I started this blog in 2010. This seems like a good time to stop, before the odometer rolls into a new decade.
The readership has grown over the years. Thank you for that. I’ve appreciated knowing there was an attentive sounding board out there, even if toward the end your sheer numbers got a little intimidating.
Thanks also go to Ingrid Biesaart, tireless and fearless copy editor, whose judgment is so keen she could even spike the occasional story.
Finally, my gratitude to the scores of friends whose thinking shapes mine, and who gave me permission when I paraphrased them here.
My state is home to the giant sequoia, the world’s largest living thing by volume, and among the oldest – one having recently celebrated 3,500 years. (Take a bough.)
What does life look like on such a timescale, 50 times longer – and slower – than ours? Well, we would look pretty hasty and pointless. To the tree, an entire human lifespan feels the way a year and a half feels to us. A whole cycle of our day and night would feel like about half an hour. We were still in our neolithic age in its childhood, and Kennedy was president last year. To them we’re like moths, about as enduring, or significant.
I think it’s helpful to see ourselves in such fleeting terms, especially if we work in higher education. Ours are some of the oldest institutions in the world, a few dating back around a millennium. The state and land-grant publics are much newer, but likely to last in some form. As George Mehaffy consoles his colleagues, “in the long run we’re all interim.”
This is even truer for those like me, academic administrators with the shortest shelf-life of all. Faculty tend to stay put, and staff do, too – especially at institutions with strong unions, like ours. By contrast, the average lifespan of a president is six and a half years; for provosts it’s four and a half, and for deans the estimate is four. My own job puts me near the last two groups; at two and a half years in, the odds are that I’m more than halfway through.
Tellingly, these tenures are shorter than the review cycles for what I believe are the three most important functions in the division of academic affairs: faculty review, program review, and student success. Faculty come up for tenure decisions, promotion, and sabbaticals at around seven-year intervals. The review of an academic program for its quality, relevance, and rigor is anywhere between 7 and 10 years. And student success is a notoriously slow-moving target: by definition you have to wait six years to see a program’s effect on six-year graduation rates, and that’s before you’ve made any fixes to it.
This means that pretty much the only way to do the job is by seeing like a sequoia, straining to peer past the boundaries of our own lifespans.
This has me thinking about our annual staff award ceremonies.
One part of the celebration – pervasive across the CSU and probably across higher ed and beyond – is the recognition of service for a round number of years: the group of five-year awardees, ten-year awardees, and so on.
What’s inescapable in that routine is a strangely inverted relationship to the org chart. Above a certain tier, you just don’t see any management hitting the ten-year mark, let alone more. Yet we have mechanics, advisers, and analysts who’ve worked on this campus for 30 years. One staffer in the library just celebrated his 50th, having begun soon after the university opened.
But not the managers. My first year on the job I encouraged an especially effective member of my team to go for a management position, and she said “why would I do that? I like working here.” From a perspective like mine, it’s a little unnerving.
So how come? Why are we administrators the sawgrass and not the sequoias?
I used to think it was pure careerism, a kind of scorched-earth leadership that launches pricey initiatives to claim credit, move up, and move out, without much regard for the bills and unfinished projects left behind.
I’ll say there’s some truth to that, but less than I believed. There’s also real precariousness; when a new president or chancellor comes in to clean house, it’s the managers who go.
Less visibly, there’s also something built into the job that enforces a clear but tacit use-by date. Administrators don’t create pieces so much as fit them together, looking for arrangements of temperaments, resources, learning opportunities, and programming that seem optimal.
The time comes when you feel yourself leaving the steep part of whatever value you’ve been adding. You can stick around anyway, but it may not be in the university’s interest.
Sometimes the trappings of the job hide that reality. We get nicer offices and speak on behalf of the university, often to the university itself. But the university isn’t us; the real university is the people who stay. The “campus leadership team” is the guests. We’re the help.
So when we catch ourselves saying things like “we will transform this institution,” or “this is the first time we’ve ever had a campus-wide meeting on curriculum,” or “our students are more committed than ever before,” we should remember that we really don’t know. But the people we’re addressing usually do.
Since I’m enjoying myself and don’t want it to end, I’m too tempted to ignore the actuarial odds of my profession.
So, around once in every meeting, I try to picture how things will go when I’m not here. How will these discussions and decisions play out? Am I putting in place anything worthwhile? Anything the university will want when I’m not here to lobby for it?
For the moment, it feels like I’m still contributing more good than harm, not yet having left the steep part of the curve.
But that day will come, and the sequoias will carry on.
The first post in this three-part series considered NASA and the challenge of categorizing knowledge, when everything we know is from only our own perspective.
