guilds, part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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