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Transcript: Episode 001– Building Community, Then and Now

Jen:  Lee Knefelkamp speaking about assessment in 1989 said this about a well-conceived assessment process, “It works to connect us with each other and moves us forward. It can help us understand ourselves and our fellow educators and the community we create together to serve students and promote learning. In this way assessment is transformative. And whether or not we’re comfortable with it, assessment is about revolution.”

Intro:  You’re listening to Assessment Matters, the podcast that features the good work of educators, connects like-minded practitioners, and explores issues vital to the evolution of higher education. Join my boss, Bill Moore, and me, Jen Whetham. Let’s explore what assessment is, what it isn’t, and imagine together what it just might be.

Jen:  Today’s episode is called Building Community Then and Now. And I’m Jen Whetham. I’m the program administrator for Faculty Development at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical colleges, so SBCTC. And I’d like my boss to introduce himself now.

Bill:  Hi, there. I’m Jen’s co-host, Bill Moore, and I’m the director of K12 partnerships for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. And I really appreciate you all being out there and listening to our inaugural broadcast.

Jen:  Yes, we are really grateful to you. So there’s about 8500 faculty who teach in our 34 Community and Technical Colleges here in Washington State. And this podcast is for you. We’re going to be talking a little bit more about what that means throughout this first episode. We worked really hard on the content for our first episode, and we’re excited to share it with you. So Bill, take it away.

Bill:  Thanks, Jen. So I think we wanted to kick things off by just providing a little bit of historical context not to belabor things, but just to sort of let you know what we have in mind here, where we’re going with this, and where this work has been, and why we’re taking the approach we’re trying to take here. So I’ve been with the agency since 1990 actually, and we are launching this in this brand-new year of 2018. So I’ve been around for a long time and focusing on assessment teaching and learning issues in the system for the Washington Higher Education System, particularly the two-year college system.

With a focus from the very beginning on a very deliberate attention to consciously and effectively engaging and supporting faculty across the system in the work that they do with students in the classroom, and of course back in 1999 that were the dark ages, it was back before we even had computer networks or anything like that amazingly for the young folks out there who might not believe that. So to do that in that era we were really … my focus was … in trying to do communications we focused on actually had a print newsletter to begin with to really connect with faculty.

And then we moved from that to an electronic version of that newsletter as we moved into a more networked environment. Something that we provided news-y updates, kind of about what was happening around the system. And I wrote a regular column called Moore’s musings that really sort of my own reflections about some of the key issues of the day related to assessment teaching and learning.

And so as I moved into other work over the last decade or so, I’m kind of away from that and really brought other folks on to take the lead on this, most recently Jen in the last few years. That work sort of slipped away and we did less and less of that kind of communication. So when Jen came on … What, four years ago now, Jen, right?

Jen:  That’s correct.

Bill:  Yes, that we wanted to really focus … And one of my goals with Jen’s fabulous background in communications, that we wanted to really help get back to that notion of communicating with the faculty community around the system and help connect folks to what’s going on in the system and help folks connect to each other. And so using the tools that are at our disposal now, right? So it’s a new world with new approaches, and so we’ve dabbled in a variety of things including blogging, but we’ve had our challenges with that and we’ve gotten busy doing lots of other things as Jen will talk about here a little bit. So, but now we’re moving on to podcasting, we think that’s probably in many ways the best medium right now to really reach folks and to engage people in the kind of conversations we think are important for folks to tackle with us and with each other.

Jen:  Thanks, Bill. I just wanted to say very quickly that I remember sitting in my dark office at Green River Community College when I was tenured faculty and in the English department. And Anna Sue McNeil’s email, she’s the person who had the position … one person removed for me, and so my position is Anna Sue McNeil’s old position. And I would see her name come up in my inbox and I would see that the ATL newsletter would be in my inbox, and I would read Moore’s musings.

And I had been working with Bill on a project called the big ideas, which I’m sure we’ll talk about in later podcast episodes. But for now I’ll just say that it was a really intriguing question – What are the four or five things that you really want students to know and be able to do after taking your class five years from now or ten years from now? And as a new teacher that was a really exciting question. I had never thought to even ask that question. I was looking at my teaching from a very different lens.

