the sidewalk

Commencement-14Multiple projects around the country are trying to develop consistent ways to describe and measure college learning. (I know, “now you’re trying?” Cut us some slack. We’re busy.)

We used to do this more regularly. For the first eight of our nine centuries in business, colleges and universities awarded most degrees only after written and oral exit exams, which were culminating and comprehensive. But then in the early 20th century we had to back away from that model, because burgeoning enrollment made it too hard. And really, aren’t commencement ceremonies already long enough?

So now instead we just tally the credit hours on a transcript, and if you have the right number and kind then you graduate, whether or not you can remember anything you took. It served us well enough on the fly, as we absorbed millions of newcomers with land grant universities, the GI Bill, and new programs in agriculture, business, and health.

But as the growth spurt enters post-adolescence, we’re finding a couple of serious drawbacks to the corner-cutting:

  1.  It’s hard to argue for continued resources for higher education when we can explain the benefits only in terms of time served, and not learning demonstrated. Doubts get voiced. And remember, we consume a lot of resources: federal financial aid, state institutional support, the sacrifice of families and other supporters, the lost wages of enrolled students. That’s an awful lot to hang on “trust us.”
  2. Focusing on inputs (courses) rather than outcomes (gains in personal ability) entails this pernicious assumption that our students are all alike.

That second one may not be obvious, unless you’ve recently taught on a college campus. Students in a given class are more diverse than ever — not just demographically, but also in terms of learning styles, cultural expectations, and prior experience with school. Yet the homogeneous curriculum grinds along, three hours a week for fifteen hours, whether it suits everyone or not.

DSCN9607-Denver-International-Airport-concourseThe particularly vivid case of this goes by various names but for this post I’ll call it “remediation.” It’s how we remedy students who come in not ready for college-level math and/or English. Picture those disciplines as moving sidewalks. States spend a lot of money trying to get every student in sync with the beginning of the sidewalk, and we will send the same people back over and over until they’re at just the right spot to join everyone else.

The majority in that group never earn a degree; they just get tired of running in circles and give up. This is doubly distressing when you realize it’s the beginning of the sidewalk screwing them up, but the other end we really care about.

So then why are we prepared to kill off so many potential graduates, just for failing to get in step with the beginning of the moving sidewalk?

Well, because our 20th century delivery of college education works only when everyone moves at the same pace, and from the same starting point. Effectively, we’re hawking one-size-fits all network TV in an age of Netflix.

The disjunction has become clearer to me during California’s involvement in the AAC&U project called “Faculty Collaboratives.” It has been taking stock of nationally developed frameworks designed to define learning in the bachelor’s degree. Its aim is to propagate the best of these frameworks to the broader faculty, most of whom are too busy with teaching and knowledge production to fret about big-picture higher ed organization.

But we need them to. We need broad and expert involvement in the culling of these “proficiency frameworks,” or we won’t get meaningful conceptions of “critical thinking,” “good writing,” “quantitative reasoning,” etc.

And we’ll remain stuck with the administrative structures we inherited, tending mostly to the sidewalk’s speed and starting point, instead of where it leads — and reinforcing tacit assumptions that our students would be a lot easier to teach if only they were all alike.


guilds, part three

1280px-Rembrandt_-_De_Staalmeesters-_het_college_van_staalmeesters_(waardijns)_van_het_Amsterdamse_lakenbereidersgilde_-_Google_Art_ProjectThird and last of this series, at least for a while. I’ve been ruminating on medieval guilds as a model for a formal affiliation of college educators, one that emphasizes allegiance to the broad profession of educating rather than to a specialized staff function or academic discipline (too narrow), or to the institution (too unrequited, in our time of  increasingly contingent faculty and short-term administrators).

Such guild-like affiliations would cut across job titles and campuses, creating a stable context in which we might learn, improve, and practice collectively.

The first and second posts on this topic argued that these would be appealing. This one will explain why I also think they’re inevitable.

The short answer is that payments are coming due for some expedient shortcuts that higher education took across the 20th century, in the name of explosive growth and access for more of our population. These were wins no matter how you look at them: an intentional, democratic, and historically unprecedented liberation of human intellectual potential.

But delivering all that learning affordably meant emulating the factory model that was scaling other kinds of enterprise: interchangeable courses offered to interchangeable students, homogenizing the delivery of varied and esoteric content.

Georges F  Doriot in classroom 1963
A Detroit college classroom in 1963. (Image credit

But our higher ed world is increasingly asked to deliver a different kind of learning, more responsive to diversity and individual learning styles. And in a parallel development, the content we used to sell at a reasonable markup is now ubiquitous and free. Increasingly our students’ futures depend not on what they know, but on how they go about applying it.

