When Cathie LeBlanc told me that she had secured the grant from the Davis Educational Foundation that would fund fifty of our faculty and staff to focus on Cluster Learning, I balked. I had just stepped into the CoLab position, and had the recurring nightmare that must plague everyone who works in professional development: you know, the one where I set out donuts and plan a workshop on some very cool pedagogical idea and I end up alone in a room with lots of donuts.
I know both Cathie and I were amazed when we had more than seventy applications for the first season of the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (the “CPLC”), but it’s not because we were surprised that our colleagues would want to focus on teaching and learning. For me, at least, I was surprised because so many of us were tired. Buffeted by forces that sometimes felt so external to our daily work with students, many of us wondered how the changes happening at Plymouth State, and in higher education more broadly, could be navigated by faculty and staff who fundamentally care most deeply about something as particular as our own students and their learning. What has most inspired me about being part of the CPLC has been the way my colleagues have illuminated how this particular care for students and for learning can be made central in the work of reanimating a university and rethinking the value of higher education in our world. It is, as Christin Wixson noted, about seeing “the relationship between my work and the bigger picture.” And through the CPLC, we have, as Annette Holba puts it, “been asked to think outside of the box and do our work differently for the sake (or soul) of the university. What I think I am witnessing in this kind of community experience is actually an awakening of the individual and collective soul.”
As we ended the first summer of learning together, CPLC participants were asked to reflect on what they were taking away from the experience so far, and how they hoped to carry those takeaways into their practice for the upcoming year. For me, I feel surer than ever that all the work we are trying to do here at PSU is only possible if we do it together, with a common commitment to the centrality of cultivating relationships and mutual trust. I feel so grateful to have a sense of hope about Plymouth’s future, and I know that hope is intimately tied to the experience of truly partnering with you all in the challenges and joys of this work.
Some of the ideas that we have generated in the CPLC involve some significant departures from the gates that generally structure and confine our practices. As Kim Livingstone wrote in her reflection, “All members of the PSU community are not equally situated to safely take the risks of being change leaders. I am hopeful that if enough people take the risk and share their truths, more people may feel empowered to be the radical pedagogues our students deserve.” This sense of risk being assumed by a community resonates for me in the way that it acknowledges power, asks us all to take responsibilities for the unequal terrain that governs our own participation in innovation, and insists that our care for each other guide our processes.
Predictions about what the CPLC can or will generate are ironic. Abby Goode writes, “In some regards, it seems counter to the values of open education to begin the year with a forecast of what’s to come.” But as Abby also notes, it’s useful to look at the arc to imagine what might be possible. We know that educational realities are shifting the sands under out feet. Historian John Krueckeberg notes:
In higher education I see that the future is not what was expected in the past. Some campuses are closing. Some campuses are merging. Some on campuses are searching for something new. And some, even on our campus, may be waiting to let the “latest fad” pass because in the past, sticking to traditional pedagogy ensured its continuation into the future. It worked. But the present and demographic future (let alone the economic futures faced by incoming students who might choose to forgo a state university education if there were less debt-amassing alternatives) seems starkly different compared to the future of only a few years ago.
Many of us in the CPLC have focused on linking the challenges that students and instituions face today with a commitment to placing learning at the heart of models that respond to student and institutional need. But as Sarah Parsons cautions: “institutional and environmental changes…need to take place in order to make this kind of work our foundation and not a project.” Finding ways to operationalize the CPLC’s values and ideas will be a challenge for all of us, and a professional goal of my own as Director of the Open CoLab. I feel energized to do this work every day. Later today I am going to meet with Matty Leighton and Jane Weber to talk about the emerging staff learning community. Recently I have been planning the Ungrading workshop with Sue Sabella and Martha Burtis. Faculty in Biology and Health and Childhood Education have been in touch about shifting their learning materials to OER. Every day, I see another handful of ways that the CPLC is laying the foundation for an authentic community-based path to PSU’s future.
I can’t tell you all how grateful I am to be your colleague, and how grateful I am for the optimism and critique and generosity and fierce respect for learning that you have brought to the CPLC. I will close with a quote from Kristin Stelmok, one of the people I so enjoy talking to about her work with students: “The CPLC is a safe harbor where we’ve been able to take stock, resupply, and recalibrate our navigational tools so that we can continue on our journey to transform the way students learn at PSU. I feel very hopeful about the direction we’re headed.”
The introduction above was written at the end of our first season of the CPLC. Now we are finishing out our third and final season, and while everything I wrote above still rings true, it’s bittersweet to read my own words from the Before Times. None of us had any idea that the turmoil we were facing in higher education was about to be terrifyingly amplified, as Covid-19 spread from a curious headline to a global pandemic in a matter of weeks. Covid has inflected everything about the CPLC, from how we met to what we focused on to how we reimagined Cluster Learning in light of long-standing equity issues in education that Covid brought into focus. Whatever exhaustion we imagined in 2020, it was nothing compared to what we faced during Covid. And even now, we are not a post-Covid community; we are a community navigating the lingering effects of a public health and socioeconomic crisis that will surely endure for years to come.
And though the ravages of Covid– on the mental and physical health of our students , faculty, and staff as well as on the budget of our public institution–are undeniable, I know that many of us counted ourselves lucky to have a community like the CPLC to tap for support. We were able to “pivot” not so much to remote learning (which of course we did!), but to a support model where we could trade tips, refine policy, and share experiences with the goal of dispersing the weight of the burden of navigating teaching in this new landscape across a broader set of shoulders. Participating in the CPLC during Covid reinforced my opinion that the most important way faculty can “develop” professionally is by engaging in community-oriented learning. The added bonus, besides the varied perspectives that participants bring to the table, is the sense that a university can, at its best, be a place not only where knowledge is transmitted and improved, but also where learners are nurtured, appreciated, and trusted to navigate their own learning. I am grateful to my colleagues who shared this difficult time with me, shared their best ideas with each other, and shared their seemingly limitless care with the students we are lucky enough to teach.