Students reap the benefits of academic risk-taking
The culture of North Central College is a place where all approaches and ideas are welcome: new pedagogies, different types of assessment, interdisciplinary partnerships, deep conversations, fresh creativity and unique approaches.
As faculty push the boundaries of their traditional classrooms, students are the beneficiaries of risk and change. They grow and gain new perspectives as they study controversial subjects, approach assignments without a prescribed plan, test out career skills and expand their worldviews through local and global exploration. The end result: young adults who are better prepared for the real world.
“Faculty are establishing trust with their students and asking them to take risks,” said Jennifer Keys, assistant provost for teaching and learning; director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFÉ). “And faculty must be transparent with students about the potential for growth as a result of taking these risks.”
Pushing students outside their comfort zones and supporting small successes builds their confidence. “I use the word risk-taking with my students when I try new things,” said Leila Azarbad, associate professor of psychology and Ruge Fellow. “I remind them that it’s healthy.”
The College’s Strategic Plan emphasizes the value of faculty pursuing new approaches in their teaching: “Develop a culture of creativity and risk-taking among faculty and staff for the purpose of improving student learning.”
“Stating this in the plan enables us to gain momentum around risk-taking. It sends a strong signal that this is something we value on this campus,” said Keys.
During winter term, Keys invited the Ruge Fellows for a panel discussion called “Pedagogical Innovation and Risk-Taking.” She was gratified that 22 faculty members attended and participated in a robust conversation. “It’s important for our faculty to hear that we encourage an adventurous spirit in teaching,” Keys said. “And junior faculty, who worry about tenure and the consequences of failure, have to be supported in their efforts to challenge the status quo with new ideas.”
Across campus, North Central faculty have embraced the risk-taking required to rethink their curricula in preparation for the transition to semesters and introduction of Cardinal Directions, the College’s new core curriculum. There’s a palpable excitement as they propose and announce new courses like Middle Eastern Cinema, design an introductory biology course around community-based research on West Nile Virus and introduce new academic programs like linguistics and professional writing.
Below, both seasoned senior and junior faculty and creative-minded students share their stories of the risks they took both inside and outside the classroom … and the long-term outcomes. All acknowledge that risk is positive and enriching in the academic environment—and beyond.
Navigating a hot button topic
In both her classes and her book, Jennifer Keys strives to help others become more informed and to develop evidence-informed positions.
As a professor in sociology, Keys co-authored “Abortion in the United States,” (2018) which covers topics on all sides of the abortion issue, including rights of the unborn, rights of the woman, perspectives of fathers, political rhetoric and common ground.
THE RISK: Keys examined the abortion controversy in a sociology course called Protest and Change and in an honors seminar called Perspectives on Abortion: From the Personal to the Political. She challenged students to examine the personal, cultural, historical and political aspects of abortion using an interdisciplinary and scholarly approach. “We didn’t debate and we didn’t talk about what’s right or wrong,” Keys said. “We framed the issue as a social movement and talked about what it’s like for women to make reproductive choices around so much controversy.”
The seminar explored references to abortion in poetry, literature and popular music. The content of one film in particular proved to be challenging for some members of the class. “As a professor, I want to anticipate what’s going to trigger discomfort and be sensitive to students’ reactions,” Keys said. “Creating a relationship with students allows them to be truthful with you. The classroom becomes a safe place so students can process reactions, express feelings and share points of view.”
THE OUTCOME: In feedback Keys collects, most students agree that the sociological analysis isn’t complete if the reality of “lived experiences” or the visual images of the issue are omitted from the discussions.
Jennifer Keys, assistant provost for teaching & learning; director, Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence
Let’s talk! Barstool Politics, that is
Bill Muck launched a podcast to "Help you make sense of the world, several craft beers at a time."
This follows his successful effort six years ago to introduce a campus speaker series called TIP Talks, short for Topics In Politics. The success of TIP Talks inspired Muck to try something new and in 2016, he launched a weekly podcast analyzing political developments called Barstool Politics, a collaboration with a colleague from Keene State College, Dr. Phil Barker, and alumnus Nick McGuire ’12.
THE RISK: Muck realized that taking risks by engaging outside audiences has (1) allowed him to break down the conventional walls of teaching and (2) helped him transition to a new role as public intellectual. “In this complicated political environment, it’s our responsibility as political scientists to directly engage the broader public,” he said. “The longer I have been a professor the more I’ve realized that the classroom is just one venue where learning occurs.”