In my corner of the higher ed shop floor I operate a machine called transfer credit, and believe me you can hear the gears starting to strip.

We used to ask expensive labor (faculty) to tell us what to look for in transferable coursework. We would boil down their answers to a list of topics, and then hand it off to less expensive labor (staff) who’d then compare our lists to course catalogs from the colleges who sent us students, and look for curriculum matches.

This system served surprisingly well until very recently, and in its service around half of the public colleges and universities in California continue to mail each other hard copies of their course catalogs. It’s charming.

(Through the 1990s we even got those mailed to here at CSU headquarters, and we still display them, inexplicably, in a sixth-floor conference room we call the “library.” If you’d like to know what Modesto Junior College was like before the turn of the millennium then stop by.)

Here’s the problem this inherited system presents us with: we want only quality learning to transfer – engaged, variable, versatile, applicable – and lists of topics don’t tell us about quality. Over the past year, in one of the more obscure facets of my job, this new truth has made it impossible for us to answer a number of very important questions, about online oral communication courses, transferable math, faculty professional development, and the portability of high-impact practices.

All of these crucial educational efforts defy the language of course catalogs and transcripts. And adding to the published descriptions doesn’t help, because the ability of students to recall those lists of topics is so much less valuable to us now. Instead we want them confidently applying it, recombining it, innovating, working in teams of diverse backgrounds and expertise. Increasingly, you just kind of have to live it to know if it’s any good.


A professional society of women’s editors in the 19th century. (Image credit:

Policy is only language, made consequential; and lately the words fail.

This season the flash point is math. Our faculty senate convened a very broadly representative group to figure out how the state universities should re-calibrate our expectations for quantitative reasoning. Our inherited lists of algebra topics were serving us poorly, while what educators really care about are things like confidence with numbers, an ability to represent and work with unknown quantities, a facility with applying math reasoning across a range of disciplines … values that have been expressed by math teachers since Euclid, but which feel suddenly urgent.

In fact, they’re now deal breakers. If all our students learn is how to manipulate obscure formulas without applying them to messy real world problems, then they are sunk. It’s a cruel, big-data world out there. Our graduates have to enter it fearlessly. But find that in the “library.”

This isn’t a trivial problem. We need education to be good, and we also need to recognize good prior learning reliably.

This new context threatens our longstanding division of labor, in which the decisions about transfer credit are directed by one group but carried out by another. Instead it calls for some new kind of professional society, some ongoing interpersonal interaction, a return to what to me looks like guilds.

I don’t see how we can deliver the learning we need at large scale otherwise.


academic affairs and temps

The trade publication Inside Higher Education recently praised the California State University system, where I work, for boosting the gender diversity of our presidents. Of our 23 universities, 11 are now run by women. A year ago the number was six.

I think the praise is warranted, the progress intentional. And our presidents wield considerable and growing clout; the whole system will benefit from the examples set on these five campuses.

But for those system-level benefits, some campuses have paid more than others.executive.corner

The farm league for campus presidents is the provost, sometimes called a VP for academic affairs or a chief academic officer, and effectively the campus COO.

Many of our campuses have recently lost their provosts, some to these presidential slots, others to jobs elsewhere. The pace of the turnover is breathtaking, especially at some of our smallest and most vulnerable campuses, where all relationships are personal.

And as I’ve posted ad nauseam, higher education is a line of work that depends entirely on networks of social relationships for its effectiveness. Empty corner offices, or even ones with temporary occupants, present serious and under-recognized challenges to our faculty and students.

You can also see the converse: those institutions around my system and others that flourish are the ones with stable leadership, and long-term provosts are a part of that. Believe it or not, in a world where the average tenure is less than three years there are provosts who’ve been on the job a decade or more, and the benefits show.

I’m not advocating for stasis, and I certainly don’t regret any of the recent promotions that won us the national praise. They were all hard-earned, and these former provosts are now positioned to do considerably more good than they could a year ago.

But to those campuses whose outsized sacrifices got us here, I offer sympathy and some hope. Provost searches, unlike those for presidents, are typically campus based. In your next hire you have the ability to compare your long-term expectations with those of your finalists, and prioritize accordingly.

Image credit:

non-monetary taxes

Young_men_registering_for_military_conscription,_New_York_City,_June_5,_1917You can think of individual contributions to the public good in three categories:

  1. required and monetary:  we pay taxes
  2. required but non-monetary:  we contribute service to juries, register for the draft, etc.
  3. voluntary:  this includes things as varied as civility, participation in local organizations, and philanthropy.

