Getting Engaged

Getting Engaged

The Faculty-Student Engagement Program boosts in-classroom performance with out-of-class activities.
by Andrea Dawn Clark

Lynette Cook-Francis, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student AffairsWhen Lynette Cook-Francis, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, first came to John Jay, one of the programs she immediately wanted to institute was the Faculty-Student Engagement Program (FSE). Armed with research proving that when faculty members connect with students outside of the classroom, in-classroom performance, retention and engagement all increase, Cook-Francis implemented FSE, offering grants to help professors host out-of-class activities. The program also meant something personal to Cook-Francis. “When I was a college student, a professor invited a group of us to her home for a dinner at the end of the semester,” says Cook-Francis. “As a first-generation college student from a low-income family, that experience opened my eyes to a world full of books, cultural experiences and travel.” With hundreds of faculty members using FSE grants, these out of- class activities have become an integral part of their curriculum. And for students, the activities are often the most memorable event of their academic year. We talked to some of the faculty members using FSE grants, and learned more about the invaluable impact that the program has on their students.

Taking to the Waters
Criminal justice students are naturally drawn to Assistant Professor Gregory “Fritz” Umbach’s History class on waterfront corruption. But when he takes them kayaking, going from John Jay up to the George Washington Bridge, they’re always surprised to see how close their campus is to what was once the most criminally ridden place in the country. “I’m a historian of crime and an avid sea kayaker,” says Umbach. “Getting students out on the water brings to life the classroom conversations we’ve had about waterfront corruption from the 1930s to the 1970s.” Once on the water near John Jay, Umbach gives a 20-minute discussion on waterfront crime.

Vintage movie poster
A vintage movie poster depicting waterfront crime in New York City’s harbor

Then, as they paddle up the Hudson, he kayaks backward while pointing out different historical facts. After reaching the bridge, and watching the sunset, the students put lights on the back of the kayaks and head back to John Jay. “The trip is an amazing bonding experience that naturally increases student retention and classroom engagement,” says Umbach.

Bonding over a Book
One of Assistant Professor Crystal Endsley’s biggest challenges teaching Africana Studies is showing students the importance of being creative and using their imagination. “If you ask students, ‘Why are you here?’ a lot of them will say, ‘To get that degree, so I can get a better job and make more money.’ I can’t knock the hustle, but I’m trying to expose them to the other benefits of an education,” says Endsley. “I find myself walking a fine line between the practical, and trying to cultivate imagination.” To show her students the power of creativity, Endsley used an FSE grant to livestream Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Schomburg talk on her award-winning novel Americanah. “We had food, we watched her speak, and it really jumpstarted their minds. They started looking up her TED Talk, tweeting her quotes, and using her as a reference in class. Seeing this creative author, while breaking bread with their fellow classmates, had a huge impact. It showed them the power of creativity.”

Death row ruins at Eastern State Penitentiary

Pondering a Prison
Associate Professor Richard Haw and his colleagues in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department use their combined FSE grants to take their students to the historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, one of the world’s oldest and most famous prisons. Driving up to the foreboding, castlelike structure, and walking around the crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers, students start to understand complex concepts like “penance” through firsthand experience. “The tour guides shut you into one of these small cells, and it feels pretty lonely, pretty quickly,” says Haw. “The students immediately realize how the architecture of the penitentiary worked with a confinement philosophy.” Shelby Burke, a John Jay freshman and Forensic Psychology major, says, “Being at Eastern State Penitentiary, and seeing all those images from class come to life, really cemented the information for me.” And for Burke, the trip gave her the opportunity to make “some of the best friendships” she has at John Jay. “Simply by taking the students on a field trip, you help create a community of learners,” says Haw. “And students learn best when they’re part of a group.”

Deteriorated prison cell walls and rusty metal bed frames
“The FSE grant helps us reduce the play’s price, so that all the students in the class can afford to come. We just saw Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, which costs $30 a person, and giving students a $10 or $15 reduction made all the difference in the world.” – Shonna Trinch, Associate Professor Linguistic Anthropology

Setting the Stage
One of the most daunting tasks for students taking Associate Professor Shonna Trinch’s “Seeing Rape” class is the fact that they have to write a play involving sexual assault to pass the class. “The subject of rape doesn’t put them off—these are criminal justice students, and they can handle that—but the idea of actually writing a play, that’s intimidating for them,” says Trinch. The reason? Most of her students have never seen a professional play, even being so close to the theater capital of the world. “The FSE grant helps us reduce the play’s price, so that all the students in the class can afford to come. We just saw Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, which costs $30 a person, and giving students a $10 or $15 reduction made all the difference in the world,” says Trinch. After seeing the play, in which one of the characters had been sexually assaulted as a child before being incarcerated for murder, the students were more confident in their playwriting skills. “They got to see the best actors and playwrights using limited props, limited sets and limited movements, all while still expressing difficult themes. It’s a huge leap for the students, showing them how to be suggestive with their words, and giving them the confidence that they can actually write their own plays.” Faculty members in nearly every academic concentration are using FSE grants, fulfilling Cook-Francis’s dream of improving in-classroom performance with outside class interaction. Everyone involved in the program sees a marked improvement in class participation and performance, from Professor Effie Cochran and Sociology faculty member Marquita James bringing in a Southern Poverty Law Center representative to talk about conflict and race in today’s America, to adjunct Assistant Professor Irina Zakirova in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration taking her students to see a trial at the New York City Supreme Court. “The benefits of FSE are irrefutable,” says Cook-Francis. “The more engaged the students, the better they do in class, and the happier the faculty.”