Faculty/staff reading initiative focuses on retention


File Photo

Margo Warden

After reading their first faculty/staff common read, “Making the Most of College: Students Speak their Minds,” by Richard Light, in the early 2000’s, Johnson State College hasn’t done another common read among full-time faculty, adjunct faculty and staff, until now, with the publication of Vincent Tinto’s new book, “Completing College: Rethinking Institutional action.”

“Johnson has, like most 4-year liberal arts colleges, trouble with retention,” said Director of Academic Support Services Karen Madden. “I have always read Tinto’s books. He’s a member of the Pell institute, which is the research arm of the national TRiO organizations, so I see him every year at the conference. I new he was coming out with this book, so I got it, read it, and then brought it to Margo Warden [Director of First-Year Experience.] I think Dan Reagan, our dean, also had it at the same time. I was impressed because it’s sort of a road map focused on institutional action, so it’s not something I can do or Margo can do. It’s something the whole institution can do, so that’s why we included faculty and staff.”

According to Madden, Tinto says you cannot focus on retention. You improve the quality of education, and the quality of support, and retention will follow. Then you need good advising, summer bridge programs, and adjustments in classrooms to make them more student-focused, among other things. The book tells the reader about different programs, and then gives examples of how other colleges have implemented the programs, rather than offering a “one-size-fits-all” model.

“It is sort of a how-to book,” says Warden. “The title itself really says quite a bit. The first part ‘completing college’ is a conversation that we have been having, and want to have with faculty, and with staff, and with administration. When we think about retention or attrition, we think about students having access. They get admitted and it is our obligation to work, and teach, and support our students so that they graduate. Karen touched a little bit on ‘rethinking action.’ When we had the title III grant about 10 years ago, we really started having this campus wide conversation about student success, increasing engagement and increasing retention.”

According to Warden, the goal of having a common read among faculty and staff is to find a common text, and then come together to start having thoughtful conversation around JSC, and then work together to discuss how best to teach and support students.

“I’m excited,” said Warden, “because it’s a great place to work, it’s a small campus, and I don’t think we create enough opportunities here to have this kind of conversation with our colleagues.”

The book is in the hands of about 25 people on campus, and there is a series of three conversations scheduled as the staff and faculty move through the semester. The book goes through the four conditions of student success: expectation, support, feedback and assessment, and involvement. The conversations will focus on these conditions in terms of what’s going on in the classroom, to benefit students.

After finishing the book, Madden wants to look at a way to bring students into the conversation. There aren’t enough books to hand out, but one idea that was brought up was creating focus groups, and asking 20 questions around the four conditions.

“We have been focusing over the last several years on first-to-second-year success rates,” says Warden, “and what we need to be looking at is persistence, completion, getting to graduation, and about second-to-third-year retention rates. I think this is a really great opportunity to do this. Right now 20 questions is more for our first-year students, but I think that focus groups can happen with sophomores, with our third-year students, and then an exit group with our seniors.”

According to Madden, the institution has to make a commitment, and this is the first step with everyone getting together to read this book. The next step is having something to bring to the new president as an example of what the faculty and staff have been working on and what their ideas are, to start a conversation about working together.

“I think we are future looking instead of looking at what we’ve done in the past,” says Madden. “We need to look at new things that we can do to support students inside and outside the classroom.”

Tinto and Light were both on campus after the first faculty/staff common read, to have a conversation among faculty and staff about the common goal of student success, but JSC doesn’t have it in their budget to bring Tinto back to campus after reading his book this year. Tinto, a former professor of education, has since retired, and is living in California, so, for him to speak on campus, it would cost JSC $10,000, where 10 years ago the cost was around $4,000.