Sound Tracks

If you’re like me, you associate music or sounds with moments in your life. I grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and I spent my childhood summers at a pool called Crystal Plunge. I have a clear memory (yes, crystal clear!) of coming up out of the water and hearing “One is the Loneliest Number” playing on the speakers. Thank you Three Dog Night for that bit of my life’s soundtrack.

I also can be back on a bus singing along with the Doobie Brothers on “Black Water” with my high school friend Jimbo whenever I hear that song on the radio. Or I recall listening endlessly to U2’s “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” when I was dealing with some particularly difficult personal struggles. When I hear that song I know that actually I can get out of difficult moments. (Thank you YouTube for the musical sound track flashbacks!)

But it’s not just music, it’s also sounds. Growing up, the screen door in our house had a very distinctive rhythm when it closed. Unfortunately, I can’t replicate it here, but it was “BANG . . . bang, bang” (long. . . short, short). That is such a clear sound in my head, and when my dad replaced that screen door I gave him a hard time for a year or more for taking away part of my life’s sound track.

My 2020 pandemic soundtrack includes “You’re on mute”, “You’re frozen”, and “We can’t hear you”. But it also includes the sounds of dogs barking in my neighborhood, and a little boy on his tricycle who LOVES to bike up and down my side alley and splash in the puddles, and a persistent cough that a neighbor has that I hear every time she walks her dog past my house, and the trash/recycling/composting trucks every other Friday. And it includes this little tidbit. My condo is undergoing some remediation work, and I spent a week recently listening to that sound all day every day – the sound of sawing into the stucco around all my windows. In one or two of my meetings that week, I’m pretty sure I was shouting so that I could hear myself over the din.

2020 has been topsy turvy. Instead of my 2020 soundtrack reflecting the chatting of colleagues in the hallway, or the voice of my colleague on speakerphone in the next office, it reflects the sounds of my neighborhood, and the virtual world of Google Meet/WebEx/Zoom/GoToMeetings/BlueJeans. And that’s okay. It’s part of how I will remember this year when I look back on all that we did, individually and collectively, to keep ACC not only afloat but sailing forward.


Friends and colleagues

Philip, my friend of 30-plus years, loved good food, good wine, good company, and a good debate. He loved to tell stories – and he had quite a few “Gaye Lynn stories” because we met in the late 80s when we were both new adjuncts at ACC, me in the Government Department and Philip in the History Department. Philip worked by day at the Texas Education Agency and taught History classes by night. And we spent many an evening in the basement of Rio Grande holding office hours and developing an enduring friendship.

Philip and I were part of a small group of friends who met regularly over those 30 years for “beer night” at The Tavern. Out of that group, two are now gone. I lost my stalwart friend Rex last year, and I lost my stalwart friend Philip this month. It’s a blessing to have friends over the course of decades, friends who see you through hard times, friends who love to tell stories about you when you were an earlier, younger version of yourself, friends who make you laugh, friends who tell you the truth, friends on whom you can call anytime, anywhere.

Philip loved teaching History at ACC. And in his day, Rex loved teaching Government at ACC. Think of the thousands of students they influenced. Think of all the students who dread walking into a required History or Government class when the semester starts, and who walk out at the end of the semester understanding the power of learning about history or politics or policymaking.

Today, as we are so tired of 2020, worn down, and ready for a brief Thanksgiving break, I give thanks for all my friends and colleagues at ACC who persist, reinventing their courses, and teaching our students. And in the spirit of Philip and Rex and decades of beer night at The Tavern, I raise a metaphorical beer in praise of your good work.

Thank you for what you do.

Image by Christian Birkholz, CC-BY licensed and available on Pixabay.

An AVP’s Aspen Journey – Chapter 5: The Pandemic Pivot

The Aspen Rising Presidents Fellowship typically runs from July (an exhilarating and exhausting week at Stanford) through April (a gathering in Aspen where each Fellow presents a “capstone”). But . . . I was a member of Cohort 4, what became the COVID Cohort (Best Cohort Ever!).

Because the world turned on its head in March, our cohort suspended its formal work in the Fellowship. But that doesn’t mean that we suspended our connections with each other or with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. The Aspen Institute pivoted to online teaching and learning just as we did. They offered a variety of workshops and virtual sessions to help the Fellows navigate unfamiliar terrain – after all, who among us ever expected to lead in a hundred-year pandemic?

One of the workshops was in late May and it was with Dr. Sandy Shugart, President of Valencia College, who spoke about transformation in a time of crisis. I wanted to offer some of his words of wisdom here.