The second one considered curriculum in diversity and civic engagement as a way of making sure our students at least get the broadest possible spectrum of that perspective, as a very small way of flexing our muscles from inside the straitjacket of human perception.
That practice in leaving the first-person point of view gets a particular workout whenever we tell stories, the focus of this last one in the three-part set.
In “The Cameraman,” one of the last great silent movies, filmmaker Buster Keaton plays a hapless news photographer trying to impress a young woman. She suggests he cover a local fire, and he’s stumped on how to locate it. But then he sees a fire engine racing by, so he runs like mad to catch up, finally managing to hop on, a tripod and camera over his shoulder.
The sequence that follows cracks me up. He hangs on through multiple turns, ready to cover the burning warehouse, but then instead notices – just as we do – that the fire engine is pulling into the fire station, because its crew is done for the day. He glances straight at us, almost unable to believe his misfortune, but then sees another parked fire truck, and understands it’s true.
What I find noteworthy about this joke (aside from its funniness) is that it shouldn’t work at all. Keaton exploits our point of view – facing the back of the of the truck – rather than his protagonist’s. Because he faces forward, Buster in fact sees long before we do that he’s headed into a fire station. He also sees the second fire truck before we do, and, for that matter, would have known all along that the truck was running without a siren.
But because this is a silent movie, and because our point of view is fixed, he knows we won’t catch on. In fact he’s beating us twice, first by ignoring his own perspective, and second by understanding our own perspective so well that he knows the joke will work.
Later filmmakers continued to play on audience knowledge, without the broad gags. To Hitchcock and others it’s “superior position,” driving suspense with the imbalance between what the audience and the protagonist each knows. Sometimes their movies use windows, cameras, or binoculars to underscore the point of view, like much of the Hitchcock film “Rear Window.”
Storytellers aren’t the only ones preoccupied with What the Other Guy Knows. Primatologists and others who study animal intelligence award extra credit for species who lie – in other words, who exert intentional, counterfactual control over their peers’ awareness.
Within the last decade we’ve also discovered this among species further from us. For example, a 2009 study shows that scrub-jays will hide their food more carefully when they know they’re being watched – but only if they’ve engaged in theft of their own. Honest scrub-jays are less able to imagine dishonesty in their peers.
The phrase that pops up in these studies is “Theory of Mind,” the working hypothesis of one intelligence about the the thinking of another. This informs research into how social animals punish cheating, keep track of naughty vs. nice, and repay interpersonal debts. (A good collection of the recent thinking is here.)
This seems to me like an area where humans excelled, and then used the resulting knack for collective goal-seeking to gang up on our competitors, dominate the planet, and then make funny movies.
And going forward, Theory of Mind could become if anything more useful, our best way of navigating cooperation and problem-solving among diverse groups of our own species in an increasingly connected world.
So then should higher education push harder on that, and teach our students to go further? In other words, it’s one thing for a poker player or grey wolf to guess the thinking of another member of the same close-knit group, but over Skype and a language barrier it gets harder.
It gets harder too across the various cultures at play on a college campus – say, the culture gap between faculty in STEM and those in the performing arts, or between faculty and administrators, or transfer students and freshmen. Maybe we can use our own context to better prepare our graduates for theirs.
And we need this for ourselves, long after college. Lately I’ve noticed that my most effective colleagues are the ones who demonstrate the highest empathy, able to push their own attention far away from themselves, and closer to those they need to understand, follow, or persuade.
Ineffective participants tend to repeat their own points; effective ones spend more time listening to and then paraphrasing other people.
I’m not presenting this as a new insight; you can find it in Jane Austen or Dale Carnegie. What’s new, to me at least, is how much more important this is becoming. Many of the failures of our current generation, of mass incarceration, global terrorism, racial tension, and legislative gridlock all seem to come down to this problem of understanding difference.
There’s a project in here for college curriculum. If our current crop of students will inherit and address these problems, in forums as diverse as election ballots, team science, and international trade, then we should find ways right now to more intentionally develop the proficiency they’ll need.
Group projects and high-impact practices are a start, but this may call for something more, a focused attention to how we focus attention, to cultivate empathy, cooperation, and a transferable point of view. Some things, like story-telling, probably help. Others, like taking selfies and blogging, may not.
Get them out of the center of the universe. And make them watch The Cameraman.
These are two presentations from this week’s meeting of High-Impact Practices in the States. I participated in each of these with different sets of colleagues from CSU Dominguez Hills. You can get a copy by clicking on either image below.
(The first one, “Goal Oriented,” has an embedded video and may take a while to download.)
