Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Change from the Bottom-up

In Teaching on March 19, 2012 at 9:54 pm

The Learning Paradigm and

Cultural Change from the Bottom-up

By Keith Kerr Assistant Professor of Sociology

In all the discussions about how to implement the Learning Paradigm at Quinnipiac, it seems evident that a revolutionary cultural change is the goal. There has been extensive and invigorating discussion about new tools that can be utilized (from assessment tools to online portfolios) and new structures that can be created within the context of the Learning Paradigm (the ousting of the University Curriculum and implementation of “Independent Minors” are just two examples). While these discussions are both needed and good, they seem to have largely missed an important point. Cultural change is about much more than structural change. Sociology proper, since its beginning, has been very clear on this matter–culture cannot be artificially created from the top down. In other words, it cannot be created by altering structure alone. We may very well have the opportunity with the Learning Paradigm to create a more perfect structure. However, unless we see congruent changes within the expectations, values, beliefs and practices of students and faculty, the Learning Paradigm will fail.

Changes within individual perceptions, beliefs, values and norms are the driving force for cultural change. Structural change may be needed, but perhaps more importantly, there must be a congruent change within the students and faculty who will operate either in conjunction with or in opposition to the structural arrangements (and within the Learning Paradigm, passivity and ambivalence produce the same result as opposition). In this sense, cultural change is the product of socializing experiences that help shape and direct beliefs, values and norms. Alongside our deep and extensive discussions on structural changes associated with the Learning Paradigm, we must give at least equal weight to discussions on how to best socialize incoming students so that they buy into the system we are trying to create. On the question of socialization, literature within sociology indicates that this is best achieved within a primary group–one that is small, long lasting, bound together by a sense of trust, and infused with emotional relationships. In other words, this is a family group.

To attempt socialization processes in secondary groups–those groups that are large, goal-oriented, impersonal, and where members are replaceable (in other words, bureaucracies)–runs the risk of generating mechanisms associated with total institutions. In this case, a new “culture” can be forcefully created, but is largely achieved with a heavy hand of punitive measures that force people to change for fear of negative outcomes. In this process, individuality is bred out of the agent (think of extreme examples such as the military or prisons) and attempts to reclaim a unique sense of self are largely achieved, if achieved at all, by small-scale subversion of the system in place. The more likely outcome of these sorts of attempts at secondary-level socialization, however, are a ritualistic orientation whereby the individual outwardly goes through the required motions, but internally, does not buy into the cultural system they find themselves in. In short, it produces ritualism, what Robert Merton has formally labeled as deviant behavior. As an aside, my armchair assessment is that this is main issue with the QU Seminar series. As we have tinkered with its structural arrangements, the more persistent and troubling problem is lack of student buy-in. Within the QU Seminars, structural change did not produce cultural change.

In this reasoning, to create an authentic and sustained cultural shift along the lines laid-out in the Learning Paradigm requires socialization mechanisms that avoid secondary group socialization processes. The task then becomes how to foster relationships that better fall into the primary group bond and avoids secondary, bureaucratic “relationships.” If primary group bonds can be achieved, I propose that we have a much better chance of socializing incoming students into a new culture in such a way that they internalize the new culture and become the driving force for in turn, continuously reproducing the very culture that we hope to achieve at QU. The current proposal is offered as a way to better cultivate such a primary group relationship whereby we can see a broad, sustained and authentic cultural change at QU.

The Proposed Plan

In order to help foster primary group bonds that hold the potential to produce deep and meaningful relationships, which in turn hold the potential as pathways for authentic and sustained cultural change on the part of QU students, I propose a required, one-hour credit each semester where advisors and advisees meet in a regular group/classroom setting that could be labeled a “cohort common.”

In lieu of hurried meetings with advisees at registration time, we would instead create regular class time and space for the advisors and all of her or his advisees to come together as a group, and to stay together for the entirety of a student’s time at QU. In essence, it would be the commitment of space and time that would allow the formation of relationships between faculty and students. This space and this committed time slot would be the location of socializing processes into the new culture we hope to achieve at QU.

