Community on campus- what are we doing?

Perhaps I’m naive but I fully believe that the best student university experience is one that is integrated: academics, sports, health, housing, student growth – all aspects of student life.  That requires breaking down or minimizing barriers between those functional areas on campus.  How many faculty cross the physical threshold into student housing?  How many faculty hang out with staff or students outside of formal meetings?  Do faculty job requirements and incentives promote such cross-over or discourage us from doing it?

I’ve got a very bright 14 year old daughter (and an equally smart 11 year old son – there I was the “equal Dad”!) who will likely (hopefully) attend a university before too long.  What type of experience do I want her to have?  Do I honestly believe that she would get an amazing experience at my institution?  The best possible experience?  And if I don’t believe that why do I think that a sub-par experience is acceptable for other parents’ kids?








Its easy to look at this situation and say that change is out of our hands; an institution is an unmovable force best left alone.  Realistically what can one faculty member do to promote change on their campus or even more broadly, on campuses across Canada?  Not much sadly, but I am confident that one faculty member promoting change is likely to accomplish more than no faculty members promoting change.  As Parker Palmer reminded me in The Heart of Higher Education, across North America campuses are full of individuals that want a better student experience.  If they each think they are the only one on their campus they will keep their heads down and never connect with other like-minded people.  If we each raise our hand and say “I’m interested in promoting change and improving the state of education” perhaps small communities can form where the wheels will start turning.  At the least we will be able to take comfort or cover as we run into walls and resistance.

Let me bring this back to the topic at hand which was building community and improving the student experience rather than faculty revolt or faculty revolution.  If we want to bridge the divide between faculty and students and faculty and staff and begin to build true “community” there are small, relatively easy steps we can take.  First, we need to lead by example; that is, faculty themselves must become a community rather than merely a set of people.  A community involves support, encouragement, valuable and constructive feedback, laughter, and ultimately sharing in each others peaks and valleys.  Let’s stop shaking hands and give each other a hug once in a while.  Start dropping in for random chats with faculty down your hall or even way across the campus.  Make connections that are outside your comfort zone.  If we want students to grow and be comfortable with the unknown we should probably model courage and tackle the unknown as well, even if that unknown is a really odd faculty member with leather patches on the elbow of their tweed jacket.

I admit that building community is much bigger than simply being friendly towards our colleagues but before we run we need to crawl.

The importance of human touch in community

Dr. Abraham Verghese tells wonderful stories of how important human touch is when diagnosing patients and later care with those patients. He claims that the shift towards technology in medicine has eroded a very important, but simple aspect–human touch. I wonder if we’re missing that human contact in higher education these days? Classes of 200-1,000 students, hybrid or online delivery. Where and how do we build connections and relationships with each other?

If you listen long enough, patients will tell you exactly what is wrong with them

Many of you know that I’m working on a Masters degree in education, currently I’m through about 1/3 of the thesis.  I struggled for over a year to find a topic that was the right combination of doable, personally interesting, addressing a current challenge, and potentially influential.  I don’t know how my thesis will stack up on those four dimensions at the end but the topic I chose was exploring how professionalism is taught to accounting students and what it takes to do that well.

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  • I’ll give my supervisor major credit for paring the project down to make it doable, thanks Harry!
  • Helping students develop into professionals has been a stated, formal goal of mine for almost five years.  I struggle to see why we think that simply filling heads with technical accounting knowledge will result in developing successful accountants.  Hence, the personal interest in the topic.
  • My sense of accounting faculty hiring over the past 10 years is that there has been a significant change in the composition.  Yes, we’re hiring more research-trained and research-capable faculty than before but we’re hiring less faculty with professional designations, professional training, and ties to the profession.
  • My hope with the thesis is that I can find some “low-hanging fruit” around teaching professionalism where accounting academics can make some serious progress in the near term.

One of the highlights of the thesis so far has been the background research that I’ve done on this topic.  I’ve found an absolute plethora of material about teaching professionalism in medical schools.  Doctors are probably 15 years ahead of accounting education.

The other day I found this wonderful story in the NY Times. Generous benefactors have provided $42M to the University of Chicago.  The funds are meant to help develop programs and curriculum specifically around teaching bedside manner, managing the doctor-patient relationship, and “kindness” to med students.  I think that accounting educators can and will learn a lot from this new endeavour at Chicago.  Accountants spend too long learning the technical material and not enough time learning how to be professionals.  Strong technical knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for professionals; accountants and doctors both.

Well kudos to the Bucksbaums for ponying up the cash.  Let’s keep our ears to the ground to see what we can learn from this and then apply it in accounting education.  Even better, lets start making some progress on our own, we don’t need to let the doctors lead us through the desert, we’re pretty smart on our own.  After all, if we listen carefully enough the answer is likely to find us.