Thursday, September 23, 2010

Obama and the Tea Party

A large group of citizens, not traditionally engaged in political life but angry at a sitting President who does not face re-election, form a grassroots movement.  As they gain power a young, relatively inexperienced politician becomes their spokesperson.  The movement raises a ton of money, and consistently defeats establishment candidates from the party they are most closely aligned with. The movement has ill-defined policies, but is generally seen as more extreme than the party's traditional constituencies. By the time the party realizes it, the movement has eclipsed it, so all the party can do is come along for the ride, preferring some victory at the polls to defending its more traditional policies and actions.

The paragraph above describes the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.  But it also describes Barack Obama and the movement that carried him to power.  I do not mean to suggest equivalency between Obama and Palin.  Nor do I believe that this is a case of history repeating itself.  But it is part of a broad trend in civic life, where it is easier than ever to engage and connect with like-minded people to bring about short-term change.  The case of Obama suggests that this sort of change may not be durable, but nonetheless we ought to realized that the Tea Party and the Obama revolution are part of the same thread in American life.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The fortune at the bottom of the higher education pyramid

Daniel Griswold, Director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, spoke at Westminster last week about his new book, Mad About Trade.  The talk was part of our Weldon J. Taylor Executive Lecture Series, and it was pitched perfectly for the audience--a mixture of students, faculty, and community members interested in global issues and connected to the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, our partner in the lecture series.

Most of Griswold's talk focused on the benefits of global trade, but he made a passing comment that has had me thinking ever since.  He noted that while the cost of many things produced in a global system has declined rapidly (think TVs, computers, etc.), the cost of things impervious to global trade has risen rapidly. And of course the two industries that make this case are health care and higher education.

The general recipe for driving down the cost of things in global trade is the reduction of trade barriers.  And there are certainly barriers to trade in higher education, most particularly the quotas and visa system that make it difficult for international students to study in the US (and vice versa) because they cannot get access to higher ed here.

But it is my sense that the main barrier is the unwillingness of American higher education to look at the right markets.  Where American colleges and universities do make international partnerships, they tend to target the upper third of the pyramid--those people who have already become part of the global middle class and can therefore afford something like a full-ticket American education.

You can see this approach both in the partnerships that US universities make globally--the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi, for example; or Yale's foray into creating a liberal arts college in Singapore--and in the international students that US campuses recruit.

In doing this American higher ed overlooks the huge changes in the developing world.  There are dozens, but four that stand out are these:
  • the pace of urbanization is picking up in the developing world, and with it the amassing of millions of people in close proximity to each other,
  • the cities of the developing world are showing signs of increased vitality and creativity, most particularly in those sections settled by squatters,
  • squatter cities have shown themselves to be tremendous economic engines--that is there are fortunes at the bottom of the pyramid-- and to be much greener than older cities, small towns, or suburbs--that is, a sustainable future depends on the ability of humans to live successfully in cities (see Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-pragmatist Manifesto for a clear account of the vitality of squatter cities),
  • and one engine of economic improvement and social well-being are schools in those cities, organized and paid for by parents.
 Last year I highlighted James Tooley's The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into how the World's Poor are Educating Themselves. Tooley's story is that of the emergence of educationally and economically successful primary schools in the developing world.  American higher education ought to be asking itself if it can play a role both in advancing those successful primary schools and in helping to develop low-cost colleges and universities for the same people.

Such schools would both help colleges and universities live out their commitment to helping people and their communities build better lives, and help colleges and universities figure out how to do their work less expensively, while maintaining the quality that we are justly renowned for.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

search for skills, hire experience, keep relationships

I have mentioned in passing that this year I have an additional role at Westminster College, where I now serve as an Interim Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business.  It is a great honor (and a lot of fun) to work side-by-side with faculty and staff in the Gore School to, among other things, make sure that the college successfully hires a new full-time dean.

A couple of days ago I hosted an open forum for faculty and staff to discuss the dean search and win some consensus on how to describe the position and the school.  By the end of 90 minutes we had some to some agreement about the qualifications that an ideal dean would have.

