Simpson College: Making Mission into Method
How can the wonderful ideals of an institutional mission be expressed through the teaching practices of faculty? What does it look like to incorporate an institutional core value into vocational reflection on campus?
A team from Simpson College accomplished these goals in just a few years through a NetVUE Vocational Discernment Professional Development Grant. Team members Mark Pleiss, director of the Teaching and Learning Center; Mara Bailey, chaplain; and Chad Timm, professor of teacher education, have a stunning accomplishment to share.
They began with the mission or core value. At Simpson College, that core value is justice, emphasizing the “dignity and worth inherent in all human beings” and striving for “equity and inclusion as the hallmarks” of the community. Then, they needed a venue in which vocational reflection could occur; they found it in the newly approved General Education Curriculum, which included a year-long, first-year course. Importantly, the second semester of that course incorporated DEI themes, so that reflections on justice could be designed alongside questions of vocation and writing practice. Finally, in addition to a value and a venue, they needed a vehicle to provide content. What would all these professors assigned to teach this newly invented course do? And how would they connect justice with vocation in an intentional and consistent way?
That is where Simpson College utilized its faculty development model. They started with a plan to have a small group of faculty members develop a toolkit to contain all kinds of relevant and rich content. But engagement was low. After the first year, they had only developed seven activities. “One of the clever things we did with this grant,” Pleiss said, was to change “our approach in year two, as we moved to a reading group model.” They chose books tied to DEI subjects, invited facilitators that included faculty, academic staff, and the vice president of DEI, and—18 months later—had five groups creating modules and more than 30 pedagogical tools for wide use.
“I don’t think we would have ever achieved that level of creative discussion about teaching vocation and DEI without making these strategic changes in the second year,”Mark Pleiss
By reading books like The Purpose Gap by Patrick Reyes, Democracy in Black by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., and Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed, faculty members started to create sweeping and specific content available to all who were teaching this new course. The toolkit included exercises common to vocational reflection, such as life maps and the happiness challenge; however, it also included ideas tied explicitly to DEI learning goals like a personal mission statement process and a DEI statement activity.
They had a value (justice), a venue (the first-year course), and a vehicle (decentralized faculty reading groups that were pouring creativity into a toolkit), but they still needed impact. One part of the impact is on faculty, of course, and this process recruited newer faculty with little experience or those who had “never heard of vocation” to teach a mandatory course with “more intentionality” and connect students to career and chaplaincy programs. The other part of the impact relates to students. Pleiss explained that many students are focused on career, but many students at Simpson also “have a more complex set of questions—not just to do the assignment but why they are doing the assignments.” By connecting purpose to social injustice, students see their own values and the value of a Simpson education. Timm explained that in the first semester (Foundations 1), students complete intentional exercises and articulate goals for civic engagement. “Then, in Foundations 2, students take their personal statement on civic engagement to another level with in-depth conversations about DEI.” Timm continued, “This encourages them to link their meaning and civic engagement to the world’s needs in concrete ways.” The first-year course provides a value proposition and a “why” to its students, so that they learn how their education is going to help them make a difference in a complex and challenging world.
Is this a formula? Take a value, find a venue for the reflection, design a vehicle to deliver content, and watch the impact begin? It’s not quite that simple. This course demands intentional reflection, vulnerability, and unique care from the instructors.
one thing I quickly discovered was that many faculty don’t feel it’s quite in their wheelhouse to approach meaning making through their teaching, because it does feel vulnerable (to both them and their students). Through our shared experiences with a reading group and working together to develop teaching resources, I believe one thing I brought to this project was the encouragement to look beyond the logistics of an assignment to consider more deeply the “why” behind it.Mara Bailey
The process of scaling up (so that many faculty members could be giving adequate attention to teaching this course) created an enormous challenge. In the second year of the Foundations sequence, the Teaching and Learning Center worked with Foundations faculty to develop a six-part course development series that incorporates the toolkit with other successful activities and lessons learned from the first year. But faculty members were not the only ones who needed to get on board; students were skeptical as well. Pleiss was clear: “faculty need to be really intentional with our students about why we are doing this and why we think it’s important as part of our mission. . . . The Foundations sequence and toolkit we’ve developed have allowed us to align our teaching practice with our mission.” In other words, this process took an ideal from a mission statement on a website and turned it into an actual practice.
Of course, this story is being told backwards. The process actually began with a faculty development program as a means to support a new course. But what it became was an opportunity to intertwine the school’s commitment to justice with its practice of teaching via a shared language of vocation. What endgame can you imagine, if you could situate the right values, venues, and vehicles within your institution’s context?