My home state of California clings to its boomtown roots. Our public sector had some stable funding in the mid-20th century, but it never really took; with Proposition 13 in the late 1970s we capped the stabilizing influence of property taxes, tightening the link between state revenue and income taxes, which are more vulnerable to the business cycle.
As a result, riding the state’s public sector fortunes, as I do, is, uh, exciting. Two years ago my office was only 2/3 occupied, and we shared stogies and warmed our hands over trashcans. Now the lights are back on, the copiers are new, and I miss the old railroad songs. And so help me we are crowded for space – and the recovery is still new.
I look around and wonder, Who are these people? Got me. I’ve added some, but on grant money and not the public dime. I guess if you multiply that position creation over enough of my colleagues, you get a space crunch. And now we’re wondering where to put the newbies.
On a campus the decision would be easy: clear out the social gathering places that make education meaningful and engaging and put in a bunch of offices, preferably for promoting student success. But here there are fewer options: offices are all we have.
Indulge me: I’m more paperless than most, and don’t use file cabinets at all. Partly it’s because I travel so much, and paperless means I can pack whatever I need into a flash drive, or the cloud.
But I don’t see much traffic in our file rooms from others, either, including the ones who stay put. It’s just a drag to make and label physical folders all the time.
So to me, the way to create some offices would be by putting windows and desks into these rooms, and relegating our old memos to Iron Mountain. But when I suggested it I just got funny looks.
Still, it got me thinking. The file cabinet’s emerging obsolescence may be a sign of the changing nature of work, information, and the way we interact to get things done.
When I first worked in offices, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the relationship of one organization to the rest of the world was clearly hub and spoke. You had the parties you dealt with, and then radiating out from those were the different things you did with them. Some typical examples:
This construction of relationships implies a worldview, and shares some qualities with 20th century universities and their course catalogs. It prizes separateness and categorization. It eschews intermingling, ambiguity, and conflicts of interest. And it can impede multi-party collaboration.
Yet ours is a century in love with connecting — with ad hoc teams, multinational collaborations, and one-off projects and relationships that defy the tree-branch-twig hierarchy of the file cabinet.
So what I’m wondering: is the decline of the file cabinet a symptom of this change, or in part responsible for it?
There are precedents in nature for developments working as both a cause and an effect. For example, paleoanthropologists will tell you that our propensity for language, mental acuity, and dexterity all evolved together, and probably drove each other: speech and manipulation seem to have improved our thinking at least as much as they were improved by it.
In other words, the tools can catalyze as much as the ideas. We may forge nimbler alliances when we don’t have to label the folder they’re in.
Something about throwing everything together with metadata and tags is freeing, but I’ll also admit it has its limits. (I’d be pretty frustrated if L.A.’s Central Library stopped sorting its books.)
But as we rebuild our ways of doing business here in the public sector – as the employees, projects, and paradigms come drifting back into the shanty town – we have an opportunity to leave out an assumption or two.
In a recent article in Harpers, Andrew Cockburn laments weak support for the A-10, an air force jet designed for close maneuvers and precision attack. Its distinctive feature is the cockpit, through which operators may look before they shoot.
This puts it on the wrong side of technological fashion, which prizes video assist, remote engagement, and planes without pilots. Cockburn argues that those are all fine but more prone to error – and when you’re laying waste, mistakes are unacceptable.
That hazard of distance reminded me of my job. In the absence of actual classes and students, everything my colleagues and I do in the system office is secondhand, like relying on a TV screen instead of looking up.
In such a context, our original ideas are usually lame. We do better when we watch for something promising to emerge on a campus, and then spread it around. Forgetting that is dangerous, and can result in heavy collateral damage.
I recently took a chance to check in at CSU Fullerton. I was there to meet with Amir Dabirian, head of IT. He and institutional researcher Ed Sullivan are trying to get systematic about defining certain high-impact practices, to live up to a campus commitment to get them into more of the required curriculum.
In my office we’ve been working on this for a while, since system-level definitions of high-impact practices could help us evaluate their cost effectiveness, and build them into state curriculum. At a recent staff meeting to discuss this, we doodled a way of laying out the different practices and offices on one axis, against another showing what we expect them to do for students.
So, toward the end of my breakfast with Amir, he hit me with a chart identical to our latest doodle:
Get it? We would be tracking not just the sponsoring office (e.g. “service learning”) but also what we expect the practice to bring about (e.g. “investment of time and effort”). This is policy wonk nirvana. And one of those rare, gratifying moments when the view through the cockpit matches the monitor.
From there I went to a campus-wide meeting on the outcomes of general education, jointly sponsored by Fullerton’s academic senate and its provost.
Fullerton’s new Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Peter Nwosu, kicked off the meeting with remarks that put what could have felt like a forced march into a context of nobility and purpose.
This blog doesn’t do justice to how moving it was. Many of the attendees asked him for a copy. My favorite part was his explicit removal of the turf and resource battles that plague most curriculum discussions:
Today’s dialogue is not about funding. It is about what makes our students unique. What gives us institutional uniqueness is the common experience our students acquire through an essential core of knowledge defined by a robust GE Program, a core of knowledge, which prepares our students to navigate a constantly changing and interdependent global knowledge economy.