But the reason I say that is as a faculty member I felt really engaged and supported by what Bill was doing. And so getting a chance to read about it in the context of my day to day world was always something to look forward to. And so when I took on this job I was really excited to do my version of Moore’s musings for you faculty members out there listening. However, I had quite a learning curve that I arrogantly was not expecting. And it wasn’t just learning all the things about blogging, because I had been using blogging in my courses, I had been using social networking sites in my courses. So I had done a lot of work with these mediums.

But when it came to doing it for my fellow faculty, for my colleagues, for my peers I first got an amazing amount of block around it. Second my fluency with the tools wasn’t that great, and my inner perfectionism would just shut me down completely. But also I had a lot of sensed making to do, and I’ve been sense-making for the last four years. And sense-making is a term from a theorist; it’s a change management theory from a woman named Adriana Kezar, or Kasar. You say Kezar, I say Kasar. Anyway, sense-making is really fascinating to me because it’s this idea that when you’re dealing with complexity in the world you need time and space to just make sense of it.

And I don’t know why switching the words to sense-making makes it feel more formal, but because I started out as a faculty member making that transition to the State Board was harder than I thought it would be. And I remember for like my whole first months at the State Board I would walk up the stairs to the third floor where the education division is and where my little cubicle is, and I would look at all the posters of the colleges on the wall and I would think, “I have no idea what this agency even does. Like, I work here now.”

And I had thought because I had worked on some projects with Bill and I had attended the ATL conference every year, I thought I knew what the State Board was and I thought I knew what it did, and essentially I didn’t. And so for the last four years I’ve been sense-making around that. I also thought that I knew a lot about professional development, because again I had been working in assessment on my campus, and whenever we had a faculty professional development day I was always the one who was like, “I’ll do a workshop. I would love to do a workshop.” And for those of you who are familiar with Shakespeare, the Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom, the character Bottom and he always wants to play all the parts. That was like me with committees, like I always wanted to be on every committee because it all looked so interesting to me.

So when I took this job I didn’t realize that I didn’t really know anything about professional development. And Bill took a chance on me, and so the last four years I’ve been reading a lot about professional development and working with our professional developers in their context to try to pass on what I’m learning sense-give, my sense-making to the professional developers.

So essentially where I’m going with these things is that there’s a lot that I’ve learned, there’s a lot of that I’ve sense made. And my big question that keeps me awake at night is, “How do I provide sense-giving opportunities to the faculty, to you, so that you can have the benefit of what I’ve learned in a way that’s practical and useful for you?” So I’m at a point to launch this podcast and also a blog in a way that I just couldn’t have four years ago. So essentially I want to share what I’ve learned in ways that are useful to you.

I know a lot of our amazing faculty, but there’s so many more of you I have yet to meet. And so I’m hoping this podcast might be an introduction so that you might then be able to reach out to me. And then finally, and I feel like I’ve said this before, but I’d just like to reiterate that there’s so much complexity to our system. I was writing about it the other day, and I was thinking that it’s complicated is way more than a Facebook status update about relationships. There’s how the system works, there’s councils, there’s commissions, there’s SBCTC as an agency, there’s the ED (ucation) division within that, there’s CTC Link, there’s the ATL office.

So essentially, yeah, I would just like to provide people with some sense-giving opportunities so that people can understand better how to navigate the complexity of our system.

I love the idea of a podcast because we can have dialogues, we can have guests, it’s easily portable, it’s downloadable. The faculty developer that I worked with in our community of practice, Renee Phoenix from Pierce College, is the one who had the idea. She was thinking about doing like little quality professional development opportunities on a podcast. And my boyfriend listens to podcasts all the time, he does it while he’s gardening; he does it while he’s working out. So I love this idea that you could listen to a podcast anywhere, on your drive to and from work, that these are little snippets and that they’re portable and downloadable.

And so Bill, I’m going to turn it back over to you to talk about our foundation.

Bill:  Sure. So I think that Jen’s provided a nice framework for why we’re kind of … where we are in this point with we’re in, in terms of launching this podcast and what the potential is for it. I think that from a bit broader perspective I think again we also want to … I think it’s important to acknowledge that like I said both the historical context of where this work has come from, and then where we want to take it.

