news from the 19th century


These are tense days at State of Art U.  Over the next two weeks long-running battles will culminate on several fronts, relating to core beliefs about curriculum, learning, and even institutional research.

Suddenly nothing is routine, and every meeting is charged.  And these are mostly open-minded, unselfish educators; when they get this stubborn it usually means they believe giving in will harm students, and at that point compromise is impossible.

The resumption of the academic year adds to the pressure at all levels.  Yesterday my new boss flew last-minute to a distant campus, to mediate what I think of as the Wars of Northern Succession.  He has been on the job for seven weeks.  Today will be the fourth day of class.

Such times call for a bit of perspective, and maybe as a result I’ve been engrossed in Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty, about the first quarter-century of the United States.  It’s part of a series I’ve been enjoying over the years, and reading out of order.  (That’s the thing about history; you don’t need spoiler alerts.)

Even in calm times I would find this hard to put down; it’s not escapism so much as immersion in a fascinating, pivotal time.  And it’s beautifully written.  (Click on the cover image above to read more at Amazon.)  Highly recommended.

In case you can’t get to it — say, if you’re too busy excoriating colleagues over the difference between a C- and a C — I’ll thumbnail one bit here.

First, the setup.  Like many of us I have been through the chronology of western civ many times.  In each telling, 18th century neoclassicism is cast in contrast to its successor, romanticism.  The former was austere and rational, the latter mystical and emotional.  Simple, right?  But of course, drenched in hindsight.

What I like when Wood gets to this part is that he doesn’t even mention the Romantics.  He’s so completely absorbed in his story that he sees the contrast only to what came before, as contemporaries did.  And what came before neoclassicism was the clutter of baroque and rococo, something that struck early Americans as decadent, aristocratic.  For them, neoclassicism wasn’t austere, it was just clean.  It was intelligible to the masses.  It was a relief.

Here’s how he explains it:

By the middle of the eighteenth century European and English philosophers were already redirecting the content and form of art away from frivolous and voluptuous private pleasure toward moral education and civic ennoblement.  Infused with dignity and morality and made subservient to some ideological force outside themselves, the arts could become something more than charming ornaments of an idle aristocracy; they could become public agents of reformation and refinement for the whole society.

Isn’t that awesome?  It’s so eloquent, concise, and — steeped as I am in the received counter-narrative of hindsight — refreshing to have this presented the way it felt at the time.

hqdefaultWhich kind of brings me back to the present, and our academic cage fighting.

These are real struggles, and my friends on all sides who feel our students’ lives in their hands are right.  And we’re a big system; this is a lot of lives.

But however fraught our actions feel to us in our fascinating, pivotal time, it’s all lopsided, and past-facing only.

We will be judged differently than how we seem to ourselves, by people who weigh our decisions against what came after as well as before, and know how our stories turn out.

Life after CPEC

Life after CPEC title slideCPEC was the California Postsecondary Education Commission, and its demise in 2011 made us one of the few states without an office to coordinate its public colleges and universities.

Today’s presentation describes what that’s like to my counterparts from other states, as part of the Policy Conference of the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

You can download (and freely reuse) my presentation by clicking on the image to the left.  My remarks are available in Notes Page View; for the visuals to make sense you’ll need to use Slide Show.

world map

demographics, part 1

silhouette student

We’re proud in California to be the demographic bellwether for the other states: as we pick up more dialects and ethnicities, so shall they. That affects our work on student success; for us, closing achievement gaps isn’t merely a matter of social justice, but also urgent:  as white people age and die off, those left to carry on will be more diverse than we are.

So far our position out front has done us little good.  We face stubborn gaps along ethnic lines in academic preparation, achievement, and completion.

Lately I’ve wondered if the remedy might lie in learning outcomes assessment, of all places.  For decades we’ve placed our student success bets elsewhere, delivering homogenous teaching and curriculum to increasingly heterogeneous students, and adding auxiliary functions or remediation to accommodate difference.  It’s a failed strategy.

Focusing instead on demonstrated learning may better address variations in learning style, culture, and preparation, by letting go of mandated inputs, and giving local educators more discretion to serve local needs.  Get to the agreed finish line however you want, the thinking goes, just get there.

One area of such reform is at the level of individual courses, “redesigned” with technology.  The technique reduces each course to the learning it seeks, then rebuilds the semester with student work meant to develop and highlight those proficiencies from multiple angles – for example by blending real-life science labs with computer simulations.

