Last week I visited Cal State Northridge, a half hour northwest of Los Angeles and one of our largest campuses. Provost Harry Hellenbrand is encouraging the university to think beyond traditional disciplines and departments, and explore ways that institutional organization might better reflect the lives our students face.
I find this irresistible, and was happy to lend moral support. I arrived early enough to talk with my fellow presenter, former Carnegie Mellon CIO Joel Smith. Joel’s trajectory into academic computing was inadvertent; his PhD is in History and Philosophy of Science. As we waited for the meeting to start we chatted about current events and health care, and from there to the misfires of the government’s affordable care web site. Interestingly, Joel said that from what IT colleagues tell him, the site was doomed from inception. The misstep was familiar to me from government work: overestimating administrative control.
Joel compared it to the problem with planned cities. Periodically municipal leadership decides it would be best to start from scratch, so you get cities like Brasilia, or Irvine: sterile and uninviting. By contrast, decisions in unplanned cities are local and ad hoc, made within just a handful of natural constraints like geography, or trade routes. Hit the right combination of control and disorder, and you get magic.
Joel said big software projects can learn from that. The hard part isn’t knowing how to plan them, but in knowing how much to plan them. How many ground rules are enough? What are the project’s ideal givens, its counterparts to a Silk Road or a mountain range, after which the lead architect needs to let go?
Tellingly, the more high-profile and high-stakes the project, the likelier it is for leadership to get too nervous, or too ambitious: they lose faith, over-orchestrate, and micromanage.
By coincidence, the opening image to the slideshow I used a couple of hours later is from an artist’s rendering of a future downtown Northridge and its pedestrian area. (If you’re familiar with the San Fernando Valley, then you may trip over words like “downtown” and “pedestrian.”)
But in my case, I wasn’t citing this as a warning so much as a source of inspiration for good interdisciplinary problems the university might chew on. In other words, as we think about the physical site of the university, we want to resist regulating every last detail, but can also find a new way into interdisciplinarity.
My points were influenced by my recent visit to the University of Nebraska Lincoln, where provost Ellen Weissinger explained a “Grand Challenges” curriculum inspired in part by location.
She listed the three of them in my slide below, two based on the proximity not of places but people. Professor Will Thomas is an internationally renowned scholar of digital humanities, and his work is featured in the university’s report on research and creative activity. UNL’s anchor for work on early childhood development – cutting across the sciences, public policy, and social sciences – isn’t a scholar but a donor, Susie Buffett, heir to the investing fortune and a serious force in the region’s intellectual life.
But for me the most vivid example was her third one, coming back to the university’s physical location in the heart of the American Farm Belt. Lincoln, Nebraska is engulfed in cornfields and practically floats on one of the world’s largest water tables, the Ogallala Aquifer. Around half of the people we met felt a pressing need to develop sustainable irrigation, compelled by the world’s accelerating economic development and population growth.
As the head of Nebraska’s state universities told us, they see India’s “green revolution” of the 1970s as a warning: they fed Asia but drained their aquifer. Nebraska wants – in another phrase we heard repeatedly – more crops per drop, and counts on its land-grant university to figure it out.
This “grand challenges” approach to curriculum has some obvious benefits.
First, it’s work we need. This is scholarship with real consequences, and a shot at living up to the moral imperatives of community engagement. On its own that makes this worth chasing, but the other reasons are also pretty good.
By cutting across disciplinary lines, it involves the whole university. Years of obsessing over CSU educational effectiveness and student success have tuned me in to the benefits of institutional integration: you just do better when everyone is in step. And all the people we talked to could see themselves somewhere in this curriculum, and referred to it consistently, even using the same phrases.
Third, by framing interdisciplinary curriculum as questions instead of answers, Nebraska’s approach avoids the pitfalls of the planned city. This is concerted scholarship that lays out only the broad parameters and then steps back, respecting local and disciplinary expertise.
