In our higher education system, the efforts to promote educational equity, close the opportunity gap, and create a more inclusive environment have experienced uneven results. While a number of institutions have espoused a commitment to the capacity building efforts for excellence and equity, few have actually been successful in creating a truly inclusive campus environment. Disparities in admission, retention, and graduation rates tend to follow predictable race, class, and gender patterns. The College of New Jersey has made a conscious effort to focus on equity-mindedness at the institutional level. The “equity-mindedness” belief system works to identify and mediate processes, procedures, and behaviors that may be contributing to opportunity gaps in identifiable demographic groups. The promotion of this mindset also includes addressing head-on difficult issues about race, equity, and disproportionalities.
The TCNJ Docu-Story is an attempt to humanize the discourse by adding faces and voices to the various data sets collected by the Office of Institutional Research. Although we may all share a common space called TCNJ, the reality of the matter is, there can be huge variations in the ways in which we perceive and interpret that space. The Docu-Story seeks to capture the voices of those who may not typically be heard through our traditional TCNJ channels (i.e. student government, class participation, etc.).
This project is about personal perceptions of the ways in which various individuals are internalizing their life at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). If someone asked you to describe your “TCNJ experience” – how would you characterize the multiple exchanges you have as you live your TCNJ life? What images come to mind when you reflect on the thousands of micro-experiences that constitute your “TCNJ story”? Many would suggest that the world we perceive is, for the most part, the image we construct in our minds. That is, what we have learned to look for in situations mostly determines what we see. How we “see” the world contributes to a set of ideas and assumptions that we carry in our heads to help us understand and navigate our day to day experiences. To this end, is it possible that different groups have different TCNJ stories? More specifically, do individuals from the same demographic group share similar perceptions of their experiences at TCNJ? Are there any thematic similarities in the various stories? If so, are there institutional implications for supporting positive themes and eliminating any negative themes? The purpose of the TCNJ Docu-Story is to provide a forum to explore these questions in terms of how they may impact the lived realities and worldviews of the various stakeholders on the TCNJ campus.
Ralph Ellison wrote, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” TCNJ Docu-Story allows us to peer into the window of the experiences of our students as told through their own words. Learning from the 2017 campus data summit that sought to better understand the disparities between demographic groups that manifest in a national achievement gap that is seen in quantitative datasets on our campus, this project is an attempt to humanize the discourse by adding faces and voices to the data. It is our expectation that this project will serve as an educational tool to teach us more about our students, ourselves, and how we can shape the experiences to be a more productive and valuable learning environment.
Format of the Project
In the 2016 Spring semester, the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) convened a Learning Community (LC) to focus on the opportunity gap at TCNJ. As an extension of the already substantial work being done by this LC (e.g. Opportunity Gap Data Summit, Fall 2017), the Co-Chairs of the Learning Community met with the Vice President of Student Affairs to design a strategy to better understand how students of color view their TCNJ experiences. An Advisory Committee for the project was formed that consisted of the VP of Student Affairs, CETL Director, Co-Chairs of the Learning Community, and an Associate Professor from the School of Arts and Communication. After multiple meetings, the basic framework and a tentative timeline for the Docu-Story were developed. A series of questions focused on capturing qualitative information was utilized to allow the respondents to both, directly and indirectly, speak to their “TCNJ experience”. A call went out to invite student volunteers to participate in an interview project to share their perceptions of the “TCNJ experience” relative to race. Over a two-day period, both audio and video responses were solicited from the TCNJ student volunteers. The two-day recording sessions yielded approximately 10 hours of responses. The Project Coordinator in conjunction with the other members of the Advisory Committee categorized thematic strands that ultimately resulted in the various “Chapters” of the Docu-Story.
Engaging with the Project
The TCNJ Docu-story is a web-based interactive experience that builds on video-taped interviews with then-current students discussing their perceptions of the campus experience. The focus of the project is on the underlying nature of privilege and difference on the TCNJ campus and directly addresses issues such as microaggressions, unconscious biases, and institutional racism. While the project consists of multiple interviews, users may find it helpful to explore the content by following a specific theme (i.e. Sense of Belonging, Microaggressions, etc.) or by identifying the title of respective interviews. It should be noted that all of the interviews cover a range of topics and the ultimate grouping of videos by theme and the various titles assigned to each interview should be viewed as subjectively descriptive.
The project is intended to provide participants with three different types of reflective experiences: (1) a personalized understanding of biased based issues as operationalized in a college setting; (2) a set of skills to reflect on the contextualized impact of these issues; and (3) a forum to interact with students and consult with colleagues around issues of disproportionality and inclusion.