Gaps are closing, but these are early days. Experience with past efforts suggests that over time and across multiple instructors, practice regresses. In the absence of larger scale reform – an outcomes approach at the level of the degree rather than course – it can feel like digging a hole in dry sand.

At a broader scale, we’re experimenting with bulk articulation of courses bundled into Associate Degrees for Transfer.  In theory, these new roomier containers of credit could house explicitly contextualized, practically motivated experiences – including the traditional list of high-impact practices, but also on-campus employment and others with a paycheck – that transcend individual courses.

Such approaches might be especially beneficial for the likeliest to drop out, by making college look and feel more useful, and less like a four-year hiatus for the affluent. Early results are good, but the programs are in infancy.

So that’s our answer to observers in other states: we’re working on it.

Let’s zoom out a little.

irish voteAs a descendent of Irish Catholics, I was as surprised as anyone when the old country voted overwhelmingly last May to recognize gay marriage.

Amid the commentaries one point stuck with me, that not just same-sex marriage but homosexuality itself remains illegal in most undeveloped countries – a symptom of what we could call the tolerance gap.

That is, along with per capita domestic product and a free press, we can add legal recognition of diversity as one of the symptoms that you’re purple instead of blue:

world map

(This post uses the United Nations division of countries into “Advanced” and “Developing.”)

Before we get even purpler with self praise we should note how far we still have to go.  North Africans in France, say, or immigrants in Japan, would be surprised to learn they inhabit a zone of enlightenment.  And that’s to say nothing of the U.S., where race relations have managed to sink lower since the Irish vote.

But the broad trend seems to hold, that in wealthier countries legalized bigotry is going the way of famine and Ebola.

Educators can claim some credit. For all our failings and conflicted interests, we at least seem to be doing the one thing we agree we should, which is opening minds.  And indeed, there’s a correlation; our best estimate is that people in the purple area are more than three times likelier to hold a college degree:

attainmentThese metrics of education, wealth, and tolerance are related. Smarter people make better choices, which accumulate to make a smarter culture.

And yet – just as we see with California and the other states – globally the demographic trend is to add more of the people who aren’t going to college.

That purple area of developed countries is not only fewer square miles than the blue; it’s also fewer people, and slower population growth.

In fact, the populations in the college-going countries actually shrink between now and the end of this century, while in the countries that go less, the population grows:

population growth

In other words, college seems to work globally the same way it does in California: mostly for a population that’s in the minority, and getting smaller.

This is distressing. The world’s problems going forward – like sustainability and resource distribution and human rights – will be solved only if we can develop more of the human capacity to address them. And on our current trajectory, we’ll instead be developing less of it.

Can California’s experiments with gap-closing and outcomes-learning help?  Maybe, if we keep prioritizing this, and stay connected to those efforts elsewhere.

I see a couple of other reasons for hope, too, but I’ll save them for a later post.


image credit: galleryhip.comPicture life a couple of centuries ago, when the only way to communicate is in person or with a physical letter. If you need to get a message to someone fast you send it by mail; if it’s really urgent you send a guy on a horse. Phishing is prevented by wax seal.

Against this world and these expectations, the telegraph was practically occult. There was something otherworldly about getting intimate, direct contact with someone who wasn’t physically there. (For a really cool account of this, see Haunted Media by Jeffrey Sconce.) The usually female operators were treated as mystics, celebrities of their day.

Fast forward fifty years. In the early 1890s, PowerPoint was still by Magic Lantern. World travelers like Nelly Bly and Mary Kingsley made money by music hall lecture, sharing their experiences in a sequence of illuminated stills.

Against this world and these expectations, people who in 1895 filed into the world’s first movie theater, in Paris, were in for a shock. They took their seats, saw an image of a train, and then it moved toward them. People screamed, and some ran for their lives. A woman fainted.

You can see all 50 seconds of that same movie right here:

What I find interesting about these two stories is how different the experiences are with hindsight. The moving train is anything but convincing – unless you’ve never seen a photograph move before. The blips of telegraphy sound to us like noise, not a disembodied consciousness.

We know pre-verbal infants are learning when they’ve expressed surprise. For example, if we want to know the day they acquire the beginnings of number sense, we hold up three toys, pass them behind a screen, and then show only two coming out the other side. For the newborn it’s all meaningless, but the day comes surprisingly soon when the baby has formed an expectation, defied by the result, and has to stop and stare.