To encourage a culture of risk-taking, he added that senior faculty have a responsibility to support junior faculty in their teaching ideas. “Junior faculty come in with new and exciting perspectives. It’s our job to make them comfortable taking risks in their classrooms.”
THE OUTCOME: In TIP Talks, faculty from across campus have addressed pressing political topics ranging from the legalization of marijanua to the conflict in Syria to the state of democracy to election outcomes. Barstool Politics has produced 115 episodes and attracts 800 to 1,000 listeners each week. They come from Chicago and across the country, and many are former students.
Bill Muck, associate professor of political science; Ruge Fellow
Setting a new course
Amy Grim Buxbaum believes a successful communications curriculum means challenging students beyond their expectations.
When Buxbaum arrived at North Central in 2005, she sought to introduce community engaged learning into her curriculum, becoming a campus trailblazer in high impact practices. “There were no campus resources to draw upon, so I had to develop something I could implement myself,” she said.
THE RISK: Buxbaum transformed the Group Process course into a collaborative project that requires students to design and conduct a fundraising activity for an organization. For the students, having to manage unknown factors is their risk. “They’re in an environment where they can’t control everything,” said Buxbaum. “They have to trust the process and their classmates.” Along the way, students learn about their weaknesses and communication styles to ultimately foster collaboration in the group.
Buxbaum gives them continual feedback—rather than focusing on awarding points and midterm grades, which she eliminated. “My feedback mirrors what they would receive in a professional setting,” she said.
Her capstone challenges seniors to plan and conduct a one-hour communications seminar. “They say, ‘You’re not telling us how to do this,’ but they have the building blocks they need. They just have to put them together in a new way.” The mantra of seniors is “Trust Buxbaum.”
THE OUTCOME: Students in Group Process have raised nearly $125,000 for non-profit organizations. Many former students find that Buxbaum’s courses best prepared them for the professional world. Buxbaum presented the Group Process curriculum as part of a panel on community engaged learning at the Western States Communication Association, which sparked plenty of timely discussion.
Amy Grim Buxbaum, associate professor of communication; Ruge Fellow
A healthy intersection of theatre and psychology
Before coming to North Central, Leila Azarbad taught a course called Interviewing and Communication for Rush College medical students. They practiced taking simulated medical histories. "I wanted to bring this model to North Central in my clinical psychology course," she said.
Using theatre students enrolled in Contemporary Acting Styles, the objective was to create scenarios so her psychology students could observe mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. Azarbad introduced the concept as a new professor and gained the support of theatre and psychology faculty. “I was never discouraged, and as a professor, if you play it safe, you never get better.”
THE RISK: Twice each course, Azarbad uses a small flip camera to review her psychology students’ “performances” while they also critique themselves. “The risk is that I want it to be a positive experience,” she said. “I don’t want them to think they are unskilled at clinical work because of this exercise—and write off the profession as a career.”
Azarbad said transparency with students is important. “Risk-taking and trying new things together is how we grow. It builds confidence.” Her students are also expected to take risks by setting personal goals—participating more in class, for example.
THE OUTCOME: Azarbad has mentored dozens of students who’ve entered graduate programs, conducted research and/or are now employed in the field. She’s also intent on finding new opportunities in the community to enrich her students’ experiences.
Leila Azarbad, associate professor of psychology; Ruge Fellow
Posing ethical questions about technology
Esen Andic-Mortan wanted to explore a new approach for teaching Management Information Systems (MIS)--"The techy side of management," she likes to say.
After teaching a traditional MIS curriculum for two years, Andic-Mortan decided to encourage her students to think differently about the world.
THE RISK: She proposed a refreshed MIS curriculum that challenges students to consider ever-evolving technologies and ethical questions. “Technology promises convenience but takes away our privacy,” she said. “Like Alexa … How much privacy are we giving away?” Another course topic involves the ethical dilemmas posed by programming self-driving cars to avoid accidents that might kill drivers … but put pedestrians at risk. “You could liken this to pre-meditated murder,” Andic-Mortan said. “Technology is ahead of us and we’re not ready for ethical implications.” A unique team project requires students to analyze popular media depicting dystopia or utopia, such as the movie “Wall-E,” about an uninhabitable earth covered in garbage.
