Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Millions of sages on millions of stages

One frequently expressed view of higher education's future is that the availability of content on the web will usher in an age when faculty have less incentive to be sages on stages and more to be guides on the sides of student learning.  It seems equally likely, though, that technology will actually increase the influence of sages on stages.  Here is why:

1. Many online venues for content are "sage-focused."  Consider YouTube, where anyone who wants to can make themselves a sage, presenting their wisdom for free to as many as will take it.  Even "open content" sites are likely to contribute to sage-ness.  Consider MIT's OpenCourseware site.  Seen one way it is an opportunity for students all over the world to direct their learning by getting content from the world's best professors.  Seen another way, it is home to content that is appealing precisely because of the  perceived sagacity of the faculty whose courses are posted there.

2. The current cultural climate, enhanced by social networking and other web trends, is that users seek out those opinions that agree with their own.  Friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter, fans of Obama or Palin; Fox or MSNBC, are more likely now than ever to listen only to those with whom they agree.  This tendency enhances the influence of sages, whose power and presence expand with the number of their loyal followers.  Glenn Beck University anyone?

The future of learning, then, may not be about sages becoming guides, but instead about a competition among sages, in the classroom and on the web, for acolytes to follow their every pronouncement.  Not a bright future to be sure, either for learning or for democracy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New blog on leadership and organizations

My wife Kristine and I have started a new blog that focuses on organizational leadership in the arts and humanities.  You can find it here.  My first post covers some of the pitfalls of  organizations reworking their missions, visions, values, and goals.

I'll keep posting here on education, civic engagement, and change.  My thoughts on leadership, organizations, and the tools that make them better will be over on The Daynes Blog.

Learning and (in)civility

Lionofzion's comment on my recent post about fixing incivility got me thinking about a classic work of research on learning.  LoZ argues that in many instances you can't fix incivility until you get at the reasons why people are uncivil--that as long as one party sees the other as profoundly wrong there is no almost no chance for respect.

I see that point, and it certainly describes one type of incivility--the sort based in, for want of a better word, contempt.  And LoZ is right,  it is almost impossible to fix contempt.  (Gladwell's Blink reports a study suggesting that the strongest predictor of divorce is contempt between spouses, surely a sign of the ability of contempt to ruin relationships.)

Fortunately, not all incivility is at the level of contempt.  Nor is all civility deeply rooted in respect for others.  So the question becomes: how can we distinguish types of civility and incivility, and having distinguished them, support the types that get to a useful, good end? 

Enter the classic work of research on learning, Marton, Hounshell, and Entwistle, The Experience of Learning (known by its fans in Provo, UT as the "Christmas Book" because of its bright red and green cover.)  EoL is one of the first works I know to turn the focus away from teaching to learning, and once focused on learning, EoL asks all sorts of important questions about how and why students learn.

In the opening chapter, Noel Entwistle points out that student approaches to learning follow three rough paths.  Some students are surface learners, motivated by a desire to keep up with course requirements.  Surface learners do not reflect on their learning, they memorize, and they think of knowledge as discrete bits of information.  Strategic learners seek the highest possible grades, and because this is their goal, they direct their work to the preferences of their teachers.  Deep learners are driven by a desire to understand for themselves. They create connections between pieces of information and across their courses.  They aim for learning to become a part of them, indistinguishable from who they think they are deep inside.
Both the categories and the motivations of deep, strategic, and surface learning can be applied to civility.  Take, for example, the role of nonviolence in the civil rights movement. Many white Southerners (and some blacks) prided themselves on Southern hospitality.  These people with a surface commitment to civility would be polite to each other in public, while holding the most noxious views of others in private.  Civility was atomistic--to be applied in one case or with one person but not another.

Young activists in the movement were strategic about civility.  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee embraced non-violence as a tactic, its impact to be measured by its ability to win victories for protesters.  As long as peaceful protest seemed to win the day, SNCC was on board.  But when nonviolence made no headway, or opened the door for unapologetic racists to win the day, SNCC renounced it.  Only the faction of the movement affiliated with Martin Luther King, Jr. and/or the historic nonviolent organizations like Fellowship of Reconciliation made a deep commitment to nonviolence as a way of being, not a way to get something.

This post should not necessarily be read as a condemnation of strategic civility in favor of deep civility.  If you want to get things done--make decisions in faculty meeting, bring about social change, win in an adversarial setting--then strategic civility may be the best tool.  But deep civility holds out another promise--that faculty meetings, civic engagement projects, victories in policy debates, in the courtroom, etc,--are at best partial measures.  There is a more profound option--that a commitment to right relationships with others leads to an entirely other point of view, where civility is a byproduct of the decent, long-suffering, nonviolent people who live along side us. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How do you fix incivility?

This piece in the New Yorker describes the conditions in the US Senate.  By nearly all accounts, the Senate is incapable of carrying out its deliberative role in a civil way, and as a result it is either paralyzed by the intransigence of the minority party, or diminished by the naked use of power by the majority party.

In one way or another, public deliberations in many other places--state legislatures, shareholder meetings, parent-teacher conferences, faculty meetings--are similarly frustrated.

Incivility in public life has of course birthed many proposals on how to resolve it.  The ones I know of fall into four categories:

1. the pledge: people who would otherwise act uncivilly take a pledge in advance that they will respect each other.  Rebecca Attwood in Inside Higher Education reported on the work of Geoff Shamrock who has created a "Hippocratic Oath" for faculty and administrators.  John Kesler, an attorney and activist in Salt Lake City has proposed a series of rules for civil behavior in Utah's governmental bodies.

