Carnival of Learning
Here we are. 300 episodes. I can’t believe it really. FreshEd has been putting out regular content for 2,569 days. That’s just over 7 years and averages a new episode every 8.5 days. We’ve produced close to 200 hours of recorded conversations about education broadly defined. Over 1 million words transcribed. In that time, we started a fellowship program for graduate students and two spin-off podcasts in other languages. There are so many people to thank, from the FreshEd team, who make this all possible, to our big institutional donors, who give us the freedom to produce independent content. I don’t have time to thank everyone who makes FreshEd possible. But I’d like to pay special tribute to the thousands of listeners who tune in every week from across the globe. Because of you, the whole FreshEd team devotes countless hours to make show possible week after week. So thank you. Thank you for your support, your engagement, and your shared love of education and podcasts. We’ll keep going so long as you keep listening.
I didn’t know the best way to celebrate 300. Reflecting on the past 7 years I started wondering about the pre-history of FreshEd. Where did the idea come from? Who shaped its direction? And then I remembered the name Greg Skutches, a mentor to me during my undergraduate studies at Lehigh University. Greg saw education as an end in itself, not some means to another end like a high paying job. He loved learning and supporting the process of student learning. Recently he’s written an op-ed in the school newspaper where he calls for us to reimagine higher education as a Carnival of Learning. I love that phrase: a Carnival of Learning where anything is possible. I think it captures the idea Greg instilled in me nearly 15 years ago. I also think it’s what I’ve always wanted FreshEd to be.
So to celebrate this podcasting milestone I’ve invited Greg Skutches on the show. In our conversation, we discuss topics far beyond FreshEd. We get into the purpose and meaning of education. What it means to have a voice. And learn from our failures. To push boundaries. And take on institutional power.
Greg Skutches is the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Lehigh University and teaches courses in the university’s English department.
Citation: Skutches, Greg, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 300, podcast audio, November 7, 2022. https://freshedpodcast.com/skutches/
Will Brehm 0:02
Greg Skutches, welcome to FreshEd.
Greg Skutches 3:24
Thanks, Will. I’m really happy to be with you.
Will Brehm 3:26
It’s so amazing to have you on the show. I think I first met you in 2007. Is that right? About 15 years ago?
Greg Skutches 3:33
That sounds about right. 2007. It was my second year at Lehigh.
Will Brehm 3:36
How did we meet? Can you remember that?
Greg Skutches 3:39
I do. I remember an email from you. Just kind of out of the blue. You had a project you were excited about. And you were having trouble finding someone to work with, as I recall. And somehow you found me -I don’t recall how that was but somehow you came to me. And I remember liking it right off the bat. I think this is great.
Will Brehm 3:54
It was a roommate I had, Stu Baxter, who, I think, was taking your course in the English department on -was it war in literature? Was that something you taught?
Greg Skutches 4:04
Yes. I taught a war in literature class. Yes. It was kind of like an anti-war literature class. So, it was called the literature of war.
Will Brehm 4:10
That’s right, the literature of war, right. And so, he just talked really highly of you. And so, he put us in touch. And the first thing you said to me in the email when I approached you was, “Call me coach”. That was like your nickname. I never actually think I understood why you are nicknamed coach.
Greg Skutches 4:24
Well, I was a college wrestling coach for 11 years and when I went back to graduate school, I was 35 years old. So, you know, obviously somewhat older than students and older than other graduate students. But teaching first year English, it just felt a lot like coaching. And also, I didn’t want to be “mister” and I wasn’t quite brave enough then to be “Greg”. So, coach just seemed like a nice label and students loved it. You know, “Hey, coach!”. So, it worked out pretty well. It helped to establish the kind of relationship I was hoping to have with students.
Will Brehm 4:52
Are you still called coach?
Greg Skutches 4:53
Now, I’m Greg.
Will Brehm 4:54
Now, you’re Greg. So, you feel comfortable?
Greg Skutches 4:55
I do. There’s two things going on there. Yeah, a little bit more comfortable and also, I think of coach as being my younger, wrestling coach days. And it was starting to feel a little desperate to be holding on to that odd name. So yeah, I’m Greg, now.
Will Brehm 5:08
You said you started your graduate studies a bit later at 35 or so then. And that’s a bit later than maybe other students -the norm, let’s call it. So, you must have had a career outside of academia before you sort of came back.
