Universities have remained relatively unchanged since their inception, contrasting with the adaptability seen in many other organizational structures. The traditional university model, resistant to significant shifts over time, needed a pandemic for notable changes to occur in institutions. Dr. Jessica Riddell, the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence at Bishop’s University, advocates for essential restructuring within the university model as it stands today. As a 3M National Teaching Fellow and Senior Research Fellow at the Maple League of Universities, she explores innovative teaching methods and participates in national and international consultations. Dr. Riddell is currently crafting a three-part book series titled Hope Circuits, with the initial release scheduled for January 2024. The series analyzes and acknowledges contemporary issues in post-secondary institutions, offering abstract ideas on restructuring. In our interview, she shared her transformative journey of developing Hope Circuits.
The inception of Hope Circuits began with a response to the disruption brought on by COVID-19. Dr. Riddell began the series during lockdown. Despite personal challenges, including her husband’s cancer diagnosis, shel aimed to redefine hope as a rigorous and disciplined concept, leading to the development of a framework for practicing hope in institutions. In this extraordinary time of change and uncertainty, she reached out to educators, engaging in conversations with illuminated perspectives. She conducted interviews with 300 individuals, extracting 10 conceptual tools that emerged from enlightening conversations. These tools, such as “the times are urgent, let us slow down,” and “surface the systems,” were identified through dialogue and served as the foundation for exploring major university pillars in her first book.
Dr. Riddell soft-launched the first book, Hope Circuits 1.0 at Mt. A from September 25 to 29, uncertain of how the concept would be received. Grateful for workshops and focus groups at the university, she realized the book was not an authoritative text but a conversation starter. It brought together people with diverse perspectives to create a shared vocabulary and initiate conversations about rewiring universities in various contexts.
Struck by curiosity, I asked Dr. Riddell what rewiring universities might look like. She elaborated that the transformative ideals of universities are central to building and shaping citizens with a nuanced understanding of their role in creating a just society. While universities possess a transformative role in students’ lives, within current funding systems these institutions can sometimes be transactional. It is crucial to avoid framing students as clients or customers, emphasizing instead their role as integral members of a learning community. The Hope Circuits project, embodied in the book and its conceptual tools, aims to be intentional and deliberate about transformation, highlighting and addressing instances where systems may lean towards transaction rather than the inherent commitment to learning and growth.
Reflecting on educators, especially at Mt. A and smaller universities amid and post-COVID-19, Dr. Riddell expresses immense pride. Their generosity, thoughtfulness, and bravery in adapting to new teaching methods during disruptions showcased the spirit needed in 21st-century education. She is grateful for their dedication to professional development, engaging with colleagues nationwide, and their commitment to student learning, material engagement, research, and service.
Delighted with our conversation, I inquired whether contemporary universities measure success the way they should, beyond simple grades. She responded that they currently emphasize the challenge of measuring certain invaluable aspects that do not appear on Excel sheets. Each faculty member and student at Mt. A contributes three-dimensionally, working hard in teaching, research, and service despite challenging conditions. University administrators are often driven by goodwill and belief in fundamental values, which do not manifest in metrics but create encounters fostering belonging and significance. Dr. Riddell values meaningful conversations and interventions, drawing attention to the impact of every community member, from Jennings Dining Hall staff to IT Help Desk personnel. The focus should extend beyond metrics to ensure that each person feels valued and contributes to the community’s larger purpose. A hopeful university, in her view, prioritizes inclusivity, emphasizing everyone’s importance in achieving shared values of making the world more just and equitable.
Dr. Riddell mentions that there are numerous core values for Hope University, including consent, community collaboration, curiosity, generosity, and generativity. Consequently, she mentions that the unofficial motto of Hope University could be “sometimes the shit is manure,” capturing the challenging and messy nature of hope. Inspired by the idea that hope is about challenging the actual in the name of the possible, which she contemplates daily.
Hope Circuits is created in conversation and communion with others: through interviews, summits, focus groups, and countless conversations, this book project weaves together multiple voices to explore complex issues at human and humane scale through storytelling and reflection. This book asks its readers to sit in learner positions, to join the conversations, and to start new ones. In sum, hope is not about solving specific problems, though this book shares a series of case studies of interventions — local and institutional — that have succeeded (or failed). Instead, this series is about developing the framework and practical tools so that people can solve problems in their own contexts and spheres.