It is likely no surprise that those characteristics were both wide-ranging and uncommon.  We want a person with a collaborative and direct approach to leadership who can handle the internal operations of the school while representing it well to outside constituents, and who can maintain our excellent programs while sparking innovation in curriculum and programs.  Or put another way, we want a person with serious business dean skills.

This of course makes sense, but it also raises some interesting questions about identifying, hiring, and retaining Deans (or any other employee in higher education for that matter).  We start by laying out a set of desired skills.  Those skills are conceptual--that is, they come from desire rather than some assessment of the likelihood that they exist in the real world.

At the hiring stage, the search often becomes an effort to match experience with skills described in concept.  In other words, we accept experience as evidence that the desired skills can be embodied.

Because the skills were conceptual or abstract at the beginning, the identification of candidates is usually a process of disenchantment, as it becomes clear that no one can show evidence of their ability to meet all of the aspirations of the committee. (For example, when I was hired for my first faculty job--not at Westminster--I found out later that I had been the third-ranked candidate for two open positions, and only a bit of horse-trading and my stated willingness to teach a class that no one else wanted to teach made it possible for me to have a job at all.)

After hiring, though, an interesting change takes place.  The ideal set of skills gets set aside, disenchantment is often forgotten, and the new person comes to be evaluated (at least informally)  on her/his ability to maintain relationships--to work well with others, to build new relationships with students, colleagues, and supporters, and to foster healthy relationships among members of the campus community.

Or, to put it as an aphorism, in higher ed we search for skills, hire experience, and keep relationships.

In this, higher education is  an outlier.  Most real world jobs come about because of existing relationships--employee X knows candidate Y and refers Y to boss Z who makes a hiring decision. (Here I am simply parroting, (probably not entirely well) the findings of Mark Granovetter's The Strength of Weak Ties.) Skills and experience are important, but secondary to the relationship.  Once hiring takes place, it is not unusual for the new employee to be required to develop a set of skills that they did not previously have, or to be expected to develop skills over time by means of experience.

I have no idea which approach--starting with ideal skills or starting with relationships--is better.  They both have trade-offs, to be sure.  If you start with relationships, the pool of actual candidates is always smaller than the set of potential candidates, and the chance of simply replicating the culture of the place is multiplied.  If you start with idealized skills, the potential pool is larger, but the commitment to the development of the selected candidate is weaker. And in either case, failed relationships can lead to job failure, whether or not the person delivers on the tasks they are supposed to do.

Dialogue and civility

Yet another in what is becoming a series of posts about civility.  Earlier this week KSL, one of the state's major news outlets (and an outlet owned by the LDS Church) shut down the comments section of its website.  The reason? "We recognize that our comment boards do not meet our own standards or the expectation of many of our users," (according to a statement posted on the website and cited in this article).

As a Mormon I can say that I am not surprised at this step--after all, my church is not just uncomfortable with open discussion of major religious issues in church, but deeply committed to politeness, favoring it over open-ness or honesty. And as an occasional reader of public fora on news sites I can say that I have almost never read a comment that added to the discussion of the topic.

Still, there is much to be concerned about in this step.  At least some supporters of democracy argue that communities need public spaces, or third places, where they can talk, discuss, debate, and disagree about major issues prior to making a decision or taking political action on an issue. (My favorite book on this topic is Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites--a must-read, and a reminder of how much we lost when he died 15 years ago.) 

The big point in the work of third place theorists is that democracy needs an infrastructure that is related to but separate from the decision-making apparatus.  In the past that infrastructure has been physical--pubs, churches, parks, social clubs, etc.)  Today a good chunk of that infrastructure is online.

So when shuts down is public fora it is doing two things--first striking a blow for civility by reducing the overall amount of bile that spills out online.  But second it is undermining a piece of the infrastructure that makes democracy possible--hardly a good things for a news outlet (or a church) to do.

