Provost Urgo's Remarks to the Faculty

Fall Faculty Meeting          Opening Remarks
August 18, 
2017                Provost Joseph Urgo

I would like to point out that I am a hard worker but not a genius

Who are our students?
New students are asked, early in the summer after completing the Online Advising and Registration (OAR) Moodle course, if there is something they’d like the faculty to know about them, -- by way of introduction -- something faculty might find useful. As you might imagine with an open-ended question, the responses vary widely. They focus on health, ambitions, fears, hopes, and desires – but at the same time they are far from generic, and are pretty well grounded in place—this place—and are set at the crossroads between generational imperative and idiosyncrasy.

I take the title of my remarks this afternoon from one student, who says, “I would like to point out that I am a hard worker but not a genius.” Many students want us to know something similarly broad and categorical about themselves. “As a first-generation student, I have absolutely no idea what I am doing;” and “I am one of the older students that are coming in. I have seen the world and all the bad that has come with it;” or, “I am nervous about financial aid and the transition from high school to college.” Many share an infectious excitement: “Tell them I'm excited to be there!” and “I thank you for putting up with me in the near future.” And then one of my favorite expression of epistemological angst: “I love to learn. I am so intrigued by how much a single human could not know.”

Many of our incoming students, inspired by what they do not know, are undecided about where to focus. “I needed a breather prior to college. Although I feel very ready now, I am a little worried that it's going to take me a while to shake off the rust from my time not being in school.... I am interested in taking a lot of different classes to decide to figure out what interests me the most.” Uncertainty is widely shared, such as, “I'm not exactly sure what it is that I want to do yet. I am majoring in music as of now, but I hope that my time at UNCA helps me branch out and discover my true passion.”
Overall, I would commend our Admissions counselors for getting these students to the right place. There is “fit” resounding from a series of comments. “I get frustrated when I don't automatically understand something,” as one student explains, “which is why I really appreciate it when a professor sits down with me one-on-one to help me understand material.” Or, “I do best in small classes where there is a lot of student teacher interaction and ample opportunity for discussion and personal contributions.” Another says simply, “I'm up for a challenge.”

It is clear that our students have high expectations of us, the faculty. “I truly appreciate a good … relationship with my instructors and teachers ” said one. Thinking ahead to the classroom: “I love learning but hate learning in an environment that is cold with four walls and no positive aura;” and “I apply myself the best when I know that the teacher is interested in [both] the material and the student's goals and passion.”

Do we mind if our students persist? “I tend to be a very curious student and ask a lot of questions, so I hope my professors don't mind;  and “I love spending time after class just sitting down and going through all of my lessons and finding out what I've learned and figuring out what I haven't.” Our students are driven, and given to quips: “Good enough is neither good or enough.” And, their interests blend: “I love video games, building stuff, deep philosophical talks and mint ice cream;” or, “I love doing math and creating things with my hands which is why I want to be an engineer, but I also like to make YouTube videos, dance, sing, etc.”

Everything, however, is not rosy. Our students come with a range of fears and anxieties, and many feel terribly alone in their worlds. “I am the first person in my family to go to college in America; I might need a few things explained to me.” And, “I moved to Asheville with my mom … almost a year ago because of her … job, and the acculturation process has been hard, my only fear is not to fit in UNCA, not get the engagement enough to enjoy … student life.”

Self-confidence is at a premium: “I do not feel confident in my ability to do things of great impact on myself, such as creating my schedule. Deep down I know that I can do it, I only want that I am double-checked often.”  And, “I am a kind and respectful guy, who wants to work hard to prove himself not only to himself but to all those who have doubted him before. Who wants to make a life for himself and whoever his future family might be.” A lot of this comes down to us, in the classroom: “I sometimes in class have no idea what my teacher is talking about, but when it's broken down for me I then get it.”

In addition to academic fears and ambitions, there is the daunting nature of the social scene. “I am an independent woman who likes to work alone and only have help when it is truly necessary;” and “I am uncomfortable in social situations, and find communication difficult.” A lot of this is tied to the clock: “I like to sleep in and I would prefer to keep my late afternoons free.”  Some of these anxieties are political: “I am a conservative, and I understand that most of the staff and students at this school are likely liberal. I welcome the chance to hear other people's different perspectives on political/societal issues (especially people from very different backgrounds compared to mine). I only want the comfort of knowing that everyone's opinion (regardless of whether it is a popular one) will be respected.”

Our students have many concerns related to health and identity. I’ll offer a sampling here: “I have struggled with chronic insomnia for most of my life;” and “I have really bad anxiety but once I open up I am very outgoing”; “I have PTSD and anxiety” and “I have ADHD.” Declarations of identity, fixed and in transition, are common: “I'm openly queer and gender non-conforming”; “I am nonbinary and use they/them pronouns”; “I am a transgender male.”

Students have plans they want us to know about, some ambitious, some mundane, such as the handful who say they are here but intend to transfer. Ambitions run a wide gamut: “I will do anything that I have to do in order to become a cardiologist,” says one; “I don't know exactly what I want to do when I grow up but I would love to try and help save the planet,” says another. Others are thinking things through. “I want my greatest impact at UNCA or in the world in general, to be that I made a difference. This would be important for my adviser to know, so that they can assist me and guide me in the right direction, in order to achieve this goal. Academically, I succeed more often when I know that what I am studying could benefit a certain cause.” Finally, we have a number or purists: “I am not here in the interest of a career, I simply wish to explore things that I find interesting and learn for learning's sake.”

In the end, the profile of our students that emerge from the testimony is one that screams, “I want you to know who I am.” There are numerous expressions of fragility, but also of resilience: “I can roll with the punches,” says one. And the juxtapositions reveal so many ways to enter adulthood. “I really love food,” says one, “hate conflict, and hope to be as worldly as possible.”

I would like to point out that I am a hard worker but not a genius.

We’ve been talking a lot about the balance between academic rigor and student success. We know there has been a shift in the academy, moving toward learning-centered approaches and away from pedantic measures of compliance.

Building upon our student testimony, and moving toward a responsive pedagogy, I encourage our focus to be on empowering our students toward critical independence and inviting them (as I know we do) into intellectual partnerships and collaborations. We should assess their performance not so much by what they know relative to an ideal, or to perfection, but by how much they learned relative to where they started.

A responsive pedagogy proceeds in the context of teaching as a liberation from the confines of limitation, driving against the sense that because I am X I cannot pursue Y. In this pedagogy failing a student means failing the student--failing to reach them, having alienated them, either in the classroom or by structural defect. I am confident in this statement because from my experience, no one comes to college with the ambition to fail.

Finally, I would suggest that we consider our work in the classroom at UNC Asheville not so much as education in the Liberal Arts, but education by the liberal arts - not content alone but the liberal arts as context and method. At the center of the liberal arts method is research and discovery, teacher-student and student-student collaboration, and active, participatory ways of learning. Our new student said, “I hate learning in an environment that is cold with four walls and no positive aura.” Yes, we are ready to “break it down” for students who ask; our teaching methods will adapt to the transitioning, the migrating, and the circadian rhythms of those who are up for the challenge.

We might say, “I don't know exactly what I want to do” in my career at UNC Asheville, but we would love to try to help reach the students who come here on voyages of self-discovery and self-creation. “I hope that my time at UNCA helps me branch out and discover my true passion.” Indeed. In this common enterprise, we invite students into a shared sensibility of exploration, -- the very thing that animates hard workers who just may glimpse genius along the way.