Tag Archives: student engagement

Office Space as Reflective Space: Who Am I?

When setting up my office space I wrestled with what to put on the walls–what do I want people to see when they come in my office? I meet with numerous students and I wanted the space to be a warm and inviting space that would provide a sense of who I am for those meeting me for the first time. The pictures and items on my walls reveal the diverse sides of who I am.

First, there is a picture of my family taken at my son’s wedding a few years ago. I love my family and this is a reminder that the most important things in life are not found in my office but in the relationships outside of it.

The next set of pictures revolve around Francis Schaeffer–a philosophical thinker. (I am in the Philosophy & Religious Studies Department, after all!)

Schaeffer was a philosopher and public intellectual whose writings I read in high school. He was the motivating factor for me to pursue philosophy and the life of the mind. I keep this quotation from him right above my desk as an inspirational reminder to me….

Next, people will see an art project my daughter and I worked on a few years ago. It’s based on the famous Shroud of Turin and we sought to recreate the image in a unique manner.

I read an article by literature professor, Nathan Wilson, about how he created a replication of the image by painting on a piece of glass and letting the sun bleach out the negative space. In other words, the dark parts of the image are not a result of being put on a light cloth but, rather, the result of a dark cloth being bleached out except for the areas of the image. My daughter and I tried it in our backyard and it worked!

No GCC office would be complete without a Gauchos flag!

The next two pictures reflect a bit of the fun side of who I am. These are also some of the first items students see when they come into my office. The first is a quotation from the movie “Nacho Libre”–a truly great movie!

And, finally, for the superhero enthusiast there is Batman. My friend drew this for me back in 1989. Michael Keaton’s Batman had recently come out and I was a fanatic. I saw the movie twice on the opening day–one time was at 3 am!

Yes, there are the miscellaneous philosophy books and scattered files that accompany any office in our department but the pictures give a picture of who I am in my diversity of personality. They remind me of who I am and I hope give a glimpse of my manifold character to the students who enter.


Living with VIM and Vigor: The Vision, Intention, and Means to the Good Life

In my role as Student Engagement Staff in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department I often get to interact with students in need of direction and guidance.  With one recent encounter I used a method of personal analysis based on the work of the late USC philosopher, Dallas Willard.  He called it the VIM method.  I outline some of what I shared with the student below.  What I particularly like about this approach is that recognizes the critical importance of “vision.”  This is to acknowledge that people cannot be forced into human flourishing or that which is good for them.  What we can do is to paint a vision of the good life that they might find alluring and motivating.  As I interacted with this student I tried to guide the discussion with questions that would bring this student face-to-face with their ultimate goals and their understanding of the “good life.”  I think “vision” is the key component and the other two (intention and means) can fall into fall rather nicely under the guidance of a wise counselor.


  • What is your vision for the “good life”?
    • Physically, emotionally, spiritually
    • Relationships
    • Vocation, life-work
  • If the desires of my heart came true, what would it look like? (Try to be specific)
  • What do you want to be doing/experiencing in …
  • One year?
    • Two years?
    • Five years?
    • Ten years?


  • Vision is not enough.  We need to intend by an act of the will (actually, repeated acts of the will) to move toward the Vision set before us.
  • We cannot merely dream—we must act!
  • Clarifying vision can help motivate intention.  As I see clearly the good life, my desires for it increase and I’m more and more willing to move my will toward it.
  • Have I really intended to pursue the Vision before me?
  • Am I willing to begin to make the changes necessary to begin to see the Vision fulfilled?
    • If not, why?  What is holding me up?


  • What are the tools, resources, people, and practices that I will need to see Vision fulfilled?
    • Tools, resources: Technologies, Services (counseling, professional organizations)
    • People: Counselors (professional, wise family and friends), family, friends
    • Practices: Study habits, time management, focused “free-time,”

Question: What one thing do I need to do today to pursue VIM?


reflections on student engagement–Part three

In my previous two posts, I focused on the theory and structure of the Student Engagement Staff position created less than two years ago in the Philosophy and Religious Studies department.  In implementing the program we chose to take a two-pronged approach that focused on (1) Classroom presentations and (2) Individual student assistance.  In this post, I will focus on the classroom aspect and its impact.


