Drowning Bunnies, Retention Rates and Mindset Pedagogy
The President of Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland Simon Newman, tasked with the effort to improve retention rates, is following the strategy long employed in elementary and secondary schools trying to keep up their retention rates across the country: flush out the students who are going to fail out anyway. Employing war metaphors used to describe what happens when innocent bystanders get killed in the course of war, he told professors, “there will be some collateral damage” as reported by The Washington Post. He went on to say to professors that he realized “this is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”
First, he told professors they couldn’t think of students as cuddly bunnies and proceeded to talk about students who might struggle in the beginning of their college career as bunnies that needed to be drowned. Then he proceeded to make light of the growing problem of gun violence on college campuses by encouraging professors to think of struggling students as students they might shoot with a gun. The ironies of a Catholic institution encouraging metaphorically killing students abound.
It seems to me like the school is trying to identify students who will eventually leave the college in time to cull those students from their rosters so that these students won’t be a part of retention rate statistics. This would have to happen in the first two weeks of school to get students off rosters by the census date. What disturbs me about this is the idea that you can tell whether students can succeed in the first two weeks of school. Considering how No Child Left Behind legislation has prevented students from learning critical thinking and analytic skills in high school, most public school students find the first several weeks of college to be nothing short of culture shock. Moreover, this assumes what educational psychologists call a “fixed mindset” mode of pedagogy, where students are thought to have a certain amount of talent that can be cultivated but cannot be expected to grow (see this research from Indiana University’s Mind and Identity in Context lab and written up in The Atlantic Monthly). Tell struggling students that this is the case and they are likely to do worse than if you introduce them to the notion of a “growth mindset” mode of pedagogy, where the task of the professor is to give students skills to help them improve as students. Priming students with discussion of “growth mindset” at the beginning of difficult courses helps students who begin with difficulty improve over the semester. This is especially important in the liberal arts where expectations from high school to college shift significantly, and I think, even more so in philosophy where students have had little formal exposure to this kind of thinking before (I say formal because I think people are often engaging in philosophical thinking without being aware of it and formal teaching can help them reflect and develop their accounts of themselves and the world).
If students at Mount Saint Mary’s are being treated as if there is a fixed mindset, then the college seems to be abandoning its responsibility to help students grow. They would also poorly serve those students who remain if those students think they remain because they have enough of the fixed capacity to learn, because telling students they are smart and that’s why they are doing well might actually keep them from putting in the hard work needed to do better. Fixed mindset teaching adversely affects women and minorities, where implicit bias prevents teachers and faculty from cultivating these skills in students who do not at first seem ‘good at’ the material. This is also why fields where success is considered to be based in genius have fewer white women and people of color. Finally, this view of fixed mindset would seem to reward students for some capacity that they have through no fault of their own. That would challenge the notion that you can work hard to do well as perhaps it should (see Leigh Johnson’s recent critique of merit-based political thinking). If college considers students in terms of a talent that it then rhetorically transforms into merit while refusing to support those who don’t arrive with that talent, which it is rhetorically transforming into their own failure, then it is doing far more political harm than firing tenured professors.