  1. People don’t fear change, they fear loss. We must honor what we each value most deeply, even in the face of transformation.
  2. Walk in chalk, not stone. We have to learn from everything, but that doesn’t mean everything we try or do is precedent-setting.
  3. In a storm, be careful what you throw overboard – you may need it later.
  4. If you can’t get out of it, get into it. Have a “joyful conspiracy” to get through the storm and keep moving toward your institution’s mission and vision.

And finally, “play the game on the ground of hope, not despair”. If we focus on the horizon and our goals, we’ll move forward with purpose and commitment.

Planning

In January we launched our academic master planning process to develop the common goals that would drive us forward in the next five year.  By April we had suspended that work, but we will take it up again in a few weeks, with a presentation of the Academic Master Plan to the Board scheduled for November.

This recent article in Inside Higher Ed about design thinking as an approach to strategic planning – recommended most especially for institutions that are planning in the midst of a pandemic – caught my attention.  How do we plan?  In our daily lives, in our professional lives, in our classrooms?  Do we design to achieve outcomes, or do we plan around activities?  I’m afraid I am often guilty of thinking in terms of activities – hopefully  with an eye to outcomes, but probably with too much focus on the activities themselves.

The author suggests that we start with the problems we want to solve rather than trying to draw a map for where we want to be in five year.  In an age of constraints – both fiscal and physical – he further suggests that constraints can provoke creative thinking.  He recommends empathy throughout, and an intentional focus on a few things rather than trying to do everything.  And of course, for ACC our planning should reflect our mission and our passion for a more equitable world.

Whatever you may think of some of his recommendations, I found his approach thought-provoking as well as serving as a reminder that creativity and empathy are the keys to the things that we do as a college.  Whether we’re designing our courses for the Fall semester or designing the college’s academic master plan for the next five years, let’s not forget to rely on empathy, experimentation, and creativity.  They will serve us well as we move forward towards a more equitable classroom, college, city, and world.

Engineering!

ACC does so many good things in so many corners of our vast and far-flung college – it can be hard to keep up.  So today I thought I’d highlight our partnership with Texas A&M in the Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academy.

Especially in our current reality – one that challenges our college, our city, our state, and our nation – the TAMU Engineering Academy is a tremendous opportunity for current and soon-to-be ACC students.  As we see in this edition of the President’s Podcast, engineering jobs have a bright future – and the ACC/TAMU partnership makes that future even brighter for our students.

We are headed into our fourth year of this partnership, and we hope to have over 100 students in the entering cohort.  This is a tremendous opportunity for them – they are Aggies from the start but they are also Riverbats from the start – so they call themselves AggieBats.  They start their engineering future with us and immediately learn from a TAMU Professor of Practice, they have various outings to the TAMU campus in College Station (including presenting projects at TAMU showcases), they can take advantage of all the things ACC has to offer (including excellent instruction and tutoring as well as saving money) – in other words, they are part of a TAMU/ACC learning community that provides a clear pathway to the career and the life that they want.

Celebrate this corner of ACC and the impact that it has.  Congrats to all involved with the TAMU Engineering Academy at ACC!

Picture openly licensed by Steve Bidmead, from Pixabay

The Power of ACC

ACC has great power.  I want to take a moment of personal privilege and talk about the power of ACC to affect one person:  Rhonda Little.

Rhonda passed away on Sunday, June 14.  She started working at ACC in January 2013 and she was immediately hooked.  Her professional life had been in the legal field, working for large law firms.  Switching from that world to a community college was, I expect, rather like going down the rabbit hole with Alice.  But, while she took a considerable pay cut, and didn’t know anything about who and what we are, she dived in with her spirit of “let me help” and “I will learn”.

I hired Rhonda to be an administrative assistant in my office when I was Dean of Social & Behavioral Sciences.  She supported not only the work of my office in tandem with Mandy Cummings, but also the work of the Geographic Information Systems Department.  Have you ever thought about what it might be like to plunge into an entirely different professional environment where you don’t know the norms or expectations or protocols?  In Rhonda’s case, everything was different.  The expectation of professional dress was different (read:  much more casual).  The expectation of supervisory authority was different (read:  don’t tell faculty what to do).  The rhythms of the job were tied to the rhythms of semesters.  The holidays – oh, the holidays!  Outside of education, most folks don’t get ten days at Christmas, a week in March, two days at Thanksgiving – plus accruing vacation leave.

Rhonda loved ACC from the beginning.  She loved the power of our mission.  She loved helping students.  She loved learning – and we are, after all, a learning institution.  She took advantage of multiple professional development opportunities and accrued scores of hours of PD.  She served as an officer in the Classified Employees Association.  She applied for the Leadership Academy but was, unfortunately, unable to participate due to her challenging health issues.  She loved helping me organize events (the annual SBS convocation, two conferences last year).  She loved taking notes at my meetings, or purchasing “swag” for the faculty coordinators to give to students at AoS information sessions, or figuring out some new process or procedure or protocol.  She loved everything about her job.  And that’s because she loved what ACC is, who we are, and how we can save the world, one student at a time.

