From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Beth Walden and Bonnie Glass-Coffin

Beth Walden (left) and Bonnie Glass-Coffin (right) arrange their spiritual mesas in front of Tom Marion’s “22 Line Drawings” at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art.

Rethinking Higher Education

By Kristen Munson

The class began with a warning of psychic dismemberment. Anthropology professor Bonnie Glass-Coffin’s experimental course on shamanism required students to push their personal boundaries. They would practice meditation, build their own spiritual mesas, and show vulnerability. The idea rattled some professors who feared she might be perceived as teaching religion in the classroom. Meetings were called. Discussions were held. One year later, students and faculty continue to consider higher education—what it is, what it should be, and what it can be.

When Participation Matters

Glass-Coffin developed Introduction to Shamanism: Shamanic Healing for Personal and Planetary Transformation knowing the course might strike a few administrative nerves. Students would be taught the fundamentals of shamanism and acquire the toolkit of the shaman by participating in rituals such as guided meditation and chanting. The course was designed to lead students and their professor out of their academic comfort zones. In the past, Glass-Coffin taught the class from a purely academic perspective, but the curriculum didn’t allow for individual participation in the material. It just didn’t go there.

Glass-Coffin—a shamanism scholar and Utah’s 2004 Carnegie Teacher of the Year—thought perhaps it should. She is certified to teach a cross-cultural form of Peruvian shamanism known as the Pachakuti Mesa, and wanted to try teaching a version where students use shamanic practices for their own spiritual transformations. For the purposes of the class, Glass-Coffin defined spiritual as a connection to something greater than oneself.

“I knew that I had a tried and true curriculum I could follow and that I had participated in as a learner,” she said. “I have seen how it does transform people’s lives.”

She pitched the idea to Dean John C. Allen who endorsed the class, provided it was an elective. Once she received the proper permits to light candles in the classroom, Glass-Coffin felt she had the credentials and support to explore what teaching could be. However, not everyone agreed.

“A couple of the professors didn’t think it was appropriate to have that happening on a college campus,” she said. “I was explicitly talking about spirituality and people were concerned ‘is this teaching religion?’ But I am not teaching doctrine. I am providing students with a method that students can use to explore their own spirituality.”

Glass-Coffin met with concerned faculty members to alleviate lingering concerns. The session lasted two hours and seems to unofficially mark the start of a renewed line of questioning in the college: what does higher education look like?

“It’s been fun to be kind of a catalyst,” Glass-Coffin said.

Beth Walden, ’13, recalls the first day of the class. Glass-Coffin flipped on a video that showed a man—don Oscar Miro-Quesada, founder of the methodology she teaches—arranging an assortment of stones and candles on a cloth while chanting.

“My first reaction was, this is pretty weird,” Walden said.

But as she continued to watch the screen she started thinking it looked weird—and fun. Glass-Coffin handed out waivers warning students of the possibility of “psychic dismemberment,” which stated students couldn’t hold the university accountable for any personal transformations they may have.

“The whole point of the waiver was to scare students off,” Glass-Coffin said. “I wanted students to know what they were getting into.”

Because if students weren’t interested in participating, she didn’t want them in the class—participation was the point. But the waivers didn’t trim enrollment; only two dropped the course. For Walden, the warning was more like a promise. She already has a doctorate degree and worked for 25 years at Utah State before returning to school for a bachelor’s in religious studies because she wanted to dig deeper into studies of spirituality.

“I was looking for conversations,” Walden said. “If you Google spirituality you’re not going to get anywhere. I came back [to school] to give myself permission to ask questions.”

One afternoon before class, Walden’s ailing father died. Yet, 40 minutes later, she walked through the door—right foot first in accordance with class procedure. Showing up to a place where she was expected to bring her heart with her was comforting, Walden said. “I was not expected to separate my grief from my college experience.”

Walden also worked as an undergraduate advisor at Utah State for five years, a position that reinforced to her that not all students have the same expectations about college. Some want to take required classes to graduate and move on. Others don’t—they are hoping for a real life change, she said. Walden believes experiential courses like Glass-Coffin’s are one way to achieve this.

“I think it’s necessary for those who are missing this type of experience,” she said. “It’s not for everyone, but it needs to be an option. It’s time to get together and have conversations and give permission to those instructors who want to bring their hearts with them into the classroom. We need to decide what college is going to be for.”

Glass-Coffin’s shamanism course is nontraditional in the sense that students do not sit in chairs and she does not lecture from the front of the class. Instead, she is seated with them on the ground. The students keep journals and take turns sharing their experiences with the material.

“It’s really the basics for civil dialogue,” Glass-Coffin said.

She admits her course falls on the far end of the spectrum of how college classes should be, but she believes opportunities need to exist for professors and students who want to engage in these types of contemplative educational practices. She presses for a more holistic approach to teaching and learning, arguing that emotions belong in the classroom because they help build community and a shared sense of humanity.

