oh, the humanities – part two

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The earlier post in this set gave a typical defense of the humanities – disciplines like religion, philosophy, languages, and literature – which is that we all benefit from understanding ourselves as part of a bigger purpose. That intellectual birthright, systematically developed in college, helps orient our work and lives afterward. So, good job security for the soul searchers and poets, right?

In recent centuries, at least in the west, the searchers and poets have clumped around varieties of humanism – an ethic different from the set of disciplines called “the humanities,” but arising from them. Humanism takes the human condition as a self-contained, self-evident good, man as the measure of all things.

For some of us – maybe the majority on American campuses – it’s “secular humanism,” agnostic if not godless. We readily admit to a universe that includes the supernatural, imperceptable, and mysterious – whether called branes, dark matter, or Quetzalcoatl. But we don’t take daily cues from it.

These days even formal religions seem influenced by humanism, as we see falling from favor those that discount or threaten human well-being, for example by preaching intolerance, mutilation, or virgin sacrifice. They just don’t draw crowds like they used to.

So, humanism for all, and the answer to the eternally nagging Why is apparently some version of “because it’s us.”

That alone fuels a lot of the human enterprise. We work hard, cure diseases, and write apps for smart phones not just to get ahead personally, but also to add to the overall stock of human happiness. The more you contribute to the common good instead of the personal one, the more virtuous you feel, but really it’s all just different versions of petting ourselves. It’s been a surprisingly durable way of avoiding the question Why, at least up to now.

If that’s about to change – and I think it is – then college curriculum in the humanities should brace itself. But for what? The acceleration of change on a few fronts has made it harder for colleges and universities to guess what’s around the next hedge.

tara-johninmazeThose fronts:

1. Machine learning is now mostly inductive, a lot like human learning. As they catch on, our gadgets are taking over not just factory work but also driving, diagnosing disease, and even making art. Already our computers can translate, and our phones can see. Whatever our colleges teach people to do next, we want to take care that it’s things people will still be the ones doing.

2. To higher education this raises a not insignificant question: what is that? In other words, at the maturity of our current AI growth spurt, what will remain as the competitive advantage of homo sapiens, and then how do we organize our curriculum to cultivate it, so our graduates can be employed? The answer, increasingly, may be volition.

Machines can find, solve, and invent many more things than they used to, but we humans still have a corner on wanting to.

So does it come down to that? Will college learning be mostly about purpose and meaning, about why we should want some things more than others? About the nature of the good life, of telling right from wrong?

I would welcome that, but also enjoy the irony, that the build-out of our STEM infatuated, high-tech world could usher in a golden age for the arts and humanities.

Except that:

3. The idea of free will itself is under new fire, beautifully summarized in a recent Atlantic article. It was never on solid footing, empirically speaking: we feel like we act for ourselves but it’s been mighty hard to prove. Now we’re seeing that the interval between deciding to take action and taking it may be reversed; that is, that an opaque cognitive curtain keeps us from knowing what we do for a moment or two, during which we mentally process the intention, fooling ourselves into thinking our wishes matter.

In the context of machine learning, this may be an even bigger deal than we think. It seems that if a day comes when we have to concede we lack free will, then on that day we will really have run out of uniquely human capacities.

And that means we will also have to face up to the circularity of secular humanism and our longstanding measure of meaning, ourselves. It may not be enough anymore to say art, or health, or technology are valuable because they advance the human condition, because that condition will no longer be exclusively human.

On that day, maybe coming up fast, we’ll have reached the end of the street down which we kick the can that asks Why.

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What does a forward-looking university do then? I am not sure, but hope I’m not sitting on the platform behind the commencement speaker who has to explain that intellectual bequest to the next generation. “It’s been a pretty good run but we kind of ran out of steam toward the end there.”

I was ruminating on this, rummaging around for a ready reason to go to work each day when the present one sputters out, when a couple of experiences gave me hope that the humanities may yet have some good continuing uses, even after they’re understood as not uniquely human. One was a textbook I read this Christmas on macroeconomics, and the other was a day last month that I spent in prison.

But more on those later.

Image credits: airships.net, Tara in Poland, International Business Seminars

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Toward a HIPs Community of Practice

title slideThis is a presentation I’m giving today for the Student Success Summit of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. You can get a copy by clicking on the image here.

(We now interrupt this blog for a public service announcement.)