Greg Skutches 5:22
I did. And this can be a long story. So, I’m going to try to give you the potted version of it. My dad was a doctor. My parents are divorced, and my mother said, “I’m going to raise a doctor come hell or high water”, right. So, out of the four kids, I was chosen. Went through four years as pre-med, got accepted in medical school, and just looked at that letter and said, I don’t want to do this. So, I decided not to go. And then I was kind of lost and then my 20s were an adventure. I went back to the college where I had attended and was on the wrestling team, and became a wrestling coach, assistant for one year, and then 10 years as head coach, and I loved it. But there’s the whole story there in that college for me was really not about learning. It was about getting into medical school and being an important person. And I was not much of a student. I was good at getting grades. I was really interested in wrestling and partying and getting into medical school. And I was raised that things like literature and stuff are just not really what’s important in life. Being successful, competing well, is what’s important. And literature is kind of for after you get there. You know, you can say something clever at the cocktail party kind of thing. So, I had dismissed it as ancillary to the main project of being a successful person. But in my 20s, I started reading on my own. And I remember watching a show that was something like Charlie Rose and they were talking about books, and I hadn’t read these books. I thought, there’s going to be important conversations that I’m never going to be part of; so, I started reading. I’d finish a book at two in the morning, no one to talk to, you know, and it was just a lonely enterprise. Then, these two things came together. One is that my wife got pregnant with twins. And I got out of coaching because coaching was a part time gig for me and got a job with Dun & Bradstreet, a kind of middle management job with this huge corporation. And Will, I just hated it. I just, I was miserable. So, a couple things happened. I discovered reading and the life of the mind on my own. I missed being around young people. I missed so much being around college students. And I remember driving up the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike after a business meeting, and I actually had an anxiety attack. I thought, “This is my life. I can’t do this”. I went home that night. And I asked my wife, I said, I’d like to quit my job and go back to graduate school. Of course, we’re not talking MBA, we’re not talking law school, we’re talking English. A really smart career. I remember my mother-in-law saying, “I knew he was a loser”. And she had been home with the kids. She had been Lehigh’s women’s basketball coach for a couple of years. She was home with the kids. And she started sending out applications to return to teaching right away, I applied to graduate school. I stayed here at Lehigh because that’s where I lived. You know, we had kids, I didn’t want to travel. And so that’s how that came about. And the coach thing just seemed like a natural fit. It’s kind of what drew me to teaching. And I can say a whole lot about coaching too. How originally, I just wanted to win. But I learned after a couple years, I had a greater responsibility than that to these young people, these young men. And that was a huge lesson for me to learn.
Will Brehm 5:22
It’s quite an amazing story. I mean, it’s so personal. But also, I think thinking about it now, it makes me realize how valuable it was, for me to have someone like you in my life at that moment, when I didn’t really know what I was planning on doing. I mean, I remember I started out studying engineering because that’s what my father did. And it just seemed like the natural fit. And then I think I took calculus 2, and realized, I hate this, you know, like, it’s just not what I want to be doing. And I can’t imagine myself doing this in the future. And I didn’t really know what to do afterwards. And I ended up in English. I took a few English classes at Lehigh, and just absolutely love them. And then I think I just started this journey of what is education even for? What am I trying to do with my education. And so having someone in my life like you was actually so valuable in many ways, and it came about -I don’t even know where this idea came from, but I approached you and I basically said, “Would you be an independent advisor to something I called the culture of conversation”. Do you remember what that was?
Greg Skutches 9:01
I do. I mean, it was what we’re doing now. And it was actually what is, interestingly enough, is what’s kind of being called for more and more now, I think, in higher ed. Where we’re trying to say, let’s get to where we can talk to each other. And all the impediments to conversation right now. Whether its boomers don’t know what to say to young people, and political divide, of course, and so I’m hearing more and more about this; we need to be able to talk to each other. We need a culture of conversation, so to speak. But for me, it fit very much with how I saw my job as director of writing across the curriculum. I mean, I think that when I came to Lehigh, I was very much, and still is with some improvement, but it was very much a culture of testing. You remember four o’clock exam. And that subjugates student voices. And I thought that you cannot have writing at a culture that does not seek to honor and nurture student voices, and you can’t have student voices without dialogue, right? So, a culture of conversation, as I recall, sought to say, look, we’re having dialogue. We’re going to exchange ideas and we are going to challenge each other to explore our thoughts and articulate them well. So, that was right in line with what I thought Writing Across the Curriculum was.
