John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What’s Your Big Idea?

February 11, 2010John N. GardnerBig Idea0

I write this as I fly to an annual meeting I organized initially 29 years ago, and first hosted in February of 1982, what is now known as the Conference on The First-Year Experience. This year more than a thousand higher educators will gather, in spite of this winter of all winters, and in spite of our terrible economy, to once again come together to learn from each other how to better help struggling first-year college students be successful. And since then we have organized these conferences in many cities and countries and more than 100,000 educators have participated. Now, the concept of “first-year experience” is ubiquitous in both the higher ed lexicon and practice. This is no longer a “big idea”, but it once was. And, it was my idea, one of my few original creations in life. What’s your big idea?

This notion of “the big idea”: let me report how I came upon this. Almost a decade ago I met an outstanding foundation executive, as good as they come in the genre, Susan Conner, former Executive Vice President of Lumina Foundation for Education. Susan spoke often in my presence about the search for “the big idea” and she could and did constantly name people who had shown her “the big idea”. This made me think much more intentionally about “the big idea”. That was a real gift from her to me.

Somebody else’s big ideas are all around us. Think of the roller bag I am hauling with me today out to Denver. Why didn’t I invent the roller bag? What a back saver? Or the bottled water that we all pay more for now than we do the same quantities of petroleum products, or alcohol! Who would have ever thought that in developed countries people would pay dearly for water?

My big idea came in 1981. I had just been promoted to full professor at the University of South Carolina and now I had to decide what I was going to do for the rest of my life—i.e. now that I was fully professionally grown up. And I was trying to decide if I was going to continue to direct a first-year seminar, our fabled University 101 course. I decided that if that work were going to remain energizing of me I needed to think of some way to create professional development opportunities for me in this field. But there was no professional literature about this curricular innovation. And there were no conferences where I could learn from fellow educators new ideas to enrich this unique course genre. So I decided to organize a conference to teach myself. If I could learn, others could too. Then I followed that idea with one to create a national higher education center to provide “resources” to educators wanting to improve the beginning college experience. I was on a roll. And I don’t need to further enumerate my big ideas.

My colleagues who know me best have always said: “If John can do it, anyone can.” And they are absolutely correct. So look around you. What’s your big idea for helping our students? What have you tried that no one else has and realized positive results for students and educators? There is no monopoly on good ideas. They don’t have to come from high status places and high status people. And there is huge demand for big ideas. Look at all the problems we struggle with in higher education and the broader society. Surely there is room for your big ideas too.

-John Gardner

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