Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was easy to say what made many of Antioch’s programs different from those offered by other schools: an emphasis on social justice, on strong community, and on programs that fit well into their student’s lives, often by being offered on a low-residency model. But under the pandemic, most Antioch programs had to shift to an online-only model—at the same time as every other school in the country did the same. How could it maintain its values and what makes it special, even as residencies and in-person classes were cancelled? And what would set it apart from the thousands of other schools that were going online, too?
These were the questions that troubled Laurien Alexandre, provost of Antioch’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change (GSLC), as she began working with her school’s faculty to design how an ‘online residency’ might work. As she thought about it she realized that she and PhD faculty “were going to have to completely reconfigure a program that is rooted in the power of the content and relationships built during the face-to-face residency three times a year.”
As she tells the story, “I woke up in the middle of the night, and I tried to imagine in preparation for the faculty meeting that was going to occur the next morning, how do we begin to design the coming year?” She sums up the essential challenge as, “How would the PhD program hold onto what’s essential as it tries to design for the unimaginable?”
By morning, she had come up with an answer that even came with an easy mnemonic. She called this framework “The Three C’s”: Content, Community, and Care.
In the year since, instructors and administrators all across Antioch have been finding this idea useful.
A Balanced Approach
The first C, Content, is the classic thing the universities offer their students: a structured way to acquire knowledge. In this area, Antioch’s programs are distinguished by what Alexandre calls “progressive, professionally focused, socially relevant content.” And programs like the PhD in Leadership and Change have quite a bit of experience in presenting this content virtually to geographically dispersed cohorts—they’ve been doing it in some cases for 20 years or more.
With the second C, Community, Antioch seeks to distinguish itself with what Alexandre calls “our powerfully diverse community of socially engaged learners connected in multiple ways within and across cohorts and with alumni, committed to each other’s learning with a collective sense of shared accountability.” When low-residency programs across Antioch were still able to meet physically throughout the year, they had strong systems in place to build and sustain communities of learners. And during residencies but outside the on-site classroom sessions, students often organized themselves to meet up for meals or even to share lodging. So, Antioch had to focus on making sure this core principle—fostering a learning community— was not lost or deeply compromised when instruction went fully online as a result of the pandemic.
The third C, Care, might present an even bigger challenge to program administrators during the pandemic. Students and faculty have faced many additional stresses, from family health crises, job uncertainties, lack of childcare, and the trauma of living in a racist and violent society to the simple fatigue that many feel spending long days on Zoom and email. As Alexandre envisioned it, the principle of Care “refers to the personalized attention and high-quality service that supports our learners, from the moment they inquire into the program to the years after their commencement.”
Altogether, the Three C’s provide a framework for a university committed to doing well by its students and to living out its values whether students walk in a door or click into a platform. As Michael Valdez Raffanti, director of the University’s new online, low-residency Doctor of Education in Educational and Professional Practice program says of Antioch, “Our constant vigilance in attending to and balancing all three areas sets us apart.”
Guiding the PhD in Leadership and Change
Alexandre first shared the “Three C’s” in her faculty meeting and later wrote them up more extensively for her column in the summer edition of the Antiochian Leader, a newsletter for students and graduates of the GSLC. In normal times, the PhD in Leadership and Change—which currently enrolls about 160 doctoral students—meets in person three times a year holding residencies rotating to the Antioch campuses. But in March of 2020, like the rest of Antioch, the PhD had to go fully online.
During its regular residencies, the GSLC has many programs and customs that it uses to maintain community. Explains Alexandre, “We have done a lot in our program over the years, within our cohorts, to attend to cohort dynamics and building relationships of trust and care, to focus how you engage people especially around topics of difference and marginalization and, of course in the current moment, the pain around racial injustice.”
So how to bring these online? They worked to ensure more meeting times within cohorts, designed a platform for the program that works like a social network, and made sure that there are always a wide variety of activities going on for students and alumni who may want to stay connected more fully. Last summer before the incoming cohort had their first residency in the program, they invited a member of every previous cohort to record a short welcome video talking about the program and offering advice and support. They released these videos, one every day, from July 1st till the first day of residency, July 26th.