Will Brehm 10:08
It’s so funny. I mean, I didn’t know anything about Writing Across the Curriculum. And so, I was just amazed that you agreed to be this special adviser to me. And actually, I could get credit to work on this idea. And I’ve pulled up some old emails that we exchanged. And even some poster presentations that I created, and there was one and it was like, in the center of the presentation, it was power reversal. It was like trying to give all of the power to the students and taking all the power away from the university. And I made this presentation. And then in these emails -I didn’t remember this until I looked back at these emails. But I ended up giving presentations to like the Dean of Admissions at Lehigh to explain what the culture of conversation was. Now, I mean, how do you understand that? Like, what were you thinking back then when you were working with me on this? I mean, because when I look back at it now, it seems sort of crazy that I was given an audience with people that really did hold all the power. And here I am, this young, university students sort of challenging them at the heart of what they do.
Greg Skutches 10:08
Yeah. I mean, you were the embodiment of what I had hoped for all students. I thought, then, and I still think today that the biggest mistake we make in higher education is that we underestimate the capabilities of our students. And there’s a lot of coercion around that, that starts from preschool on -and we can talk about that if you like. But to have a student who had just the bravery, the insight, to step outside of this, I’m working my way through the gauntlet of gatekeepers. No, I actually want to get an education, I actually want to have this matter. I said to you, in a recent email, I was still new at Lehigh. I was still finding, am I going to be able to fit here? Are they going to say, Woah, what a mistake we made hiring this guy. But when you came along, it was just very early in my career. I was just so happy that a Lehigh student would be capable of kind of stepping outside of the role and to be authentic about their education.
Will Brehm 11:58
Do you think there’s a connection with Culture of Conversation and FreshEd? I mean, we’re celebrating this 300th episode, and I invited you specifically on because to me, there’s a connection. To me, a lot of the pre-history, so to speak, actually starts with you and I having conversations about what ends up being called Culture of Conversation. But I mean, how do you see that? Is there a connection between these things?
Greg Skutches 12:22
Well, first of all, I’m just flattered that this is the case that you say this about our early time together. But yes, you know, I think the robust exchange of ideas is essential. And you don’t always get that in higher ed. I mean, whether it’s an academic conference or a committee meeting. There’s ambition at stake, there’s career success at stake. And I think that what you’ve created with this podcast is – it sounds so simple, but to say what they really thinking, say what they’re really working on and that’s rare, I think. As much as we think of higher education as the life of the mind, it’s often not
Will Brehm 12:56
What do you think it often is?
Greg Skutches 12:59
It still has to operate within a capitalist culture where we’re competing, and it’s about proving yourself. And I think it’s the same with students. I mean, we have students that are so busy proving themselves that there’s no ability to improve themselves, you know? And I think it’s the same with faculty. You get into grad school; you go to the best one you can get. You write the best papers you can. One of the first things I think they do in graduate school is make everybody feel stupid, so you want to be the smartest person in the room. And it’s just on and on and on. And when I was in grad school, I was old enough to see some of the flaws in that. I mean, when someone said to me, the only good dissertation is a finished dissertation and I realized that that was a thing that is said often. And I thought, wow, if that can go unchecked, if that can be seen as advice, we’re in trouble. Because to me, the implicit message there is, “Hey, look, don’t get excited about this. Don’t think you’re going to get new knowledge. Just get it done. So, you can get on this bus to a job and to tenure”. And I think once you go down that path, I mean, that toothpaste I don’t think can get put back in the tube, if that’s the way you proceeded with your career. And that’s what I think it mostly is. It mostly is people proving themselves to get to the next stage.
Will Brehm 14:04
That sort of system breeds so much insecurity where no one feels like – they’re just sort of performing how good they are. And they don’t actually sort of just play around with ideas.