Fourth, it exploits the face-to-face relationships and physical location of the university – critical at a time when the competition is increasingly virtual.
And finally – a benefit I know from California rather than Nebraska – you can use location and interdisciplinarity to organize learning across local institutions, for the sake of a better transfer education, and from there to higher grad rates. A few different projects around the state reflect this, some under the auspices of “Give Students a Compass,” led by Debra David.
My favorite current example: a collaboration between Modesto Junior College and CSU Stanislaus, side by side in the state’s agricultural Central Valley. MJC humanities professors Flora Carter and Chad Redwing teamed up with CSU and the nearby Steinbeck Center to organize a cooperative curricular program around “The Grapes of Wrath,” including coursework, a screening in the restored State Theatre, and a culminating essay contest. At the region’s CSU, philosophy professor and dean James Tuedio reports that the same interdisciplinary focus is now in three freshman courses and an upper division writing class.
The provocative, double-entendre theme for the essay contest: “Know Your Place.”
The week before last, I had the good fortune to attend an assessment conference in Wisconsin. On its own the phrase “assessment conference” may not fill you with envy; you might even score your reaction on a rubric, ranging from a possible high of ennui (jury duty), down to agony (tax audit).
Such has been assessment for the past twenty years or so. It’s higher ed’s version of regulatory compliance. Usually grudgingly, we check for the sake of program review and accreditation that our students have actually absorbed something we taught them. But we would never dream of tying the results to the bottom line.
What makes assessment in Wisconsin exciting is that it’s connected to a wholesale rethinking of the process of educating students. You can think of that process in three steps:
Each step is influenced by the others, but not dependent on them. For example, whether the instruction is good or bad, students may learn on their own. At the credentialing end, institutions may recognize learning from prior sources, like employment or Advanced Placement. Unscrupulous ones may credential learning that didn’t happen at all.
Historically, we’ve kept the enterprise afloat by charging students for only the first step. I lecture, therefore I bill: blovio ergo dun.
This model has served us fine, but it’s under pressure these days because other people are providing instruction for free, in the form of web sites, YouTube videos, educational games. We continue to charge, but it’s becoming awkwardly clear that our value actually lies elsewhere, in the personalized attention, social supports, and contextualized experiences that assure and accelerate learning, and in – yes – the credentialing.
So, there is a growing fashion among states other than mine to pay their public universities not on the basis of students enrolled (step 1), but of degrees conferred (step 3). You may get the instruction on YouTube, the thinking goes, but not the validation. So let’s charge for that.
Some worry that this will encourage diploma mills. I don’t; enrollment funding is at least as vulnerable to abuse.
My bigger misgiving is that it skips step 2, which is the one we really care about. In effect, it replaces one form of fiscal dissonance with another.
But how to do the hard work of measuring that middle step so reliably that we’d bet our livelihoods on it? For that matter, could we confer a degree based entirely on demonstrated learning instead of on time served?
Enter Wisconsin Flex, and the assessment conference at the center of a revolution.
A recent article at Fast Company’s “co.exist” web site describes the Wisconsin Flex model as an “all you can eat buffet.” Students pay a flat fee to master a given “competency,” and then stick around until they get it. Learn fast or learn slow, we don’t care so long as you reach the proficiency you want us vouching for. Then stop paying the subscription and move on.
This may sound familiar to you, from similar models at Western Governors, Thomas Edison, and StraighterLine. What’s new is that this is a big state system, like mine, doing this for the first time at scale. (Lest you think I’m overstating this, see the recent New York Times story on it, from one of my favorite writers.)
There’s a lot still to figure out, and time is short: the first students begin soon. Just as the assessment conference was starting, one of the program’s faculty confessed to Rebecca Karoff – my friend and counterpart in the UW system office, charged with organizing the Flex effort – that the prospect of too many students was scarier than too few. Creating this new world is already straining capacity.