Recognizing that many students are unaware of the many resources for student success available on our campus, I put together a 15-presentation that would introduce students to some of these resources as well as acquaint them with my role as Student Engagement Staff.  I have been modifying the list of resources we highlight in these presentations each semester but the list of resources we used this semester was as follows:

  • Advisement:  I always ask how many of the students have ever seen an advisor and I am amazed at how many have never seen an advisor on our campus.  I stress the need to be connecting with an advisor every semester they are here.
  • Basis Needs Support Site: This is the relatively new link which highlights access to resources regarding food, housing, safety, transportation, and paying for college.  I stress the fact that, although there are all sorts of issues outside of the campus that can get in the way of your education, there are resources available on this campus and through this campus that can potentially help.
  • Disability Resources and Services (DRS): I make quick mention of DRS and the kinds of issues they can help with in students’ lives. 
  • Brainfuse Online Writing Lab: I provide a step-by-step tutorial on how to access this resource and how to use it to produce better papers.  By taking the time to go over this tool I’m attempting to do a number of different things—(1) Give the students an immediate takeaway resource they can begin to use, (2) create the potential for students to become better writers, and (3) help professors by making it easier on them when they have to grade the writing of their students!  I know of at least one professor outside of the Philosophy and Religious Studies department that invites me to his classes just so his students have access this to training on this resource.
  • Raise Me Micro-scholarships: I end with this resource and explain that they may qualify for some monies from four-year institutions simply based on the work they do here at GCC.  (If you are not familiar with Raise Me I would encourage you to check out this link and click the “Student Overview Tutorial.”)  I like to tell students about one student on our campus who has qualified for $32,000.00 from a participating institution in another state.  I, then, like to ask, “Based on what I told you about Raise Me, how many of you think you might create a profile?”  Usually, 80-90% of the hands are raised.

I recognize that there are a myriad of other resources on our campus for the promotion of student success.  I have chosen these resources in consultation with others to respond to the twin issues of urgency and immediacy—some of the resources may be urgently needed at some point (e.g., food issues) and others can have an immediate pay-off (e.g., the online writing lab).

Presentation Impact

We have been excited to see the reach and impact of these presentations.  For the spring 2019 semester, I was able to present in 23 classes with a total of 353 students.  In the fall 2019 semester, I was in 34 classes with a total of 776 students.  This semester, spring 2020, I was able to present in 39 different classes to a total of 691 students. 

Semester Classes Students
Spring 2019 23 353
Fall 2019 34 776
Spring 2020 39 691

A further development has been the expansion of these presentations beyond the Philosophy and Religious Studies department.  I have also presented in classes in the Mathematics, Psychology, and the Public Safety Sciences departments.

We have also seen some good trends in those metrics we can track.  At the beginning of the fall 2019 semester (August), there were 280 Raise Me profiles.  After presenting in 34 classes to 776 students the number of Raise Me profiles on January 8, 2020, was 711!  As of this week, there are over 865 Raise Me profiles that have been created by students.  Of course, my presentations are not the sole cause of this increase in profile creation, but we do have confirmation that a number of students have created profiles in response to the presentations—I’ve even had students create a profile while I was presenting!

Another area we have seen an increase of activity concerns the online writing lab use through Brainfuse.  Going back to figures from the school-year 2017/2018 in which there was a pre-Brainfuse electronic writing lab, there were 320 uses—remember, that is for two semesters.  After the spring 2019 semester, there were 222 uses of the Brainfuse online writing lab.  After the fall 2019 semester, there were 327 uses—which is more than the entire school year of 2017/2018. 

As excited as we are to see the scope and impact of the classroom presentations, we are even more enthusiastic about the individual lives we have been able to help.  In my next post, I will detail some of these stories.


Reflections on Student Engagement–Part Two

In my last post on Student Engagement, I laid out some distinctions in the term “student engagement” comprising techniques, practices, and modalities.  I ended by mentioning the modality of Student Engagement Staff that we implemented in the Philosophy and Religious Studies department.  In this post, I want to outline the nature of the Student Engagement Staff (SES) endeavor.