And then he threw in this quotation from Warren Goldstein, former chair of the History Department at the University of Hartford:
A liberal arts education, even vaguely defined and “core”-less, is the only intellectual antidote to the overwhelming flood of information and genuine technological change we are experiencing.”
However, “A liberal arts education that works teaches students to read and to reason; to learn something about the range of human expression and experience; to consider the great literature and contending ideas of Western and world civilization; to recognize and construct arguments; and to have a sense of humility about the lives and minds that have gone before. It also makes possible a kind of citizenship without which democracy crumbles.
At last week’s annual meeting of the AAC&U, Frank Levy delivered the closing plenary. It was a summary of his work in “Dancing with Robots, Human Skills for Computerized Work,” a look at how technology is changing the nature of human life and work, and therefore influencing what we need from education.
I like these observations and draw on them often, describing how robots and computers are acting like other kinds of outsourcing, effectively offshoring high-end administrative jobs to virtual lands.
The key to automation, Levy pointed out, is that a job has to be reducible to rules. To a computer, playing chess is far easier than walking into a room and finding the chessboard. (He thinks we’re a long way from the truly self-driving car.)
Those remaining spaces of human judgment – the tasks that require adaptability, nuance, intuition – are also the ones left behind by my own sphere, public policy. There is simply a point beyond which you can’t write rules, and need to authorize someone to step in and decide.
Levy observed that if you want to keep your job, and win the next one, then you need to exploit our remaining competitive advantages: discernment, creativity, flexibility. As Levy put it, “You’re drilling your students on memorizing a set of facts? Great. Then they’re going up against Watson.” But what computers are bad at, so far at least, is rolling with the punches.
There’s another way this picks up where policy leaves off. A few weeks ago I was meeting with researchers from around California, who are all contributing to an evidence base for changing the state’s general education and transfer.
Despite my best efforts, the researchers kept coming back to the value of faculty meeting regularly to talk across institutional lines, ideally to compare samples of student work, and calibrate their expectations for mid-college learning.
This is state-of-the-art higher ed thinking but a public policy nightmare. The current GE transfer policy runs nearly on autopilot, with questions of course credit essentially outsourced, delegated, or automated. The result is what Levy predicts: fast, cheap, and hidebound.
I went into this reform project hoping participants would rewrite those rules, applying some temporary attention to a moribund status quo, and creating a new and improved structure that would hold us for the next few decades.
What we’re finding is that there’s no such thing. Instead, the value resides in the sheer work, collaboration, and attention of this project itself.
So what do we do when the grants run out?
This is a presentation I’ve made in recent visits to out-of-state institutions and public colleges and universities in California. You can download a full copy at the link to the right, or email me or leave a reply below to respond.
GE boosters like me point out that our graduates will face more careers than we did, and certainly more than our parents and grandparents did. The new premium on versatility supports our calls for broad learning in the baccalaureate:
We argue that it will be easier for our students to negotiate those new, unpredictable transitions if they leave us knowing how to approach unscripted problems from multiple disciplinary perspectives.
To that I’d add that we should also be ready with better means of Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA. We want something more nuanced and authentic than traditional transcript evaluation to see what students already know, and what they still need.
So, generous helpings of general education on the first round, and nimble PLA for the later ones, even if nothing else were changing.
But other things are.
As I write this we’re in year two of an advertising blitz from Prudential Financial called Bring Your Challenges, admired by its peers in the life insurance industry. It’s characterized by billboards and TV spots chirping that one in three babies born today will live past a hundred, that our own retirement will be of unprecedented duration, health and mental acuity, and that we could all be in for a really long stretch of personal fulfillment.
The purpose of these sunny predictions, of course, is to frighten us into putting more of our assets under Prudential management. The subtext: better save a pile of money.
As pieces of rhetoric they deserve the admiration, with a friendly Harvard prof delivering the good news, and visual layouts that present outliers as though they’re averages:
Yet for all their manipulation, the messages are essentially true: we are going to be around longer. But if history’s any judge, we won’t spend the extra years in idylls of self-realization; we’ll be working. (A recent report suggests college grads may be likelier than others to delay retirement, since their work tends to be more rewarding and less physically taxing.)
This extension of lifespans and contraction of career-spans will have a compounding effect, as we cram more walks of life into each life:
And to me, that adds a third item to higher ed’s longevity-related to-do list. Yeah, we need a muscular GE core, and yeah, we need better PLA. But we also need to prepare our grads better for something humans haven’t been very good at, and that’s changing our minds.
When you look backward you notice the power of generational shifts. To take some prominent examples from U.S. history, electing a Tennessee “ruffian” like Andrew Jackson (John Quincy Adams’s characterization) was easier for voters who’d grown up knowing nothing but independence from England. For their forebears, appearing “presidential” meant hailing from the Virginia and Massachusetts aristocracies.
Likewise, it took four generations after the Emancipation Proclamation for a critical mass of Americans to find segregation and Jim Crow laws intolerable, and another two after that to elect an African-American president. As long as our lives are relatively short, progress is easier: this isn’t people changing, so much as a people changing.