It is worth noting in conclusion that colleges and universities could do a lot more than they do in this area.  Many institutions of higher education have almost no real public space, or third places.  Instead they give over all their space either to private uses (offices), or directed uses (classrooms).  What is more, the opportunities for open discussion are severely limited.  Most faculty meetings, for example, are devoted to two things--passing along information in a passive manner, and making decisions on proposals.  We would be well-served to have more open fora to lay the groundwork for better decisions and, therefore, more civilized outcomes to our work.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Making choices about active learning

There is one model of passive learning--the lecture. Perhaps this is one reason why even on learning-focused campuses, lectures happen everywhere.  (If you don't believe this is true walk down the halls of any classroom building, stand outside the door, and listen for whose voice you hear.)  There are many of types of active learning--service-learning, collaborative learning, case method, socratic method, simulations, problem-based learning, project-based learning, portfolio learning, internships, team-based learning, POGIL, undergraduate research, learning communities, study abroad, etc. etc. etc.  But even though there are so many approaches to active learning, few are the campuses where active learning is the default approach to learning.

Why is this?  Because active learning doesn't map well onto the cultures of most campuses.  Instead, active learning emerges as a counter-culture, and thus one that has to fight for its existence.

Among the campuses that have made major steps towards active learning, there are two approaches to the culture problem.  In the first, the campus (or a big chunk of it) prefers a particular approach to learning--case method in the Harvard Business School of example, or service-learning at CSU-MB.  In the other approach, a campus assumes that many pedagogies are better than one, and so schools allow lots of active learning pedagogies to pop up with little effort at coordination. This view is supported by the emphasis on "engagement" which suggests that because many activities lead to engagement, any activity that does deserves at least some attention. The decision to use one model or another is based in the preferences of faculty members, with limited amounts of financial and staff support for each of the approaches.

I do not believe that one approach--specialization or variety--is by definition better.  I do believe, though, that campuses need tools to map active learning in a way that allows them to make particular decisions about which pedagogies deserve campus support.  One response might be to say that a campus' mission would drive the decision.  But I have never seen a mission statement specific enough to provide any guidance on the question of which active learning pedagogies to choose.

So let me propose that a first step in selecting pedagogies would be to map active learning options on a culture matrix.  One axis should describe the campus' model of change--top-down on one end and  bottom-up on the other.  The opposite axis should describe another component of campus culture--whether campus culture prefers faculty-initiated or student-initiated learning.  In other words, the matrix looks like this:

I am not sure that these axes are the best for mapping active learning.  But at the very least, decisions about active learning ought to map onto campus culture in one way or another (after all, this is what makes lecturing so durable--it matches the default academic culture--faculty-driven learning and diffused, bottom-up change. A culture matrix like this may not make it clear which active learning pedagogies are most likely to succeed.  But it would at least indicate which have the greatest likelihood of acceptance on campus.  If your campus favors faculty-directed learning, and top-down change, then the President's passion for case method might succeed.  But if students drive learning, and a staff member is passionate about portfolios, then an electronic portfolio initiative may be the way to go.

Perhaps more importantly, a matrix like this could be a tool for faculty, staff, and students to discuss how they see approaches to active learning fitting with campus culture.  Those discussions, which almost never happen, are essential if active learning efforts are to add up to anything more than scattered efforts at improvement.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Incivility and the misunderstanding of leadership

Most of my posts are organized around a question.  This one, though, has a thesis--that a particular variety of incivility is based on the misunderstanding of leadership, both on the part of the uncivil person and the person on the receiving end of the incivility.

Consider this story on NPR today.  The election season is on us bringing attack ads with it.  These ads have many characteristics--the ominous voice-over, the melodrama, and the half-true claims about one candidate or another.  But they also share a particular view of leadership--that a person in elected office somehow causes the events that happen during her/his term of service.

This view of leadership--leader as the cause of all that occurs--is blasphemous.  It is also a view that exists among the leaders as well as among the led.  So, for example, Presidents claim that they (or their administrations) have caused improving economic conditions when they improve.  And when those conditions do not improve, the President's opponents blame the president for the economic downturn.