For educators those are all powerful tells of cognitive growth: the society lady fainting in the back of the auditorium, the goose bumps on Morse’s arms, the slack-jawed infant. And all of them are expressing powerful learning experiences not because the event itself was so significant, but because it departed so profoundly from what was already known.

K-12 educators coined the term “scaffolding” for the sequential nature of learning and instruction. In higher ed we try to control the effect by making some courses the prerequisites to others. Before he retired last year, geologist Ed Nuhfer routinely had his students take a knowledge survey at the beginning of each course – sometimes before each class meeting – just to bring their expectations into sharper focus before he tampered with them.

I was reminded of this by a spate of recent articles relating to higher education’s likely future:

They’re mutually reinforcing, but that first one is the biggy: however it looks decades from now, higher education will succeed by approaching learning developmentally.  We’ll overturn the current, highly standardized model of delivery, using technology and big data to customize the learning at scale, calibrating it to where each learner is at entry.

In that world, we shouldn’t be surprised to find mentors and students paired fleetingly and opportunistically, the Uber of Ed.  Behind the scenes, my successors in the bureaucratia will connect such experiences to maximize personal, indelible responses, driven by the learner’s practicality and curiosity.

And surprise.

Melvil Dewey, Albert Munsell, and STEM

dewey-decimal-system-and-books-filed-thereinMelvil Dewey created the Decimal Classification System in use by libraries, the one many of us learned in grade school, and for which the 500s will always be science and the 800s always literature.  He mapped our knowledge in 1876, and since then the terrain has shifted somewhat, and grown a lot.

I was wondering how you’d represent the distortions introduced over time, as some areas of our interest and understanding swell relative to others.  Turns out someone has, using the online catalog of the British Library, and the upshot is the map of quadrilaterals above.  The robust green areas in the upper right are “technology,” for which Melvil originally budgeted 10%, the 600s.  In the last 140 years the tech portion has more than doubled, to 20.86% of our bibliographic bandwidth.

By contrast, it’s been a rough century-plus for philosophy and psychology, the diminutive beige area at the bottom right.  Also originally budgeted at 10% (in this case, the 200s), P&P now weigh in at a paltry 1.56%.  Even pairing them has lost its sense.  (My thanks to Cameron Mence of Melbourne, Australia, who posted this on his blog Subroutine, highly recommended for its other mathematical visualizations and whimsy, as well as some important disclaimers on the methodology behind this image.)

This illustration of our urge to subdivide proportionally, and its perils, reminded me of a scientific principle behind color.  Most of our senses faithfully convey one-dimensional information to us along a single axis.  So for example, a surface that gets warmer as we touch it feels only warmer, and not also smoother.  Sound that’s higher in pitch strikes our ears as merely higher, and not also as salty.  Not so with color, which is really just differences in wavelength, a simple, single-number variable.  So if we perceive a pure, single-wavelength color of say, green, it looks to us categorically different from the pure, single-wavelength color of red, and we map them as opposites on a color wheel.  But they’re not opposites; in the physics sense, green is just red singing at a higher pitch, and purple sings higher still.

Albert Munsell, a contemporary of Dewey’s, tried to map our sense of color into a three-dimensional space, where the three axes represented hue, saturation, and value, along evenly spaced gradients that matched human perception.  Try as he might, symmetry eluded him.  He thought he would get a sphere, but all he ever got were irregular shapes like this one:


I was recently thinking about Melvil and Albert, while commiserating with a colleague in the CSU Office of the Chancellor about our misguided efforts to improve outcomes in STEM education.  Stay with me.

Albert-munsellA challenge with courses in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is that they are hard to pass.  Defenders of those disciplines will say that’s why successful graduates in those fields are better paid.  Maybe.

I think it’s also possible that, like libraries and paint stores, our 21st century universities are served only partially by early 20th century taxonomies, and their zeal for uniformity.

Melvil_DeweyThat is, it’s possible that the contours of a field like, say, fluid dynamics, just don’t fit comfortably inside three-credit-hour boxes.  What if I can successfully learn the gist of art history in fifteen weeks, but for trigonometry I would do better with, I don’t know, nineteen?  Right now, state university students don’t get that option.  They either figure out trig in fifteen weeks flat, or they take the whole thing over again.

