the binary versus the liminal


20180812_130207My wife and I have been spending most of the year housebreaking a puppy. It’s hard to picture a purer exercise in teaching and learning, simply getting a young animal to understand the difference between relieving herself outside and in. I’ll admit that as an education worker I brought to the task some hubris.

But progress with young Chloe has been slow, challenging my faith in the Growth Mindset. We signed up for classes. We used a clicker. We tried to attract, sustain, and then direct her attention. When we saw how poorly she was catching on, we paid for the optional after-school tutoring.

Her performance in one class was so bad they refunded our money. She never did graduate, one more attrition statistic. Yet she exhibits few risk factors: she engaged in no off-campus employment, and does not experience food insecurity. Both her parents attended college. She just won’t learn.

Chloe has led me to this apostasy in part because of her powerful intrinsic motivation. She would like to make us happy. She might even want to keep the floors and carpet in good condition, but to her an important part of that is making them smell like dog pee.

Confounding our exasperation: learning for dogs, as for people, is seldom one-and-done. She has indeed pushed herself through a doggy door to go outside where she’s supposed to. In eight months she’s done this exactly twice, to ecstatic praise from my wife and me. The neighbors thought we were watching a ballgame. But in between these rare triumphs have been very long bouts of pure canine incomprehension.

I know how she feels, having grasped and then lost differential calculus more than once.


In fact, this training debacle has persuaded me that across the species barrier learning is pretty much the same. Maybe what’s equally troubling for me is that, even though Chloe is a vivid reminder that learning is “liminal,” something that has to ebb and flow like a tide before it can really soak in, our colleges and universities pretend otherwise.

So we have curriculum maps that suggest you need to learn English composition only once, in the fall semester of your freshman year. Our transcripts convey a comforting yes/no feature of coursework, as if your passing intermediate German as a sophomore means you’re still fluent when you apply for a job years later.


In other words, Chloe’s learning, like mine, looks hardly at all like higher ed record keeping. She and I may figure out something that’s hard for us, but then we forget it, or fail to apply it in a new but appropriate context. Mastery takes slow, ambiguous, and maddening iteration. One day Chloe can hold eye contact on the cue “watch me,” and the next it’s as if I asked her to derive the tangent of a function.

Our student information systems, silicon based, seek the binary. Meanwhile we learners, the stuff of carbon, resist it. I’m not sure how to make an honest institutional record out of something so nebulous.

Come over sometime and we can talk about it.

But watch your step.

Calculus formulas:



the center of the universe, part one



Late last year I had a long conversation about NASA’s unbridled appetite for knowledge with Caroline Coward, formerly my unindicted co-conspirator at CSU Dominguez Hills. She now heads the library at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

You don’t fling expensive hardware into outer space without a lot of experience and chances to practice, what I’d come here mostly to see. You know, robots and sandboxes. What I didn’t expect was the laboratory’s deliberate, concerted attention to collective learning itself, which has turned out to be the lingering impression from my visit.

Of the many defenses for space exploration, the one I find most compelling is that it hedges our bets for species survival. In 1968 – that hour before the dawn of a human footprint in space – physicist Freeman Dyson justified the enormous cost by observing, “We are too many eggs in too small a basket.”

To get another basket, say, by terraforming a neighboring red rock, we will need to turbocharge human learning – making it easier to develop, share, store, and – crucially – to catalog and retrieve the things we figure out.

She told me JPL used to sort its knowledge by how it was acquired, so to answer a question, you first had to know who asked it before. That’s changing with the reimagining of the JPL Library.


As its supervisor, Caroline oversees staff who serve on an institution-wide committee named “Lessons Learned.” It is tasked with documenting the upshots of JPL mission failures. The supervisor herself serves on an Ontology Working Group that then – dauntingly – categorizes these and other findings by something other than mission name.

This has her working not just on what we know, but also on how it’s shaped, the lobes and topography of all the things we’re discovering, and where they leave off. To describe this task of meta-categorization she uses words like “ontology” and “taxonomy” in ways I hadn’t heard before.

As it moves forward, JPL – and pioneers at the other frontiers of human epistemology – will also be pushing against the idiosyncrasies of our senses.

