John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

An Annual Glimpse Beyond My Cultural Blinders

This blog finds me attending the annual International Conference on The First-Year Experience. This is part of a meeting series begun by me in 1986 with prior venues in the US including Hawaii, the UK—both England and Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, and Canada. As you might suspect, this series is an outgrowth of the more US focused series of conferences on The First-Year Experience which I began in 1982. This year’s meeting is on the island of Maui.

No doubt about it, Hawaii is one of those places that lives up to its billing. And, while this may be straining the limits of gullibility of some of my readers, this really is an ideal location for an academic meeting. If you can’t relax here, and set aside the stresses and distractions of your current real world somewhere else, you can’t do it anywhere. I am amazed that even in this beautiful setting, the delegates are truly in session all day long.


This year was a smaller meeting, at least by the standards of prior Hawaiian conferences in this series, some 345 attendees, down from about 650 three years ago. I am sure that the economy is the only explanation.

What used to be solely an American preoccupation has truly become an international higher education focus. As many societies have expanded access and broadened participation, their challenge has been to maintain graduation rates without lowering standards while simultaneously expanding access. The language of “retention” has become universal, much as I have argued against the use of this business metric for maintaining “customers” as an educational rationale. Back in the Cold War political scientists wrote about the so called “convergence factor” to describe the gradually diminution of previously great differences between the former Soviet Union and its arch enemy, the United States. Over time, they became more like us, and we more like them. I see exactly the same thing in this international FYE movement.

Well, if you weren’t here this year, it is, obviously too late. But put next year’s meeting on your calendar: June 20-23, 2011 in Manchester, England. This meeting will be piggybacked on a preceding meeting of European nations who have been gathering for five years or so to discuss their versions of “the first-year experience.” What a great opportunity for cross cultural stimulation this will be. Of all the FYE conferences I have attended, this international gathering is clearly my favorite. There is no convening that gets me to see more clearly the cultural components of the US first-year experience—and that is because seeing the first year components of other cultures pushes and expands my understanding of what others and we are trying to do. There is just nothing like this. I hope you will join me next year. And for any readers who have been to any of our UK conferences in the past, for the first time this meeting will not be using UK standard university residence halls. Instead, we will succumb to the use of a commercial hotel, the Renaissance, in Manchester. When we used to go to Britain, we attempted to adopt the indigenous culture for academic meetings. Now we ask the indigenous people to adapt the US way of convening fellow educators: in hotels, not on campuses. This is a benign example of the corporatization of our meeting culture. But there are far worse fates and I am just thrilled that this all is still thriving in spite of the Great Recession—and perhaps in part because of it!

– John N. Gardner

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*


− six = 0