Questioning the Compliance Narrative

Could we begin to understand students as people who are interested in learning and growth for higher purposes beyond just compliance and grades?

I recently attended the 3rd annual Spring Conference on Student Learning and Success at MSU. The first year it ran, it was a joining of a couple of similar events across campus that previously had been taking place simultaneously. This year, there were more added to the party. Namely, what was previously a Student Success Summit on campus along with a separate Data Analytics Conference, both became integrated into one larger experience. I’m particularly happy about these moves. In the past, I felt conflicted about having to decide which event to attend. Now I’m only having to make choices between sessions that are all happening in the same space. Of course, this means the conference continues to grow in numbers which made it rather congested this year. Still, there are worse problems we could have.

Wicked Problems Presentation. Dave Goodrich and a few of his colleagues in the Hub's Flex Space.

I always take note when I attend a session by someone who strikes me as a seasoned and dedicated educator. In Stokes Schwartz’s session again this year, I took more notes than usual. Schwartz teaches in MSU’s Center of Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities. I got the sense before it began that I was in good company with instructors around me who were also attending to more intrinsically motivate students to do course reading (the focus of his session). Schwartz skillfully weaved into the session diverse literature and research findings into the discussion. Lastly, he shared recent studies (Parrot & Cherry, 2011; Sylvan, 2018) that most closely aligned with the work he had been practicing fruitfully in his IAH course in the past few semesters. The session was rich with information (with two pages of references), experience, and nuanced discussion that clearly was an important and engaging topic for all involved. I connected with Schwartz briefly after his session to say thank you and to also pose a question to him. I asked why he kept going back to a notion of ‘Compliance’ as it related to student’s reading of course texts. His answer was that it was a key term that kept being used over again in the literature. In fact, Schwartz described the term as the ticket for finding much literature on the topic at all. Still, the term doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t think it sits well with him either.

Dave Goodrich and Stokes Schwartz

I was sitting in the Schwartz session considering the ways my own students engage with the texts that we include in a summer hybrid MA program. Some of the texts are supplementary, some only highly suggested, while others are required. Yet, I never have the sense that students are not participating in the readings.

Dave Goodrich's notes about compliance on handwritten paper.

Sometimes, if I’m honest, these reading assignments are fairly hefty and I find myself having a hard time keeping up. And yet, it is the not-keeping-up that is the unfortunate consequence of ‘non-compliance’ rather than an arbitrarily punitive measure. If I don’t keep up as a participant in the learning experience, then I won’t be able to fully participate in the rich dialogue that ensues in our next meeting. Worse, my participation will be strewn with a fear of missing out on references to important textual landmarks. There are no quizzes to ‘check for understanding’ of the text in an attempt to ensure students are keeping pace. In fact, I wonder if introducing such a measure would actually deter from the rich participation we already experience among our students. Granted, graduate education is contextually a different learning experience than undergraduate. I’m certain that many folks like me only began to blossom in our adult years when school began to be more intrinsically motivating than extrinsic.

I wonder, though.

What if we flipped the narrative?

Could we begin to understand students as people who are interested in learning and growth for higher purposes beyond just compliance and grades?