Half seriously, Rebecca said she didn’t want to hear it. She has too many other moving parts in play, functional offices like bursars, registrars, financial aid, evaluators, and payroll whose worlds are doing a queasy forward roll.
She gave me a blank look for a second and said, “But we’re not doing that.” Then, after a few more sentences and a forkful of salad she conceded, “Okay, we are, but we’re nowhere near done.”
I think that’s how it always feels. Certainly, it’s how I felt when the AAC&U asked me for an essay on bringing high-impact practices to scale in California. I think my exact words were “I can write it if you want, but we’re not doing that.”
That’s what it’s like inside the locomotive. You sweat the pieces that aren’t in place yet, the coal running low and the unfinished track ahead.
It’s only on the outside, watching off to one side, that you see the train going forward.
A recent article in Inside Higher Ed brought to mind a couple of tense interactions I’ve had with the chairs of math departments around the CSU. This is unusual because, in the words of one member, ”the math chairs are the most liberal minded broad based group of mathematicians you will be likely to deal with.” This is true. Consistently they’ve gone out of the way to deal collegially with everyone, even those they feel badgered by. And they’ve followed through with genuine innovation.
But lately they’ve had two compelling reasons to talk to me, a pair of documents that question which topics from intermediate algebra we expect every college graduate to know. We’ve traditionally set the bar high, to include topics like logarithmic equations, factoring quadratics, and what kind of formulas turn into hyperbolas when you graph them.
The problem is that setting the bar at this height has kept many students from finishing college who otherwise would. So people all over the country, including those in the CSU, want to revisit the standing standards.
I like math, even though I’m not a mathematician. But liking it is one thing, and using it is another. In a recent and very funny essay in Harper’s Magazine called “Wrong Answer,” Nicholson Baker ridicules the math hawks like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who insist that everyone needs all of those skills or shouldn’t get out of high school, let alone college. My favorite part of the essay, as it reviews a recently released textbook:
Then you learn something more about points of discontinuity: they can be either removable or non-removable. For instance: “The graph of y=[(x + 3)(x + 2)]/(x+2) has a removable discontinuity at x = −2.” Simple as pie on a parsonage table.
To reinforce your learning—to make it really bake itself in your mind, so that you’ll be able to call upon it in times of quantitative uncertainty in the years to come—there are some exercises to do.
The lacerating sarcasm between those dashes is to me an amazing piece of writing. There’s no doubt in Baker’s mind, nor presumably in his readers’, that those moments of quantitative uncertainty won’t come. We will never draw on this skill.
When I first read this essay I thought he was right. As it happens, I do understand why there would be a discontinuity at -2: it’s because you can’t divide anything by zero. But I wouldn’t dream of drawing on such skills “in times of quantitative uncertainty.”
So then why is it the litmus test for holding a college degree?
Or conversely, how ripped off would I feel if I couldn’t follow this excerpt? Would I consider my alma mater a diploma mill? Would you?
But the more I thought about his essay, the less distracted I was by the good writing. The fact is, if I couldn’t read that equation, I would feel short-changed.
There’s a problem here, and it bleeds into disciplines other than math. We may have used the manipulation of abstract symbols so mocked by Baker as a proxy for what we really mean by quantitative reasoning. It’s a little like making people memorize state capitals to stand for a sense of history. Or conduct “cookbook” chemistry experiments with foregone conclusions, to promote scientific curiosity. We know these aren’t the same things; they’re just easier to deliver and test.
But they also trivialize what we’re really after, and so leave us vulnerable to skeptics.
The policy documents I wrote for the CSU authorize alternate approaches to math curriculum, ones that would be likelier to please Nicholson Baker than Arne Duncan. They lower the bar, for a subset of students on a pilot basis, and then monitor their performance in subsequent coursework.
Educators quake at this. There are a handful of professions where your assertion of quality is essentially all that you sell. Jewelers for one, vintners for another, because – as with higher education – lay buyers lack the expertise to assess the worth of their wares. So outsiders pay you for informed, honest judgment. Fudge the facts and you degrade the profession, and eventually blow the gig.