Since the announcement of her passing, I’ve received lots of emails of condolence.  One friend here described Rhonda as “fiercely protective of me”.  She was indeed that.  She was my work partner, my defender against all comers, and my dear friend.  She never thought I was wrong (bless her!), and she would do anything I asked or needed.  She thought I needed a caretaker, and she appointed herself to that role.  The emails I’ve received mention laughing with Rhonda, having good conversations with Rhonda, and learning from Rhonda.  She has been described as wonderfully kind, cheerful, helpful, patient, sweet.  She was born to be an executive assistant and she did it well.  And we were a great team.

Did she get frustrated with ACC’s processes on occasion?  Yes.  Did she get irritated when people wouldn’t return phone calls?  Yes.  Was she sometimes stubborn and overly-critical?  Yes.  Just as ACC is imperfect, Rhonda was imperfect.  But ACC also provided her with the security of extended leave thanks in part to the generosity of colleagues who donate to the sick leave pool each year.  And ACC provided her with benefits that mattered in the midst of extended health challenges.  And most especially, ACC provided her with a caring community – and gave her reason to get better.  When she was away from work with her illness, her goal was always – always – to return to work.  That kept her going when life was a struggle.  She was so captivated by our mission and impact, and by our people, and by our students’ stories, and by the commitment of our senior leadership, and by her daily interactions with friends on the 6th floor of HBC.  She loved coming to work and making a difference.

ACC has great power.  In this instance, its power helped Rhonda fight the cancer beast for five and a half years.  She is irreplaceable.  I will miss her sparkle, and her quick wit, and her ability to be my sounding board, and her ever-ready willingness to support me and defend me.  But what I will miss most is her belief in the power of Austin Community College.

Living in a world of “known unknowns”

Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002:  “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Remember Donald Rumsfeld?  Defense Secretary in the years of Bush the Younger?  Those words quoted above are – no doubt – the most well-known three sentences he ever uttered.  I remember the statement being derided at the time for being nonsensical, but doesn’t it make a certain amount of sense in the age of coronavirus?  We are living with both “known unknowns” as well as “unknown unknowns”.

We’re having class meetings and virtual meetings that can be frustrating and bumpy because of connectivity issues, people talking over each other, lag time between comments, feedback in the audio, and general awkwardness.  But – they are also fodder for short comedic bits.  Thank goodness for our ability to laugh in times of trouble.

We’re working longer hours than ever, and work and home have blurred together.  We’re feeling disconnected, but I also find myself talking on the phone (yes, an actual phone call) much more frequently than I did two months ago – so in some ways I’m still very much connected to colleagues and friends.

I came to my office today – for the first time in weeks.  I couldn’t remember the password to log onto my computer (that’s how long it’s been).  I totally blanked for a good 60 seconds before I finally had an inspiration that proved correct.  When I walked into my office, I noticed how neat it looked.  Why?  Because I haven’t been here in weeks (so all my piles of paperwork are at home).  My office was both familiar and yet unfamiliar.  And of course very folks are in the building, so the atmosphere is different.

I don’t know about you, but I miss chatting.  I miss walking over to someone’s office to ask a question.  I miss commiserating about the weather or the thermostat in the building or the traffic.  I miss running into folks whom I don’t see regularly.  I miss the predictability of my work day (well, okay, my work days were never predictable in terms of content or rhythm – but in general I knew that my work occurred mostly in my office from 8:30 to 6:30 five days a week).

I know we all feel this – we miss our “known knowns”, so to speak.  But in the age of coronavirus, we are learning to adjust to known unknowns, as well as unknown unknowns.

So from me to you – hang in there.  Thanks for coping.  Thanks for your good cheer and your vigilant focus on student success.  Thanks for being ever-faithful to our mission.  Thanks for the long hours and for pushing through the awkwardness and for moving forward.  It is all noticed, applauded, and appreciated.

Blessings on you.

Words of Wisdom

All of us are navigating our way through the fog of a pandemic that defies description.  In the midst of this, I have been encouraged, cheered, and uplifted by the words of my colleagues and friends, both here at ACC and elsewhere.

Department chairs deserve special recognition for their leadership in this time of uncertainty and constantly changing conditions.  From the Biology Department Chair – where there are unique challenges in suddenly transitioning from hands-on, wet lab learning objectives to virtual labs for the remainder of the semester:

“I want to hear . . . ways we can satisfactorily meet all our objectives for every course we offer, totally online.  It may not be ideal, but I do not want to hear why it can’t be done, no whining!  We have outstanding, innovative faculty that will present methods to meet our objectives.”

