Experiential Learning in Interdisciplinary Studies 400f

The City of Abbotsford, the local municipal government for UFV’s main campus and Clearbrook campus, identified a problem.

That problem is neither new nor unique to Abbotsford: people mostly don’t care about municipal governance.

As hard as municipal governments may try to engage their populations, as many channels as they may have to communicate with their residents, as many opportunities as they may provide, local governments tend to hear frequently from a small group of very engaged citizens and then from almost nobody else.

However, the City wants to change that. They put a tremendous amount of effort into engaging around the Abbotsforward project and again for their Plan for 200k initiative. Still, despite receiving input from thousands of people, the City wants to do better.

Enter CityStudio, a group that has been working with the City of Vancouver and post-secondary learning institutions in Vancouver to advance innovative projects at the local level. CityStudio looks to connect municipal staff with universities, faculty, and their students to open new opportunities to explore problems and how they might be solved outside of the confines of city halls.

The City expressed a number of challenges to CityStudio, including their problem about civic participation and engagement in municipal governance.

When the University of the Fraser Valley started to get involved, two faculty members—Hamish Telford from Political Science and myself from the Communications department—came together to build a new Interdisciplinary Studies 400 course: IDS 400f Civic Engagement & Participation.

The goal of this course is simple: bring together a small class of committed students to investigate the City’s problem and propose potential solutions for future implementation. While the goal is simple, the problem also presents an enormous challenge and a very unique learning opportunity for students.

In this course, students will need to consult with City staff and the Mayor about the challenge being faced and they’ll need to research what has been tried elsewhere in the past, even of those experiments with public engagement were failures. They’ll need to go and perform original primary research to speak with the marginally engaged population to find out what might motivate them to be more engaged and to participate more in the public policy development processes that the City offers for citizen feedback.

IDS 400f is a different kind of course. Student led and project-based, this course gives students the unique opportunity to explore communications and politics outside of a traditional disciplinary framework and to solve a real-world problem through hands-on research and interactions.

If all goes as planned, the students will bring new perspectives and input into a problem that has plagued many. They will learn about the challenges that are faced when planning how to overcome meaningful problems that have stumped expert practitioners. The richness of the experiential learning will transcend the traditional classroom experience or even traditional academic research because of its time sensitivity and client-focused approach.

The learning students achieve in this class will be a talking point if they apply for graduate programs or future research or teaching assistantships. This is going to be a unique learning opportunity that forms their understanding of what can be achieved through research, project-based learning, and experiential learning for years and maybe even decades to come.

On that basis alone, I am a strong believer that UFV’s students and faculty should push for more such learning opportunities that connect to community stakeholders, that are project-driven, that are interdisciplinary, and offer opportunities for primary research. Such courses foster creativity and innovation and they serve as an excellent primer for students looking at graduate level research in their future. They represent an excellent capstone to the undergraduate learning experience.

Will the efforts of IDS 400f students solve the City’s problem?

I don’t know. But the process is exciting and the learning will be enriching at the highest level.

The opportunity to learn, connect, and grow is incredible.

Teaching exchange at UFV India

One of the University of the Fraser Valley’s most under-advertised achievements is its thriving campus in Chandigarh, India. Now operating for over a decade, UFV delivers its Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), Bachelor of Computer Information Systems (BCIS), and, starting in September, Bachelor of Arts (BA) programs, to students from all over India.

UFV India is mostly run by staff and faculty from India, but some key positions are led by faculty and staff from Canada who travel back and forth to oversee the operations of the campus. Canadian faculty also have the opportunity to travel to Chandigarh to teach courses on that campus, too.

Having now been a part of that faculty exchange during the Fall 2016 semester, I believe that teaching at UFV Chandigarh was a professional and academic experience that will positively shape my career forever.

As an avid traveller and as somebody who never had the chance to study abroad as a student (but always wished he’d been able to), going to Chandigarh for a semester was an exciting opportunity. The teaching exchange presents challenges and new experiences professionally and academically, and culturally, as well.

Most appetizing to me, personally, I was looking forward to immersing myself in a culture other than my own and to traveling in a part of the world I’d yet to explore. As faculty at UFV India, I was immediately included in a wide variety of cultural events, from Diwali celebrations and other festivals, to sharing meals with my colleagues and even with the family of one of my students. With my wife joining me on the trip, we were able to visit historic ruins and monuments, sacred temples, bustling urban environments, and unique wilderness areas, all of which enriched our experience in India.

Ambitiously, we added quite a bit of recreational travelling to our itinerary and, in addition to exploring several places in northern India, we also spent a week in southern India, a week in Maldives, and four days in Dubai. Some of our travels were facilitated by our colleagues at UFV India, a group upon whom I can only heap more praise.

Indeed, the greatest joy of being a visiting faculty member was working with this tightly-knit group of dedicated professionals. They really rolled out the red carpet for us on every occasion and made the experience of teaching abroad as positive as possible.

We were included in other professional opportunities while there, as well, such as getting involved in student recruitment by visiting local high schools and collaborating on new projects and efforts to improve the educational offerings at the campus.

Of course, one of the key areas of learning for me, personally, was going to be the actual experience of teaching in an Indian classroom.

The traditional Indian classroom is far, far different from many of today’s North American classrooms. For example, students are not used to working in groups or being challenged to figure out potential answers to questions or problems. Instead, they are more familiar with the old-fashioned British system of rote learning wherein the professor lectures without much engagement from students.

