Monroe Community College Scholars' Day Brings Benefits
April 2011, Volume 6, Number 4
By Jodi Oriel and Matt Hachee
In just a few years, Monroe Community College's Scholars’ Day program has become a platform for students, faculty, and staff to successfully promote their creative and scholarly work. The event has provided an annual program around which to plan activities such as research and writing projects, performances, exhibits, symposia, panel discussions, and cooking demonstrations. Monroe Community College (MCC) believes that events such as Scholars’ Day are worth the investment of time and resources because they are capable of combining inspiration and the celebration of academic quality like few other programs.
A Format Driven by the Primary Goal: Scholarship. MCC’s first goal was to organize a showcase to give faculty, staff, and introductory student scholars the acknowledgment they deserve for work they create. Since its inception, the event has included a keynote address from a prominent interdisciplinary author and scholar, as well as a traditional academic conference with papers, research presentations, and joint presentations by faculty and students. Plenary sessions have included interdisciplinary panels on a variety of subjects. Poster and research presentations have focused on locally inspired topics, original theatrical performances, and demonstrations by award-winning engineering and robotics students.
Opportunities for Student Scholarship. Community college students can benefit from participation in Scholars’ Day in a variety of ways. For a sizeable number of students, the opportunity to collaborate with faculty on research projects at the start of their college career brings exposure to a variety of degree programs, fields of study, and methods used in research and scholarship across academic disciplines. Repeated studies have confirmed what those who work closely with students understand anecdotally: There is a strong correlation between the strength and quality of a student’s coursework and the level of involvement of a mentoring faculty (Kuh, et. al., 2005).
Through Scholars’ Day activities, students are able to work with interested, engaged peers and faculty as together they explore complex issues affecting their lives. In addition, working with a faculty mentor, attending an interdisciplinary academic conference, and writing, presenting, and defending a paper, art, or research project in this kind of conference setting offers students a level of intellectual self-confidence and self-possession that will set them apart from the competition once they complete their program. (Huardo, 2003).
Beyond promoting and highlighting the best work already being produced on campus, Scholars’ Day has encouraged faculty from all departments to incorporate the event into their courses and assignment design. During the program's second year, some participating faculty required students in their courses to write, peer review, and submit a research proposal to the selection committee as part of their final grade for the course. With many groups across the college participating in Scholars’ Day, soliciting strong interest and solid examples of student and faculty research across campuses has not been difficult. During the first year, for example, 27 abstract proposals from 11 academic departments were submitted.
Although the introductory level of student preparation and the corresponding inexperience reflected in the products of student research may be seen as a challenge, MCC has found strong pedagogical benefits to engaging students in scholarly activities as early as possible. Recent empirical studies have confirmed, and the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) strongly recommends, that all undergraduate students have the opportunity to share the conclusions of their thinking, research, and creative pursuits with peers, an opportunity, CUR notes, markedly absent from traditional forms of undergraduate education, whether at the community college, college, or university level. (Boyd, 2009).
To help alleviate the anxiety students may experience when faced with the difficult tasks of researching, writing, and publicly presenting their ideas, MCC is organizing a process for bringing together student scholars and faculty mentors as a regular feature of the program. Early indications suggest that the investment of time and energy to secure the participation of faculty and staff will help ease students’ entry into the often intimidating world of peer presentation and creative scholarship.
Featured Keynote Speakers. MCC applied its limited funds to successfully attract scholars who have the capacity to inspire students, staff, and faculty to seek knowledge from a wide variety of sources and make the best use of available resources. In the inaugural year of the event, MIT scholar in residence, physicist, poet, and author of the New York Times bestseller Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman, was the keynote speaker. In 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and University of California, Los Angeles, professor, Jared Diamond, who wrote the New York Times bestsellers Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, presented the keynote address. In 2011, Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America will be the featured keynote speaker. Featuring such visible speakers at the top of their profession can be inspiring to students and can also help solidify a college’s academic reputation across its region.
Cross-college Collaboration. The planning and preparation for Scholars’ Day is handled by an interdisciplinary, interdivisional committee of faculty and staff in the natural and social sciences, arts and humanities, and Office of Student Life and Leadership Development. Scholars’ Day offers an opportunity to model the value of interdisciplinary collaboration and contribute to the college’s public reputation for academic excellence. It can serve as a basis for establishing, developing, and revitalizing partnerships between and across academic and administrative departments. On college campuses, academic departments, divisions, and offices often remain in relatively isolated silos. Faculty and staff may find it difficult to cross these lines to work together on a single project or idea. Scholars’ Day encourages students, faculty, and staff to cross discipline boundaries, thus experiencing interdisciplinary cooperation in a college environment that offers a serious, competitive education.
Promotion and Support. Scholars’ Day is one way MCC has taken advantage of its size, diversity of student body, and existing human and financial resources for the benefit of students, the college, and the wider community. In the years that MCC has held Scholars' Day, department chairs, divisional deans, and various academic and student service programs have contributed generously to the event budget and have worked together to advertise and help find resources for the project. Spreading the practical costs of the event across different groups and stakeholders has allowed MCC to hold the conference on a modest budget.
Most recently, the Monroe Community College Foundation worked with the Scholars’ Day committee to establish regular scholarships for deserving students based on special donations from community donors. Scholarship opportunities are made available to students through the Scholars’ Day committee, chaired by a teaching faculty member and the Assistant Director of the Office of Student Life.
MCC has also found that soliciting strong interest and solid examples of student, faculty, and staff research was not difficult, in part due to the large number of groups involved. Campus stakeholders such as the Office of Student Life and Leadership Development and the Student Services, Academic Services, Admissions, and President’s offices have shown support. Scholars' Day also provides opportunities for Admissions and other offices to concentrate on specific groups of prospective students and parents by inviting them to experience the high quality of scholarship being produced.
Expanding the Program. Making room for any full-day event on a busy academic calendar at a predominantly commuter institution can be a challenge. To meet this challenge, the Scholars’ Day program is expanding beyond a one-day conference-style event. This year, for example, a faculty and student cooperative round-table discussion was held at the downtown campus in the days leading up to the conference and keynote address, with cross-college discussion encouraged as a way of increasing visibility for Scholars’ Day. To better meet the needs of diverse students with varying schedules and responsibilities and to help build bridges between campuses, a series of these introductory or “pump-priming” events in the weeks and days leading up to the central program are in development.
Moving Forward. The contemporary community college is a comprehensive and complex institution, serving a wide variety of functions in addition to traditionally conceived academic goals. Recent studies have suggested that one of the most vexing challenges facing community college educators is the balancing of professional or academic standards against the demands of the open-access mission (Grubb, 1999). An ongoing challenge MCC faces is learning how to develop standards and guidelines that define academic excellence, quality, and scholarship, and that are both inclusive and academically rigorous. Making debates about the nature of scholarship at MCC a regular part of faculty and staff discussion is an important step in meeting this continuing challenge. Scholars’ Day, as an interdisciplinary, all-college academic event, has brought faculty and staff into regular conversations about the thorny issues of how best to balance the values of academic rigor, inclusivity, and open access.
Jodi Oriel is the Assistant Director of the Office of Student Life and Leadership Development at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York.
Matt Hachee is Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy at Monroe Community College.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.