Friday, August 24, 2012

On administration, vocation, and going over to the dark side

At least since 1977, it has been possible for faculty members to "go over to the dark side."  This phrase is always directed (in jest or in anger) toward former faculty members who have become administrators.  As such, it betrays a great deal about some faculty--that they see administrators as impediments to faculty governance, or as a sign of administrative bloat, or as highly compensated power-seekers, or simply as representatives of the meetings, task forces, committees, reports, studies, regulations, rules, and procedures that are the most visible manifestation of administrative work.

There is undoubtedly some truth (and falsity) in each of these characterizations.  But they miss what is a bigger temptation in administration--that upon going over to the dark side, one will gradually replace belief in something bigger than the institution with loyalty to the institution and the techniques that make it work.

I describe this as a temptation, because it is technique far more than power or regulation that provides pleasure and reward to administrators.  It is the ability to solve problems, to work out conflicts, to find funding, to enroll students, to entice donors, to serve the institution and make its infrastructure stronger that brings satisfaction.  And after a time, a good administrator develops an entire repertoire of tactics that get this stuff done.

Let me be clear--getting this stuff done is good work, and institutions without a good dark side are likely to be short-lived.  But let me be clear also that becoming a technocrat can erode one's sense of vocation, of filling a higher purpose in work.

Vocation erodes for three reasons.  (1) Administrative work is generally non-reflective, and as such one can go very far down a path without thinking about the path's meaning. (Note that I am not saying the path itself is bad, simply that it is unexamined.) (2) Administrative work is busy, and as such it creates an energy, a motivation, that emerges largely from activity, rather than from purpose.  (3) Administrative work lacks a way to act out a sense of vocation, and educational institutions rarely reward vocation in administrators.

Let me say a bit more about point number 3.  Earlier this summer, while taking my first week-long vacation since I became an administrator ten years ago (see points number 1 and 2 above), I read Chris Anderson's Teaching as Believing.  It is an incredible book and wise both about how learning takes place and how the professor's vocation aligns with that learning, even in a secular setting.  Anderson is a Catholic deacon and an English professor at a state university, and his effort to give meaning to academic freedom by bringing his sense of vocation into the classroom was inspiring.

I was hard-pressed, though, to imagine what a book with the same spirit as Anderson's, but written about administration, (call it Administration as Believing) might say.  It is certainly the case that many administrators act ethically because of a set of religious or philosophical commitments to what is right.  And it is true that religious institutions often bring the religion's faith commitments to bear on administrative practices.  But it is also the case that administration rarely feeds one's sense of vocation, which instead gets built outside of work, or through relationships that exist at work, but outside of the real work of the organization.

By saying all of this I mean simply to say that institutions and administrators would be better off if going over to the dark side did not mean slowly losing the sense that one's work was about both earthly things (solving problems, launching initiatives, etc., etc.) and things that have meaning outside and beyond the institution that sponsors it.  Faculty members and students are encouraged to seek that level of vocation.  Administrators ought to as well.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Higher education's impoverished talk about work

In my last post I suggested that higher education has failed to keep its talk (and action) about civic engagement up with the experience and needs of students.

We are similarly laggard in the way we talk about and treat work (I've made this point before).  On one level, this should be surprising, since a tremendous amount of public discussions in the past 5 years have been about the ability (or inability) of colleges to help students get better jobs.  But it is exactly that talk, done almost entirely by people who aren't students, that is the cause of our impoverished talk about work.

When you chat with students about work, this is what you hear:

1. Most of them are working, expect to work through college, and will then continue on in jobs, to be accompanied by periodic bursts of education while they are working.
2. Many of them are skeptical about the future of careers.  They aren't confident that their work lives will continue on a path, or that their jobs will build one on another to some sort of pinnacle of employment.
3. Their skepticism about careers frightens and frees them.  On the one hand, they fear that they will never be able to pay off student loans.  On the other hand, this means that they can select jobs that do not tie them down and that allow them to be creative.
4. Their hope, then, is that this work freedom will lead them to personal freedom.
5. Many hope that their freedom will help them to lead good lives, not lives of corruption and malfeasance, nor lives that are dominated by their jobs.

Put briefly, what students want, then, is not the sort of career guidance we give them (how to network, how to write a resume, how to interview, and access to big-name employers).  Parents want that.  What students want is work that has meaning.

