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Podcast - Interview with an Expert

Student Motivation with Don Fraser

Don Fraser is one of North America’s leading authorities on student success and retention. A professor at Durham College for the past 30 years, Don publishes the national best-seller Making Your Mark, which has sold over one million copies. Don has delivered student motivation seminars to over 17,000 college staff at various conferences and at over 300 colleges across North America. In this podcast Don talks about student motivation.

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Seeing Your Work Reflected Back at You


Something fun has been happening since the official release of my book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities[1]: people have been tweeting passages from the book back to me.

The highlight of these was just the other day when a correspondent tweeted a picture of a quote he’d extracted from the book and placed on his desk as a reminder.[2]

As far as I know, this is a career milestone. I don’t think I’ve ever been desk inspiration before.

I think there’s a number of reasons why these moments feel so good to me. These are the emotional responses I experience, pretty much in order:

1. Someone read my book!

In my previous experiences, the actual publication of a book is something of an anti-climax, so seeing concrete evidence that the book is being read is both exciting and different.

2. I sound like I know what I’m talking about!

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in my message, but when immersed in a project for so long, it’s easy to lose perspective on the specifics of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Seeing what other people extract is a way for me to get a fresh look at what I've done through another's eyes.

3. I want to talk to that person!

Who is this person who has seen fit to quote me on the Internet? What do they do? What do they know? What do they like about my book?

Stepping slightly outside these emotions, I can see why they’re happening. Collectively, they imbue both a message of validation and an invitation to community. Writing can be an isolating activity – literally in my case, as I spend the vast majority of my day alone in my spare bedroom office – so having that work recognized while being introduced to someone else who shares the same concerns is a real boost.

It’s good for the ego, but it’s more than that, and besides what’s wrong with a small boost the ego, anyway?

This experience has me reflecting on a practice I’ve tried to employ in providing feedback on student writing, quoting the most interesting part of piece back to the student in a summary comment at the end.

For a long time, the practice was haphazard, something I would do when particularly struck by an idea or specific language. The reason for this was because I was primarily focused on justifying my grade and the quoting was something I did when offering the praise part of my summative grading process.

As my view of grades and grading changed, and I became much more formative in my approach, I started quoting more often because for every writer I wanted to give them a sense of when they were at their best. With my creative writing courses, I required students to quote their favorite passage from each other’s stories on every single peer response.

The quoting had a salutary effect on my feedback because it put me immediately in a place where I was responding to the student’s ideas, rather than judging them for “correctness.” It was even more interesting when I could push back on the student’s ideas and I would realize we’re having an honest-to-god conversation, an exchange of ideas.

I’m glad this has been my practice, but I’m not sure I fully understood the impact of it until I started getting these little social media missives about my book.

We underestimate the emotional impact of how we grade our students and how little it costs to give them something that may carry them a bit further in their work. This is particularly true in writing. Who is to say the stakes that I perceive on my book are so different from what a student experiences with an essay?

In a lot of ways, it opens up space for more rigor, and incentivizes students to take risks which may result in learning more. Every time someone reaches out to me to say they’re reading my book, I start thinking about how I need to write another one. 

A better one.


Since this will be the last post of the year, I intended to write a reflection about the year that was, but when I sat down to work, this came out instead.

It’s a small-r, rather than big-R reflection, I suppose. The thought of putting some kind of big bow about what’s happened to me in this space this year seems like an impossible task. I’m having a hard time clearly seeing where I’ve been, or where I’m going next.

As the year ends, many futures seem possible.[3]Not a bad place to be.

I’ll see you all in 2019, same bat time, same bat place.


[1]Order during the holidays direct from Johns Hopkins University Press and use the code HHOL for 40% off. That code is good on all their books, by the way.

[2]The quote: “But what if learning really is a process that happens inside each individual a little differently? What if students need sufficient freedom in order to find a path that works for them?”

[3]I’ll have another book coming out in February that may have additional impact on my future trajectory.


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Tuesday, December 18, 2018
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Newbury College, Brookline, and 30 Years of Wealth Concentration

I grew up in Brookline, MA about a mile away from Newbury College. The news that Newbury is making plans to shut down hits close to home.

The conventional wisdom as to why schools like Newbury College are no longer economically viable revolve around factors such as unfavorable demographics and cost disease. Too few traditional-age students combined with fixed costs for people and operations that are too high.

The twin challenges of demographics and cost disease have forced schools to up their discount rates to attract paying students to unsupportable levels. At the same time, colleges and universities have been forced into an expensive amenities arms race, building fancy student centers and recreational facilities, in order to hope to attract a diminishing number of paying students.

This story to explain the closing of schools like Newbury College is mostly right. Throw in competition from new online education entrants in the adult learning market, season with a dash of skyrocketing employee healthcare costs and rising building maintenance expenses, and you have the recipe for institutional fragility.

The case of Newbury College also points some bigger - and perhaps more worrying - trends.

