NCA Inside & Out

Donna Knifong

5 Questions With… Donna Knifong, California State University, Sacramento

July 8, 2019

Donna Knifong has taught Communication Studies for several years as a Lecturer at California State University, Sacramento, and also serves as adjunct faculty at Sierra College in Rocklin, California. At California State University, Sacramento, Knifong has led a project called Listening to Students since Spring 2014. The project included sending a survey that asked students how they feel about getting their education at California State University, Sacramento. The survey drew more than 1,500 responses.

What was the inspiration for Listening to Students

Students. Class discussions, presentations, projects, and papers.… We are more privileged than most disciplines to hear our students’ personal perspectives about, for example, what it is like to be a person of color or immigrant status, with physical or learning disabilities or psychological struggles, or someone who is a veteran, LGBT, multilingual, or undocumented in our classroom, community, and country. I gain so much from listening to our many different types of students and thought others could, too. I created a survey, seeking those student viewpoints to share with the wider campus community, along with further information about diverse groups. Listening to Students brings the perspectives of students directly to those who serve them in education, using the power of student voices to expand minds, touch hearts, and contribute in profound ways to inclusivity, equity, and student success. This work aims to make higher education and our world a better place for all.     

Why is this project important to you and to the broader Communication discipline? 

The goal of bettering human relations is fundamental to our discipline, and the social construction of reality makes communication the foremost vehicle of change. Listening to Students adds to societal awareness and discourse regarding diversity: The advocacy of voice is a tenet of the social justice spirit soaring through the discipline, in recognition that sharing lived experience helps us to see more clearly each other and the beliefs and practices that marginalize and disadvantage groups. Throughout the myriad informational sections written for this work, as well, are woven numerous principles of Intercultural Communication, Interpersonal Communication, Group Communication, Public Speaking, Instructional Communication, and more. This is activist work, into which is poured the field that I love, in the name of student success and connection and community in an increasingly diverse world. For all of these reasons, I am calling on my colleagues to bring this very special project to their own institutions. It’s a real opportunity for those in the field who want to take what they know about communication and make a difference in a new and significant way. Communication activism scholarship on our own front steps. 

You have expressed interest in expanding the project to other institutions. What are your long-term goals for the project? 

This work is very likely the first of its kind in the nation, and something every campus needs in the fight to lower the achievement gap, raise graduation rates, and enhance our students’ life-time prosperity and well-being. Right now, awareness of the project is growing: Its innovativeness has been featured by different national organizations, including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and Network for Change and Continuous Innovation in Higher Education, and the work is shared as a resource for “Making Excellence Inclusive” by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.  

I would like to see the project carried out across the country. This work can be done at any institution of higher education, in a number of different ways and to any degree, larger- to smaller-scale, and by just about anyone, ranging from instructors at any level or department to administrators or staff. I would also like to see those in my field lead the way in bringing the project to their own campuses. The university website for Listening to Students shows the project itself and, for those at other institutions wishing to take on this work, provides further information about the process taken and the student surveys and other forms used, which can easily be adapted to your own campus. Most importantly, there you will see the real potential of the work to transform classroom learning and campus life, and inform and inspire greater advocacy for students, especially those most at risk in higher education.  

How have the survey responses been received by other faculty and administrators? 

The project received warm support from beginning to end at both the university and community college where it was completed. The public nature of the work, directly disseminated to hundreds and displayed for thousands, means this project can have real reach and impact, directly and indirectly, professionally and personally, immediately and longer-term. The work has further been used in various ways on both campuses: faculty and staff training, institutional reports, campus webpages, committee work, reform efforts, accreditation, and student course readings and assignments. Student voices are most truly honored when they are really heard, and I am grateful to both institutions for ensuring that they are.  

What was the most surprising response to your survey?

The most astonishing thing to me was—and continues to be—the real power of student voices. I knew they would be powerful but didn’t realize just how much so! I have worked with student survey responses over a few years now and am still struck by just how powerful they can be, no matter how many hundreds I read or even how many times I read the same one. They make me want to be a better educator and a better person. I believe that student voices can reach us and teach us in ways that are unlike any other—and they deserve to be heard far more in higher education. Here is one student’s response:  

Society says people of my demographic are confined to a low standard of performance, however every day I work at cracking that glass ceiling. By the time I graduate, I will have shattered it.” —a female, 21 years old, Black/Hispanic