Relationships would be formed, cultural values in-line with the Learning Paradigm could be transmitted and internalized. Deep dialogues would result that will better mentor the student as the faculty and the student come to better know each other. Values can be conveyed and practiced during this period that can then better inform the selection of classes. “Big Ideas” can be discussed during this time; ideas that will eventually help create the framework/culture that will be utilized in the selection of classes. In a sense, the cohort common and the relationships that can be forged there become the initial cell that creates the revolution of the QU culture. Most importantly, it creates a situation for a student-led revolution and not a faculty imposed one, as the students internalize the ongoing conversations that are taking place in cohort common and transmit these in their relationships with other students.

Better Advising:

The context of these relationships and conversations taking place in this weekly group setting will be what guides the students’ selection of courses. In this sense, the cohort common serves as a socializing space into the new culture of the Learning Paradigm, and the meaningful and intentional selection of courses is the practical application of the conversations and relationships that have formed in this class. Since the instructor of record is also the students’ advisor, and the students in the class share the same major, it makes sense to house advising in this course. This allows “advising” to transition into “mentoring,” or the hopeful transition away from a secondary relationship to a primary relationship. As is, with time constraints and space constraints in our current advising system, many advising sessions become timed meetings where boxes are checked in such a way that the student can most efficiently achieve the desired outcome of a degree. In the new proposed system, advising takes place in the context of the larger discussions within the cohort common revolving around the Learning Paradigm, the meaning of a liberal arts education, and the meaning of an examined life. Advising transitions from a hurried attempt to identify required courses to complete the degree, and instead becomes the logical outcome and application of ideas discussed in class into a plan that reflects the cultural change being discussed in the weekly sessions. Advising becomes a holistic relationship that moves to a much deeper level than the selection of classes by a deadline.

Improved Retention System:

The cohort common provides a powerful retention mechanism that compliments the existing system and works as a stronger safety net. Their advisor can quickly and personally contact advisees who have been flagged by the Learning Center’s Early Warning System during the cohort common period. Further, as mentors and mentees form deeper relationships in the context of the cohort common, faculty have a better sense of when students are in trouble, what the cause and nature of the trouble is and where to direct the student for further help.

Formation of a Learning Community:

Students will enter the common cohort at the time of declaring the major and will remain there with their fellow majors, allowing the space and time to potentially cultivate a better sense of community centered around a shared major. Further, the common cohort can be used to discuss and debate the various Essential Learning Outcomes. Why are these important? How do they create bridges between students’ interests, the classes they choose to take, and what is their importance in the students’ majors?

Online Portfolio Production:

This time and space for mentoring/advising also is something that can be used more practically in the cultivation of the online learning portfolios. I can envision a final class project each semester that revolves around the update of online portfolios to incorporate and document student progress each semester, and to document student progress in the immersion into the Learning Paradigm culture. Once fully instituted, we have the opportunity for incoming students to learn from the seniors whom have already produced and revised their own portfolios. Again, since the discussion and activities in this class throughout the semester would be centered on the Learning Paradigm and the value of active and intentional learning, these would provide the context and direction for students to begin demonstrating the achievement of these in their online portfolios and the sharing of these with others in the class.

Concluding Thoughts

The hope is that this slowly begins to push back the tide of apathy as cultural changes take place in a few students, and with each successive student who adopts these, more momentum is created to bring successively more students into the new culture. I can foresee, four years down the road, an incoming class of freshmen who are placed into their cohort common with a class of students whom have already adopted the culture we are trying to create here. At this point, the culture is self-sustaining as it works to reproduce itself as students socialize students into this culture. Again, however, this becomes predicated on strong primary relationships that are fostered in the context of a primary group. It is exactly this type of group and these sorts of relationships that the cohort common can foster. If this is achieved, the combination of changes within the students coupled with the structural changes we are currently implementing, becomes a powerful combination that increases the likelihood of a sustained and meaningful cultural revolution that we hope to achieve.


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