Certainly if you completely ignore #3 and are a continuous jerk, the state may step in and punish you, but in this category society seems to flourish only when we go beyond the minimum legal expectation.  It’s not enough to do it; you have to want to.

As we think about the outcomes we want for graduates beyond employment and a good starting salary, these three ways seem to capture what they’ll face, and the third group is one we can try to cultivate in college.

But when we turn from individual to corporate contributions, something funny happens.  I can think easily of examples in the first category (corporate taxes on income, sales, payroll) and especially the third.  Most name-brand companies have a charitable foundation, promote local events, encourage their workers to be joiners.

But curiously, our expectations in the second category seem very industry-specific.  For example a real-estate developer might be expected to contribute in-kind services to mitigate environmental impact, or a government contractor may sell the army a bunch of laptops with the expectation that it will donate the leftovers to developing countries.  But there isn’t an all-purpose counterpart to something like jury duty, applicable to all corporate citizens regardless of their business.


If we’re ready to create one, then I think it should be internships.  There is not enough work-based learning to go around.

The demand side is fine.  Educators know that work-based learning is powerful in many ways.  It contextualizes what we pick up in regular courses.  It forces nimbleness and flexibility.  And it reminds students vividly of what all this effort and sacrifice are for, before they drop out.  Also on the demand side, our students — even those who are the first in their families to attend college — have heard of internships and know they want them.  This contributes to growing national sentiment that internships should be paid, so they’ll be available even to poor students.

But providing such placements is hard on employers — hosting internships was always a shaky investment, requiring lots of effort and supervision without an immediate return.  If it lands in my three-category breakdown at all, then this contribution has been mostly #3, a kind of voluntary philanthropy.

But such largess makes even less sense as the workforce becomes more mobile, and less loyal.  These days employers can’t tell themselves they’re getting an inside track on hiring the best talent; even if it works they won’t have that employee for long anyway.

In other words, internships have moved squarely into the realm of public good, not private.  I would like to see a forward thinking state, say, mine, consider telling employers that the cost of doing business here may be paid either in all cash, as it is now, or as a combination of cash and a set-aside percentage of their entry-level positions for emerging talent, participating in internships while they’re still in school.

guilds, part two

1280px-Rembrandt_-_De_Staalmeesters-_het_college_van_staalmeesters_(waardijns)_van_het_Amsterdamse_lakenbereidersgilde_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn the post before last, I looked at a pair of challenges facing college and university administrators these days:

  1.  Faculty are increasingly contingent.
  2.  Drivers of educational effectiveness are mostly interpersonal.

That second one has always been true, but it’s presenting new challenges.  When we try to improve the quality of learning in our universities at large scale, the gains are hard to measure and even harder to replicate.  Instead, what seems to matter most is cultural:  a community’s shared commitment to high standards, a personal investment in each other’s success, and a stable setting in which to collaborate with colleagues on behalf of our students, propagating current best practices.

These challenges aggravate each other.  The best current educational experiences are apparently sustained in groups, just as our workforce is going free agent.

And I don’t think we’ll see either trend reverse course:  these are arrows, not pendulums.

So this has me wishing for a new stable medium through which to propagate our high standards and current best practices.  These days such a medium is clearly not the individual college or university campus, which is eagerly trimming its long-term commitments to its workforce.

Nor do I think the appropriate medium is our narrow field- and discipline-based professional associations, the society of chemists or of residence life directors or registrars or anthropologists.  They have the stability, but their focus is too particular.

Could we see a world where our colleagues enjoy a committed relationship not to the institution or specialization, but instead to the profession of educating college students?

Such commitments to profession were more common before the industrial revolution, in guilds of furniture makers, say, or financiers.  Those fell out of favor as we got used to corporations as a way to concentrate capital, and invented the assembly line, and the company town.  Like our campuses, these were structures that intentionally regularized and contained activity, setting themselves apart.

Our own hyper-connected age is making such inherited islands of enterprise obsolescent; they feel like walled fortresses just as we’re learning to fly.

Edge of the World

In last year’s The Edge of the World, A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe, Micheal Pye describes the virtues of such a non-corporate, non-national commitment, one that was even broader than the professionally focused guilds.

Here’s how he explains it, the trading affiliation known as the Hanseatic League:

Language mattered very much; all the Hansa towns, from the Low Countries to Russia, understood the same Low German.  Taste also traveled with the Hanseatic ships: the same clothes and crockery, the houses built of brick and stone with their step gable roofs and the granaries in the loft and their salt stores, just like any Saxon farm.  The towns all have narrow alleyways that run from the harbor to the central market square, the churches are all built as meeting halls.  It is as though Hansa households carried their hometowns with them, a shared defense against the foreignness of where they were . . . There was also the insistence that a merchant who traveled was as good as any fixed and static noble any day:  the Hansa creed.  Rostock town council put doubtful coats of arms on their signet rings to prove the point, and so did Rostock merchants based in Malmo in Sweden (which never was a Hanseatic town and belonged to the Hansa’s Dutch enemies); and so the habit went about the Baltic.