Colleges and universities, especially secular ones, spend precious little time on making work meaningful.  Drop into your career center and you won't see workshops on vocation.  Go to an alumni event and you won't talk about right livelihood. Peruse campus jobs and you will see precious little about learning from work.  Look at the general education curriculum and you will see no guidance about how to think about work, in spite of the fact that we spend half of our waking lives doing it. Look at universities that explicitly serve working adults.  Lots of talk about job placement.  Little talk about the meaning of those jobs.

Again, as with civic engagement, it may be that students have moved well beyond us, and that they don't need our help to do this anymore.  But as with civic engagement, we are failing in our missions if we don't take work seriously. Learning from, through, and about work (or its analogue, discipline)  is, after all, the proper job of educational institutions.  If we aren't committed to it, then we aren't committed to our missions.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Third phase civic engagement and the mission of American higher education

Let me argue that we have entered a third phase of campus civic engagement, one which most campuses are unprepared to face.

Though nearly every type of college or university in the US was born with a civic mission, by the late 1950s, many had abandoned that mission for narrower, more private ones.

Phase one civic engagement emerged with the campus-based rebellions of the late 60s and early 70s.  It grew out of a critique of the higher education of the 1950s. That critique argued that colleges and universities were irrelevant unless they escaped the thrall of the powerful and reactionary. Instead, they should be sources for the creation of a just, egalitarian society. Though phase one grew out of student rebellion, its main supporters were faculty, who through the 70s and 80s built the intellectual apparatus that supports civic engagement--fields of research dedicated to understanding and overturning oppression and pedagogy that favors active or experiential learning.

Phase two adopted the pedagogy and theory of phase one, and adapted it to the civic landscape of the late 80s and 90s.  Its thrust was institutional, and its goal was to build an infrastructure--centers, journals, conferences, and organizations--to embed service-learning and civic engagement into the life of the college.  If phase one had been built on faculty members' desires to bring about radical change in politics, phase two grew out of staff and administrator desires to change students, who in the narrative of phase two civic engagement tended to be traditional full-time students who were disengaged from civic life and from learning.  Service-learning thus became a tool to get students engage in learning by engaging in the community.  Community leaders, who might have blanched at the theoretical radicalism of phase one, found phase two to be wonderful--a source of volunteers, project-doers, supporters of non-profits, and future interns, employees, and citizens.

Most campuses continue to practice a blend of phase one and phase two civic engagement.  Faculty continue to push civic engagement as a tool for political change, staff and administrators continue to see civic engagement as a tool for learning through community-building, and the apparatus that supports these efforts continues.

But while campuses have settled in, students have changed radically.  The proportion of traditional college students--full-time 18-24 year olds living on or near campus and away from their families--is in decline.  So, too, is support for traditional approaches to higher education--approaches which seem to cost too much and lead to too few graduates.  In their place is emerging a new civic context which colleges and universities ought to attend.  Among the characteristics of the new civic context that matter for higher ed are the following:
  • Student demographics have changed radically.  There are more students of color, more low-income students, more first-generation students, more returning students--in short, more "non-traditional" students than ever before.
  • These students are not disengaged from "the community" to use the language of phase two civic engagement.  Instead, they have never left the community.  Many live at home, and work, and have families, and maintain powerful civic and community commitments.
  • These students do not have the time or habits of using phase two's infrastructures.  They are often on campus long after the Center for Civic Engagement has closed, or they are rushing from class to work, without time to stop at the service project.  In fact, group work, partnership building, and the rest of the pedagogical apparatus of active learning is a headache for them because they do not own their time. Learning takes place online as much as in the classroom, and reflection is a natural habit, one supported by facebook, instagram, tumblr, and twitter.
  • These students are impatient with the radical politics of phase one, and with the traditional civic engagement efforts of phase two.  The distinctions between school, work, community, and family life don't work for them, since those things do not fall into neat silos in their day-to-day lives.
  • Instead, today's students are pragmatic.  They will join coalitions with anyone.  They are all leaders comfortable in leaderless efforts.  They favor social entrepreneurship over traditional non-profit work, and boycotts, protests, petitions, marches, and occupations over voting and political parties.
If I am at all right about the third phase, then colleges and universities have some important questions to ask themselves.  Our tendency will be to jump to the practical ones--How should we use twitter in civic engagement?  Should we keep the Center for Civic Engagement open later?  How can we engage this new demographic of students?

But the more important question is not practical, and it does not have to do with students, but with institutional mission.  If students are richly engaged in communities and only sporadically engaged in college life, and if this trend will continue into the future, how can colleges and universities make use of those changes to fulfill their own civic missions?