“A liberal education values the culture of the inner person as well as the understanding of what’s happening in the world,” Glass-Coffin said.

She cites a longitudinal study conducted by researchers at The Higher Education Research Institute where thousands of students and faculty members from institutions nationwide were surveyed about their beliefs and practices regarding spirituality and religion. The findings revealed nearly 70 percent of students want college to enhance their self-understanding and 48 percent expect college to encourage their expressions of spirituality. However, nearly half report being dissatisfied with the opportunities provided by their universities for spiritual or religious reflection. For Glass-Coffin, the study indicates students want more from their college experience than a diploma at graduation.

Harrison Kleiner

Harrison Kleiner listens as students debate during a meeting of the book club What is an Educated Person?

‘What Education is For’

Harrison Kleiner teaches philosophy at Utah State and agrees big questions involving spirituality and religion should be up for discussion in college—just not in a course like Glass-Coffin’s that involve an experiential component. When he heard about the proposed shamanism class, Kleiner was concerned the requirements violated what he felt were the personal rights of students.

“I am not against experiential learning in general,” he said. “I am against the idea that a course would require you to participate in something that goes against your conscience or beliefs.”

While raising big questions in a class is important, what might be unethical is requiring students to practice a belief system, he said. “That is why I distinguish between the priest and the teacher. Priests care about practice and participation in a worldview while educators teach ideas.”

In the fall, he and Glass-Coffin were invited to participate in a semester-long seminar for faculty and students discussing philosophies of higher education. They read the book The Heart of Higher Education to use as a launch pad for debate. The group explored what should be taught in classrooms, what boundaries should remain, and which should be taken down. They agreed that all faculty members want to be able to teach passionately and see a change in students’ hearts and minds. But how does one measure that? And does the current system allow it?

Megan Pehrson, an anthropology major who participated in both Glass-Coffin’s shamanism class and the seminar, sees the value in both traditional teaching and experiential learning efforts. During a panel discussion in November 2012, Pehrson explained feeling that aspects of college are incomplete.

“As undergraduates I feel like we’re always hurrying,” she said. “We see people. But we don’t really see people.”

She took Glass-Coffin’s class to slow down.

“I think that both ways of learning can have an impact,” Pehrson said. “But that one class that’s different, the one class where you’re sitting on the floor instead of in the chairs, it can really change the way you interact with your peers and your learning. I feel excited because I feel there is a change. There is dialogue happening. I am graduating in May [2013], but maybe it will be different for students who come after me.”

Kleiner agrees education should be transformative for students, but rejects the notion that personal development is not being addressed in college courses. He suggests some of the problems in higher education are not that universities aren’t providing students with opportunities to explore the big questions—it’s that they don’t tout the value of general education courses and the disciplines that do.

“The problem is not that the questions are not being asked,” he said. “In philosophy, this is the sort of thing we do.”

Kleiner is working to build more pathways for students to encounter big questions and rethink the purpose of higher education. And he’s doing it through his preferred methodology: good books and good debate. In spring 2013, Kleiner received funding from the college to start a university-wide reading group. Students were supplied with the books. There were no grades. The 13 students were there because they wanted to be. The reading group named What is An Educated Person? met every Tuesday to analyze texts from Plato to Allan Bloom and discuss what education is really about. Kleiner hopes the book club will be a “mustard seed” from which conversations about higher education grow out of, he said.

“We need to have a conversation with students and with faculty about what education is for,” Kleiner said.

He and Susan Shapiro, a professor of history, select readings and facilitate the discussions. They have a spirited dynamic where they often openly and respectfully disagree. And they encourage students to do the same. What becomes clear is this is not a class; it’s an ‘I think’ environment where reasoned opinions are welcome. Abigail Fritz,’14, came to Utah State on scholarship to study music, but realized she wanted to continue examining big ideas posed by the likes of Aristotle and Shakespeare.

“I really think that’s why people are still reading them,” she said. “It’s the smartest people ever, comparing their best ideas, and we get to contribute to the conversation. One of the things I learned in high school was to value education for education’s sake—not for the job you would get afterward.”

Fritz has taken that to heart. That’s why she didn’t balk at taking on an additional 50 to 100 pages a week for work that is not graded and will not show up on her transcript. Fritz doesn’t believe attending college for edification alone is necessarily going to pay the electric bill. And while she isn’t sure what higher education should be, she knows she isn’t alone.

“The great minds in history haven’t agreed on it,” she said. “I think you should be able to think for yourself and think critically. I’m not saying everyone should have a humanities education, but I do think it’s important you understand the consequence of your actions and your opinions and know where they came from. Because then you can be intentioned about where you want to go.”

