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Author conversation series on academic innovation explores ‘belonging’ in higher education

Now in its second season, Academic Innovation for the Public Good talks covered affirmative action, the role of HBCUs, the science of making connections, and the power of networks.
Watch a few brief excerpts from the first half of the 2023 Academic Innovation for the Public Good series.
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A collaboration between Stanford Digital Education and Trinity College, Academic Innovation for the Public Good is a national book conversation series dedicated to expanding access to higher education by making the boundaries of our institutions more porous, rethinking historical constraints, and reimagining the way we teach and learn.

Running from February through May, Part 1 of the 2023 series, titled "Who Belongs in College and University?," delved into questions of inclusion in academic communities and cultures. The selection of thought-provoking books prompted deep conversations about the role of higher education in fostering belonging:

  • Is Affirmative Action Fair? The Myth of Equity in College Admissions, by Tufts University sociologist Natasha Warikoo, invited critical reflection on the effectiveness and fairness of affirmative action policies. 
  • Vital and Valuable: The Relevance of HBCUs to American Life and Education, by economists James Koch of Old Dominion University and Omari Swinton of Howard University, shed light on the significant contributions of HBCUs and their impact on communities. 
  • Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, by Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen, emphasized the importance of fostering connections and inclusivity. 
  • The final two books, The Human Network by Stanford economist Matthew Jackson and Who You Know by the Clayton Christensen Institute’s Julia Freeland Fisher, explored the power of networks and relationships in navigating social barriers.

Now in its second year, the public series has engaged over 3,300 individuals, including scholars and educators, and enjoys support from 16 institutional partners and co-sponsors. The series has not only facilitated dynamic conversations on Zoom but has also fostered a sense of community between authors and their readers via asynchronous forums between our live sessions. Moreover, it has ignited a shared purpose among participants, whose diverse perspectives collectively highlight the collaborative endeavors unfolding across colleges and universities, all dedicated to advancing equitable and accessible education.

We asked a selection of attendees for their thoughts on this year's events (recordings of which can be viewed on the Stanford Digital Education YouTube channel).

Ravenn Gethers, assistant director of training and diversity at the Stanford Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, said the series allowed her to reflect on her own journey as a former non-tenure track faculty member at Hampton University. “In particular, I was elated that a book conversation devoted to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) was on the schedule,” she said, adding, “I appreciated the authors' storytelling from an anti-deficit perspective touting the contributions of HBCUs to the American higher education landscape.”

Elizabeth Odders-White, founder of Nodramaturg Coaching and Consulting and a former higher-education leadership coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers her praise for the series' thought-provoking nature. She commends the creators for skillfully striking a balance between “deep contemplation and actionable guidance,” creating what she calls a “wonderful combination” of insights.

David Stone, a program manager at the University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation, attested to the value of the series in sparking meaningful conversations among his colleagues. He praised the engaging format of pairing authors in conversation, noting that “the two voices and perspectives allowed for a more pragmatic and useful exploration of the concepts than a singular book presentation.” 

“I found the discussion about the value of student networking and examples of approaches particularly useful,” Stone added.

Echoing Stone’s sentiment, Gethers said, “The series has been indispensable in nurturing my professional development reading habit. The book conversations provide an unfiltered perspective from authors that guide my choices for reading, recommendations to colleagues, and additions to the [Stanford] Office of Postdoctoral Affairs library.”

Beyond its thought-provoking discussions, the series also fosters inter-institutional collaborations. “The series acts as a catalyst, knitting together a network of like-minded institutions committed to driving positive change in education. This foundation sets the stage for future collaborations and joint initiatives with a lasting impact on the public good,” said Kristen Eshleman, vice president for library & information technology at Trinity College and a co-founder of the series.

Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education at Stanford University and the other series co-founder, emphasized the program's transformative influence, saying, "This series has emerged as a powerful catalyst for igniting innovations in the realm of digital education.” Rascoff underscored that through fostering engaging dialogues and collaborations, the series is sowing seeds among academic professionals that will ultimately shape the future of higher education in a more inclusive and equitable manner.

Gethers further highlights the series' professional applications, particularly the authors' tailored advice for practitioners: “Look for opportunities to advance equity in your current space. Learn through action. Stay connected with leaders in this domain. Those deeply rooted in the discipline are better poised to drive change,” she advised.

Part 2 of the series, scheduled from August to November, shifts focus to explore how higher education can expand knowledge sharing. Educators and participants will investigate innovative approaches to ensure equity and access to knowledge. Book selections will examine teaching and learning innovations, rethinking established educational approaches, and assessing the impact of technology on education.