Student Success and Stan Lee

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a huge comic book nerd. I grew up finding inspiration in the pages of Marvel and DC comics. As a kid, I wanted to be Spider-man, the Hulk or Mr. Fantastic. I hoped that some radioactive spider or a dose of gamma radiation would morph me into some superhuman hero.

It was with great sadness that read about Stan Lee’s passing yesterday. He was the visionary behind almost all of my favorite comics. As I’ve watched the tributes on television and online, I’ve seen celebrities credit Stan Lee with tackling difficult topics like racism, drug abuse, and gang violence in the pages of his comics. I really appreciate that Stan Lee was motivated to tackle difficult societal issues but, from my perspective, his greatest contribution was the superhero team. While DC’s Justice League of America appeared years before the Fantastic Four, the Avengers or the X-Men, Stan Lee redefined the genre. He made the superhero team more than just an assembly of individuals. In Stan Lee’s world, each team was a unified group that worked together to a common end.  Reading Marvel comics, I never got the sense that Mr. Fantastic, Thor or Wolverine could defeat the bad guy without the help of their respective teammates. To succeed, they needed their team. In Stan Lee’s world, problems were always complex enough that they required an “all hands on deck” solution. No Superman was going to be able to save the day on his own.

While Stan Lee’s death dug up these memories, I’ve been thinking about the power of teams a lot lately. I was recently invited to join a campus “Student Success and Retention” initiative. The working group is investigating different ways to help students be more successful at our university and graduate. A lot of institutions are having similar discussions and working to develop new strategies to support students. The challenge, however, is that student success is a complex problem that requires lots of complementary solutions. Entities need to work together to support one another. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by a single Superman. We need a team. We need the Avengers.

Just to be clear. These aren’t just the thoughts of some comic book fan boy. Others share this vision.  In their article on Collaborative, Faculty-Led Efforts for Sustainable Change, Graham, Ferren and McCambly (2015) write:

“Sustainable change in higher education must be built on meaningful, collaborative projects that fosters a common language and a shared vision for student learning through repeated, intentional, formal and informal interactions. This collaboration among faculty and professional staff creates lasting communication channels and interpersonal trust, and builds expertise transparency. Without trust and collaborative work that crosses departments, divisions, and institutions, new initiatives will not take hold.”

Later in the article, the authors write that a “shared sense of purpose makes a group a team as opposed to a collection of individuals.” And that’s what a complex problem like student success requires. We need to find inspiration from Stan Lee and develop a shared purpose and form a cohesive team. But, it also requires all heroes to join the fray and lend their talents to the cause.

Too often, however, student success initiatives focus on supports like advising, mentoring, tutoring and admissions. But, what about teaching faculty? We need to join the team, too. Adding teaching faculty to the student success superhero team means “that institutions would stop tinkering at the margins of institutional educational life and make enhancing student classroom success the linchpin about which they organize their activities” (Hanover Report, 2014). Arguably, teaching faculty play the most critical role in students’ success. We interact with them and communicate the expectations of the university. We support and assess their learning and provide feedback on their development. We have a lot of power in determining student success.  But Stan Lee would say, “with great power comes great responsibility.” We need to take some responsibility for student success.

Imagine the X-Men without Wolverine or the Fantastic Four without the Thing. I know I’m falling pretty far down this comic book rabbit hole, but the student success problem is a complex enough challenge that it requires an “all hands on deck” approach. Stan Lee would expect nothing less.




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