She argues questions one should wrestle with in college like ‘Who am I’? are prerequisites for making one’s way in the world. Some students come to college thinking it is a four year period where they come to learn and leave as a formed entity. Fritz says this isn’t the case.

“Education isn’t a section of my life,” she said. “It affects the kind of person I am. My education isn’t up to my professors and my teachers although they are a huge part of it. I have to wrestle with those questions myself.”

While she isn’t sure what her future entails, she suspects teaching will be part of it.

“I want to be an educated person,” she said. “And hopefully I learn what that means.”

Matt Sanders

Matt Sanders authored the book Becoming a Learner: Realizing the Opportunity of Education for Students.

‘Not a Set of Boxes’

Kleiner partnered with history professor Norm Jones, director of general education and curricular integration at USU, to alter how freshman perceive the university from day one. They worked with a faculty advisory committee to overhaul Connections, a weeklong freshman orientation course, so that in addition to familiarizing students with campus, it forces them to reflect on why they are here in the first place.

“We want to use Connections to make students intentional learners,” Jones said. “Being an intentional learner is being an informed consumer.”

The hope is to convey to students that their outcome depends on the pathways they choose and the opportunities they take advantage of early on. The purpose of general education classes will be explained. The idea is that by understanding what higher education is, and can be, students can graduate feeling they were in command of their experience and better understand the skills they acquired along the way.

“What I am most excited about is that we will be encouraging students to think about the why of a college education,” Kleiner said. “Right now they think in terms of the major, and that is tied to their thinking about a job. But what we will be encouraging them to do is to think of the degree. The degree is bigger than the major. Gen Ed is not a set of boxes to check off; they are important parts in the process of becoming an educated person.”

One change to Connections will be a book by Matt Sanders, an assistant professor of communication studies. He is the author of Becoming a Learner, a book he wrote for students entering college. It is not a cautionary tale despite his point in chapter one that earning degrees does not guarantee students a good job. That type of candor could rattle a new student. But it doesn’t. In part, because Sanders assures students they benefit from college if they learn how to become a learner. He argues that skill will help them on the job market and in life.

“You will retain the most important thing—who you have become as a result of your studies,” he writes. “You are not in college to buy something, you are here to become something. The most important things you learn will not be graded.”

Throughout the book he asserts that college is not an obligation, but an opportunity to build character. Students learn to meet deadlines and work with others, conduct research and overcome challenges. Last year, a pilot group of instructors used the text during freshman orientation.

“The feedback has been really positive,” Sanders said. “I think they’re just hungry for this kind of conversation. This book is meant to get right to the students. I see it as a change agent.”

The book stemmed from an epiphany he had before graduating college in 2002: he didn’t know everything. But he was comforted by the idea that he could learn how to be better—and maybe that was the point. For the next decade he interviewed business and nonprofit leaders, compiled stories, and shared his philosophy of learning with students in an essay. While he believes students do learn valuable job skills at college, universities need to be clear about what college is, what it can do for students, and what they have to do for themselves.

“It’s not a ticket to the middle class like it used to be,” Sanders said. “The degree, that’s your pass to get interviewed. The guarantee of being smarter than when you leave? There is no guarantee.”

Sanders studies organizational communication and behavior. His interviews with employers indicate they want employees who are honest, dedicated, communicative, and dependable. In short, they want character—something students build every day in college. Sanders encourages students to be active participants in their education so they make the most of it.

“You can’t just sit on the conveyor belt and say, ‘make me special.’ Sitting on a conveyor belt makes you the same as everybody else,” he said.

Word of Sanders’ essay eventually bubbled up to Lisa Hancock, head of student orientation at USU, from students who had read it and loved it. She suggested Sanders publish it as a book. Colleges do a good job telling students how to earn the credits they need to graduate and presenting the logistics of the degree but not much else, she said. “Not a lot of people just stop and talk to students about why they’re here. It’s not about getting out of here and getting into the ‘real world.’ The reality is it’s about more than that. Or at least, it can be.”

The concept is gaining traction. One afternoon in April, a student approached Dean Allen on the Quad and handed him an essay reflecting on his educational experience. He was a student in Kleiner’s book club. The student, Alex Tarbet, acknowledged it was his second try at college. The first time he didn’t understand the purpose and left. He returned because he still had some unanswered questions about himself. Tarbet found a community in the book club, but he wrote of peers majoring in things they didn’t care much about because they didn’t know any better.

“They were never told that there is a possibility in college to do things you love,” he said. “To hell with money – the subject interests you, draws so much passion out of you that you do it for fun. It feeds that hunger. It sparks something. This possibility lies in the magic embers up here at the university, particularly in Old Main…I hope the university continues to re-examine what it means to be an educated person, and maintains its rigorous humanities program. I hope someone asks students why they are here, so that they might have an answer.”