In less prominent spheres the experience is similar. Those who work in higher education may see annual updates to the Mindset List, produced by a pair of professors at Beloit College to show how incoming freshmen view the world. An excerpt from this year’s list, for the cohort born in 1995:
8. Having a chat has seldom involved talking.
9. Gaga has never been baby talk.
10. They could always get rid of their outdated toys on eBay.
11. They have known only two presidents.
12. Their TV screens keep getting smaller as their parents’ screens grow ever larger.
13. PayPal has replaced a pen pal as a best friend on line.
14. Rites of passage have more to do with having their own cell phone and Skype accounts than with getting a driver’s license and car.
15. The U.S. has always been trying to figure out which side to back in Middle East conflicts.
16. A tablet is no longer something you take in the morning.
The Mindset List, like presidential politics, highlights an upside to the cap on human longevity: like forest fires, our mortality rejuvenates us. It gets us out of the messy and difficult work of personal recalibration as times change.
And as we live longer, that escape hatch is shrinking.
Here’s a thought experiment: think of something culturally abhorrent to you, like polygamy or incest. Say, routine and profound invasions of your privacy on behalf of public health, or to prevent gun violence. Then picture living to the age of 120, and finding yourself among descendants for whom such practices are completely acceptable, legally protected, and even celebrated.
It may not be with these examples, but it will happen. To us maybe, and to our students definitely.
How do we educate for that?
In the same way that there’s a useful distinction between private property and the commons, I like looking for the line between private and public intellectual property. Extreme examples are easy:
kinds of intellectual property
public: language, cathedrals, folk songs, Beowulf
private: Harry Potter, Grand Theft Auto, the formula for Lipitor
But what divides them? What’s the border that puts something on one side and not the other?
The law says one border is time: forget to renew your declared ownership of It’s a Wonderful Life and it belongs to everyone. Wait until Mark Twain’s been dead long enough and you can get Huck Finn on your Kindle for free. Don’t like paying through the nose for your nasal spray? When the patent expires you can get a cheaper knockoff, legally.
In other words, there’s a tacit assumption in copyrights and patents that says even our biggest individual accomplishments would eventually have come along without us. I buy that. Without Thomas Edison, a century later we’d probably still have managed to record sound, or light our rooms without fire.
The other assumption in the prevailing wisdom of intellectual property (“IP”) is less explicit: that it’s possible to own an idea at all. But people have wondered; here’s a quote from the same guy that gave me the title to this blog:
It is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.
(Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac McPherson, 1813)
That question of whether IP law is causing more embarrassment than benefit has resurfaced recently from a few directions, and the upshot has implications for higher ed.
First, we just live in a bad century for hoarders and renters of content; ask Encyclopedia Britannica. Or remember the last snarky email you wrote and then saw take on a mortifying life of its own. Once something’s been expressed – that is, committed to form – it’s even harder for us to contain than it was for TJ. So for example, despite NBC’s earnest energy and best paid lawyers, its top SNL sketches keep turning into YouTube memes.
And what’s happening to copyrights is spreading to patents. With 3D scanning and printing, the day is coming when objects, like media content, are themselves just 1s and 0s. Picture that: your grandson sharing Legos with his friends via effortless digital duplication, the way his mom file-swapped R.E.M. songs on Napster.
At such a time, it’s worth remembering that Eli Whitney died penniless despite creating a machine that changed the world, not because the cotton gin was too complicated to defend, but because it was too simple. Why would people pay him a royalty when they could just build their own? I think we’ll be asking that a lot more often.
So, imminent digitization, or the clonability of everything. That’s a serious threat to the idea that you can own an idea.
Meanwhile, the IP business model already looks out of whack. For one, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office struggles with an enormous backlog – now taking nearly three years from initial filing to eventual disposition, and it used to be worse.
For another, there’s a growing sense that patent law isn’t helping inventors so much as litigators. A recent article in Slate, like an older public radio series called “When Patents Attack,” surveys the landscape of patent trolls and other abusers, and makes you wonder.
The new wrinkle: universities are seeing that even when the law works, license revenue from IP, or “technology transfer,” is less than we expected – in fact often nothing at all. It’s just always been true that R&D is risky, seldom lucrative, and often better monetized by business. Yet we remain tempted by the long-shot payoffs of private-sector-style research, like intent old ladies at the slot machines.
But we shouldn’t. According to a recent Brookings Institution report, such attention and money usually end up accomplishing other things, like creating knowledge and educating students. Brookings argues that we should negotiate with the private sector less aggressively, for the sake of building longer term relationships.
It’s hard to disagree. The value is in the collaborations anyway — for our students and our faculty, for our job-hunting alumni, and for the long-term fiscal health of our institutions. The relationships remain unique, valuable, and impervious to commodification by 3D printer.
In practical terms: generally universities are better off in a client-service model than as co-investors and co-owners. The ideas that result will fly or they won’t, but either way our clients should keep them, and we should get paid. Not a fortune, but a living. In other words, we want to act less like the old lady, and more like the slot machine.
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.”