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.




what “large-scale” means

Office of the ChancellorI work at headquarters for the California State University, a system that employs and/or educates half a million people, not counting the friends, families, dependents.  It’s a footprint on the order of Sasquatch.

There are a couple of hundred indisputably sovereign nations in the world.  If the CSU were one of them, then by population thirty of those nations would be smaller.  If you compared our annual budget to their GDPs as compiled by the United Nations, you get about the same ranking.  170 countries are bigger the CSU, and 30 are smaller.

So, what’s it like to work in a single building charged with running a small country?  Mostly humbling.  It can get boring, but only when you forget what’s at stake.  This kind of scale eludes comprehension.

I think this is best expressed by the questions people pose in their first year of working with us.  (I asked the same ones.)  They show how very hard it is to adapt psychically to genuine scale.

  •  “Big building.  Which floor of this is yours?”  (It all is.  Yes, really.  And the capital of Belize may take up some space, too.)
  • “We need a list of all the projects we work on, and all their acronyms.  This is out of control.”  (Yes, it is.  But you’re overseeing something more like an ecosystem than a business.)
  • “I want to know which of our universities work well and which ones don’t, in rank order.”  (We might create such a ranking but it would hide more than it would show, a little like sorting people by IQ.)

There is a balancing act here, a need to welcome the surprise and frustration of newcomers, especially the ones from outside of higher ed altogether.  Their reactions tell us how we can do better.

epistemological humiliation

But we also need somehow to educate them about the limits of statewide policy and institutional data, in a context that’s mostly interpersonal, human, and hard to count.

On several recent occasions I’ve had to do this, and I always find myself at a loss.  It’s not that we don’t believe we have a beneficial impact, just that it doesn’t always lend itself to metrics, or even confident assertions of cause and effect.

An analogy:  if enough Earthlings walk to work instead of drive, then we have reason to believe we’ll slow global warming, but we may never know how to calculate that in degrees Celsius per year.  Similarly, if more CSU employees give a rip about student success and completion than they used to, then we should see a reduction in drop-out rates.  But those rates are affected by many other things too, and so there’s a lot of blind faith involved.  A lot.

This is hard to learn, and for those of us who work here, it’s a realization that is itself subject to a limited understanding, mingled with cross-currents of defeatism, middle age, the gravitational tug of the comfort zone.  I hear myself comparing our educational institutions to complex systems like the weather, and I sound like the used-up lifers I came here eager to replace.

I don’t know if there’s an antidote for that epistemological humiliation in between cause and effect, but there is a palliative:  trust in colleagues.  From our end of the biome, about all we can do is point out problems, share solutions from other places, and remind people why they want to do well.  Then get out of the way.

It’s weird to call this work, but it sure is hard.