Learning Communities at Long Island University-Brooklyn: A Conversation with Deborah Mutnick

On Wednesday May 11, the LC faculty teams had a Skype meeting with Deborah Mutnick from Long Island University, where Dr. Mutnick is the Director of the LIU-Brooklyn Learning Communities program.  LIU-Brooklyn serves a diverse, urban and suburban student population, with an emphasis on professional programs in the health sciences and business.

LC LIU image

The LIU-Brooklyn LC program was initiated in 2010, in parallel with revisions to core curriculum requirements and efforts to increase student retention.  Designed and led by faculty, the LIU LC program now features the participation of 30 teachers each semester.  While their start-up phase required a lot of effort both in academic planning and advertising the nature of LCs to new students, now hundreds of students complete core requirements in the context of themed course pairings, pairings that draw on Brooklyn and Manhattan as a rich social, cultural and historical backdrop for experiential and integrative learning.

Dawson teachers met Deborah with a host of questions, addressing both faculty concerns and institutional challenges.  Deborah was generously open and candid, and as a result the exchanges were very illuminating.  The Dawson teachers agreed that it was very helpful to compare notes with a program which is 4-5 years ahead of us developmentally.  Following are my rough notes on the 11/2  hours of conversation.

Conversation with Deborah Mutnick, LIU-Brooklyn

Faculty issues:

  • Faculty should adopt an experimental approach to LC development: be open, adapt, learn, discuss, synthesize.
  • LCs, if successful, need to be faculty-driven; tied to energy and commitment of teachers. Deborah refused Dean position to avoid being tied up in administration – work was linked by faculty to ongoing revision of core curriculum.  See faculty WordPress blog that documented their work.
  • There are many variables at play in development and launch of each paring: faculty need to keep in mind that they are in a new domain of collaborative work, integrative learning.
  • Assignments are completely integrated; faculty are continually following a model of development, testing, assessing for assignment design.
  • Roughly 30 teachers each term have LC sections; each teaching in 3 each term; LC faculty are also supported by a full-time faculty developer.  See 2016-17 offerings.
  • LCs are a LOT more work: not what we usually do; faculty are stipended, and course enrolments are limited to 30.  Pairings typically enrol between 10-30 students.
  • Retention of teachers? Most faculty who get involved love it, and the rewards in terms of intellectual challenge and social benefits of collaboration.Over multiple semesters, faculty witness amazing growth in students.
  • LIU faculty have participated twice (2012 & 2014) in the Washington Summer Institute at Evergreen State College: Incredible opportunity to share knowledge and develop expertise.
  • Recruitment of teachers: originally planned 3 yr rotation of proposal/teach 3 years/propose again,  but they have bypassed that and relied on veteran LC faculty more – w/some recruitment of new teachers each year – slowly growing group of core faculty who are intentionally developing skill, knowledge, documenting and sharing.

Institutional issues:

  • All LCs at LIU are developed around core requirements; often tied to composition/writing requirements; accelerated composition classes often linked w/ LCs, with themed context supporting success in both classes.
  • Integrative learning is at the heart of LIU mandate for LCs; higher engagement, success are tied in, but quality of deeper learning is strongest argument for LC model.
  • Strategic development of LCs was geared to student interest in professional programs especially, where retention was a problem – aid advancement/completion – financial problems drive many LIU-Brooklyn students out of school, which is a larger problem, but LCs at least have proven to be a formula for greater success for those who stay.
  • Greatest successes so far? Using Brooklyn and Manhattan as learning laboratory, and developing co-curricular links to pair themes.
  • Challenges? Eg. relationship with Brooklyn Historical Society – the faculty were excited first by this collaboration, which saw students accessing the BHS archives for projects, on a slavery theme. 1/3 of King County residents in 1850 were slaves – but students felt oppressed by slavery theme for whole year!  Faculty had to adjust in mid-stream, and mix in optimism with sombre historical realities.
  • Hard to predict student interest: they are motivated by many factors in choices, outside our control/knowledge.
  • Marketing of LCs: flyers, brochures, websites – advisors and PR were on LC development team from start, team-building across units was part of LC spirit.
  •  Student likes/dislikes only observed after a time lag; pairings must run several times before they can be objectively evaluated.
  • LC programs need to develop / report / celebrate results: see website
  • Biggest problem institutionally? Folding courses: if cohorts aren’t filling as LCs by late spring, LC is dissolved and courses are listed individually.  Can be late-breaking news, but ability to predict is improving over time.
  • Recent problem with new Registrar who lacked knowledge and experience with LCs – need for constant attention to turnover of key players in scheduling, advising, registrar.
  • Final words of wisdom? Get LCs into your Strategic Plan; get LC faculty working together right away.