Structuring Co-Curricular Knowledge

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the knowledge and expertise of those who work in co-curricular spaces is understood, organized, and shared with students and the broader university community. I know from my own experience that there is a wealth of knowledge across campus, often hiding in unexpected places. But in my three-plus years at Hopkins, I’ve only just scratched the surface and still find myself learning new things about the talents and expertise even of my own teammates in the Life Design Lab. I consider my ability to discover and make sense of the expertise and strengths of my colleagues across campus to be one of my strongest assets, so I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be for students who don’t have my knowledge, connections, or institutional standing.

As student affairs (i.e. non-curricular) offices, programs, and staff continue to expand across higher education, our collective inability to give coherence to the non-classroom experience is undermining our ability to deliver on the very promise of co-curricular learning. This is especially true in the case of first-generation college students, who might not be aware that they should be utilizing a specific office or service until it is too late. To make sense of the co-curricular experience, I would argue that is is necessary for those of us in this space to break out of our fiefdoms and silos and start thinking broadly about the problems we are trying to solve and work collaboratively in identifying the best resources, strategies, and individual staff members to tackle specific aspects of these problems.

The formal curricular and research function of the university offers some inspiration. Faculty are organized by school/division (Medicine, Business, Law, Engineering, Arts & Sciences, Education, etc.) and often further broken down into specific disciplinary departments (History, Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Civil Engineering). In addition to these formal organizational structures, however, faculty also come together around shared teaching and research interests. For example, among the most popular majors at Johns Hopkins is Neuroscience, an inherently interdisciplinary area of study that draws sit teaching faculty from the departments of Psychology, Cognitive Science, Biology, Biomedical Engineering, and the School of Medicine. The existence of the major makes it possible for students to pursue the study of neuroscience without having to scour various departmental and school websites looking for willing faculty and courses, and then design their a major with little to no guidance. Instead, the willing faculty have already stepped forward and done the intellectual work of defining the major, all without the need to create a new academic department. (There is a separate and distinct department of Neuroscience at the School of Medicine, but as far as I can tell is is for the most part distinct from the major).

In student affairs, we rarely invest the time or intellectual energy in creating solutions that integrate into the broader co-curricular experience. Rather we create new positions, or – even better – new offices (complete with confusing acronyms), to respond to perceived student needs. And once in place these offices and professionals do what what student affairs offices and professionals do: create new programs. Lots of them. And invariably, despite the stated desire to “collaborate” with “campus partners”, these programs are developed mostly in-house with little to no input from stakeholders and with little regard to existing programs. The result is a campus littered with a hodgepodge of hastily assembled programs, offered at competing times, on redundant topics, completely divorced from the formal curriculum, and not all building upon or in conversation with one other. It’s no wonder that so many students decide to simply tune us out.

What if instead, those involved in the co-curricular experience came together as a community to define the problems we are trying to solve and the goals we are trying to achieve, articulate the skills and qualities we are trying to develop and nurture in our students, and the identify the best people on campus to teach those skills or design programs to nurture those qualities? What if we thought less about titles or turf and more about the individual talents and expertise of our peers? What if we started taking co-curricular knowledge seriously, and rather than simply generating more of it, we instead focused our energies on making it more rigorous, more coherent, and more accessible? How might we create a structure to allow that to happen?

We could start by identifying the broad skill areas our campus co-curricular experience is actually trying to develop in our undergraduate students. If I had to identify those areas at the Hopkins campus, I would suggest the five areas above. The first four seem largely applicable across most of the institutions where I have worked, and align with broader trends within student affairs and undergraduate education.

Career & Professional Skills – This would include those skills that are the bread and butter of the career offices on most campuses (resume, cover letter, interviewing, networking, negotiation) but also those professional skills that aren’t typically addressed within a liberal arts curriculum: public speaking, data visualization, project management, etc.

Academic & Research Skills – This category would encompass the many skills that are essential to academic success and yet are rarely taught within the formal curriculum. These skills (the “hidden curriculum”) might include how to study, how to read academic articles, how to connect with faculty, how to find and fund research opportunities, how to conduct, fund, and present research, and how to apply to graduate school.

Leadership & Service – At most institutions, campus clubs and activities have become spaces where students go not to find friends and entertainment, but to discover opportunities to develop as engaged leaders. With this transformation, student life and civic engagement offices have developed a range of workshops and programs to facilitate this development.

Wellness & Personal Development – This category would include the many programs aimed at helping students deal with the stress and pressures of campus (meditation, conflict management) but also the resources intended to help students navigate the transition to adulthood, such as financial literacy workshops.