So when the chairs of the CSU math departments see compromises like this, they are put in an impossible situation. I think consciously or not, they feel forced to misrepresent the value of the degree. Their response is deep and visceral. And it should be.
But visceral doesn’t mean right. (Consider our grandparents’ take on gay marriage.) Their long-held assumption about what a degree means isn’t enough to make it so, even though it once was.
Instead, we need to get closer to defining, developing, and assessing the real learning that we care about. If we want our graduates to be confident modeling a world that includes unknown quantities, then we should make it clearer that intermediate algebra does that. And if we can’t make it clearer, then intermediate algebra will face continued assault.
The rationale of “learn it because I’m an expert who tells you to” just isn’t working anymore, and shouldn’t. The public is right to expect better answers. Coming up with those is the urgent work of us all, and not just the math chairs.
Because in this coal mine, they’re the canaries.
This is an address available as a download by clicking the link to the right. (It’s a large file that may take a while. You can see what I said in Notes Page view, and should feel free to use whatever parts you like, with or without attribution.)
Strengthening Student Success is an annual conference of the RP Group, a professional organization of researchers, faculty, and administrators in the California Community Colleges.
The presentation’s point is that despite our pressing needs to work together, we want to do so in ways that make fuller use of local context and creativity.
Last week I spoke to the program officer at one of the foundations supporting “Give Students a Compass,” a project to improve general education in California’s colleges and universities. I was asking him about dispositional learning, which takes education beyond knowledge or even intellectual skills, and into behavior:
|explain cell mitosis, understand the U.S. constitution|
|write well, think critically|
|empathize, invent, work hard|
Increasingly we expect time in college to develop all three kinds of proficiency, but as you go further down the list, higher education gets less reliable about measuring the learning and granting the credit. Remember milestone cases in tort law? I can test for that. Negotiate a settlement ethically? Harder to write that final.
To help me think about this, he sent me a study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which categorizes those dispositions that predict success in college.
The researchers found that the best indication a student will do well in college and on the job doesn’t come from standardized tests or from the other usual suspects, like socio-economic status. Instead, it’s just grade point average, even from weak schools, where As might be easier to earn. Their theory:
The prevailing interpretation is that, in addition to measuring students’ content knowledge and core academic skills, grades also reflect the degree to which students have demonstrated a range of academic behaviors, attitudes, and strategies that are critical for success in school and in later life, including study skills, attendance, work habits, time management, help-seeking behaviors, metacognitive strategies, and social and academic problem-solving skills that allow students to successfully manage new environments and meet new academic and social demands.
Cool, huh? Another way to put it: our tests and administrative structures may be blind to dispositional learning, but our teachers aren’t. And, as the report details, out of all those murky personality outcomes it’s the school-oriented work ethic captured by grades – traits the authors categorize as “academic behaviors” – that will make the most difference later. Showing up on time, having your homework done and your school supplies at hand, that kind of thing.
As I think about it, those are more than apple-polishing. Carried into later life, that attention to simply getting the work done, diligently and conscientiously, pays off in other, less predictable ways.
First, you get faster at your job. The co-workers I admire most don’t work the longest hours, but they do work very efficiently. As a result of sheer consistency and practice, they can do all they need to and have time left over for the parts of their job they like more, or whose relevance might not yet be clear to their supervisors.
Second, as the balance of your working hours shifts to the things you like more, you work more hours.
The most effective and content of my coworkers tend to keep longer hours, but it’s not always to do what’s in their official job descriptions. Instead it’s because those excess hours – the voluntary ones – are spent doing what they want. Not always, but often.
In the world of mass-market public higher ed, this interests me because there’s a big value to society when this happens. It’s not just the extra unpaid hours. Those discretionary efforts – the ones tinted yellow above – tend to draw more on workers’ creativity, dedication, and personal perspective. They’re characterized by flow. They add disproportionate value.