So I think it’s when we first started this there was an assessment mandate, and it was sort of a need to have some leadership and coordination around higher education. Well, actually performance evaluation was what it was actually originally called. So my initial title is actually research manager. So it had kind of a very much of a research orientation, that was the kind of the frame or the storyline for the work. But I think that the agency had the vision really initially to sort of frame it less about research, and initially at least about outcomes assessment, that it was really more of an assessment. That was my work I had been doing in Virginia.

I was not a researcher at all, really, so it’s a little bit surprising that they hired me especially from the East Coast to do this work. But I think they hired me because I had a very different lens, different perspective on what it was about. So it really was I think a shift from this kind of research and performance evaluation to outcomes assessment.

But then as I got into the work and learn the system and learn the people, met the people in the system, it really broadened from even an outcomes assessment notion, a notion of assessment of student learning, to really this what we are now are calling assessment teaching and learning. So what are the intersections of assessment teaching and learning that are most critical for faculty to understand and explore. So I think that was a key shift, but the real through-line of that work for us then and now is building community.

I mean, I think that the work that I had done, one of the reasons they hired me was that when in Virginia I was doing most at the campus level, but to some extent at a state level, organizing faculty, really doing community organizing around with the focus on student development and organizational development around student learning. And so I think that that has been the thrust of the work from the very beginning. It’s just the form and the format has changed.

I think one of the key texts or influences on my work has been Parker Palmer over the years. In particular a piece that he wrote in Change Magazine the number of years ago, quite a long time ago now about assessment work as a movement and sort of liking in it to Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement and about how people make a decision, a personal decision to change their practice, to do something different in their life. And then they find other like-minded people and build a community from there.

And so I think that’s what a vision that I talked with faculty about, and that people resonated with that kind of idea because there were a lot of faculty, there were then and now a lot of faculty who yearn to sort of connect to each other around these issues and have opportunities to talk in deeper and more substantive ways about student learning, about their own teaching, about how they could understand more effectively what was going on with students. And so really that’s been the focus of our work.

I can remember very early on during the first few months that I was here we really started the network as a reaction to an event. I’m trying not to name names here, but let’s see. There was an event in which it was sort of very traditional, a lot of PowerPoints, a lot of focus on research design and survey design. And it was clear to me in looking at the room of 150, mostly faculty from the system at this event, that folks were sort of nodding often, not really being fully engaged, that this wasn’t meeting people’s needs.

So I was able to get some people’s attention and we sort of split off a little group, went out at this hotel by the pool and just had a conversation about what they really needed, what they thought would be important for this work to move forward. And out of those conversations grew the Assessment Liaison Network that we built over the years which then evolved into a network that we still maintain, a professional development folks that are supported in fact at the campuses.

So anyway, I think that the bottom line to all that is that it really is about that community, it’s about community building, community organizing. And I think it’s about making … really reframing assessment as an ever deepening conversation about student learning. So with that said, I mean, I think that to address the communications and we … or you’re serious about trying to do that now, but there are ongoing tensions that Jen has experienced, that I’ve certainly experienced that I think we all sort of grapple with. I mean, one of them is this notion of actually doing the work, and we do a lot of projects, and especially grant funded projects.

So the tension between doing the work, which in some ways is very concrete and satisfying, versus communicating about the work, because you have lots of deadlines and very concrete stuff with projects as Jen can attest to.

Jen:  And some of us may be a little bit perfectionist, maybe we could do a podcast sometimes on the law of diminishing returns, which Bill reminds me of often.

Bill:  Yes. And anybody, anyone who does any writing knows that just sitting and looking at a blank page is sometimes a very scary thing, right? So it’s a lot more ephemeral when you think about communications with folks, how do you really sit down to sort of communicate about key issues. So I think that’s the tension that we deal with. I think it’s also true that, and one reason we’re trying to reach out to the broader audience and population of faculty who I think are … as Jen said we have lots of faculty and we only really connect in many ways to a very small percentage of them.