This year Western Kentucky University hosted our loosely knit community of practice. HIPs in the States is made of up of educators from mostly public community colleges and state universities, facing similar challenges of affordably scaling our best educational practices with equity and quality. Interestingly, this year’s conference also drew participants from graduate schools and K-12.
The title relates to a persistent challenge with higher education: getting our best practices to reach those students who most stand to benefit. Students with high cultural capital – for example, the confidence that comes with comfy socio-economic status, or parents who went to college – seem to know without being told that they can drop in on faculty during office hours, or suggest an independent research project.
By contrast, more vulnerable populations either don’t know or opt out. We shouldn’t be surprised, since such options are seldom part of degree requirements, or even heavily promoted, making them a kind of hidden curriculum.
CSU Dominguez Hills is hoping to unhide it with our development of a Comprehensive Learner Record. We are part of a national project co-led by AACRAO (college registrars) and NASPA (professionals in student affairs), to bring more of the student’s non-course experiences into the official account of what they did.
We want to shine some institutionally validated daylight on these other experiences – like meaningful on-campus employment, or participation in a research-themed learning community – that can give even skeptical students and families firsthand reassurance that college learning is relevant, practical, and worth the effort.
It’s a lot of work, but pretty flipping exciting.
I was joined in this presentation by a dream-team of cross-divisional colleagues: Registrar Tara Hardee, Melissa Norrbom of Student Life, and Alana Olschwang, who leads our new office of University Effectiveness, Planning, and Analytics.
You can see our slides and get the gist by clicking on the image at the top of this post, which is the title frame from our presentation.
The story might leave off there, with the fading of regional accents and odd orthography, except for the work of our own generation – regularizing data.
Within specializations and technical fields this has been going on for a very long time. Jargon is bad for writing but good for insiders who just need a shared shorthand.
Our specialized data management got a nudge toward precision in the 1980s, as we started moving our correspondence onto floppy disks, and our records into spreadsheets.
But the real impetus came a decade later, when we started connecting all those computers together. The internet and its cloud are prompting us to link records we didn’t used to.
So now my refrigerator, smoke alarm, and Fitbit want to understand each other, as do entire professional fields. The language of accounting, for example, needs to mesh with the language of healthcare in new and nuanced ways. Making that work means inviting different professionals to explain their jobs to each other, and agree on definitions.
Higher ed is in the thick of such data governance, sacrificing some local discretion to make ourselves clearer and more meaningful to each other, and to our stakeholders.
I have a personal interest in high-impact practices, the largely local and untranscripted college experiences like learning communities, undergraduate research, and mentoring relationships that seem best for completion rates, equity, and deep learning. These different practices have some properties in common, in particular putting students into situations that emulate non-school settings, and resist obvious right answers. They provide practice in applying and recombining what’s learned in traditional courses. Students of all backgrounds seem to sense the value, and the relevance.
Precisely because they’re locally defined and untranscripted, they’ve been ideal spaces for innovation. They give educators unusual freedom to customize their work to the learner.
For the same reason, we have had a hard time making them count for additional faculty workload, or for transfer credit. Selective private institutions have had more success, but as soon as you go for large scale and portability, the blips leave the radar.
So these practices remain wonderful but mostly invisible, especially to those who most stand to benefit. Another drawback, this one for us on the inside: despite ten years of effort, we have been slow to shore up the promising but mostly indirect research evidence for their effectiveness.
I’ve been wondering if this isn’t a problem of data governance. We can’t all count what we can’t all see, and seeing together means describing together.
Not that we haven’t had abundant help. Large, national associations like AAC&U, the National Association of System Heads, and NILOA have all taken a closer look, added to the research, and given us cues to putting the thinking into our daily work. Even George Kuh himself, the groundbreaking researcher who came up with the framework, gave us a follow-up list of Eight Key Elements that describe any high-impact practice.
But we in administration are still a long way from consistently operationalizing what we need to. High-Impact Practices cry out for some clear, very broadly shareable understanding of what they are and aren’t, with markers as nimble and unambiguous as movable type.
In the spirit of good data governance, I think getting there will depend on involving additional people, and groups. In the last year I’ve gotten involved in a pair of unrelated projects that together could help us bring Kuh’s thinking to others in the business of higher ed.
Comprehensive Learner Records. This is a joint project of the national associations of registrars and student affairs professionals, teaming up to get more of the significant, outside-of-courses student experiences onto the visible transcript. The project has been running for several years, but my university was only recently accepted into it, as part of the second cohort. I think it’s one of our best shots at clarifying the real value of college learning, and while we’re at it, the High-Impact Practices that most contribute to it.
High-Impact Practices in the States. This grass-roots consortium of mostly public colleges and universities will be meeting for the second time this February, with Western Kentucky University hosting. The recently-released draft program is exciting evidence of a field still making important, foundational distinctions about what matters, and what doesn’t.