2. casuistry: Albert Johnson and Stephen Toulmin wrote the classic book on the virtues of casuistry, or arguing by the specifics of the case. Their position is this: that arguing from abstract moral principles leads to impasses; working from specifics allows people who would otherwise not talk to each other (parties to the abortion debate, for example) can find agreement on specific issues (reducing teen pregnancies in the poor neighborhoods of St. Louis, for example).  Utah leaders are trying this approach on our own tough issues, starting with the designation of public lands as wilderness.

3. first principles: The moral philosopher Michael Sandel proposed in a recent TED talk that debate ought to focus on first principles instead of cases.  His position is this: people on different sides of policy issues may in fact hold similar positions on the core issues behind the policy disagreement. Conservatives and liberals may both value fairness highly, they just see its application differently.  So talking about fairness instead of the details of health care allocations can forge common ground.

4. third parties: Here the view is that a neutral third party with a reputation for fairness and impartiality can help parties to a conflict come to a compromise position at least minimally acceptable to the disagreeing parties.  This approach has somehow lodged itself in the legal system, where confrontation is otherwise seen as the fastest pathway to a victory.

I am certain that each approach works in specific settings (which I guess makes me a casuist), but their differences mask a common assumption--that spoken disagreements can be resolved by more talking.

There is certainly truth here, but people intent on solving incivility might ask whether actions rather than words might do more to resolve disagreement.  There is a hint of this in the history of the Senate, where opponents used to eat, live, and travel together.  Today that happens no longer.

There is poetic and philosophical support to the view as well--Emily Dickinson's injunction to "tell all the truth but tell it slant," Jon Kay's suggestion that goals are best reached via "Obliquity."

But for me the most compelling evidence is experiential: people who work side-by-side on a project unrelated to their disagreement are likely to develop a common bond that can supersede spoken disagreement.  This is the result of many service-learning and neighborhood work projects; it is the wisdom behind mundane committee service; it is an outcome of responding to disaster.

In the long run, of course, none of these solutions is a solution.  They are, instead, responses to problems,  cough drops, not cures for a cough.  But the trend among people worried about incivility seems to be to talk about it.  Why not act instead?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Are we good at discussing but bad at deciding?

Two things about professors seem to be universally believed--that we are good at leading discussions in the classroom and bad at making decisions in the faculty meeting.  I do not know why this is--one would think that people whose professions use discussion to lead to learning would excel at using discussion to lead to decisions. And I am not sure that the beliefs are true--good institutions make lots of good decisions, and bad discussions take place everywhere.  But it is worth considering why discussion and decision are so segregated in our thinking about higher education.

Why is this  the case?  Perhaps it is because professors are, before they are faculty, people. As people they share assumptions and practices about decision-making (and -makers) with the general public, a group characterized by ever-stronger ties with like-minded people and ever more hostile relations with people who disagree.  If this is the case, then the classroom is the location of like-mindedness and meetings the location (at least potentially) for confrontations with those who disagree.  And so discussion is comfortable because it takes place in an atmosphere of consensus, while decisions are difficult because disagreement is the central context.

Or it could be that classroom discussions and university decision-making come from entirely different traditions, so that while they are neighbors on campus they are culturally and intellectually strangers.  There is certainly some truth to this theory. Faculty governance emerged after a long period of conflict with administrators in the late-19th and early-20th centuries,  (for an excellent history of this period read George Marsden's The Soul of the American University) and when it did it adopted a set of practices codified in two earlier periods of conflict--the years of the early republic (when American parliamentary procedure first emerged) and the years of the civil war and reconstruction, when Robert's Rules of Order came to rule public meetings.  The history of learning through discussion is much older, dating to at least to Socrates in the Western tradition, and seems to have flourished independently of institutions of higher learning.

Or perhaps it is the case that there are discussion people and decision people in higher education.  This is certainly the case in the self-image of some faculty.  It is not at all uncommon for a faculty member, in explaining her/his disengagement from contentious governance issues, to say "I'm here because I love to teach,"  or "it is the students who really matter to me,"  implying that while governance is important, it is peripheral to the real work--learning--of the institution.  And it is also the case that administrators, department chairs, and presidents of the faculty senate will sometimes wonder out loud why their colleagues won't join the hard work of joint decision-making, favoring instead the safe harbor of the classroom.

Or maybe there is a distinction in beliefs about what is at stake in classroom discussions and decision-making meetings.  The classroom carries high potential (a person's life may be transformed forever) but low stakes at any one gathering (after all, one dull discussion of Walden does not guarantee that students will forever lead lives of quiet desperation).  Conversely, decision gatherings are often low potential (insert here your favorite story about months spent debating campus policy on the use of chalk to advertise events on campus sidewalks), but high stakes--once a decision is made, the die is set.

Whatever the explanation, higher education needs to focus here, both because the work of most campuses is diminished by poor discussions and poor decision-making; and because the same malady afflicts our public lives.  If you believe in democracy, or politics, or the possibility of people making decisions that shape their lives, then you have to hope that people learn to discuss difficult issues, and then make decent determinations about those issues.  And if you believe that learning can take place in the space between the ideas held by individuals, then you have to hope that we figure out how to take fuller advantage of discussion's reputation.