From the Math Department Chair, who is trying to lead her faculty in the transition all levels of math to online learning, from developmental courses through Calculus III and Differential Equations, and where “show your work” is paramount:

“We are losing a week of classes at the same time we are asking students to learn a new format of instructional delivery. . . I know all of this is likely overwhelming to you.  We’ll take it one step at a time (like a complicated math problem) and get through it.  Our goal is to get through this semester teaching our students as much as we can.

Students will be struggling with this as much as you are, maybe more.  It’s important to be empathetic during this time – let some of your policies, deadlines, etc. go and understand students are trying to make the best of this too.  Many of them will now have their kids at home indefinitely and won’t have the time they’d typically have to work on coursework. Many have limited access to technology . . . Some will be sick or taking care of someone who is sick.”

From a History adjunct faculty member (and long-time friend and colleague) in an email to his students:

“We, all of us, did not sign up for this. We did not sign up for the coronavirus and this pandemic.  We did not sign up for online courses, social distancing, staying home, going stir crazy, and the like.  . . What can we do? We can support each other intellectually and as human beings.  . . . We will work together to finish this course and make it meaningful to you.”

From an instructional dean to his department chairs:

“First, take a moment to breathe and think. . . . No one  would have chosen this path. No one should have illusions; compromise will be necessary. . . This is a time to lay aside the perfectionism that often goes with our calling. . . I strongly encourage you to set realistically low expectations and prioritize mercilessly.”

From the Director of the Texas Success Center:

“Students in general are dealing with high levels of anxiety, isolation, and unpredictability – as are we.  Remaining connected to ur students and providing them with stable, thoughtful support and connecting them to appropriate resources is essential.”

And from me:

We need to find reservoirs of grace and compassion.  We need to be patient a and kind and forgiving – of missed due dates, of spotty connectivity during a Collaborate session, of having to record a lecture three times before you’re satisfied enough to upload it to Blackboard.  And we need to maintain our sense of humor.

I’ll leave you with this.  Watch it and laugh and remember that we’re all getting through this as best we can.

RB!

Sometimes, in the midst of planning for every eventuality (the coronavirus), and answering questions for over an hour about your approach to record-keeping (the records inventory that is being conducted at the college), and planning for a regional corequisite conference in Port Arthur on March 21, and developing questions for a survey and focus group with students to learn more about how they plan for eventual transfer to a four-year institution, and planning a meeting about the early alert pilot in Distance Education classes, and finalizing catalog updates . . .

Sometimes, an unexpected encounter with RB just makes you smile.  As does your goofy colleague Rich Griffiths.

The Good Work of our Faculty

The Community College Daily has two articles that once again remind me of the good work of our faculty.

First, we have an outstanding history of faculty Fulbright Scholars.  This article highlights ACC’s “rich Fulbright history” and mentions Dr. Blanca Alvarado’s sojourn in Costa Rica last year (Sociology/Social Work) and Adjunct Professor Heather Barfield’s Fulbright in France this year (Drama).  Congratulations to our faculty who are always striving to learn more so that they can help our students succeed.  Whether it’s a Fulbright or a webinar or any other professional development opportunity, we have adjunct and full-time faculty who really are lifelong learners.

And this article in Community College Daily focuses on the report just released by Achieving the Dream about the OER Degree Initiative work that was done across the country.  ACC was both a cost research partner and a student impact research partner for this initiative.  What we have learned from SRI (our partner in the student impact research) is that ACC students enrolling in one or two OER courses (what we call ZTC classes) “on average attained 1.88 credits more than otherwise similar students who took no OER courses.”  And rpkGroup tells us that their cost research indicates that the “estimated cost of the 2.5-year OER Degree Initiative [at ACC] was $477,000.”  They also tell us that, in looking at credit hours attempted, enrollment in one or two Z-classes did not appear to be associated with cumulative credits attempted.  So while taking Z-classes may not be associated with taking additional classes, it seems to be associated with earning more credits – that is, with success in learning.

As you know, a substantial group of our students tell us that they sometimes don’t purchase a required textbook because of the cost.  In addition, the most recent results of the 2019#RealCollege survey of ACC students tell us that 42% of our students who responded experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days, and 53% of responding students experienced housing insecurity in the previous year.

The work of faculty to adopt or adapt openly-licensed and freely available materials for their courses is having a direct impact on our students’ bottom line and on their ability to be successful in a class.

Kudos to ACC’s faculty who put students at the center of their work, who try new things (like open educational resources), who are constantly learning, and who, both collectively and individually, change the trajectories of our students’ lives.  You are appreciated because you do good work.