As part of the California State University’s current student success push, well intentioned presidents and provosts are ranking their college deans by pass rates.  Get most of your students through on the first try?  Gold star for the College of Arts and Letters.  Need longer?  Darts and ridicule, and fewer faculty lines, for the College of Subjects That Use Calculus.

I get it, and I’m proud of all we’ve done to prioritize success for all students, in every major.

But I think, at our best, we may be like libraries and overdue for a rebalancing of our categories.  At our worst we’re like Munsell before his tactical retreat from symmetry, and still obstinately hammering our curriculum into a shape that it won’t fit.

Sisyphus and organizational learning

sisyphus at carnegieIn a post last spring I shared an image from the Carnegie Foundation that compares change management to slowly pushing a ball up a hill. It highlights the challenge of making long-term progress toward educational reform within the shorter-term contexts of public policy, grant funding, and the state economy.

A particularly astute reader at Sacramento State commented that state bureaucracies (like, say, the one that employs me) are responsible for much of the gravity opposing Sisyphus. Here’s my favorite part of what he wrote:

When the force moving a ball up a hill is countered by an even stronger force pushing it back, the result is at best inertia. Pretty soon the air gets squeezed out of the ball.

It makes sense for administrators to advise would-be reformers to garner support from their colleagues before trying to make any big change. They know the strategy is ineffective and therefore does not challenge the status quo. They know it is a surefire way to keep things on track according to policies and executive orders.

As the frequent steward and occasional author of those policies and executive orders, I have to ask how responsible I am for that paperwork weighing on him and other reform-minded educators. And the answer is “very.”

I’ve been thinking about it since then, trying to figure out why I’m nonetheless hopeful for change. I chalk it up to a few things:

  1. Temperament. I often find myself on the optimistic end of whatever spectrum of opinion I’m in. Can’t seem to help it. Savvy colleagues have learned to apply a mental discount to my predictions. But this time, swear to God, I think I’m right. We are better positioned for positive change – at least in my setting – than we’ve been for a while. And despite fifty-plus years of effort, state systems of universities haven’t yet extinguished the creativity and passion in the rank and file of higher ed, even here in the big ones. On the contrary, I think we attract it.

So there’s reason number 1 for optimism, optimism itself.


  1.  Our chancellor. True story: presentations our office makes six times a year to the Board of Trustees used to be pretty ragged. About a year ago the big guy couldn’t take it anymore, and instituted agenda rehearsals a few weeks in advance of each meeting, where he and his division heads assemble in our empty auditorium to watch us present what I think of as the rough cut. I have come around to thinking it’s a good idea. The board meetings are better. And internally, we’re less siloed as we learn more about each other’s work.

Also – and here’s the relevant part – at these run-throughs I’ve noticed he tries to sniff out and extinguish that public sector tendency toward the defensive, our habit of glossing over bad news. His feeling is that if we try something and fail we should say so. If the news really is good and everything works fine, then we’re probably not risking enough. There’s what could charitably be called ample room for improvement, and we should be in an aggressive learning mode.

I eat this stuff up, and it’s not just me. Many of us find this liberating, and it’s also won attention from foundations, the U.S. Department of Education, and others, who see in us an opportunity to figure out some hard things.

  1. Community psychology. So I looked up the references in that comment to my Sisyphus post, and found this in the New York Times obituary for Seymour Sarason:

He regarded traditional schools and what he called the “encapsulated classroom” as enemies of learning and human potential, sealed off from the larger society around them and crippled by a lack of collaboration among teachers.

000If Sarason was right then the field he helped create, community psychology, is an antidote to the ills of higher ed. So is community engagement and service learning, and group work from students (and for that matter educators) on purposeful projects. Get people together, regularly, informally, and productively, and we can leverage their collective strength.

I take the point that cynics in my position might offer such advice to stonewall, but there’s really no substitute for community organizing.  The key is keeping our eyes open, conducting meaningful and intelligible research as we go, but above all staying in touch with each other.

Living from 1919 to 2010, Sarason got to see the creation of the global virtual community, no panacea but a powerful boost to the tools he promoted.

tibetan-smartphoneAll this puts me in an odd position. One way or another I’m managing that policy archive lashed to my friend’s back, as he struggles to push reform uphill. But that same vantage means I’m in an unusual position to help, negotiating the space between brainy innovators in the field, and a genuinely curious and committed set of stakeholders to report to, including the system boss.

