What Pitch Perfect 2 Says About College

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3I found myself watching Pitch Perfect 2 last night while ironing. I’m not embarrassed — those shirts wouldn’t de-wrinkle themselves.

Most of the time, I’m in a world where student affairs is an accepted norm. Several of my local friends are higher ed professionals, many of my more distant friends are student affairs pros. After a while, I stopped noticing how my perspective on higher education might not line up with society’s view.

Often times, what we see in movies or on TV is clearly an adjustment with television in mind. Remember Saved by the Bell, the College Years? Nobody lives in a space that large their first year in college. How about the entire National Lampoon’s Animal House movie? Sure, there are elements of a “typical” college experience in there, but for the most part, it’s a parody. Most viewers know these examples are not what college looks like today; that some adjustments were made to make the show more viewable, or more humorous.

Then I saw Pitch Perfect 2. Yes, it’s a comedy, and many scenes fall into the pattern of “we’re stretching reality quite a bit here, but doing it in the name of comedy!” But the movie made some, more subtle hints about how we view higher education. Consider these examples.

The Welcome to College scene. Early on in the movie, the main character attends a commencement event in a large lecture hall. The type of event designed for new students that happens right as a semester is beginning. In this scene, one administrator is the host, bringing different student groups out to perform. The scene resembles a high school pep rally for a homecoming football game. Where were the common themes of you will be challenged! or expand your horizons!? Nowhere. The implication was that the students in the audience were in a new environment with a specific image of what’s expected of them — that they join an a cappella group. Success means conforming to the expectations of the college. The growth those students can expect has a very narrow definition.

The Student Affairs Discipline scene. In this scene, Anna Kendrick’s a cappella group met with a Student Affairs dean and the announcers from an a capella competition after a wardrobe malfunction on a nationally televised event. The role of the announcers is a bit unclear, let’s consider them representatives from the a capella league. The Dean of Student Affairs in this scene acts as a strict disciplinarian. The group members walk into his office and stand there while he tells them of their punishment. The members have little opportunity to talk — their fate has already been decided.

These scenes reminded me that in many ways, institutions are viewed as gatekeepers of your future. If you get in, you’ll succeed. If you can keep up with the rigor, you’ve made it. Your success depends on whether you do what they ask of you. Of course, we view the experience as a mutual effort — the institutions provide opportunities to grow, the students choose  the opportunities in which to engage (and the extent to which they engage).

It’s movies like this that remind me why students are so focused on high exam scores, and the “right” set of extra-curriculars. Between the movies and the countless articles on top money-earning majors (etc.), college seems much more a place where you collect merit badges than a place of growth. I got this badge because I attended [insert prestigious institution] University, and this badge because I got that minor in ______. This one for the dean’s list. Oh, and I got this one as captain of the _____ club.

This view of the working world completely ignores the idea that students can craft their own future from their values and the talents they develop; and bases itself on an environment where their future employers hold all the cards and need to be impressed if they have any hopes of a job.

Somehow, I’ve meandered from the view that high school students have of college to career preparation. I suppose my point here is that there is a misalignment between how we (higher ed professionals) view the role/purpose of college, and how the general public views college — and that the difference severely impedes a students’ ability to get the full value out of college.

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Guest Blogger: Incentivizing the Residential Curriculum

IMG_0466 (3)A new paradigm has emerged in residential education in recent history. This paradigm, referred generally as the “residential curriculum” approach flips the script on how we view the role of residence halls in the life of the university. While the curriculum approach is newer, the concept of learning happening outside the classroom is not, necessarily. The curriculum approach extends the concept of outside-the-classroom learning and utilizes the residence hall setting as a laboratory of student learning.

The traditional approach to learning in the residence halls can be summarized in the programmatic approach, where student staff (e.g., Resident Assistants or RAs) lean on active programs which could be educational in nature, but in many cases are purely social. Now hear me out—I am not against social programming. Social programming is necessary and needed to build relationships among residents towards the development of a community of depth.

The new curriculum approach takes some cues from our friends in academic affairs to start primarily with learning outcomes (i.e., what we want residents to learn). Once the learning outcomes are determined, it is necessary to identify various strategies which could help you achieve those learning outcomes. After the strategy is utilized comes the last, and most perplexing processes, of assessing if the learning outcome has been met, thereby assessing if student learning has taken place.

I’ve been grateful to work with learning-outcomes based models at three different institutions, now in my eighth year working in residence education. And at all three institutions I’ve observed the development of learning outcomes and strategies, but found the last step of assessment continuously perplexing to student affairs professionals in these contexts. We’ve mastered assessment of student satisfaction, but have found it much harder to quantify, or qualify, student learning. Why is that?

There are several dilemmas or barriers I’ve encountered in attempting to gage student learning. First, many times our student staff are the ones who are carrying out our curriculum. In their role as peer educators, can they effectively assess the learning of their peers when this is something student affairs professionals have been trained to do? Second, time. It is hard enough to get students to attend an educational program, and adding on an additional “last step” of an assessment survey can be asking a lot of our students who have volunteered their own time to attend our program. What’s the incentive to complete the survey? For many students, there isn’t one. Third, many of our attempts at assessment often fail and lean more toward anecdotes rather than valued evidence of learning. Wouldn’t it be great if, in a perfect world, we could have students stick around for a focus group to ask pointed questions which would help us to illicit if, in fact, learning took place?

Recently, I’ve been excited and grateful to join the Housing & Residence Life team at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. One of the decisions that played into my interest in applying for and eventually accepting my current position is the work my office is doing to promote student learning in our on-campus communities. Dayton is a highly residential campus (78%) and where students live is a central, even defining, experience to students. In an effort to better leverage this affinity for living on campus, we sought out to incentivize student learning in August 2014, a year before I started working there. We incentivize student learning by making the strategies of our residential curriculum (i.e., community meetings, one-on-ones, roommate agreements, programs) worth 1 point. The more points students accumulate, the greater chances they will receive favorable housing for the next academic year. We no longer have a housing lottery. Instead, we track student points by participating in opportunities for student learning, and apply those points to our student assignments process. This puts students in the driving seat of their housing assignment process. The main dilemma this could pose is something I thought about immediately when interviewing for my current job: Are students really going to programs and “engaging in learning” because they want to, or because they just want the points? What I began to realize is that the student’s motivation for attendance isn’t really what we care about. What we care about is the experience and, hopefully, the learning that takes place through their attendance and participation in our learning opportunities. BUT how do we gage if that learning is actually happening? Hence the dilemma. What we may have on our side is the dangling carrot of attaining points. Could we ask students to participate in their learning experience AND then complete a short “assessment of their learning” in order for them to attain their points? This may enable us to collect some valid data which could help us to demonstrate that students are learning in their residential environment, regardless of why they are there.

Matt Kwiatkowski is the Assistant Director of Residence Life at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. Please leave your comments below or feel free to contact Matt via email at mkwiatkowski1@udayton.edu.