Friday, October 7, 2011

Small and Grand

I remember that distressing moment (it now seems like decades)
when all of my dissertation data collection had been completed and I was sitting in my home with a mountain of data just waiting to be sorted and coded.  

Swimming in data.  

Drowning in data.  

As a qualitative researcher, my data is often less numbers and more interview transcripts, hundreds and hundreds of pages student handbooks, thousands of pages of articles, recordings, journals, etc.  I guess a more accurate analogy is sludging (instead of swimming) through a philosophical swamp of reflection, literature, bias, conversations, and information from the schools/people/departments/students I had spent time with.  

Man, I don't miss those days at all.

I was recently reflecting on this particular research project and my recent research into small colleges and universities.    

So today, on this windy Friday afternoon, here is what I am coming to know and believe.

Small, mission drive colleges and universities are powerful, powerful communities.  They are dynamic little communities that have been called "invisible" (Astin & Lee, 1972)  and "committed" (Bonvillian & Murphy, 1996).  They are places of change and growth with significant self-efficacy problems.  

We believe in these small communities because we believe in the capacity and calling...that by influencing and changing the life of the single person and sending them out into the world, a marriage can be influenced.  A family can be given direction.  A community can be influenced and moved.  A church can become purposeful.  A nation can rise.  A group of starving children can be fed.  A missionary family can be clothed.  A house can be re-roofed.  A child can be adopted.  A student can be inspired to teach.

After poring over pages and pages of literature, discipline codes, student handbooks, traveling to many, many universities and meeting with many higher education practitioners outside of my current institution's heritage and tradition, and with an admittedly healthy dose of passion overriding a lack of empirical data,  I have come to believe that small colleges and universities generally have the heart, position, passion and backbone to become institutions of true higher learning that seamlessly integrates the breath giving mission of Christ and his love with the ability to question/struggle/develop/challenge in a live, pulsing community; to learn to live in community of scholars and practitioners where students are equally important to the administration who are equally important to the faculty and professors who are equally important to the light bulb changers and the lawn folks---and where the practices and policies reflect that belief.

Where the entire community is about the business of student success - one student at a time - because everyone sees their role as integrally linked not to selfish professional ideation, not to academic or pet-program sustainability, not to power and prestige, but to a belief that Christ represents us all and all is made up of many "individuals" and it is our responsibility to teach individuals how to play their role in that larger community.  And we teach that by our conversations, our programs, the way we teach classes, the way we hold students accountable, the way we simply refuse to accept less than a student's best in the classroom.  The way we model boundaries and work/life balance.  The way we balance cost and student debt.  The way we say no.  The way we have hard, hard conversations and ask certain team members to take their talents to other communities where they may be a better fit.  Where acknowledge the difficulty of living in a community of believers is hard...and where we need each other.  

The way that we realize that by operating an institution with Christ's name in the title or in the mission statement, we are reflecting ideals bigger than ourselves.  This realization is reflected by our willingness to integrate with and among the community, to edge and water the grass, treat others with dignity and respect, build buildings worthy of wearing the name Christ, and hold a standard or excellence and accountability.

In short, small colleges and universities can be authentic, demanding, Christ-centered, educational communities that believe that in the face of God, all questions, temporary conclusions, challenges, and disagreements fall short of being fearful...and are in fact welcomed.  For it is by pushing boundaries, asking questions, challenging authority, having disagreements, and being blessed with the opportunity to forgive others, to have our spheres of comfort melted, and by being dependent on the greater community  - similar to Christ's relationship with his disciples - that we can truly resolve and grow.

Getting there would be excruciating, difficult beyond measure, and tiring beyond belief....just like Jesus said it would be. 



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