“We are trying to create as many spaces as possible for connection,” says Alexandre, “so students realize they are part of something bigger.”
They have also spent considerable time and energy focusing on the value of Care. Alexandre describes what the program offers as “excellent, high quality, individualized support for our students as they move through the program. And care for each other in terms of bringing humanistic values to how we interact with each other.” In practice, this looks like strongly personalized, robust, and attentive academic and program support services—and quick response times. Faculty and staff respond to student emails within several hours as a norm.
Regular communication is key, but so is flexibility. The program, for example, amended its Satisfactory Academic Progress policy to address COVID-related impacts and has tried to work supportively with students whose dissertation data-gathering plans have been scuttled by social distancing. Alexandre says that “approaching program policy and practice with a lens that everyone is stressed out right now” is important, and that “flexibility as opposed to rigidity is one important way to show care.”
The Three C’s in the EdD Program
These principles have been taken up by other programs across Antioch. Michael Valdez Raffanti, who directs the low-residency Doctor of Education program, first heard about the Three C’s before a Board of Governors meeting in June. “By the time the meeting occurred,” he explains, “the protests over systemic racism had also begun, so our discussions also addressed how our students, faculty, and staff were coping with the pandemic and civil unrest concurrently.”
In the context of all this upheaval, Raffanti found this framework useful. He explains that “the 3C’s provided me with a vehicle for thinking about the EdD response, both in describing what we had been doing and what we aspire to do moving forward.” He structured his presentation to the board around them.
And in the program he runs, he has been trying to keep the three in a productive balance. It has been a collaboration with the instructors in the program. He explains that “faculty set ego aside in being willing to redesign their courses both to be more accommodating and to ensure the content was reflective of and relevant to social justice, in particular, anti-racism.”
This has required, in particular, emphasis on the third C. He says the faculty are “perhaps giving more attention than usual to Care, by communicating individually with students, checking in on their well-being, and offering flexible alternatives in meeting course objectives.”
Overall, Raffanti is optimistic about how Antioch is faring in the era of remote learning. “I’d say that we are ahead of the curve of traditional universities in this time of COVID, as we are already accustomed to collaborating at a distance.”
Content, Community, and Care at the MFA in Creative Writing
The three C’s can also be seen in practice at the Los Angeles campus, which houses Antioch’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. There, Core Faculty member Lisa Locascio says that “the Three C’s are a great way of codifying the strengths that have long distinguished Antioch from other educational institutions.”
One way that the program has sought to emphasize each of these traits under the novel conditions of 2020 is by offering an ongoing series of seminars and discussions on the topic of anti-racism. “By highlighting the content of anti-racism through conversation and critical engagement, we strengthen our community,” explains Locascio. And in that process, “we are better able to care for our students by addressing the challenges they face individually and brainstorming ways that our program can help create a more just society.”
In June 2020, the MFA program offered its first online residency in response to the pandemic, and designed the ten-day event to include many different varieties of community-building spaces. The residency featured readings by faculty, guests, and students, as well as student-led socials, one-on-one appointments with faculty, and opportunities both synchronous and asynchronous to engage deeply with the MFA experience.
Last fall, the program held both its anti-racism seminars and a series of online open mics. In combination with the anti-racism seminars and conversations and a series of online open mics in the autumn and winter, the MFA has done its best to support its students in this time of social upheaval, public health crises, and political reckoning. Says Locascio, “Our degree program is designed to not only provide writers with practical training but also to critically examine and dismantle the capitalist and racist hierarchy which has long shaped the literary world.” The program lives out these values, in part, by emphasizing these Three C’s.
And across the university, as programs have grappled with this year of social reckoning along with the uncertainty and physical distance caused by the pandemic, this framework is helping Antioch stay close to its most essential values.
Jasper Nighthawk '19 (Antioch Los Angeles, MFA) is Antioch's University Storyteller and the host of the Seed Field Podcast. He lives in Los Angeles and on the Mendocino Coast with his partner and their cat.