As an initial attempt at providing a working definition for this modality of Student Engagement Staff we came up with the following points:

  • Student Engagement Staff is dedicated to student advocacy; promoting students’ success and completion of their education at GCC.
  • Student Engagement Staff is dedicated to educating all instructors about the importance of early intervention when students begin to slacken in their attendance and/or coursework.
  • Student Engagement Staff is a coordinating link in the process of connecting faculty and students to resources that further their educational goals.
  • Student Engagement Staff is committed to enhancing the general awareness of Student Engagement across the campus through various events and programs.

A key component of student engagement is a focus on the triangulation of three key elements: students, professors, and resources. 

A reasonable set of questions to ask is: “What is unique about SES?  Aren’t there many people, departments, and staff devoted to the same agenda?

In considering the nature of Student Engagement Staff we have come to recognize two distinctive elements.  The first element is that of being a generalist modality.  Most of the modalities on campus are specialist in nature.  Think of the following departments and the specialized help they offer:

  • Advising
  • Counseling
  • Disability Resources and Services
  • Center for Learning
  • Financial Aid
  • Enrollment

The desire and design was to have SES be more general in nature.  Student Engagement Staff would, thus, seek to accumulate information on a number of different resources available on campus.  What was given up in depth of specificity was compensated by a greater breadth of coverage.  SES was designed to be a sort of clearing-house of information regarding resource as well as a point of contact into the more specialized departments. 

This generalist modality was to work in tandem with the second key element—fluidity and flexibility.  Being situated in the Philosophy and Religious Studies department allows for increased response time in intervention as well as a closer connection to professors who are the frontline in seeing those students most in need of help.  We like to refer to this as “Bringing the institution to the student.”  A quick example may help illustrate this.  An adjunct professor came into the department office asking for help regarding a student in his class expressing suicidal ideation.  I was able to immediately come to his class, meet the student, and offer to walk this student over to the Counseling Center.  I am not trained as a specialist in counseling but as a generalist I knew enough about what resources we had on campus that could help.  Being able to respond immediately and personally helped the professor maintain his focus on his duties while also allowing the student to get personalized help.

In my next post, I will detail the specifics of what we are doing with Student Engagement at both the classroom level and the individual level as well as highlight some of our success stories.


Reflections on Student engagement–Part one

Having been a participant in establishing a pilot program in the Philosophy and Religious Studies department regarding student engagement, I wanted to write up some reflections regarding student engagement and the role of Student Engagement Staff we have created.

The phrase “student engagement” can have differing meanings and connotations depending on the context.  One way to conceptualize these differing conceptions is to orient the concept of student engagement around the following three categories.

  1. Techniques
  2. Practices
  3. Modalities

The following analysis attempts to bring out the varying emphases in the ideas of student engagement.


A quick perusal of online search engines for the phrase “student engagement” often brings up specific classroom techniques that are offered to engage the student’s interest and attention in the classroom.  In fact, a recent article stressed that one of the best things to emphasis for student engagement is for students to study![1]


The Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) issued a report in 2013 that covered twelve high-impact practices for student engagement.[2]

  1. Experiential learning beyond classroom
  2. Class attendance
  3. Alert intervention
  4. Supplemental instruction
  5. Academic goal setting and planning
  6. Orientation
  7. Accelerated/fast-track developmental education
  8. First year experience
  9. Student success course
  10. Tutoring
  11. Assessment and placement
  12. Learning community

This list of high-impact practices can be divided into two distinct arenas of implementation.  First, there are those practices that can be implemented by the professor in the classroom.  Second, there practices which are more administrative and operate at the level of the larger institution.  The following delineates this breakdown:

Professor/Classroom Level Administrative/Institutional Level
Experiential learning beyond classroom Academic goal setting & planning
Class attendance Orientation
Alert intervention Accelerated/fast-track dev. ed.
Supplemental instruction First year experience
  Student success course
  Assessment & placement
  Learning community

The main difference between these practices is that some are directed by the individual professor and are much quicker to implement.  The second set of practices requires auxiliary departments and specialization beyond the individual professor’s control.