That a leader causes something to happen is, in all but the most modest cases, not true.  Even in the case of actions tied closely to the leader--making a decision on a policy, for example,--that leader does not wholly cause something to happen.  The decision is in response to an event or an issue, the leader has received advice (usually contradictory) from others, and the outcome of the decision is rarely as clear or as simple as one might hope.

Why do we persist in the belief that leaders are causal agents?  Because it flatters the biases of leaders and the led, because it give free rein to pride rather than humility, because it suggests an explicable world, and because it allows all participants to avoid taking responsibility for the things they actually are responsible for.

A bit more on this last point: incivility is a form of rhetoric, the purpose of which is to limit concrete responses to concrete problems.  Incivility is at its core symbolic--it signals to listeners that they should behave a certain way, or draw certain conclusions on the basis of signs, not signifiers.  So incivility is closer to protest and parade than it is to deliberation or argument.

In this sort of setting, how does one take responsibility?  It is almost impossible.  The leader cannot accept responsibility, for she has been charged with all manner of things that she could not possibly have caused.  And the incivil one cannot take responsibility, for to do so is to undermine the entire thesis of the uncivil act.  After all, if the leader did not cause the whole thing, then the complainer must bear some responsibility as well.

Leaders and complainers both would do well to practice humility in the face of the temptation to be the cause of all things.  And educators would do well to work with students and colleagues on the problems of causation.  Doing so makes it possible for leaders and complainers to bear responsibility for the small things for which we truly can be responsible.  And it allows us to honestly recognize what we all know--that most occurrences are beyond the control of any person, leader or complainer.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Going to the edge to report"

Later this week I will be spending two hours with elementary and secondary school teachers in a conversation about the Declaration of Independence.  My job is to engage them in thinking about how the Declaration came about, and in what it might mean for them, as teachers of children, in Utah.

Schools tend to approach the Declaration as content--something to be learned about, something that contains information that is useful.  I've been wondering again, though, about the Declaration as a practice, something that was performed as much as it was written, and something that should be performed today to be understood.

Two of the best books on the period of the Declaration make the point that it was as much enacted as written.  Pauline Maier's American Scripture notes that Americans of all stripes were declaring independence from the British at the same time that the Second Continental Congress was arguing about doing it as a collection of states.  Maier's book makes two points--that the document was less significant than the act itself, and that since World War II Americans have given ever more attention to the document than to the act.  The other book, Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different concludes with the point that the founding generation, in declaring independence, opened the door for the demise of their class--the educated, well-bred political class that could expect deference from the public. Wood puts it this way: "In the end, nothing illustrates better the transforming power of the American Revolution than the way its intellectual and political leaders, that remarkable group of men, contributed to their own demise."

I wonder what role schools play in the making it possible for people to enact independence today.  In many ways, education is less about becoming independent than about linking a person into a system of connections--jobs, communities, classes, etc. that make people dependent on each other.  This is undoubtedly a good thing, both for personal prosperity, but also for the well-being of democracy.  After all, it is the connection to other people that makes it possible for the public--the demos--to rule itself or to respond to the ruling impulses of the powerful.

At the same time, though, there is a sort of independence that schools ought to do more to inspire. Rebecca Hoffberger, the founder of the American Visionary Art Museum, describes it as "going to the edge to report"--that is, it is the sort of thirst for learning that drives people to the edge--of art, of physical experience, of politics, of community--in order to report on the deep meaning of being human.  In this interview, Hoffberger connects this going to the edge with liberty, the center panel of the Declaration of Independence's triptych--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Schools do very little to encourage this sort of experience, or to help students make sense of it.  But we could. More and more students have edge experiences--living abroad, committing huge amounts of time to service, creating things--music, art, drama, dance--on their own.  (I once met a student in a history class at Westminster who had taught himself to make chain mail...) But we do almost nothing to help them report, or to listen to those reports.  And so creativity, independence, and the good they do are relegated to the "creative majors" while the rest of us learn about independence rather than learning to be independent, and by becoming independent, gaining the power to go to the end to report.