Dr. Josh McConnell Parsons

Josh R. M. Parsons, Assistant Director for Undergraduate Assessment, is now Dr. Parsons! Josh recently completed his Ph.D. in Higher Education at the University of Kentucky, completing his dissertation on first-year academic spaces and the role those spaces play in constructing a student’s identity as a college student. We spoke with Josh about his dissertation and the takeaways about student success and student identity he learned through his research.

Tell us about your dissertation.

I studied how first year classroom spaces play a role in shaping students’ identity as college students and the subsequent choices they make based on that identity—a person’s identity, the choices they make in a given social space, and their dispositions are things that make up a person’s “habitus,” the term I use in the title of my dissertation. So I talked to students about everything they experienced during their first year classrooms: from the pedagogical choices made by their professors and the content of the courses to the social relationships they experienced with their peers and professors all the way to the physical layout of the classrooms and those classrooms in relation to the rest of the campus itself. 

Why low-income, working-class students? Why rural students?

I chose low-income, working-class rural students in large part because that population was a particular population that was likely to have little previous experiences in college—so the “newness” of the experience would be magnified. I also chose them because they can be students that have significantly challenging first year experiences, and I wanted to better understand their experiences in order to provide potentially actionable feedback on how to support them better.

What did you discover?

I think the findings from my study really underscore the uniqueness of each student’s experience. Despite coming from similar backgrounds, all the students I talked to enter into college with highly individualized experiences that gave them very different perspectives as they approached the first-year. Even when they were taking the exact same classes with the exact same content, the unique variations within spaces functioned to shape identity: so variations in (1) peer interaction (good, bad, or non-existent), (2) professor’s attitude and level of engagement (e.g. reading straight from a PowerPoint, asking questions, or, in one case, bringing props like baby dolls into a philosophy class), and (3) the quality of the physical space (the amount of light, ambient noise, etc.) all interacted in different combinations along with the student’s unique background experiences to shape the experience which shaped identity.

What were your takeaways for student success practitioners like faculty and staff in OUE?

In terms of what I learned about the first-year experience that are takeaways for practitioners, I think first and foremost my work reinforces the idea that good pedagogical practices support students developing confidence in themselves as part of their identity as college students, for most students. So doing things like encouraging engagement with academic content, getting peers talking to each other, challenging students to work hard in productive ways, having and directing students to structured academic and social supports (like OUE), and acting as mentors to students were all things that helped support most students. I emphasize most because my study does show that variability and interactions in spaces can still create negative experiences despite a professor engaging in good pedagogical practices.

Did you learn anything specific about low-income/working-class students in higher education?

Existing research on low-income/working-class and/or rural students suggests that one of the reasons these students may have higher rates of attrition is, in part, because they don’t see their place in higher education spaces. At the same time, they have tight knit home communities where they are highly valued—these students are often caregivers, transportation, and even financial support. So they have this pull toward their home communities where they feel valued and have an important role to play, resulting in them more likely to leave.

In conjunction with this, in my work I found that the students in my study experienced a shifting understanding of power, authority, and ownership of their educational experience. They went from high school experiences that they described as fairly consistent in teacher-to-student interactions to a college environment where each professor had a completely different personality, made different pedagogical choices, and had different grading structures. This variability gave them all this “aha” moment that socially constructed spaces like college classrooms are not static environments and that authority/power is not absolute, particularly in classroom spaces. This seemed to open the door for them to take ownership of their education and potentially gain an understanding of their place in the social system of higher education. Basically, as a result of the variability of space in the first year, these students seemed to be primed to take more ownership in their educational journey and carve out a space for themselves as college students.  

Based on this, I argue in the dissertation that giving students opportunities with more real-world stakes in the first year (or first semester) may take advantage of this shifting understanding of power/authority, pushing students toward seeing their own value and ownership of space in higher education. So doing things like integrating in more real-world experiences like research or community-based projects. We know from existing research that early career High Impact Practices are beneficial to students, so I think my research provides some explanation to why students may benefit from these early career HIPs. If you are interested in early career HIPs, particularly undergraduate research, you could check out Nancy Hensel’s Course-Based Undergraduate Research or my own article on a First-Year CURE in a gen ed writing course, both provide some unique ways instructors have engaged students in research in the first-year across a range of disciplines.

Please join us in congratulating Josh on an outstanding achievement!