The fifth area – Design Thinking / Life Design – is specific to my own institution. At Johns Hopkins we have an entire office dedicated to Design Thinking and an entire division with Life Design in the title (Integrative Learning and Life Design), so it makes sense to highlight those skills and processes that we aim to teach to our students through out programs and content. (On the other hand, one could just as easily incorporate Design Thinking techniques and skills into the previous four categories.) Other institutions might choose to highlight those specific skills, attributes, and habits of mind that they aim to instill in their students – whether that is global engagement, community service, Christian morals, or environmental ethics – that are specific to their institution and that are reinforced throughout the co-curricular experience.

No doubt there would be some disagreement among my peers and suggestions for different categories or different ways or organizing this knowledge. This should be a community-driven process rather than a top-down edict and everyone’s voice (including students, faculty, staff, and even perhaps external partners like employers, community organizations, funding agencies/donors, and alumni) within the co-curricular space should be represented so that the end product is inclusive and has buy-in across the campus community.

Organizing the co-curricular experience in this way allows us to state clearly what we are about and what we are trying to teach out students. It is also the first step in organizing our collective knowledge in a way that the entire university is able to discern and access it. Much in the same way as the program in Neuroscience has pulled together faculty and courses across various departments into a coherent curriculum, we can begin to organize resources, programs, and practitioners from across the campus into a coherent co-curriculum.

Rather than organizing resources by which office offers them, what if instead we organized them by what skill they develop?

From here, we can identify the specific skills in each of the broad areas that we think are of value to at least some, if not all, students, and that we are able to support through programming, content, or other forms of structured support. Some of these skills will be obvious and have entire offices dedicated to helping students learn them. In the example of Career and Professional Skills, the Johns Hopkins Life Design Lab (like pretty much every other career office) offers numerous programs and resources on core career skills like resume and cover letter, personal branding, networking, and interviewing, and students know that they can come to our Lab for support on these topics.

But what about other skills that aren’t necessarily taught in the classroom but that students (or employers / grad admissions committees) might deem essential: web design, Microsoft Excel, pitching your start-up, managing projects and teams, or giving an effective presentation to a non-specialist audience? In these cases, it is much more difficult to discern where and how one might gain these skills on campus. I’ll admit, I wouldn’t know where to send students for some of the skills above although I’m sure they are taught somewhere on campus in some format. A first-year student interested in finance could spend hours scrolling through university websites and still not learn that one of the best crash courses on Microsoft Excel is offered through Wall Street Prep (subscriptions available though the Life Design Lab; applications posted as jobs on Handshake), while the Sheridan Libraries hosts information and training for Bloomberg market terminals. Students often figure this information out via their networks, but again, do we really want to have a system where better-connected students are able to access the co-curriculum more readily than their less-resourced peers?

Laying out skills in this way forces us to think about what we hope students would be able to learn through the co-curricular experience and begin to identify those offices, individuals, and resources that can offer that instruction. It can help us empathize with the challenges that students face in navigating our complex web of resources and support. We can begin to see ways in which this knowledge could be structured so that it is not a series of unrelated one-off events and resources, but rather a loosely scaffolded sequence that allow students to build their skills and knowledge progressively and progress from novice to proficient to mastery. In other words, a curriculum.

This process can also reveal gaps or redundancies in our support. It may be that the reason I can’t direct students to a resource on conflict resolution (an absolutely key skill not only for a range of careers but also for graduate – especially doctoral – study), is because we don’t have one. And if that’s the case, the next time we think about developing an additional workshop on negotiation (a skill supported through a range of resources on campus, as well as an excellent free online resource offered by the American Association of University Women), perhaps we instead direct our energies instead towards developing resources on conflict resolution.

Amateurish layout aside, the benefits of pulling all of the campus resources on Networking together onto a single webpage would be immense

For each skill we could then pull together all the available resources from across campus into one place to make it easy for students to understand where and how they can access these resources, how they could sequence these resources to progressively develop this particular skill, and who the experts are on campus. As with the above example of networking, this would mean not only ordering the Life Design Lab’s various offerings into a progression (Networking 101, 201, etc.), but also identifying other resources and expertise on campus (such as the excellent programs offered through our Fast Forward U program at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures) and incorporating all of these resources into a coherent (co)curriculum. To go a step further, we could make it easy for student groups (clubs, sports teams, fraternities/sororities, etc.) to request a workshop at their next meeting, thus ensuring both that students are learning from a campus subject expert and that instructors have an interested and captive audience.

Organizing co-curricular knowledge in the way I described would not solve all of our problems at Hopkins or in higher education – our students would still be incredibly busy with classes and research (not to mention employment, personal life, etc.) and still might not have the time or energy to make full use of the offerings available to them – but I think it would be a start.

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