Replace “Hansa” with “adjunct faculty and contractors” in that quote, and maybe replace “houses built of brick and stone with the step gable roofs” with an educational innovation like ePortfolios, and see what you get.  I think it’s cool that “a merchant who traveled was as good as any fixed and static noble.”  We could learn from that.

Mostly, I read this and see an intentional, sustainable propagation of culture, brought on by an attachment to something above and beyond formal structures like civil law or the nation state.  In fact, that closing observation about the Hansa cultural taste crossing the national lines even of combatants was especially striking, and I was glad when he returned to it later:

The legend of the Hansa is much more golden than the reality.  It was taken once to be a time of German hegemony on the seas, a matter of national pride, but the Hansa had nothing to do with nations, least of all Germany:  its flexibility, its success, depended on not being national, and often on staying far away from the Emperor who was the one central power in what is now Germany or else opposing him.

Get it?  The success was because of the flexibility, not despite it.  They benefited by resisting rigid affiliation.

Could we?  Are our adjuncts journeymen?  Could the short terms of our staff and administrators become a strength?  Are we ready to revisit guilds?


I’m not aware of such structures today, but I think creating them might not have to be from scratch.  A recent AAC&U project called “Faculty Collaboratives” carries some Delphi Project DNA, explicitly connecting faculty from multiple states, institutions, and contract types around the core proficiencies of liberal learning, with technologically facilitated social networking hubs to pool what they do and learn, and to norm expectations.  The much larger Multi-State Collaborative pulls in the same direction.

Such work finds a ready audience, I think because of a favorable quirk of human nature.  We will observe the rule of law to a point, but our real behavior is set by the social norms around us, which we find very hard not to imitate.  We’re nourished by them.

ghana-flagI was recently talking about this with political scientist Timothy Dale of the University of Wisconsin Lacrosse.  He’d been in Ghana, a country that proudly considers itself Africa’s oldest democracy.  They have the same laws and political institutions we do in the U.S., but have failed to beat corruption to the extent we have here.

He was there at the time of the Blagojevich scandal, and had a hard time explaining to Ghanaians why American citizens were disgusted that the governor of Illinois would sell a senate seat.  To them this seemed like a natural way to realize the value of a clearly desirable asset.  It was socially normed.  And for us, the revulsion was a similarly socialized condition, different from the way we react to other violations of the law, for example speeding.  I find this internalizing of social cues idiosyncratically, utterly human.

Since talking to him I’ve seen this effect everywhere.

Higher ed can do more to tap into that, I think.  The front-line faculty and student affairs educators I know are deeply committed to student learning, but lack the regular interaction with their peers from other institutions, the first-hand exposure to how others teach, to develop a social norm around quality.  But I believe there’s a hunger for it.

And more than hunger, I’m seeing cases in my own corner of higher education where nothing else seems to work — where the adoption of guilds may be not only desirable but also inevitable.

More on that later.

Academic Efficiencies

On Saturday my colleague Jeff Gold and I addressed a meeting of the CSU Alumni Council at our San Bernardino campus.  He was there to demonstrate the Student Success Dashboard that presents system-wide information about our students and what helps or slows their progress to degree.  I set up that part with the presentation here, to explain why and how we use such data.  You can download a copy by right clicking on this picture.

Academic Efficiencies and Effectiveness

guilds, part one

woman-teaching-geometryAround 1200 A.D., guilds of students and guilds of masters coalesced into the first colleges and universities in Europe, institutions to which we trace our own origins today. Over the next five or six centuries the guilds had a long, slow fade, until the industrial revolution passed them by altogether.

By then it seemed quaint, even harmful, to let local associations of craftsmen set the terms of their trade.  They had become a fetter to open markets and innovation.  And their local focus was embarrassing and provincial, making the guilds a kind of capitulation to the very isolation we were conquering with technology.

So, as I was taught in my history classes:  bad guilds, good riddance.  But lately I’ve wondered whether they’re due for a comeback.

I’m not talking about their battles on wages and prices, waged these days by unions and  lawyers.  I mean their role as curators, stewards of secret professional knowledge.

Their return could address a couple of challenges we face in higher education, while tapping into something that feels essentially quirky and human.