“Modalities” refers to the modes in which student engagement manifests itself.  Think of modalities like vehicles.  Modalities are the differing configurations of personnel and structures that allow for practices and techniques to be expressed.  Consider, for example, the modality of the professor.  The professor is uniquely situated to be the vehicle for implementing specific student engagement practices listed above (e.g., alert intervention).  Beyond the individual professor there are also institutional and structural departments organized around implementing student engagement practices.  Think, for example, of the advisement department.  This is an organized collective of people structured toward the end of giving students effective counsel regarding course selection in light of the student’s stated goals.

The pilot program we have developed in the Philosophy and Religious studies department centers around the creation of a new modality we have called “Student Engagement Staff.”  In my next piece I will give an overview of the specific dynamics of this modality and how it has functioned over the past three semesters.

     [1] “Another form of student engagement is also linked to educational progress and post-graduate success.  It’s called studying.  And its effects include what some may now regard as old-fashioned—even quaint—notions that serious reading increases the understanding of factual and fictional worlds, that intentional writing improves the ability to think clearly, and that mathematical analysis promotes better use and evaluation of data.  Even memorization-often denigrated as rote trivialization—has the value of enabling one to know something without always having to look it up.” Michael T. Nietzel, “A Best Practice for Student Engagement: It’s Called Studying” Forbes (January 10, 2019)—online: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2019/01/10/a-best-practice-for-student-engagement-its-called-studying/#6b4cc38e54ab.

     [2] Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2013). A Matter of Degrees: Engaging Practices, Engaging Students (High-Impact Practices for Community College Student Engagement). Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program.


I wore compression socks to work today

My non-teaching job forces me out of bed at 4:30am to work stock crew at a retail store and requires me to be on my feet for long periods of time. In an effort to combat the leg fatigue and edema, I broke down and purchased compression socks—and not the really cool kind that lifters and runners and crossfitters wear. The ugly kind…the ones that are purely functional and “flesh”-toned, with subtle hints of jaundice.

They are glorious.

I’m pretty sure they solidify my status as “old,” and while I may be a few years shy of my AARP card, they are a reminder of the ever-growing age gap between me and my students. Every year, I get older, but my students stay roughly the same age. When I first started teaching at community colleges, I was 29, just 11 years older than my youngest students. Finding course content that connected with them was easy, mostly because they had experienced the same significant cultural moments that I had. I could pepper a class discussion with references to the O.J. Simpson trial or Brandi Chastain’s game-winning kick and subsequent disrobing; and my students responded with knowing head nods.

AP Photo/The San Francisco Examiner, Lacy Atkins, File

That isn’t the case today. I’m 15 years older; they’re still roughly 18-25.

Earlier this week when a class discussion on precise word choices afforded me the opportunity to quote Inigo Montoya, I suggested that it’s important to choose words wisely to avoid comments on their paper like “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” My students didn’t laugh. Instead, they just stared at me…blankly. Even when I humbly offered, “The Princess Bride?…anyone? No? Just me?”…nothing. And in that moment, I realized that another one of my “go-to” references needed to be updated.


Every semester, I’m faced with the reality that connecting with my students is much harder than it used to be. I am growing increasingly more aware of the fact that my students aren’t knowledgeable of the same events I am, nor do they relate to the world the same way I do.  As educators, we talk a lot about the importance of student engagement and its direct correlation to student success and retention, and so every semester, in an effort to close the growing age gap, I actively seek out new supplemental content that will help them make connections between their reality and the skills we ask them to master. Surprisingly, a majority of this new content comes from former students.

When a class asks me if I have heard about a recent event or seen a viral video or a social media post or a T.V. show, I carve out time to look it up. At worst, I find it obtuse or offensive; but even then, I am learning more about the interests of this generation of students, and that knowledge helps me connect to them in other ways. More often than not, though, it is something I can use during a future class discussion, and in those moments, they teach me, helping me understand their world—and mine—a little bit better.

I hope that I never lose the ability to make those connections with my students, that I never get to the place where my class never changes and I have become Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher Professor Binns, droning on incessantly and completely oblivious to my classroom of sleeping students. I hope that I never run out of new material…but if I do, I can always fall back on a cute kitten .gif. Everyone loves a cute kitten .gif.