3 Ways to Define and Reinforce Culture

As a professor, I always dread the class period where I return the first graded assignment of the semester.  Inevitably, I have to deal with multiple painful dynamics.  First, it becomes evident that students doubted that I would hold them accountable to the standards I set for the assignment.  Second, I inevitably question my objectivity in grading.  Third, I receive a flurry of frustrated and panicked emails from students who were dissatisfied with how they performed in the assignment.

However the biggest reason I hate returning the first set of assignments is that it is always the first test of my class culture.  Students always communicate something when they submit an assignment; I encourage my students to think carefully about what their submissions communicate.  When we hit this crucial moment in the semester, I am given a picture of how successfully I have defined and articulated the culture of my class.  But more importantly, I am given an opportunity to use that moment as a turning point that reinforces the culture I am trying to create.  Increasingly, I’ve come to see this moment as one of the most important opportunities in the semester.

In the previous two articles of this series, we examined 1) what it means to create a culture in the group you are leading, and 2) whether Christians have a special interest in shaping culture.  In this article I will focus on investigating how we can subtly articulate and consistently reinforce the culture of the groups we are leading, using my own experience as an illustration.  

Defining and Articulating Values      

The first step in shaping culture is to identify which values guide engagement in your group, and compare that to the values you want to guide engagement in your group.  A culture always emerges in every group; it can either be shaped intentionally, or it can emerge without guidance.  The question is, what types of  values should your group culture be composed of?  You want a culture that distinguishes your team and makes it worth the members’ investment.  We too often feel pressure to be as bland and mainstream as possible.  But there is nothing compelling about ordinary!  People don’t have to buy in to ordinary, they just have to exist.  You also want a culture that is distinct from any dominant personality or faction within your group, but rather something that requires buy-in from all group members.  This enables a collaborative environment that is creative and innovative, instead of a group dynamic built on power structures and dominant personalities.

I always use the first day of my classes to clearly articulate the values upon around which my classes are organized.  These include values like openness/transparency (with ourselves and others), respect (for ourselves and others), courage (to examine, to contribute, to sometimes fail), honesty and integrity (to build trust as a community), diversity (to better understand each other and ourselves and the political world), and dedication (to produce high quality products).  After presenting these values through a series of videos, discussions, and exercises, I present my students with the opportunity to “buy in” to the class by telling them: “This is your opportunity to decide if your want to take this class.  After today’s class, you might decide this class is a poor fit for your interests.  There is no shame or blame in that, not all classes are for everyone.  But if you decide to take this class, if you commit to this class, you are entering into a relationship, both with me and with the rest of the class. I ask that if you stay, you commit whole-heartedly.” 

Reinforcing Values

After the first day of class, the students do not hear me directly articulate those values any other time in the semester.  It is important as culture-makers, and culture-shapers, that we craftily combine direct articulation with subtle reinforcements.  So I rely on subtle tools to consistently reinforce the values as the semester continues including symbols, language, stories, and practices.  The investment required in coordinating all these tools so that the same message is conveyed from beginning to end of the semester is worth the payoff in terms of a healthy class culture.  Let me use the example of how I reinforce my class value of interpreting failure in light of future success, perhaps the most difficult value to reinforce in an academic classroom that is organized around meriting a grade based on performance.

Symbols are the first tool for reinforcing culture.  In the workplace symbols can be anything from a corporate logo to banners to the presentation of awards.  As a professor, symbols can be problematic for me, because I share a classroom with many other professors.  Thus, I focus on inserting symbols into the things I bring into the classroom like my PowerPoint slides.  Even something as simple as having a consistent template with a class logo on top of every slide can be used to subtly remind students of the class culture.  I also I come in early for every class and arrange the tables in a “U” shape, so that my students are always facing each other.  This organization serves an important function; it helps students communicate with each other without having to move their bodies.  But it also serves a symbolic purpose by communicating to students that it is impossible to hide in my classrooms.    

What types of values should your group culture be composed of?

I also use symbolic activities, like giving awards, to celebrate the values that are key to my class.  For example, there are times in my classes where students step out and risk making an argument they know will be controversial.  In that moment, my students risk of failure and rejection.  Regardless of how well this risk is received by their peers, I symbolically reward students for taking risks.  I intermittently present awards to students who took great risk in the class, and articulate why their risk was so valuable to the rest of us.  This exercise, in and of itself, is a risk on my part; there is always the chance that students will think the whole exercise is ridiculous.  But my hope is that I can model for my students that risks, and even failure, are a springboard for future success.  If we aren’t risking, we aren’t learning.

Language and stories are a second set of complementary tools that reinforce culture.  When I return that first set of assignments, with the knowledge that many in the class have not achieved their goals, I remind my students that their assignments communicate something about their personal values.  But I follow up this challenge in the next class with a story of one of my own personal failures.  I demonstrate to my students the ways that personal failures in my life have led to success, and that failure is never the end of the story.  Though I don’t explicitly connect my story to the assignments I just returned, I very strategically present these personal stories of failure at a time when I know the students are struggling with their own failures and insecurities.  God gives us failure in our own life, and He positions us to share our stories in a way that helps encourage others and free them from their own failures.  Language and stories are not only tools we can use to reinforce culture, they are tools we can use to be agents of hope in the world around us.  Stories help all of us know we are not alone.

Finally, practices are a third tool for reinforcing culture.  To support the value of interpreting failure in light of future success, I intentionally build a semester of assignments that are iterative and provide opportunities for growth.  My assignments build upon each other both in content and in skills.  Moreover, I intentionally seek out the students who have fallen short of their (and my) expectations in two ways.  First, I ask them to having coffee or breakfast or lunch, and I talk to them about their life.  I intentionally avoid the conversation of the particular assignment on which they failed.  Later, I have a second meeting with the student to talk about how they can improve for later assignments.  Through these practices I communicate to my students that I see more in them than their failure at any one point in time, but that I also believe they can be successful in my class.

What are the values of the group you lead?  Have you intentionally shaped them, or have they arisen without any guidance?  It is impossible to act as agents of renewal and hope in the world if we aren’t thinking intentionally about shaping the culture of the groups we lead.  Despite the work that it takes to more intentionally coordinate symbols, language, stories, and practices to consistently reinforce values, it is the type of work we are called to be about as Christians. 

 -Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.