Focusing on Principles and Commitments at FFPER: Puget Sound 2018

Joel C. Corbo, University of Colorado Boulder

At the 2018 FFPER conference, I gave a talk entitled “Envisioning a Better Academia: Principles and Commitments.” This was a very different kind of talk than I had given before (not least of which because it was my first plenary). I was hoping to embrace what I understood to be the ethos of FFPER by presenting “outside the box” material and leaving the other attendees with a “call to action.” Thus, my talk focused on ways in which different principles and commitments have been woven into my work and presented alternatives to the current culture of academia through several examples.

The direction that my work has taken has been shaped by my background and experiences. I’m a child of an immigrant father and a Puerto Rican mother, a first generation college-student, and an out gay person. On the other hand, I’m male, cis-gendered, and able-bodied. Thus, some components of my identity align with traditional models of success in STEM, while others make my success a statistical outlier. Additionally, my higher education trajectory was a rocky one. As an undergraduate, I was part of a strong living group community and had supportive physics peers, but I also had a lab instructor who said things like “the theme this semester is we give you enough rope to hang yourselves.” As a graduate student, I dealt with poor instructors, weak community, and traumatic advising, which led to imposter syndrome, anxiety, depression, and graduation in 9.5 years. I developed growing identity as a teacher, which led to alienation from the dominant R1 physics culture. Fortunately, I also connected with a group of like-minded fellow students with whom I created the Compass Project. Compass provided me with a community of people who cared about education and equity, a space where I felt valued and where I could make an impact, an alternative model of organization and leadership, and the opportunity to recognize that the best way to “serve” a group is to work in partnership with them. Quite simply, Compass is the reason I stayed in grad school.

All of these experiences have shaped my fundamental assumptions about higher education:

  • The current culture of higher education, especially at R1 institutions, is toxic. It damages virtually everyone who interacts with it (especially traditionally marginalized folks).
  • While most people have positive intentions, they will nevertheless act to uphold the current system unless they learn to do otherwise.
  • True change cannot be done to or for others. Instead, it must be done in partnership with others.
  • Change is not going to come about by “disseminating” best practices or by decree from above. If you want to see change, you have to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work to make change happen.

These assumptions, in turn, drive my work to change the culture of higher education.

One of my main current endeavors is the Departmental Action Team (DAT) project, which I work on with a large, collaborative team. A DAT is a departmentally-based working group of 6 to 8 faculty, staff, and/or students with two goals: (1) to create change around a broad-scale undergraduate education issue by shifting departmental structures and culture and (2) to help DAT participants become change agents through developing facilitation and leadership skills. The DAT is supported by external facilitators from our project team and works over an extended time. We take a broad view of what “undergraduate education” means—anything from aligning learning goals across the major and assessing disciplinary skills to improving student advising structures and increasing the inclusion of underrepresented folks in the major. In effect, we support departments in becoming better versions of themselves, based on what they want to improve.

The DAT model is built on a foundation of six core principles, which serve both as design principles in the development of the DAT model and as target cultural characteristics of the DATs-as-enacted. Our project team has iterated on our understanding of these principles and is nearly ready to externalize them. As a preview, I’ll briefly discuss one of our principles: “Students are partners.” Full embodiment of this principle involves recognizing and acting on students' unique expertise; their evolving, multifaceted nature as a group; and their ability to successfully share power and participate in decision-making. Moreover, student have to see themselves as partners. This principle is important for creating change because students are best positioned to understand their own cultural backgrounds, experiences, and histories, and therefore can best understand how a change will impact them.1 Unfortunately, institutional power structures typically exclude students, and student-faculty partnerships require considerable hard work to enact ethically and thoughtfully.2,3

One way we enact this principle is by incentivizing student members on all of our DATs. To support their investment of time and acknowledge the value they bring, we provide stipends to all student DAT members. We also actively structure our facilitation to level the playing field between student and non-student DAT members as much as possible by, e.g., revoicing and affirming student ideas and ensuring equitable distribution of work and decision-making among DAT members. One undergraduate DAT member summed up his experience during a focus group:

“I definitely feel much more empowered being part of this to know that even as an undergrad that my voice is represented in the department. That's huge. It makes me feel like I want to get up, I want to get off the couch, I want to do these activities, plan, organize, execute. And really, you know, maybe undergrads have a lot more energy, they haven't beaten it out of us yet, but I think we are kind of an untapped potential resource, that it's at least good to have open communication between all these levels.”

For my FFPER talk, I created a list of “professional commitments” that I strive to embody in the work I do and how I do it:

  • Do work that will make the world a better place.
  • Work with communities of people who share my values.
  • Make sure that my research is driven by practice and my practice is driven by research.
  • Eliminate the distinctions between the actor (researcher, teacher, changer) and those who are “acted upon.”
  • Acknowledge the oppressive ways I behave, accept when others point them out, and do the hard work to unlearn them.

These are aspirations, and while I hope they are visible in the DAT project and my other work (e.g., the Access Network), I always have room to grow (as we all do). Thus, I end with my charge to you: take the time to articulate your professional commitments and the principles that you want to underlie your work, strive to enact them, find people to hold you accountable, and listen to them when they do. When you (inevitably) fall short, don’t be too hard on yourself, learn from the experience, and keep moving forward.

Joel Corbo is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Colorado Boulder. His work focuses on improving undergraduate education through institutional and cultural change.


1. K. Tobin, “A Systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education.” Teach. Educ. 17, 133 (2006).

2. L. Mercer-Mapstone, S. L. Dvorakova, K. Matthews, S. Abbot, B. Cheng, P. Felten, K. Knorr, E. Marquis, R. Shammas, and K. Swaim, “A Systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education.” Int. J. Stud. Partn. 1 (2017).

3. K. E. Matthews, “Five Propositions for Genuine Students as Partners Practice.” Int. J. Stud. Partn. 1 (2017).

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.