Hoffman_1KI’m reminded of a fascinating Donald Hoffman essay about this, on the Interface Theory of Perception: our take on the world didn’t evolve to be valid, just to be immediately useful. Our brain makes representations of the environment that make it intelligible to us, and it can be helpful to think of those as like the icons on a computer desktop – a tool for use, rather than an accurate depiction of any underlying truth. There isn’t really a little trashcan inside my laptop; we see in metaphors.

This suggests that applying our brains to longer-term, abstract goals – such as navigating the physical world beyond our own scale – will depend on our somehow overcoming that perceptual shorthand. In many ways, I expect the models we carry in our brains are reaching their use-by dates. As Caroline put it later, “The search for extraterrestrial life is hugely limited in our own perception of what ‘life’ should look like. We have probably been staring at it for decades and still scratching our heads.”

JPL and its ilk have taken on a profound challenge to our experience of the world. The knowledge explosion has made the science of classification and metadata suddenly urgent, and the accuracy of our metaphors relevant to our survival, for the first time. To oversimplify: if we don’t want all our eggs in one basket then we need to know what the other baskets look like, and not just from the eggs’ point of view.

As curators and developers of what we know, universities should take note.


The Carina Nebula, as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

A plaque in the JPL mission control room reads “The Center of the Universe.” This is nerd irony: since everything started with the same big bang, everywhere is the center.

Until recently in our history, we thought that center was the earth. Then we made it our minds.

In some critical ways, that center continues to give way, and the irony of the plaque at JPL keeps growing. Two years ago in Nature Mark Wilkinson et al nudged us a bit further from solipsism with a proposed set of principles for scientific data management and stewardship – not for us, but for our computers.

I think our perspective is in for much more of that dislocation in the century or so ahead. If we can prepare our students for that right now, then we owe it to them.

But how? How do we escape our own heads?

I don’t know. But I think we may be able to mine some promising techniques already at hand, in of all things, storytelling and citizenship.

But more on that next time.

news from Montana

curriculum, student success

KOD - Making HIPs Systematic (HIPs MT)

On Thursday I visited the University of Montana Western, making a presentation in connection with their Taking Student Success to Scale project with the National Association of System Heads. You can download a copy by clicking on the image above.

Here’s how the conference program summarizes what I said:

Now more than a decade old, the framework of High-Impact Practices has given educators new ways to describe some of our students’ most powerful learning experiences, including undergraduate research, service learning, and study abroad. But the benefits for equity, persistence, and intellectual development are undercut by uneven participation across different student populations. This presents higher education with a moral imperative: to get more intentional and systematic about how we deliver HIPs.

What would it take to bring HIPs into the open, making their value clear to faculty and students alike? Can we fully convey the benefits to families and supporters who’ve never been to college? Can we justify the additional time and effort to part-time and commuter students? How can we get them into degree requirements, and on transcripts, without reducing them to an empty checklist? The answers aren’t easy, but may be key to our prospects for living up to our own values of social justice, upward mobility, and high quality education.

The blurb downplays my giddiness at being here. First of all, it’s Montana! Famously beautiful, but inconveniently located on a path unbeaten. You have to have a reason to come, and this conference was mine.

rooftopSecond, the University of Montana Western is itself a little awe-inspiring. Students take only one class at a time, three hours a day for 18 days before moving onto the next. It’s the same amount of credit for a semester, but the experience of courses is consecutive instead of concurrent.

Think for a second about what that makes possible. Focus, for one. Strong faculty and cohort relationships for another. In terms of high-impact practices, this schedule makes a few of them considerably easier to fit in: on-site internships and work experience, for example, or bite-sized study abroad, which no longer come at the expense of other courses.

These advantages to access and affordability aren’t trivial: at 1500 students UMW is about one-tenth the size of my own university, CSU Dominguez Hills, but it draws from a similar range of economic and academic backgrounds. With the adoption of their one-at-a-time “block schedule” model, Montana Western saw gains in student persistence and success.

student panel

Students Courtney George, Chris Brown, Tessa Miller, and Emerson Blotz describe the experience of one-at-a-time block schedule courses with panel moderator Mark Krank, one of the founding faculty.

More qualitatively, students and faculty say they like it, and wouldn’t dream of going back to traditional semesters.

And yet: even with this compression and intimacy, Western struggles with some of the same questions as the rest of us: are we sure that the different instances of a given practice, say, internships, are consistent enough to even deserve the same name? How do we know the practice was really high-impact? How much depends on a lucky combination of faculty and student?