Such activity may or may not get much room in the first year or so on the job, but as the assigned work consumes fewer hours and less attention, unassigned work can move in, and the whole job becomes more fun, and then, sometimes, one you keep doing after the forty paid hours.
I may be wrong about this, too influenced by what I read from happy workaholics like Daniel Pink and Marina Gorbis. Like my colleagues and me, Dan and Marina are lucky to have jobs that are more interesting than most. Other people I interact with, like those who clean my office or roll my burritos, would be harder pressed to recognize and grow the yellow area. But – and this is a biggy – those jobs don’t require college.
For the ones that do, the real benefits may depend more than we realize on the personal habits that emerge while we’re still in school.
I’m often struck by the similarities between penal institutions and colleges. Kidding aside, we’re both publicly funded, with distinct streams of revenue and oversight from predominantly state and federal authorities. And we’re both in the social engineering business, society’s way of reconciling its goals with those of individuals.
And, to whatever extent the corrections machinery is really about “correcting” – that is, rehab over retribution – we’re also colleagues in the work of human development. We expect our charges to leave us in better shape than when they came in.
So here’s my hunch: we should work together.
I would like college students, as part of becoming educated and productive members of civil society, to get first-hand experience interacting with people who broke the rules. I don’t just mean in isolated programs like Temple University’s Inside-Out, or Project Rebound at San Francisco State.
I mean everyone. If we train for teaching with practice on the unschooled, and for medicine by interacting with sick people, why not citizenship with criminals?
I think our law-abiding graduates would leave with a deeper sense of their own roles relative to the rest of us, and also be better able to cross cultural and experiential divides as a result. And it would be cheaper than sending everyone abroad in the junior year.
In the other direction, there’s some evidence that the experience benefits the incarcerated, who report the dignifying, transformational impact of being treated as learners. Inside Out, Project Rebound, and others claim lower-than-usual recidivism, although serious research is hard to come by.
Sure, there’s a Pollyanna aspect to this that could get downright dangerous. Sitting in a big circle as they do with Inside-Out prison courses, inmates alternating with students, might go badly mixing violent offenders with sorority pledges. And some who live in the big house are just beyond redemption.
But I could see a time a century or two off, when our descendants look back at the state prisons of our era and marvel at our cruelty, the way we feel watching Les Mis, or Roots. They’ll be amazed at how ready we were to discard each other, not knowing how hard it is to question institutions and cultural norms we inherited from an age when we were less connected.
In fact, as we harness neurobiology, behavioral science, and even big data to learn more about criminality, we may get so good at rehabilitation that breaking the law comes to be seen as a developmental stumble, something to be addressed like low reading scores. At that point, our institutions of acculturation won’t simply appear the same; they will be.
At the time very little of its written language was understood. We had their numbers and calendar, and a handful of proper names; the rest was either in dispute or simply inaccessible. So we inferred what we could from the surviving images and architecture, and from folklore handed down and repeated to the conquistadors centuries later. But we knew there was more to learn from their writing, if only we could read it.
This was fine with me, since the story was all set in the present anyway. But it piqued my curiosity: how would you decode an entire written language from scratch?
I was even more intrigued when we apparently did it. In the years since my writing gig I’ve seen press accounts of the progress, and today we can read most of what the ancient Mayans left. We’ve learned that their civilization was more intellectual and more violent than we first believed, and that the different city states were more varied and autonomous. But nothing told me how we learned to read about it.
A few weeks ago I was visiting Cal State Los Angeles, and spoke to Mesoamerican archeologist Jim Brady. He’s with one of his students in the picture to the right, in a cave in Guatemala.
He and I talked for a while about student success, but as soon as I decorously could, I asked what I was really wondering: how did we crack the written Mayan language? Did we find a Yucatan Rosetta Stone? Better computers?