Greg Skutches 14:04
Performing is the word that I find myself really stuck on right now. I want to write a paper called what is the student paper? I’m going to write an article, What is the student paper? Because I don’t think we understand what that is. I don’t think anybody has really articulated – even in my profession of composition and rhetoric – what a student paper is. But this idea certainly not five paragraphs, but even what’s going on there. You know, I mean, there’s a connection between writer and reader and it’s a little conduit, a little skinny little conduit between these two people. But for the professor what’s going on the other side of this conduit is massive and complicated, and we’ve reduced that to this little conduit and comment on that as if that’s really helping over here with this student and your audience can’t see me but I’m holding up two different sides of this kind of divide between teacher and student. But what students do when they write those papers typically is perform. They perform for the grader or for the gatekeeper. And in that case, it’s not really communication. It’s just another form of a test, in my opinion.
Will Brehm 15:12
But so how would you know? And this sort of brings us to some of the work you’ve done with Writing Across the Curriculum. How is it possible for teachers, mentors, professors, to support students, work with students on that other side of the spectrum here? Rather than just looking at the essay and commenting on that? How do we actually provide valuable meaningful support to those students?
Greg Skutches 15:36
That’s such a great question. And that question is kind of where I’ve lived for the last 16 or 17 years, right. And it just starts with a focus on process, not on product. And so, I find myself using the analogy of learning writing as a skill versus learning other skills. So, I mean, writing is taught basically, traditionally, papers are assigned and graded. And what happens in between there is a black box that the student is alone to figure it out on their own. And they’re writing at two in the morning, and they don’t even know if this is what they’re supposed to be doing, right? But how many other skills are taught like that? If you learn to hit a baseball, you know what the goal is. The goal is to hit that ball over the centerfield fence if you can. And now what do I need to know to do that? Plant my back foot, swing level, keep my eye on the ball, all of those things. And when you practice, you get feedback on those. Oh, you dropped your elbow, get it up. Okay. There’s none of that happens. You’re looking at nope, it didn’t go over the centerfield fence; C Right. You know, it was a foul; D. Right? But how do you improve on that? Students are left to figure that out on their own.
Will Brehm 16:33
One of the things I find so amazing in university now that I’m teaching like you do, which is a weird thing to think; that you were my teacher and now I’m also a teacher. But I find that with student writing, there’s this assumption that students learn how to write in earlier grades, right? It’s always like, Oh, it’s not our job to teach writing, they should have learned that already. Our job is just to assess the writing they do about whatever the subject matter is of the class of the module. And it’s always someone else’s problem to deal with writing. It’s never the teacher who assigns the writing itself.
Greg Skutches 17:05
I can take the rest of our time together talking about this. The thing that keeps me going – you know, in the darkest times I’ve had at Lehigh, where I couldn’t make progress in improving the curriculum from a writing perspective, getting more writing into courses – the belief of what my job really means of cultivating, nurturing student voices. I feel so strongly about that. You just can’t stop me, right? Having a voice is one of the things that makes us human; the desire to connect. I mean, everybody at some level is saying, “I’m here dammit, listen to me”. You know, we all are. We want our ideas to be taken seriously. We want to be respected. That’s what writing is, and has different applications, whether you’re a philosopher or an accountant, you learn how to do it that way. But even as an accountant. I don’t mean to deprecate accounting, but we don’t think of accounting as writing. You send that accounting report, you’re writing it to another human being, and if they don’t understand that it is your job as a human being to explain that to them. So, when you think about that writing, it’s two things right? Having a voice is something we all want. Every one of us, every human being wants it, but yet what we managed to do in education is create a situation where students hate writing. They don’t want to take writing courses. I mean, that’s a generalization. But no one sends their kid off to college and says, Hey, make sure you ace freshman comp, right? They say, first of all test out of it, if you can. Second, just get through it. Get the best grade, you can. When in fact, when I’m teaching English 1 as I am now, it can and should be the most important course a student takes. To be able to learn things, different perspectives, different arguments, to synthesize those, to think deeply about them, and then come out with something worthwhile to say, what’s more important. But it’s been deprecated. But then, your point about that it’s somebody else’s job, right? You know, so when I was early in my time at Lehigh, I remember, this was said to me more than once, when I was talking about doing more teaching of writing, and the assumption was, as you just said, “Well, students should have been taught that in high school. They should come to us with it. One of the first and most egregious, most kind of hurtful thing that was said to me was, we don’t need people like you, we just need to get better students. And the idea is, this is something that’s just to be automatic, as you said. And ,of course, then the other line was, “What are they doing in first year English? Why aren’t they teaching them how to write biology lab reports”, for example. They can’t write this physics as biology lab before what did they teach this in freshmen English? And really, it’s a deprecation of their own discipline to me in a way because No, actually you have a very sophisticated conversation going on here in biology and that cannot be taught in first year comp. And I don’t think you want it to be taught in first year comp, either do you? So, I could go on for this. I want to say one more thing about this if you don’t mind. I know you probably want to move on. But this idea of grading student writing. Faculty will say to me all the time and you probably know this yourself; I hate grading. I hate grading student writing. And that’s an outgrowth of what I said before about what we’ve done to providing in the education system. How we’ve kind of marginalized it and really, I think, downplayed its importance terribly. If you think what a good writing project is for students, it should be them wrestling intelligently with concepts and ideas that matter in that discipline. That should matter to a professor. And if you don’t like hey, you’re really watching the student line by line struggle intellectually with something that matters. If you don’t enjoy giving feedback on that, then what is it about teaching that you like? Why are you teaching? Because you can have just inputs. If a good assignment is, like I said, a conduit to that students process and the way they think. Well, you get the privilege of giving them feedback on that. And that’s something that we’ve been trained to hate. And that is just a travesty. One of the many travesties.