It’s hard to tell, but in that drive for deeper educational quality, questioning the inherited structure of semesters and class meetings seems like a good place to start.



the baton

curriculum, organization

This summer the longstantrack-baton-clipart-23ding and widely admired president of my university retired. It was a wistful parting for both sides, but he said on balance he was happy to be handing off the baton to the next runner. He described it as a good feeling, like he’d given it his all, leaving his stretch of the track feeling exhausted but satisfied.

Now when my colleagues and I refer to the president we mean someone else. It’ll happen to all of us.

His metaphor of the baton has stuck with me, and it seems useful even for those of us who aren’t head honchos. It brings to mind a comment attributed to Jonas Salk, about the need to be not just a good person but also a good ancestor, to create something valuable to pass along to our successors.

It also reminds me of a couple of my aunts, who’ve gone about this in different ways. One, whom readers of this blog can thank for her careful copy editing, literally tithes to her local church, supporting its youth camp. She has been doing this every summer for many years.

2014-06-20-10.14.22-HDR-300x225That means nearly a generation of children, by now many dozens of them, will outlast her with lives improved by arts and crafts, purposeful play, and early socialization, all of which she invisibly subsidizes.

My other aunt, a full generation older, was remembered the summer before last in a eulogy delivered by the supervisor of one of her four daughters. That alone kind of amazes me, that her influence touched someone who knew her mostly secondhand, as a filial reflection.

Tower Road in Malta

Here’s what he said about her last summer:

Although I did have the pleasure of meeting her in person and spending a little bit of time with her on a few occasions, I was able to know her mostly through the stories and experiences that her daughter shared with me.


She earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and all four daughters have college degrees. Growing up, the girls all believed they could do anything—it never occurred to them that there was anything they couldn’t do, or that boys could only do certain things and girls could only do certain things. Rather, there were things that needed to get done and you had better prepare yourself to do them.

When the girls were all young, their mom created a neighborhood library where all the neighborhood children could freely share each other’s books, which obviously encouraged them to read and learn. She recently acknowledged that she was very lucky to have a husband who was a career Naval officer, which afforded them wonderful opportunities to travel the world and see and experience many of the things she valued so much. She was an adventurous person and thoroughly enjoyed discovering new things.

And get this: when I asked later for a written copy of the tribute, I saw it went on longer than he did. At the time he was getting too emotional to continue, so cut things short and broke us for lunch.

It was the reflection of a person, the passed-along interaction that remained so vivid to him – really, to everyone in the room – that it moved him. It felt like something bigger, more universal than just knowing an individual; it was knowing her generous mind, her curiosity.

Her life appeared full and spontaneous. But working in higher education, I like to believe her degrees helped her shape a more intentional, self-aware approach to raising her daughters, who would cultivate their own impacts later.


That’s a student learning outcome worth aiming for, developing our students’ recognition that their lives will matter not only in the running, but in the baton.

Image credits:, Our Savior Lutheran Church of Vero Beach, pinterest,,

learning from the worst


If you google the “ten worst American presidents” you’ll see that Herbert Hoover makes everyone’s list. His single term ran from 1929 to 1933. Those years saw the onset of the Great Depression, beginning with the stock market crash only six months after his inauguration. From there it got worse, taking the country and his administration down with it.

coverPeople at the time, and historians ever since, found Hoover unequal to the challenge. Contemporaries held him personally accountable for their misery, calling their squatter camps “Hoovervilles” and the government donations of surplus turnips “Hoover apples.”

Historians describe him mostly as the predecessor and vivid contrast to posterity’s darling, FDR. So I was curious to get more of the story, and have been reading last year’s Herbert Hoover in the White House: the Ordeal of the Presidency. It’s a good read.

Before his term in the White House, Hoover had been known as the Great Humanitarian, the administrative genius who saved Europe from starvation after World War I. Some of the personal attacks on his presidency seem driven by disappointment, that he wouldn’t just deliver on the skills everyone knew he had.


Leading World War I relief efforts among refugee children in Poland in the early 1920s.

So why didn’t he?

Rappleye lays the blame on a couple of things, including the one I’d heard before, Hoover’s stubborn belief in private sector charity as preferable to government action and – against all the available evidence – enough to rescue the whole country. His was the last administration to so wholly reject a role for government in the national economy.