I see these two communities of practice, and I swear it looks like they’re aiming at the same spot from different origins. We may be participating in one of those pivotal moments of widespread culture change, and consolidation.
But if so – and this is my concern – then I hope to God we get it right. Genuine learning is messier than good business processes, and getting one to reflect the other will require some fudging and judgment calls.
Whatever standardization these groups adopt could be with us for a while, and, once in place, as hard to change as spelling or pronunciation.
Image credits: Metropolitan Museum of Art, lettermodel.org, WTIP, PicClick, CSU Dominguez Hills, OnlineColleges.net
The first post in this set looked at how NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is coping with the knowledge explosion, a kind of Big Bang as noteworthy as the one that made everywhere the center of the universe in the first place.
Along the way NASA, and the rest of us in the knowledge biz, will face a profound problem of perspective.
The challenge: as we learn more and faster, the importance of indexing it grows. We need to label our findings meaningfully, so we can find and build on them later. But our taxonomies have a poor track record for resembling reality; instead, they tend to reproduce our relationship to it at the time, in ways we recognize only with hindsight. These days there aren’t many science classes dividing the material world into fire, water, air and earth, or history courses sorted into “western” and “other.”
The students on our campuses now will have fewer moorings than we had, when we thought life was exclusively the earth’s, and gender was binary, and the climate was permanent. I honestly don’t know how we can better prepare today’s students for a world where human scales of distance, time, and importance are disintegrating beneath their feet.
How will our heirs continue pushing our understanding outside of our own heads, when our heads remain the only way into our minds? How will they find a new center?
I think of people in my life – ones I know, or just know of – who seem above average at stepping beyond their own perspectives. They seem to have picked up some ability in either political interaction – what our curriculum calls “civic engagement” – or storytelling. So I’ll jot those down in this post and the third in this series, notes on where this re-centering problem seems to leave off.
Mind you, these two responses aren’t going to help us think like the ooze inside Saturn’s moon Enceladus, or visualize higher dimensions, against the day we live elsewhere. They’re more like finger exercises, scales we practice on the kitchen table while we wait for the Steinway to come along.
But the fact is that the diversity among us is a resource, and our ability to navigate it productively makes for good practice.
Last month the brand new advisory board of Bringing Theory to Practice met in Baltimore, Maryland. The project has been thriving for a decade and a half, and just said goodbye to founding director Don Harward, succeeded by my friend David Scobey.
If his name rings a bell, you may have seen his seminal 2012 essay, “A Copernican Moment: on the Revolutions in Higher Education,” the first chapter in Transforming Undergraduate Education. It includes this:
The problem is not that the “official” paradigm of undergraduate education is constricting yet effective; it is that the paradigm is constricting and exhausted. Higher education is not in stasis but in crisis; and what is needed is not an alarm clock to awaken the slumbering academy from its dogmatic slumber, but rather a star chart by which to navigate an uncertain future. We are in Kuhn’s “revolutionary” moment when a new paradigm – a new institutional and epistemological regime for organizational practices and educational communities – feels necessary and imminent yet inchoate and up for grabs. It is a Copernican moment.
David Scobey, Director of Bringing Theory to Practice
From the context you can see that he means his title to apply to higher ed generally, but I have a different, more personal association with David and this phrase. Several years ago he and I were plenary speakers at the same conference. I spoke first, about learning as a driver of persistence and graduation – the idea that humans evolved to enjoy the buzz of intellectual growth, and if we can just take advantage of that, and make college rigorous and engaging enough, then we’ll see fewer dropouts. I called it “The Student Centered Curriculum.”
When David went on later, he said some very kind things about my presentation, but then went on to challenge – courteously and constructively – the whole idea that our students needed any more indication from us that they are at the center of anything. The world already presents us with plenty of long-tail marketing, echo-chamber news, and social media that combine to exaggerate our own importance, putting each of us at the center of a personal universe. He said one of the most important goals of college may in fact be a de-centering of the student, helping us see ourselves not as the middle of anything, but as what we are – crucial pieces of integrated networks, whose other pieces are just as vital.
That to me is the real insight of Copernicus, who sparked our understanding of the solar system by moving the Earth out of the center.
The first post in this series lamented our inability to perceive the world from any vantage other than the human one. No matter what strange things the universe holds, and whatever instruments of perception we devise, the last step into our minds is still our senses, and our brains.
We have very few ways to push against that boundary. Clearly one is by leveraging the connection between individuals and the broader society, getting ourselves out of that apparent center. But that can sound hard, and abstract.
The other way, I’ll argue in a later post, lies the way we relate to each other as individuals, and tell stories.