While I grew up in Brookline, I would have a hard time affording to live in Brookline today. My Mom purchased the two-family house that I grew up in in the 1970s for under $100,000.  Last time I looked on Zillow, my childhood home was valued at around $2 million.

The Brookline that I grew up in during the 1970s and early 1980s was economically diverse. My friends' parents worked as social workers, academics, and school teachers. A large number of my childhood friends were the kids of immigrants, and their parents ran small businesses such as restaurants.

Brookline today reflects a broader trend toward wealth concentration and economic sorting. The median property value in Brookline is over $750,000.  What was once a town of school teachers and social workers is now populated by medical sub-specialists, data scientists, financial professionals, and lawyers.

Schools like Newbury College were not built to serve the wealthy. Less than one-in-five Newbury students come from families earning more than $110,000 per year.  The median family income of Newbury College students is less than $60K a year.  According to the Newbury website, over 90 percent of the student body receives some form of financial aid.  

We seem to be on a headlong rush to a future where only institutions and organizations that are designed to serve the needs of the privileged few will be economically resilient.

Newbury College seems to be out-of-step with the gentrification of Brookline, MA. Private schools that do not serve the wealthy few can no longer survive by serving the middle and lower income many.

What will become of Newbury College once it closes? One clue might come from the Brookline candy store Irving’s, a place that I spent way too much time in growing up.  Today, Irving’s is now The Irving, having been newly converted into luxury condos selling for over $2 million.

The market in Brookline can’t seem to support private liberal arts schools dedicated to providing economic opportunity to a wide range of students. The market will support, I suspect, a conversion of Newbury’s academic and student buildings into luxury residences for Brookline’s wealthy residents.

The story of Newbury College is not only a higher ed story.

Newbury’s impending demise is part of a larger story of diminished opportunities and elevated risk for all those not in the top income quintile.

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Report Shows Lack of Diversity in Engineering

A new report from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities shows that while the numbers of black and Hispanic students in engineering are going up, they still lag significantly in enrollments at the undergraduate and graduate level. For example, Hispanic students make up 19 percent of college undergraduates but only 11 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2016, an 8-percentage-point gap. Similar gaps are found for black students, and the gaps are even more pronounced at the graduate level.

The report was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Australian University to Offer Disputed Western Civ Degree

The University of Wollongong, in Australia, has agreed to offer a privately funded Western civilization degree that another major university there rejected because of what it characterized as the donors' desire for excessive influence in the curriculum, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

The degree will be supported by the Ramsay Center for Western Civilization, which is funded from the estate of the late health-care magnate Paul Ramsay and has ties to some of Australia's best-known conservative politicians. Australian National University walked away from discussions about offering the degree last summer, citing concerns about the integrity of the degree given the center's demands for involvement in shaping the curriculum.

Officials at Wollongong, though, told the Sydney newspaper that they had learned a lot from the center's discussions with other universities. "Whether some academics or representatives from some unions think we have done enough I think will be a point of debate, but we are sure we have [dealt with] issues that were problems elsewhere," Vice Chancellor Paul Wellings told the newspaper.

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UW Whitewater chancellor resigns while the UW system investigates her husband

Beverly Kopper, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, announced her resignation Monday amid allegations that she turned a blind eye when her husband sexually harassed female employees at the university.

In her campus announcement, Kopper did not say why she was resigning or mention the investigation by the University of Wisconsin System into the allegations against her husband. She did cite a request that she resign by the Board of Regents in her official resignation letter to Ray Cross, the University of Wisconsin System president, on Dec. 6.

“I am aware the Board of Regents would like different leadership for UW-Whitewater and thus I hereby render my resignation as chancellor effective December 31, 2018,” she wrote.

Cross accepted her resignation Monday.

“I have accepted Chancellor Beverly Kopper’s decision to resign,” he wrote in a brief public statement. “We appreciate her accomplishments during her time as Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.” Kopper had served as chancellor since 2015.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the newspaper that first reported the story, Kopper hadn’t been seen on campus since Wednesday and did not preside over the winter graduation ceremony Saturday. Instead, Susan Elrod, provost, filled her place.

Kopper had been under pressure to step down since reports broke that her husband, Pete Hill, sexually harassed female employees, sometimes during university functions held at the chancellor’s house. In September, Hill was removed from his honorary role as associate of the chancellor and banned from campus after a UW System investigation concluded that he sexually harassed female employees. At the time, Kopper addressed the investigation's findings and concurred with the UW System's decision to remove Hill from his role, but she gave no indication that she would step down.

In September, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the UW System took up another investigation into allegations from Stephanie Vander Pas, a Whitewater Common Council member, who claims Hill sexually harassed her when she was a student. In a Facebook post, which has since been deleted, Vander Pas claimed Kopper "should have known" about Hill's misconduct and called for her resignation. Kopper had previously told the Journal Sentinel that the allegations against her husband took her "completely by surprise."

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Beverly Kopper and Pete Hill at her 2015 inauguration
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