But it’s the second source of paralysis that I find instructive, even for those trying to make things happen in a much smaller context, like an office or a college campus.

For much of this argument and the title of one of his chapters, Rappleye draws on a Walter Lippmann essay from the June 1930 issue of Harper’s Monthly, called “The Peculiar Weakness of Mr. Hoover.” Lippmann wrote:


Walter Lippmann

“This weakness appears at the point where in order to win he would have to intervene in the hurly-burly of conflicting wills which are the living tissue of popular government.”

An engineer and technocrat, Hoover had won only a single elected office, the presidency. He wasn’t a mingler.

The rest of Rappleye’s book bears this out. Repeatedly we see that Hoover was unwilling to share his thinking with colleagues in Congress or the press, especially as his ideas were forming. So people who might have sympathized, countered, or simply helped were shut out.

Instead, he tried solving problems on his own, with the sheer brute force of his ferocious work ethic.

hoover at desk

The second shortcoming fed the first: with no one to serve as sounding board, his faith in limitless private charity went unchallenged.

Over the past ten or so years, I’ve reported to people in positions of varying visibility and responsibility. It’s interesting how closely the analysis from Lippmann and Rappleye lines up with my own experience. All of my bosses have taken their jobs seriously, working hard and over-preparing. These are, after all, people who were so good at school they never left.

But the good ones manage somehow to keep an open mind – and an open office door – even after they’ve studied up. They embrace the unreasoning, very human hurly-burly of democracy. There really isn’t a time when they seem finished learning. By contrast, my least effective bosses have seemed besieged by their own fear of error. For them, dialogue doesn’t nourish so much as threaten. They may sound as certain as anyone, but they’re stingier with eye contact.


Hoover in the last year of his presidency, at the Nine-Point Prosperity Conference.


So then what’s the answer? Welcome people in, leverage the strength of the group, and understand that human interaction is what keeps the engines from seizing up.

The day really never comes when you outgrow needing others.

Image credits: Cornell College, Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. WorldNet Daily, Wikimedia

the business continuity planning committee


girl-looking-scared_1392078When I joined my present employer a couple of years ago I reported to the president, and I had no staff, no budget, and no deadlines. A dream job.

But things change, people leave, and the next thing you know you have a regular job title. There are processes depending on you and students affected – things you care about and want to make work. Over time the responsibilities grow, but seldom shrink. Not a new story.

What I find noteworthy is that the more of the campus I interact with, the more conservative my roles become, whether I want them to or not. This has me on unfamiliar ground.

A recent example of the new me: as of last November, I am rostered on my university’s Business Continuity Planning Committee. My cell phone number and reporting lines are now part of the university’s defense against disorder.

189_Cathedral_San_Salvadore_after_EarthquakeThe idea that I’d be on such a group is laughable, after so many years of calling for, in effect, a Business Disruption Planning Committee. I’m thinking of the morning after the Big One, and as we pick through the rubble I’ll be the one asking “Now can we get rid of the credit hour?”

Another dissonant role for me is fiscal. Before I taught in college I made independent movies, which is one long night of destitution. In the CSU Office of the Chancellor years later, I behaved pretty much the same way, scratching around for grants and carry-forward to promote innovation on the fringes. I’d spend everything I had and then go ask for more; secretly, my comfort zone is still insolvency.

But lately I’ve had to think in longer timescales, and recently caught myself using the phrase “prudent reserves.” Kill me.

Even in the months since the committee appointment prompted this realization, I can’t seem to shake this new caution. It’s unsettling; I thought I had more time.

And at levels of the org chart above mine, Business Continuity is an even greater slice of the job, maybe even the main one.

podium empty

Last April I got the opportunity to speak with a couple of illustrious colleagues. One is president emerita of no fewer than three universities; the other retired last year from running the country’s largest public higher ed system. They remain important thought leaders and were there shaping a large national project, but also noted that people’s attention is now harder for them to get. One said, “And it’s especially poignant to lose that bully pulpit, because now is when I can finally speak my mind.”

It’s as if we can either call for change or call the shots, but not both.

So then how do we get better?

Well, slowly. I’ve come to think of business continuity as a facet of shared governance, a brake on executive prerogative. Ideas are tested not only across constituencies but over time.

Institutional stability empowers our successors, who will decide whether to perpetuate our ideas or reject them – the same way we do now with those of our forebears.

It’s humbling.