Classroom composition is different in obvious ways (100% of my students were born in India and spoke English as a second), but also in less obvious ways, too. For example, UFV India’s classes run on a cohort model, so every student in the class is in the same part of their academic journey. There are no senior students in the classroom to serve as role models or to lead in terms of behavioural cues. There are no mature students, either; every student is coming straight out of high school and only 2-3% have any job experience (outside of a family business). As such, everything that’s being taught is theoretical, as they have not had a chance to apply the skills being taught in a professional capacity. Equally, they have no experience with professional etiquette or accountability, which must be reinforced by instructors more vociferously.

Unfortunately, understanding of plagiarism and academic honesty are not well taught in most Indian high schools, so more emphasis needs to be placed on why citations are necessary, how to do them, what constitutes plagiarism and academic dishonesty, and how to avoid it in one’s own work.

All of these new-to-me traits of the classroom environment posed challenges, but also opportunities to adapt.

Finding ways to encourage student leadership and risk-taking in the classroom takes more patience and determination. Understanding which group activities will work and when student-led activity is possible takes trial and error and then careful consideration to get right. The need to build a positive rapport with students is paramount, as they must trust your goodwill in adapting to their needs, as you trust their goodwill in adapting to your own teaching style.

Happily, when students do start to embrace group work, student-led learning, peer feedback, and more dynamic learning structures, they do gain a lot from the more engaging learning environment.

UFV is unique in offering a western education in India with both opportunities to transfer to UFV Canada or to finish the degree in Chandigarh. The exceptional quality of education offered is an incredible benefit and opportunity to those students.

That UFV has a campus in Chandigarh offers an extraordinary opportunity for academic, professional, and cultural exchange for both faculty and students in both countries, as students from Canada do sometimes study in India (they are, after all, taking the exact same courses that they would take in Canada) and Indian faculty have, on occasion, come to UFV Canada.

These exchanges are exceptional and will be a highlight in the career of anybody who is able to pursue the opportunity; I recommend it highly.

“Celebrate our successes”: Samantha Pattridge wins UFV’s first Inspirational Leadership Award

Perhaps the most commonly repeated mantra of the Communications department at UFV is that we need to “celebrate our successes,” but that’s a relatively new refrain. In the past, our department would often reach milestones or make significant accomplishments in relative quiet, representing missed opportunities to show how we were using new and innovative teaching practices or making major contributions to the broader institution. When asked to report about our activities, we made but passing mention of these achievements. Today, the department is putting a greater emphasis on celebrating those achievements and showcasing the work we’re doing. That shift in behaviour is largely the result of the leadership of our department head, Samantha Pattridge, who will be UFV’s first recipient of its Inspirational Leadership Award.

According to UFV’s award criteria, nominees for this award model the highest standards of professionalism and integrity, lead by example and through encouragement and inspiration for the benefit of others, promote respect and fairness, facilitate dialogue and collaboration, energize those working with them, champion the work of others above their own, and demonstrate genuine care and support for the career and personal development of others. The person or group who wrote these criteria set the bar high, making the award all the more important and meaningful for the recipients.

In nominating Samantha, I felt that I was living the creed that she so encourages: celebrating success; Samantha’s leadership is most definitely a success story worth celebrating.

When Samantha became chair of the department, she made a point of reaching out to me, a sessional instructor with little meaningful connection to the department, and she invited me out for coffee. More than just a perfunctory introduction, Samantha looked to understand my teaching interests and where I could positively contribute at UFV. As time went on, she encouraged me to teach more courses, sit on committees, and participate in special teaching projects outside of the department; I’m even going to be teaching at our Chandigarh campus in India in the fall. This kind of inclusion, respect, and encouragement is truly admirable; Samantha’s leadership shows that promoting a positive culture results in positive outcomes.

In a supporting letter of nomination, colleague Linda Pardy wrote “Samantha is an advocate for students and faculty. She is a superlative instructor and takes a leadership role in sharing her expertise. She is always working hard and committed to making her department, the student experience, and UFV better…. She also demonstrates leadership by encouraging faculty to challenge themselves and to continuously learn and try new teaching and learning strategies.”

One of our former Communications department heads, Lynn Kirkland Harvey, was quick to point out examples of how Samantha had encouraged and motivated members of the department by delegating leadership roles, such as chairing the curriculum committee, and encouraging innovative new ideas, such as bringing a major keynote speaker, Terry O’Reilly, to UFV as an unique learning opportunity both for students and the community-at-large.

New to the Communications department, Kim Norman wrote that “In interacting with Samantha, and watching her skillful, sincere, and respectful interactions with others, I have learned she consistently models excellent leadership…. She’s an excellent listener, model collaborator, and impressively savvy when it comes to her departmental and institutional knowledge, the latter a sign of her contagious passion for her work and deep commitment to her workplace. I’ve been impressed, too, with Samantha’s ability to balance her responsibilities as department head and many other institutional commitments with her teaching and scholarship. As a role model for how to lead a balanced, productive, and meaningful professional life, Samantha is impressive and inspiring.”

The purpose of this blog post is simple: to live the mantra “celebrate our successes.” In winning UFV’s Inspirational Leadership Award, we celebrate Samantha’s success as a valued colleague at UFV.

Congratulations, Samantha, on winning this well-deserved award.