But all of you have interests and needs, and our notion is how do we reach out to a broader range of folks as opposed to just the ones that we talk to, who have very specific defined request needs and we can work with them. And again, it’s very concrete and tangible, versus unidentified folks who probably do have similar needs but we don’t have any way of connecting to you, so this is I guess our way of reaching out and trying to begin that conversation. What do you think, Jen?

Jen:  I think that’s beautiful. So the Parker Palmer article is called Divided No More, and it’s a movement approach to educational reform. And so we’ll make sure that we have this article on the show notes. And one of my intentions with the blog is to dig a little deeper into this piece, and when I was an English teacher oftentimes I would try to do enough of a close reading and analysis to get students intrigued enough to go home and read the whole thing. And so I’m hoping that if I do a little bit of pre-reading, if I do some writing about my reading that it might inspire you to read and hopefully then this could start to lead to some kind of dialogue. So that will be posted.

I also just wanted to reinforce this notion of doing work versus communicating about the work. And for me, it’s very combined with the more ephemeral, Bill, did I say that right, ephemeral?

Bill:  Yeah, good job.

Jen:  Okay. Even though I was an English teacher and I have two degrees in English I still mispronounce words. Any who, when I started this job I felt so honored to get it, that I just wanted to prove that I was worthy of it. And so I did this thing where I responded to email within like two seconds of somebody sending it to me. And I also created a lot of work for myself that I thought would be impressive to other people. And I also got engaged in a lot of projects, because as a faculty member I was familiar with the pain points that probably a lot of you are suffering with. And so when someone would approach me and say, “Hey, I want to do this professional development thing to address this pain point,” I was all in.

So again, and I do have a tendency to overwork and not necessarily put things off but get delayed by procrastination. And then once I’m in it then over perfect. So I’ve been doing a lot of work on how I work and shifting my workflows so that I’m doing this more ephemeral, but still really important work with communications. So Bill, is there anything else you want to add?

Bill:  No, I think this … we just wanted to kind of introduce ourselves and kind of lay a set of foundation for the work moving forward. I think in future episodes we’ll target more specific themes and really bring in guests. And I think hopefully conversations about some of these … some substantive issues that are as Jen referred to as pain points, as things that are kind of critical issues that are on your mind that’d be helpful to you, we’d like these conversations be both thought-provoking and practical for you in terms of your own practice. So looking forward to that, and we will provide more information as we move forward about that.

Jen:  And also I designed a survey in November, and 185 faculties responded. And so I spent most of December just reading through the responses and categorizing them into themes. So for example, one of the big things that showed up is that a lot of faculties are really struggling with student engagement. And student engagement can be broken down into various categories, like one of my favorites was how do I take the students who are sort of on the edge of being interested and really light them on fire. So we’ve got a lot of themes and then sub-themes within those themes that’s based on what the faculty who took the survey said.

And given that the survey was a little clunky, like I got some feedback on the survey about, “You know, I think what you’re trying to ask is this.” And so I’m probably going to do a revised version of that survey and sent it out again to just continue to collect more about what your interests are. Another quote from the survey was, “Don’t give us what you think we need. Give us what we really need.” It’s a little more eloquent than that. But I think that person is absolutely right, and so I’ll be continually without hopefully engaging survey overload trying to figure out what are the major things that most of our 8500 faculty are really struggling with and how can we provide you with resources and tools to make that easier.

All right, so thank you so much for listening, not only are there hundreds and thousands of podcasts out there to choose from on all kinds of topics like weight loss and politics and tax reform, you have papers to grade. If you like this podcast please share it with your colleagues. Thanks so much. And Bill, you want to say goodbye?

Bill:  Yes. Goodbye everybody. Thanks.

Jen:  Say goodnight, Gracie!  (Laughter)

Bill:  Talk to you later.

Jen:  Bye.

Bill:  Bye.

Outro:  You’ve been listening to the assessment matters podcast brought to you by the Assessment Teaching and Learning Department at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Your hosts, my boss, Bill Moore, and me, Jen Whetham really hope that you’ll visit our website assessmentmatters.org, not just to read the show notes but to connect or to reconnect with us.

You can read the blog, watch videos, learn about our current projects, and find out about upcoming events. We’d love to see you in person. No matter what, Bill and I hope you will join us in our assessment re-evolution.