Will Brehm 20:27
It’s we’re trained to hate. And then I think it’s also the system itself is designed not to allow for such support. Where I work, I’ve been encouraged multiple times that student feedback on written assignments should just justify the marking criteria, and not actually provide feedback on how to improve it. Because the way the system is set up, the student doesn’t actually have the opportunity to improve it. They can’t resubmit it. So, all you have to do is justify the grade given. I always find that such a terrible way to think about giving feedback and giving a mark.
Greg Skutches 21:04
Yeah. That’s almost an act of violence, actually. To impose that kind of power on a student without justification. I mean, it’s basically saying that to the batter, who can’t even see where the ball went because they don’t know what they’re trying to do. You’re out, go away, right? Instead of, well it should be “Okay. The ball is going to come in, again, you’re trying to hit over the centerfield fence. The thing you did was you lifted your back foot”. There’s none of that. It’s just you’re out. And you know, it’s a system that supports what we mostly really do in our education is process students instead of educating them, right? A cohort of Lehigh students comes in and you know, we don’t say this out loud, but we’re looking for who’s going to get in the right slot. Who’s going to be the engineer, who’s going to be the premed who’s going to go out there and represent Lehigh well and give money back. I mean, that’s how it ends up functioning. If we were really educating and let’s say calculus, if you take that test and then you get a C should you really be labeled with that and that’s it? That’s what we do. But you really should be able to take that test again and again, as many times as a student is willing to take it until you master that skill, that knowledge, that understanding, that concepts. But we don’t do that. We don’t make any excuse for it. It’s just assumed. And if you really step back and look at that, that’s not education, that’s processing.
Will Brehm 22:14
And it is violent. I remember when I failed calculus two, I felt awful, terrible, you know. I took it as a personal sort of slight that I’m stupid and dumb, and that I’ll never succeed. And then, you sort of imagine the future being, I’m never going to get a job. It’s just like, all these things cascade into this really sort of negative spiral, all because of one bad grade.
Greg Skutches 22:38
Yeah, I mean, that is really so powerful. And, you know, that’s another way the whole thing works, right? You know, if a student is at Lehigh, or any college, really, but I think it probably applies to the more competitive colleges where students are just lucky to be there. And if they fail a course, it’s more than an intellectual failure. It’s a moral failure. Right? Okay, you were given this privilege, and you blew it. And that’s how the student feels like you just said. The student feel shame. We talked about growth mindset right now, right? I mean, a mistake is where we learn. If you already know how to do it, you don’t learn anything you already had to. So, you need to go on to the next thing that you don’t know. And you’re going to fail, you’re going to make a mistake. And that moment of failure is really the beautiful moment. I just finished using a book with my first-year class called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error by Katherine Schultz. It’s a beautiful book. It explores all the ways that we’re wrong, and how we think about wrongness in such a harmful way, and I think my students really like it. I mean, they really had a lot to say about it. But I think breaking that it’s going to be hard. But I think that that’s what we really need to do; break that mold.
