The Weekly Blab
Vol. 1, Number 14—January 25, 2007
Here we go with the lucky fourteenth issue of the Weekly Blab—Our Big Academic Planning issue. Please—share your thoughts! Bear in mind that some of the items that may appear here may later disappear without a trace upon further consideration, due to their preliminary nature!
This official spring tally has wound up being about 4138, as compared to 3734 last spring. This constitutes a 10.8% increase from last year. As mentioned earlier, it’s an all time high for a spring semester. The fall to spring retention rate was 98.4%, a very good number.
ITEM: Academic Planning
The first academic planning task force meeting was held last Wednesday, and we began our discussions of how we would move forward (and other logistical issues). The task force had the bad sense to select me as chair, so now they’re stuck with me. I gave them a homework assignment to send in a list of five basic questions (such as: “What will research look like at SPSU in five years”). I’ve received a batch of them already, and when I’ve got them all compiled, I’ll share them with the community.
A lot of people have said that they’re wondering what the academic planning path will look like and what we’re trying to accomplish with it. I thought I might use this issue of the BLAB to take a stab at answering these questions, and lay down a few ideas for folks to respond to. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, here they are.
First: There are lots of academic issues we need to deal with, dealing with such things as how to increase our recognition and prestige, what new programs we might add, how to better support current programs, faculty and students, research, facilities, engineering and its relationship to ET, etc., etc. There are many more issues than any committee can possibly deal with. So—we’re going to have to make some choices of what goes on the table, what gets put off until later and what we choose not to deal with at all. We’ll select the topics we choose to deal with first in a collegial fashion, giving folks an opportunity to help us make the selection.
Second: The outcome of this process will be an Academic Affairs report, which will be updated and extended every semester or so. The report is going to start with trying to paint a picture of what SPSU will look like in 10 years, so that’s where the academic planning process will start. This needs to be a picture that is sufficiently compelling and clear to make prospective students sit up and say “Hmm…that’s a place I’d like to learn”, prospective faculty say “That’s a place I’d like to teach”, and current faculty and staff say “That’s a vision I’d like to stay and work towards.” Or, looking at it in another way, it’s a picture that students could say “Hmm, that’s not for me” or that current faculty and staff could say “That’s a picture that I’m fundamentally out of tune with. Either I need to look at things differently, or I need to find a place to work that’s more in tune with me.” Either way, we need to describe our future selves clearly enough so that people can make these fundamental choices.
What might such a picture look like? Well—Joel Fowler (our Mathematics renaissance man) submitted a pretty good example about one picture of what research at SPSU might look like. A prize (a Benny Goodman CD) goes to the first person who identifies both “Z” names in Joel’s essay. No fair using Google or going to Joel for clues.
While other universities see themselves as primarily either teaching focused or research focused, Southern Polytechnic State University continues to mature in its role as Georgia's premier university dedicated to doing and linking both. The faculty's research areas, teaching and scholarly activity benefiting students, show that they take the traditional term "teaching scholars" very seriously. There is little disconnect between the research they do and their classroom teaching. Their two primary research areas reflect this. Study within their fields, focused on creating knowledge that is classroom usable, is supplemented by the study of teaching and effective communication. Since SPSU began its drive to be the institution of choice for an integrated experience of knowledge and education, students come to SPSU expecting to be challenged and with high expectations of their professor's teaching. They are not disappointed. At all levels of the curriculum students are expected to think and work with faculty as scholars themselves, while faculty are expected to guide students with deep knowledge of both their disciplines and teaching. Sophomore student Zaphod Beeblebrox put it best: "My [SPSU] professors really know their stuff, but they can really get it across. They're always bringing interesting things into the classroom they just learned that really help me appreciate what we're studying. I've never been so challenged, but I've also never felt so much support for my learning. The faculty really care. I'm working right now in a group of students with Professor Zaius on a time travel project. I'm not sure who's learning more doing it, him or us."
Whether you agree or not that this is the direction we should go, this paints a picture that is readily understandable and that makes a compelling case that prospective students and faculty and current faculty can respond to.
Third: We will be identifying the attributes that will allow SPSU to become the place described in the “painting”. In order to reach those attributes, we’ll have to take an objective look at where we are now, so that we can figure out what we have to do to get from here to there.
Fourth: We’ll have to establish multiple “mini-strategic plans” which will have timelines, budgets, personnel, etc. What’s more, we’ll have to identify where the money is coming from. Some of these attributes will no doubt involve new programs. Some will involve enhancements of existing programs. Some will deal with pedagogy, and some with advisement/retention issues. And some, I’m sure, will deal with more “touchy-feely” stuff—how can we increase the sense of ownership and belonging among our faculty? Among our students?
Finally: We’ll have to choose among the plans. Ah yes, the dreaded “P” word—prioritize. In many ways, this is the toughest part, because many people think that prioritization is merely making choices between good and bad, and selecting good. In reality, it’s always a choice between good and good. Inevitably, some good things won’t be selected.
Now for the promised philosophical rantings. Please keep in mind that these are my views, and you are encouraged to jump in with yours and argue with me (or even agree!).
In no particular order:
1. There already is a Georgia Tech. The state doesn’t need a second one. We need to figure out how we’re going to do engineering (and engineering technology, and science) without trying to be Georgia Tech Jr. I think that this has been a serious problem in the past, and has kept us from being as innovative as I know we can be.
2. I think we need to change our fundamental attitude toward our students. We have a reputation as a “sink or swim” institution—again, not as much as Georgia Tech has this rep, but badly enough. We have to stop reacting to every change with “that will water down the curriculum” or “that will weaken the quality of our graduates”. At the present moment, about ¾ of our students don’t graduate. There are certainly lots of reasons for this, some we can fix and some we can’t. And the answer is not to “lower standards” and give away the degrees. But the answer also isn’t trying to jam in so much to our students that they are the equivalent of French geese being stuffed to make paté.
We have to change our attitudes to “Our job is to get the students (maybe even kicking and screaming) over the finish line”, meeting them where they are when we accept them. Our curriculum needs to be fine-tuned to the students as they actually are, not as we wish they were. Notice I’m not saying we need to move the finish line—the finish line is fine where it is. We need to change the track (how we do things) with the goal of helping our students reach that finish line. Think about this—what would SPSU look like if our reputation was as the “can do” place—a place where students knew they would maximize their chances of success by enrolling?
3. We can’t reach our goals by making the job easier on ourselves. That we can improve the academics and reputation and whatever of SPSU by increasing our admission standards is a bad idea. We take in students who are perfectly capable of succeeding in each of our majors. The number who are intellectually unable to do the work is vanishingly small (less than 10%, in my opinion). The point is not that the students who don’t succeed can’t do the work, the point is that they don’t do the work, usually due to lack of motivation. And that lack of motivation comes from many sources, some which we can’t deal with (family issues intervening, for example) but others that we can, by fine tuning our curriculum, by strong advising, by strong mentoring, by better pedagogy, by involving students in research, and lots of other things. Motivation can be learned and developed. How we’re going to do it better is a key part of academic planning.
4. Finally, we have to put aside the past. Yes, those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but those who only live in the past don’t have to worry about repeating it because they never have a chance to change anything for the better. We have to put aside the fears and recriminations from the past, and pull together in this academic planning process to reach our future. Our knee-jerk response to things can’t be “no” all the time, implying that what we’re doing is perfect the way it is.
OK—enough ranting. Let me know your thoughts.