Challenge #1.  Last year Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey published Adapting by Design as part of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.  In it they observe:

Over the last 40 years, the traditional model of the academic profession—full-time tenure-track professorships that focus on the triadic responsibilities of teaching, research, and service—has been eroded by a rising trend toward greater contingency. This trend has broken those responsibilities apart, with faculty members increasingly finding themselves focusing primarily on either teaching or research and having tenuous connections to the academic community on their own campuses and to other scholars in their disciplines more broadly.

In other words faculty jobs are fracturing, and going freelance.  As a result, those of us charged with organizing the enterprise have a harder time filling committee assignments, making long-term plans, or appealing to institutional commitment.  We’re building culture with the same number of bricks, but a lot less mortar.

Challenge #2.  A growing body of evidence suggests that what we know works educationally is impossible to scale administratively.  Not just tricky, but literally, by definition, impossible.

group work

Think for a second about your own experience with a powerful episode of learning, whether you were the student, teacher, or bystander.  Almost certainly what made it work was the investment of attention, study, and struggle on the part of the student, with a proportional outlay of expertise and personal commitment from the teacher.  Both sides had to share some ground rules and expectations, as well as trust and permission to take risks, often deeply personal ones that drew on, and maybe challenged, each party’s sense of identity.

As administrators we know a handful of contexts that make such episodes likelier:  service learning, undergraduate research, a well-crafted classroom presentation, peer mentoring, seminar classrooms.  But simply knowing that, and creating class schedules and funding models that replicate them, doesn’t assure that good education will happen.

What does assure that is known, but only intuitively, ineffably – making it in effect a secret knowledge, available to those who work on it every day, the insiders to the profession.

We at the college level aren’t the only ones struggling with this.  I’d argue that the last two decades of testing mania in K-12 is a symptom of the frustration policymakers feel when they try to pin down what exactly makes learning happen.

And outside of education altogether, a 2014 New Yorker Atul Gawande article called “Slow Ideas” describes a similar problem in health care.  In fact, it’s so uncannily similar to this challenge in my work that three different sets of colleagues have passed it along to me, even though they don’t know each other, and the article never mentions higher education.

Among the senders were Charles Blaich and Kathy Wise of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College.  For years they have watched as my CSU friends and I struggle to define and assess the high-impact practices that we believe make a difference.  We would like very much to know what works and for whom, so we can support it and replicate it.  You might charitably call this “early work.”

The Wabash team’s recommendation of this article was part of a longer lament we were sharing over the NSF’s infatuation with the randomized control trial.  Even after recent cuts, this powerful, wealthy government agency continues to exercise stunning influence over how universities practice science, and science education, and the science of education.  In turn, other federal funders perceive the NSF evidentiary criteria as the gold standard.

But there’s a deep, troubling flaw in this reasoning, a misguided belief that significant difference in educational outcomes arises from a variable that can be isolated.  Instead, with interpersonal activity like learning or healthcare or a decent home life, it’s often the subtle contexts that matter, the interaction effects among hundreds or thousands of variables.

newyorker slow ideasWhich brings us to Gawande’s article, and the idea of slow change.  He dismisses the usual brute-force policy levers, and the isolated practices that lend themselves to easy duplication and enforcement from a distance.  Instead he calls for a sophisticated approach to culture change.

Taking the example of preventing neonatal hypothermia by swaddling the infant next to the mother, he writes:

Neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching.  “You must” rewards mere compliance. Getting to “X is what we do” means establishing X as the norm. And that’s what we want: for skin-to-skin warming, hand washing, and all the other lifesaving practices of childbirth to be, quite simply, the norm.

Gawande continues:

Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, [Everett] Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

He goes on to cite a rule of thumb from pharmaceutical sales, that it takes “seven touches” before an idea or product has been sufficiently internalized to close the deal.  And each touch is person-to-person, making social change slow, pricey, and labor-intensive.  It can be scaled, but only by growing the army of implementers, counselors, and practitioners.

So think about that rule of seven touches, and what it could do for propagating the “secret knowledge” of great educational practice.

Our HIPs and pedagogical victories may be facilitated by policy, but the assurance of quality that effects deep learning can’t be won from a distance.  Instead it needs to flourish in the medium of some kind of culture, some environment in which everyone knows what they mean by X, and X becomes what we do.

But now think about that article from Kezar and Maxey, and the increasingly contingent faculty.  Seven touches?  Get real.  These days, most of us can’t even get one – not with the people who actually teach.  Unless it’s their turn in the classroom, our adjuncts aren’t on campus.

Which brings me, finally, to guilds – and that essentially human idiosyncrasy that may bail us out.  Stay tuned.