Will Brehm 23:41
So, with your program, this Writing Across the Curriculum, where you really try to get writing sort of integrated into all subjects at all different levels of the university at Lehigh. And you sort of told a story about a biology teacher saying, well, why don’t you just teach how to write a biology report in freshman composition literature? And why do I have to teach it in my biology class? You’ve been at this now for over 15 years at Lehigh trying to build up this program; has it been successful? I guess I’m more interested in how do you get that biology teacher, how do you get these professors in all these different disciplines, to embrace process? To embrace feedback, to embrace sort of coaching students in that process of writing, rather than just sort of saying, just give me the output, and I’m going to measure it based on some marking criteria, and we’re going to move on?
Greg Skutches 24:30
So, I’ve tried a number of different ways. I do workshops. You know, they’re fun, and they’re great, but the faculty you get coming to those workshops is the people who are already working on this, and they want to get better, right? The people, like I said, who hate grading writing, don’t want anything to do it. They’re not going to come to one of my workshops. But the workshops have the value of connecting you with the culture. The first thing I did when I came to Lehigh was – I started on July 6, 2006, and I made a goal to have coffee with 100 members of the faculty by a holiday break and I got to 102. And that was probably the most important thing I did because I made friends and cultivated relationships. And so, they would come to my workshops, and then just incrementally just reaching out and touching as many people as I could. So, that’s one way. The other way is to actually affect the curriculum to have writing baked into courses. That’s a lot harder. That’s a lot harder. We had a thing called the writing intensive course, which is a common thing. I mean, you may even have them where you are. I think they do more harm than good. And I learned that through a study I did at Lehigh back in 2010. We did a really large study. A whole bunch of focus groups, many, many surveys. And it turns out that writing intensive courses are courses that faculty don’t want to teach, students don’t want to take. But even more damaging than that all the writing that maybe could be in other courses through that curriculum was just thrown into there. So, students get this impression that writing doesn’t really matter, because they don’t do it in my main courses, I do it in this course they force me to take. So, the preconceived notions about writing turn out to be to be true. But the way that the most progress that I’ve made, Will, is by starting the TRAC Writing Fellows Program. So, that’s the technology research and communication, writing fellows. They are undergraduate peer tutors who do not work in a writing center, but they are actually assigned to courses. So, they work with the professor and students in the course throughout the whole semester. And to work with a TRAC fellow, professors have to agree to certain requirements. They have to make sure that fully developed drafts of each project are due to the track fellows two weeks before they’re due for grading. TRAC fellows read these drafts, put comments on them. And these are nondirective what I would say generative comments, right to generate conversation. Return those to the students and then schedule an individual conference where they kind of work through this draft. And that’s been the thing that I think has worked best at Lehigh. And it has actually helped to promote other kinds of change. But we started with 15 fellows back in the fall of 2008. And now we have about anywhere between 85 and 90 TRAC fellows, and we work with about 1,200 students, and maybe 25 or 30 faculty each semester. And that has been not only has it been the thing that has advanced writing across the curriculum at Lehigh more than anything else. But it’s actually been the most rewarding project of my professional life; working with these undergraduate peer tutors.
Will Brehm 27:11
So, you basically are supervising these TRAC fellows. And then the TRAC fellows get put into all these different courses and work with the professor and sort of provide that peer engagement, peer feedback and sort of support that formative feedback process.
Greg Skutches 27:26
Yes. And they actually also give feedback to the faculty on their assignments and the syllabi. Actually, a moment for me that was stunning was; first year we had this program, we had 15 new fellows, and I remember getting Raj Menon, who was in our International Relations department, and he’s a guy with an international reputation really well-known, highly respected. And he was one of the really important faculty who so helpful to me because he respected my project, Writing Across the Curriculum and really promoted it. And he requested TRAC fellows his first semester. And I remember seeing him and one of our first TRAC fellows sitting in the lobby in Maginnes Hall. This is this revered guy. When there is a lecture, he would wait just til two minutes after the class started, he would walk into the lecture hall with all students sitting there and take his position at the front of the stage. There they are going through his assignment line by line, like, literally, he’s crossing out and the TRAC fellow is talking, and he’s like, getting what she’s saying. I was blown away by this. And the idea is what we were training fellows to say, and I didn’t think it would work this well is to say, look – and these are all really successful students. Like we were lucky that first year to get 15 unbelievable young people. One of them is working in the White House, now Krystal Ka’ai but these wonderful people, and, you know, we said, look, “What you say to the professor is, if I don’t understand the assignment prompt, if it’s not clear to me, I’m not gonna be able to help your students”. And that’s a really powerful inroad, okay, to the professor. And so that was like a wedge for us that, it was almost like a bait and switch, Will. I would say, “Apply for a TRAC fellow(s) to help you with your course, you’ll get better student writing”. That was like the tagline. You will be able to focus on the kind of thinking you want to focus on the students’ papers and not worry about how they’re written, whether they’re comprehensible, whether they’re well organized, and so forth. And we were able to do that right from the start. But it also started the faculty who work with fellows thinking about process sometimes for the first time. And that changed everything. So, we have faculty who work with us every semester for 10 years now. And we haven’t been able to take on new faculty even because the ones who we work with now don’t want to part with their fellows.
