From the Mountaintop: Seeing Our Work with New Eyes

With the flurry of activity that typically takes place at the beginning of a term, it is often hard to take a moment and actually reflect on the good work we did over the summer. Now that it is officially fall, it feels timely to take a moment for some summer reflections.

I spent almost a month this summer hiking and backpacking in the mountains. Although in many ways I fully unplugged from my teaching and research, I was often surprised how different experiences in the woods felt like analogies for supporting student success.

Nowhere was this more apparent than when I was crossing a wooden bridge ten feet in the air with a brisk rocky mountain river below. I instinctively unbuckled my hip belt and loosened my shoulder straps. I knew that if I were to fall I would need to take off my backpack quickly; if I didn’t, I risked the current taking me downstream. How did I know to unbuckle my hip belt and loosen my straps? When I was new to hiking, I was fortunate to have wonderful guides who shared lots of “mountain know-how” both at the start of the trail and in the teachable moment when we faced those types of river crossings.

On the other side of the river, with hip belt firmly re-buckled, I thought about how we support students with “postsecondary know-how”. I immediately thought about the data we’ve collected as part of the Supporting Student Success research study and conversations we’ve had with faculty and student affairs and services staff talking about academic integrity issues. How do students learn to appropriately give credit to others’ ideas? When is working together on an assignment acceptable group work and when is it copying someone else’s homework?

It makes me think about how we use those weeks at the beginning of the fall term to educate new students about the expectations, rights and responsibilities as part of our academic community. At that point, students are at the “trailhead” of their postsecondary journey and can benefit from such “postsecondary know-how”. But it seems there is always so much to cover at the trailhead, Frosh Week and orientation are full of information sessions and socials. It can be hard to keep it all straight. What we need is to use the teachable moment at the stream crossing, when the first writing assignment is due. That’s the opportunity for faculty to partner with their academic learning skills colleagues to talk again about how to reference others’ ideas in your written work and assemble a proper reference list.

A couple days later, I was hiking a 14,000 foot peak. There was a well worn trail that snaked its way up the side of the mountain to the ridge and ultimately the summit. Off the trail was the boulder field; big boulders that required a fair bit of scrambling up and over to achieve the ridge and finally the summit. Knowing there was no direct route but always up for a bit of a challenge, my partner and I chose the boulder field way. The view from the top was breathtaking; perhaps even more so because of the meandering path we took to get there.

In the course of the Supporting Student Success study, we’ve talked to hundreds of people and asked them to define student success. Most talk about credential completion, whether that is achieving a diploma, certificate or degree. They talk about the summit if you will. Yet, many of our participants also describe student success as personal discovery, learning to take risks, and developing a sense of belonging at their institution. They talk about students working their way through the boulder field. They talk about student success in a way that recognizes students as whole people: head and heart and body. Holistic student success if you will. There seems to be increasing pressure to focus all our postsecondary energies on students reaching the summit—graduation—as quickly as possible. But I have to wonder what students and society lose when there is virtually no opportunity to explore in the boulder field.

The famous naturalist John Muir is well-known for saying, “the mountains are calling and I must go.” I heeded that call with reckless abandon this past summer. What I found in the mountains was a new way to see and ponder the work that I do.

I turn the question to you: what have you learned this summer that makes you see your work in a new way? Please leave a comment and join in the conversation.

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3 thoughts on “From the Mountaintop: Seeing Our Work with New Eyes

  1. Great analogy. My most memorable “teachable moment” to myself was the importance of effective onboarding or transition to a new experience. I started a new job at a new institution and was reminded of what our incoming student’s experience as they start something new in a new place.

  2. As a new parent, much of what I have learned relates to what I see in my one year old twin boys. Most importantly, I think I have reconnected with an ability to be patient as the students I work with explore the world around them, recognizing that I can be there to assist but at times I must simply watch them figure things out on their own. This is incredibly important as we work with our student leaders in an era of programmatic assessment and constrained resources…sometimes being patient as our leaders learn from their experiences is challenged by our drive to outcomes. My boys help remind me of this each day as they discover new things and often take many attempts to learn something new.

  3. Being outside of the office, even while still on campus, really broadens and challenges my perspective around student life and learning. Getting to see and interact with students that I only ‘talk about’ in the office, in reports and in emails is fascinating and at times a necessary wake up call. I love having my perspectives shaken this way – I need to constantly be curious about our students’ reality so that when I create a program or facilitate a workshop I’m speaking their language, not necessarily my own.

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