He hesitated, and suggested I read a book by Michael D. Coe called Breaking the Maya Code. So I did.
The story turns out to be more complicated and less uplifting than I’d expected. By Coe’s estimation, we had all the tools we needed for the job around a hundred years before the important intellectual breakthroughs. What delayed us wasn’t the want of artifacts or processing speed, but some characteristic blind spots in human reasoning.
One was jingoism. For a long time scholars were raised on the belief that written language evolves in a straight line toward greater sophistication, beginning as simple images that stand for ideas, maybe thousands of them, without any bearing on the sound of the spoken language. From there they progress to a smaller set of symbols with a greater capacity for nuance, maybe a few hundred, no longer looking like cartoons but still hard to draw. The pinnacle comes (reassuringly enough) with an alphabet just like ours, a couple of dozen simple symbols, which represent endless combinations of spoken sounds, the crowning achievement of abstract thought.
Now, I’m around 30 years out of my high school world history course, but I’m pretty sure that’s how I learned that story on the first round. In hindsight it’s easy to see the self-serving, Social Darwinist slant to the narrative, but at the time I bought it. Apparently so did most people. As a result, the phonetic basis of written Mayan was out of consideration for those trying to decode it; the indigenous writers of the New World were considered too backward.
A second barrier: we didn’t separate our opinions of competing theories from the personalities espousing them. So when a soft-spoken advocate of the correct, phonic approach was opposed by a well-respected, acerbic, and charismatic leader in the field, most observers followed the leader – out of intimidation, respect, or both. It took decades of careful, incremental, and tentative opposition, gradually bolstered by peer review, to chip away at the false head start. Decades.
Finally, and this one may be the toughest: we were slow to shed our paradigms. Even for those who suspected a phonetic basis to written Mayan, the structure of its vocabulary, syntax, and grammar makes it so unlike most languages that it is very hard to crack. Experiences are grouped and categorized in unfamiliar ways; verbs don’t have tenses, or make do with strange ones; nouns clump together differently for living things than for objects. We weren’t just failing to find patterns; we were looking for the wrong ones.
Only get this: per Coe, you can still find a few million Central Americans speaking native languages descended from the same Mayan as the old stone inscriptions. These heirloom tongues carry some of the same quirks of expression, syntax, and grammar – but amazingly, few of the antiquarians thought to look there for helpful parallels. As Coe puts it:
Incredible as it may seem, up until about four decades ago the Maya script was the only decipherment for which a thorough grounding in the relevant [contemporary] language was not considered necessary. Until quite recently, there were still a few “experts” on the subject, hidden away in the dusty recesses of anthropology departments, who had only the foggiest idea of Maya as a spoken language.
Now, this is just one professor’s account, and I imagine he has detractors. But it’s all plausible enough, and it encapsulates some of what I love and hate about academia.
In the minus column: we are too often prone to those same three foibles: we’re distracted by celebrity, held up by our stunted imaginations, and – above all – trapped by our initial assumptions. That last one is such a barrier to learning that Ed Nuhfer, a geologist at Humboldt State University, begins every course he teaches with a knowledge survey to inventory his students’ preconceptions on the subject. He wants to know what he’s up against, before he gets to work.
Yet for all the familiar demons, this remains a story with a happy ending: today, we can read ancient Mayan. No matter how clumsy the progress along the way, we made it.
And in this case, the solution seems to have depended on a couple of things universities do best.
First, the effort was intensely multidisciplinary, involving anthropologists, linguists, historians, ethnographers, and others. We even marshaled the skills of cryptography and crossword puzzles.
And to me, even more affirming of university life is that there wasn’t a climactic Hollywood breakthrough to report. What happened instead was typical of organized, collective learning: successive cohorts of scholars did marginally better at using all the tools at our disposal, and eventually we overcame our own imperialism, misplaced loyalty, and all-around tunnel vision.
If you’re in the business of making knowledge, that’s not a bad way.