Will Brehm 29:34
Oh, my gosh. So, Greg, you are retiring at the end of the academic year. Does Writing Across the Curriculum at Lehigh continue to exist after you leave?
Greg Skutches 29:46
Well, I sure hope so. The thing about the TRAC Writing Fellows Program, it’s not just student-centered, it’s radically student-centered, okay. So, there’s no way that one person could adequately manage a group of 85 to 90 students. So, we have a lot of leadership that’s built into the program. And I meet with the Leadership Team (LT) weekly. And those Monday meetings at five o’clock are like my favorite meetings of the week. We walk the talk. I mean, I say the biggest mistake we make in higher ed is underestimating our students. We don’t underestimate TRAC Fellows. I mean, they want freedom to pursue academic work and then they also want responsibility with the TRAC program. So, we do a lot of innovative things in TRAC and every idea, every cool thing we’re doing came from a TRAC fellow who said, “Do you ever think about doing this”? And so, one of the things I’m most proud of is, I think, if you would ask all – I think we have 87 TRAC Fellows this semester – if you ask all of them individually, do you feel your voice matters in the TRAC program? I think they would all say, “Yeah, if I have an idea, it will be given thorough consideration and my idea could then next year, or two years or three years be being done by all TRAC Fellows”. I think that’s so, so, so important to an organization that thrives.
Will Brehm 30:56
It reminds me of when we met and how you supported and encouraged me to have ideas and sort of anything was possible, anything could improve sort of my own learning. And you know, it sounds like you’ve now instituted this on a rather mass scale at one university. And I mean, it’s quite incredible in a way. And it makes me wonder, you recently wrote this op-ed in the student newspaper at Lehigh, and you basically call for higher education to be a “carnival of learning”. Is this sort of what you mean, like this, where it’s really radically student-centered, and all ideas can be on the table?
Greg Skutches 31:31
I do. I think that you have to look back at the tradition of higher education, which has always kind of had its foot in a couple of camps. On one hand education is passing down a tradition, basically, the lesson is, this is how we do things around here. That makes sense, right? You know, public education came to serve the needs of an industrial economy. And actually, a war machine because, you know, people needed to know how to read to be in the army. And it did that work very well. I mean, it’s a competitive model that served a competitive capitalist society. This might be reaching too far deep for these reasons, but I don’t think we can do that anymore. We can’t. I mean, this generation of college students is being handed the largest set of potentially catastrophic problems that any generation. Everything matters now, right? These problems are so big, we need good solutions. But we don’t want baby boomers telling them how to solve these problems because my generation, we just kick that can down the road. You know, once the shopping mall and hedge fund came along, and Ronald Reagan was elected president, all of our values of the 60’s went right out the window. So, that’s not a tradition that needs to be passed on. What needs to be passed on is a carnival of learning. We act like if we don’t test students, they’re not going to be curious. Like if we don’t put them through this ridiculous, rigorous protocol, that they’re just going to sit on the couch and play computer games. Computer games are more of a refuge from that. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to have students doing things. The people are curious. So, we need to find a way to get to a place where we see pedagogy as inquiry, and inquiry as pedagogy. And make room for that kind of a system and I think it’s possible.
Will Brehm 33:00
Well, Greg Skutches, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. Thank you for mentoring me all those years ago, and just giving me these ideas and focusing on the process. And when I think back on FreshEd after 300 episodes, I really do point to you as one of the beginnings.
Greg Skutches 33:20
Well, I’m honored by that but you should also know, Will, that back in 2007, you were mentoring me too. Absolutely. I learned so much from you and I’ve always been grateful for that. Thank you.
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