), I think this is generally an excellent thing.  (It does, however, take quite a toll on our faculty in terms of their workload.)

When Swarthmore, like most institutions, was first “dinged” by our accrediting agency for not doing enough formal assessment (2004), the initial response was understandable indignation.  Self-reflection and evaluation is what we do best.  We talk endlessly about what we do, how we do it, and how we could it better – in committees, in hallways, with our students, alumni, and each other.  I have never met anyone here who doesn’t care deeply about serving our students.

But upon gathering ourselves to address this concern, the faculty designated an ad hoc committee – comprised entirely of faculty.  This group considered the criticism, looked at what we do and what we might do better, and in 2006 recommended a plan.  This plan was discussed by the entire faculty, modified, and finally approved by the faculty, and stands as our foundational document for academic assessment.  It’s an elegant document.  They took a thoughtful and measured approach, included key elements and ideas that we’ll use and build on for years, and the best part is, the faculty owns it.

We are now at a stage of identifying places where we need to bolster our efforts in assessment.  My position has been modified so that I now report one third time to the Provost’s Office to work with faculty on this process.  It has been my privilege to participate in meetings with chairs in each division this past fall, and at those meetings I am struck again by the autonomy of our faculty, departments, and programs.  As an outsider, it is a little scary.  Though no one here is interested in creating a uniform approach or in any way dictating to departments what they should do for assessment, particular steps ought to be taken for the process to be meaningful, and I wonder how that will happen.  But then I remember what it is that the faculty are fiercely protecting – it’s not about turf, it’s about students and the experiences the department is providing them.   Since assessment is itself about student learning,  I have no doubts that the members of the faculty will make it work.

A few of my favorite things…

Red Tree
Photo by Will.Hopkins

In a recent post I mentioned one of the things that amused me about Swarthmore when I first started working here. That got me to thinking about all the things that I found, then and now, to be so charming.  So in this Thanksgiving season, I thought I’d share a few of them …

  • Candy or snacks in all of the student services offices, as well as many academic department offices.
  • The occasional frisbee flying into my office (when I was on the third floor) from the adjacent wing of Parrish – which is a men’s residence hall .
  • Former Dean Bob Gross’s springer spaniel, Happy, roaming the hallways looking for the dog treats available to him in all the offices.    And all the other dogs around campus – George and Ali, the bookstore dogs, Dobby, and the rest.
  • Jake Beckman’s (’04) artwork – the big chair on Parrish lawn, the giant sneakers hanging off a chimney of Parrish, and the giant lightswitch on McCabe Library.
  • The tin of candy that one of my colleagues brings to meetings she attends, for sharing.  Round and round the table it goes…  sweet!
  • The fact that so few people refer to their own titles when introducing themselves – just their office.  (A little confusing at first, perhaps, but that’s alright.)
  • The Swarthmore train station (regional rail) at the end of Magill walkway.   In the snow.  It’s like a postcard.
  • The beautiful portrait (painted by Swarthmore’s Professor of Studio Art Randall Exon) in the entryway of Parrish of Gil Stott with his cello.
  • Discovering the hidden talents and passions of people who work here.  There are singers, actors, stargazers, songwriters, woodworkers, animal activists, knitters, world travelers – it’s amazing!
  • The “honker,” which is the Swarthmore’s fire station’s version of a siren.  Of course I’m not happy to think there might be a tragedy – I just enjoy its uniqueness.
  • The labels on all the trees and plantings, because the College grounds are the awesomely gorgeous Scott Arboretum.

I’m sure there are many things I’ve missed.  I’d love to hear about others’ favorites!