Andic-Mortan’s exams are in a true-false-explain format.“ I pose questions that can go either way. They have to elaborate on their answers. The risk is that they have to be ready … and I have to prepare them.”
THE OUTCOME: Andic-Mortan wants her students to be prepared for any career field by creating a knowledge base for all disciplines. “My students say this course is helpful,” she said. “And our discussions get me thinking about their views. They broaden my knowledge, which is reflected the next time I teach the class.”
Esen Andic-Mortan, assistant professor of management
Building confidence one trip at a time
Jason Rice fully embraces the importance of international travel and study.
Rice has led students to China and Japan for both full-term and short-term academic courses. In addition to his experiences with sports events worldwide, Rice held an academic appointment at the Wuhan Sport University in China. He grew up in rural Kentucky and he understands the rewards of taking risks through travel opportunities.
THE RISK: Students who are new to traveling abroad can feel very unsure about exploring cities like Beijing but this challenge benefits their personal growth. Rice supports students’ ability to take risks by channeling his personal experiences and building their confidence. “I take them through a progression of experiences to open the world to them. The process begins as they explore the neighborhood, then visit the grocery store and figure out how to pay,” he said. “Then they learn how to use the transit systems and the entire country opens up.
“I set up the risk and prepare my students … success is gaining small victories through the failures they encounter. The end goal is internal, to build their self-efficacy, as well as external, to learn more about the people and world around them.”
THE OUTCOME: Rice’s trips are open to all majors, and student research projects have included such topics as intellectual property rights and the use of logos, analysis of international advertising campaigns, cultural differences through Japanese cat culture, a comparison of garden aesthetics, and symbolism in American superhero and Japanese Mecha genres.
Jason Rice, assistant professor of sport management
Leave your comfort zone behind
Kennedy Taylor '19 took some calculated risks to accomplish her college bucket list and find her calling.
Taylor studied in Glasgow, Scotland, and researched a College Scholar Honors thesis. All this while preparing to become a high school English teacher, which requires extensive course work in English and secondary education.
THE RISK: Taylor sought a student teaching placement in Chicago to experience city living and teaching in a high-needs school. She landed at North Lawndale College Prep High School on Chicago’s west side. “My goal is to live in Chicago and I wanted experience teaching students with behavior issues and helping them with their challenges in a safe space—not just handing out information I think they should know.” She gained permission to live with North Central students enrolled in the College’s Chicago Term. It was an unusual request coming from a North Central education major.
“I felt very supported by the College and the staff at North Lawndale,” she said. One of Taylor’s classroom lessons contrasted essays by the late U.S. Senator John McCain and football player Colin Kaepernick. She also completed the high school’s unique Peace Warriors training program, which promotes conflict resolution to combat neighborhood violence.
“This is the work I’m meant to do. I feel like I’ve been training for this all my life.”
THE OUTCOME: Taylor stays in touch with the North Lawndale faculty and will pursue opportunities to teach in Chicago after graduation.
Kennedy Taylor ‘19, English/secondary education major from Eureka, Illinois
No experience, no problem
Luke Musgrave '19 says his most rewarding experiences are those without an end goal. "It's important to follow your instincts and approach learning without any concrete goals in mind."
Musgrave has been playing piano and organ for Community United Methodist Church for three years and is fascinated by liturgy and music in that setting. “I noticed that a worship-goer would be getting an entirely different musical experience if they attended the contemporary-style service instead of the traditional service that I play for,” he explained.
THE RISK: For his College Scholars Honors thesis, he decided to research Protestant congregational worship music, which is “obviously, entirely outside of my area of study in actuarial science. I couldn’t find any specific studies on this subject.” He’s comparing 100 traditional hymns in Protestant hymnbooks with contemporary praise and worship music. He said the “scariest part” is that he has no experience in qualitative content analysis. And he has no academic experience in religious studies or musical styles. “I would definitely qualify this as an academic risk.”
THE OUTCOME: Musgrave presented his research at the Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research in May and appreciates the support of faculty. “In any case, I’m glad that I chose to explore an area that I am passionate about.”
And he’ll start his career in actuarial science at Allstate Insurance in fall 2019.
Luke Musgrave ‘19, actuarial science/pure math major from Bourbonnais, Illinois