Reflections of a First Time Attendee at ACPA’s Institute on the Curricular Approach

Guest Post by Christopher Trautman, Residence Life Professional, The College of New Jersey

This past month in Baltimore, MD, ACPA held their 15th annual Institute on the Curricular Approach (ICA). The Institute teaches student affairs professionals how to design and implement out-of-class experiences for students that facilitate learning in an intentionally designed and sequenced way. I had the privilege of attending this year’s institute for the first time. I learned a lot, but the following are three takeaways (of many) that will impact my practice moving forward.

Perfect is the enemy of good

How many of us wear our perfectionism as a badge of honor, even as we acknowledge that it can prevent us from doing good work? During my first ICA, I kept hearing the phrase “launch at 40%.” The idea behind “launch at 40%” is that we shouldn’t be afraid to trial or experiment with a new initiative, even if every minor detail isn’t completely planned out. In this sense, we should try not to let “perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, not everything has to be perfect before you launch it. Test it out. Learn. Iterate. Improve.

“Launch at 40%” may not be great advice for building a rocket, but it’s perfect for a student affairs professional. The curricular approach is like us: imperfect and in a constant state of change. As our institutional priorities shift and our student population changes, so must our curricula. If we’re doing the work honestly, we’ll never have it “right” because there is never a “right.” Chasing perfection is only delaying the real, hard work of going with what we have and constantly evaluating as we move forward. It is okay not to have all of the answers as long as we don’t let that prevent us from asking the questions. Learning is a messy process but it begets growth and improvement.

Use an Equity-Centered Lens

Throughout the Institute, speakers took great care in emphasizing ACPA’s Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization. The strategic imperative, which you can find at the following link, is a framework and lens for centering equity in student affairs work. As I reflect on this document and its call to action, I’ve been asking myself the following questions about my own institution’s current curriculum:

  • How was the curriculum at my institution built?
  • What voices were included in the spaces that created it? What voices were left out?
  • Do our learning aims represent all students, or do they include some and exclude others? 

Prior to our formal curricular review, and as part of an ongoing process, I want to bring others in to help analyze our current educational strategies:

  • Are we reaching all students?
  • Does any of our work cause unintentional harm that needs to be addressed immediately?
  • Where can we do better to support students of all identities and ensure that our curricular efforts improve the college experience for all students?

As I continue to grow as a professional doing this work, my commitment is to do everything I can to make sure our curricular efforts align with the broader goals of the Strategic Imperative. This will mean a lot of continued reading, reflecting, listening, and dialoguing; I’m excited to do this work because our students deserve it.

Curricular Work is Collaborative

While overseeing a curriculum may fall under the positional purview of one or two staff members on a team, honest curricular work is a team effort. And that team is a broad coalition—professional staff, student staff, and the students themselves. It is pure gatekeeping to think that only one or two people should be the ones who make all decisions related to curricular revisions and review. Instead, this should be an ongoing, data-grounded process where all voices are brought to the table, because everyone has a stake in the process and everyone is impacted by the changes made. In fact, in order to be effective, and for a curricular approach to take root in the philosophy, culture, and actions of a department or division, all members of the community must be bought in.

Further Reflections

After returning from the Institute, I’ve been taking time to review my notes and the resources provided by our faculty. What has struck me most during this time is just how many actionable my takeaways are. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to attend ICA next year, I can’t recommend it enough. As a first-time attendee I learned so much that will help me make our student experience more meaningful.

Thank you so much to ACPA, the ICA co-chairs, and the amazing ICA faculty for facilitating such a thoughtful and meaningful experience. I’m looking forward to continuing my learning this year and in Long Beach for ICA 2023!

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