The trick is just figuring out how, before my friends fall downhill.

a new civic engagement?

fruitvale-celphoneThe U.S. Department of Justice recently commissioned an interesting study to help local police departments think through the implications of adopting dashboard and body cameras.  As usual, the hard questions seem less about the technology, and more about how it reflects on us as a society.

It was hard not to think about this over the past weekend, watching Fruitvale Station.  Above to the left you can see a shot from the climactic scene, the protagonists fighting guns with camera phones.

It’s telling that both law enforcement and the community it polices believe public documentation cuts in their favor.  I think they’re both right.  The fact is, everyone’s behavior improves with visibility.  But does that mean it’s a good idea?

As higher ed tries to prepare students for the world they’ll enter, we worry loudest about employment, where technical, entry-level positions are the fastest moving skeet. If we can just aim far enough ahead of the trajectory to get our graduates placed, the feeling goes, then once they move up into management the more durable proficiencies of communication, cross-cultural fluency, and critical thinking will see them through.


Missing from that narrative is recognition that human interaction itself is also changing very fast.  Too often we divide the higher ed mission into “career” and “citizenship,” but if you take away the commodification of labor, then what’s left are just two ways to describe collective, purposeful action with strangers.  And preparing our students for that has a new and faster trajectory all its own.  So far 2015 feels like it’s mostly about this disrupted relationship between the individual and the group.

The Opinion section of this morning’s Los Angeles Times weighs in on police videography, child vaccination, transgender bathrooms, data security, and of course our drought.  Some of these stories reflect perennial tensions, but there’s a new anxiety related to new technologies, and how they undermine the wall between public and private.  Some of the new holes under the fence:

QueVisionSurveillance. This goes beyond dueling cameras for commuters and transit cops.  As you know, the world knows a lot more about you than it did just a few years ago. Educators of a certain age (i.e. mine) tend to worry about this more than our students, who seem okay trading their anonymity for improved service.  And it’s not always about mining an individual’s data:  just letting everyone know how many others are around can improve drive times, health care, and grocery check-outs.

Individual impact.  In a hyper-connected world any one person has more influence on the rest of us than before.  Suddenly a disgruntled NSA contractor, or a pair of alienated brothers from Chechnya, or a depressed co-pilot can change the way millions of people live and think.  Sure, whacky and charismatic individuals have always had an edge, at least since Savonarola.  What’s changing is the barrier to entry:  anyone can play.  Our students know how the new context amplifies individual behavior; ask them about online bullying, or active shooter drills.  As a result, today my mental health is of more rightful interest to you than it used to be.

Rush to judgment. The corollary to your right to know about me:  almost anyone gets access to the findings.  What I like about that DOJ study is that it focuses less on whether cops should make videos and more on who should be able to see them.  It reminded me of a story last February about the appeal to voyeurs of online court filings. It turns out you can read a lot of salacious gossip about your neighbors, names and addresses and all, so long as someone brings suit.  And note:  these are charges, not convictions.  (A couple of recent high-profile cases show the hazard of this new world.  Maybe Bill Cosby had it coming, but no one is defending the “Rape on Campus” article in Rolling Stone.)  So take note:  if you cross someone with little emotional stability and a vivid enough imagination, you risk becoming a meme, your name a verb.  17th century Salem had better due process.

public-humiliationWe need members of the next generation – and the colleges that teach them– to recognize our new intimacy with strangers, and heightened responsibility to each other.  I can think of three priorities that implies:

1.  Educate for a world of intense interpersonal responsibility.  Our students come to us with first-hand experience in adolescent pack behavior amplified by technology, and fresh scars and muscles to flex.  Curriculum — and maybe more relevantly, co-curriculum — should intentionally develop social skills and sensitivity for the new context.

2.  Emphasize fluency in critical thinking and statistical analysis.  This generation will face tougher questions than ours did about the reasonable use of big data and herd judgment to inform personal opinion.  For most of our majors statistics is an elective course, and critical thinking (the CSU excepted) an invisible throughline, surfaced mostly for accreditors.  The status of both subjects may be due for elevation.

3.  Give equal emphasis to our different paths to creating a greater good.  Market capitalism and participatory democracy are different means to a common utilitarian end, organizing groups of strangers.  Graduates who can discern and adjust the new boundary between public and private will be better people and (often) better employed.  If universities keep presenting employment and citizenship as utterly separate, then we have only ourselves to blame when the public undervalues the latter, and treats starting salary as the only thing worth counting.