High-Impact Practices, or HIPs, are educationally powerful experiences like learning communities, service learning, and undergraduate research. They take different forms but share some intriguing properties: they put college learning into real-world settings, highlighting its relevance and value. They vary the cues and demands on students, improving the chances that they’ll be able to transfer what they learn with us into different situations after they graduate.

And over the past ten years they’ve been shown to boost student success, both by raising overall graduation rates, and by closing the difference in those rates across different populations, such as ethnic minorities, students on financial aid, or the first in their families to attend college.

It all sounds pretty win-win, until you realize that hardly any of our inherited administrative tools – things like the transcript, the syllabus, the units of course credit – are set up to deliver these, let alone pay for them. Instead the default structure is all read-listen-remember-repeat, and high-impact practices eke out their survival on the fringes.

The job of fixing that is both enormous and urgent. We’ve gotten pretty good at the campus welcome mat – students from all backgrounds seem, finally, to believe they deserve college. But once we get them here the gaps quickly reappear, perpetuating inequity and, not incidentally, putting us on the wrong side of demographic trends.

HIPs can help with that, but only if we offer them differently. As long as they remain a tiny and unwritten part of the curriculum, they will be available mostly to the insiders and the privileged.

In the ten years since the HIP literature first appeared, colleges and universities have been trying to act on the implications, bringing their best educational practices into the administrative mainstream, easing them onto transcripts, taking good work to scale, and even making students aware they need to seek out these experiences, by name and on purpose.

So it seems like a good time to connect these campuses to each other, especially places whose mission is broad access, affordability, and a way up into the middle class for people of all backgrounds. We operate without much slack, and it’s now on us to get the academic recognition and the funding to follow the things that work. Doing it together could accelerate the learning – and improve the chances that whatever we cook up will work for transfer students, policy makers, and the public.

If your state is a member of NASH then join TS3. Whether you’re in NASH or not, join the community of practice email list, and stay tuned via the CSU Dominguez Hills web page for the national model and laboratory for student success, open to all who are interested: csudh/laboratory.

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Click the image above to go straight to the page, and bookmark it.

And plan to join us next February in Southern California, where you can be virtuous and warm at the same time.

We now return to our regularly scheduled blog. Up next, the humanities.

another dispatch from the trenches

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My shift from state policy to campus administration unearthed another marvel last week, which is the power of the written record. Our ability to share our thoughts and decisions over time and distance with people we’ll never meet is really kind of amazing. The tiniest actions are perpetual, and cumulative.

And if you want to see it as vividly as I do, then go somewhere with gaps in the record. For every such gap in my new home, relationships and learning start from scratch. This is especially true because I’m part of a small team of newcomers, temps, and transients. For us documentation is everything, because our combined personal history is roughly nil.

But our predecessors behaved rationally for their own contexts rather than ours, and resorted comfortably to handshake deals and tacit horse trading. And so here I am, looking at a stack of unapproved travel claims and hardware purchases, and asking one of the most valued professors on campus if he has proof of prior permission. It’s not a good spot to find myself in.

On the one hand I need to remember that my perspective has been seriously warped by years under the magnifying glass in a giant public bureaucracy, where the memos are numbered and the emails subpoenaed. That’s a world that cherishes the written record as proof it is impersonal, and thus free of cronyism or corruption. It keeps us out of jail.

On a single campus such fussiness may be misdirected. Too much of it makes you less effective, not more, as people wonder why you’re always so suspicious.

I also have to remember that interpersonal commitments are often invisible, even to the participants. My predecessors on campus probably thought their paper trail was perfectly complete, and somewhere in my old office building, my successors may marvel that I kept such scanty records.

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I’m not sure where that leaves me, but for now my new boss and I have agreed to err on the side of more record keeping. The campus is getting bigger, the world is getting smaller, and really, in the long run we’re all temps.

Image credits: Bates College, officemuseum.com

oh, the humanities – part one

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Before getting into academic administration I taught film and wrote screenplays. I’ve always liked movies, but not the same way as other film people. I don’t enjoy being on sets, for instance, or have a strong opinion about different movie stars, or whether we shoot on film or video. What draws me is the stories, that can feel like novels brought to life. (Some people who haven’t met her feel a personal connection to Emma Stone; I feel closer to Tess of the d’Urbervilles.)

Colleges and universities have trouble categorizing film departments. Usually we end up in the visual and performing arts, next to painting, dance, photography, and theater. I like the company but never felt a part of it; I get tired at night and I don’t smoke.

Instead I’ve identified with the literature and philosophy people, whose raw material feeds Hollywood. It was a little isolating, a storyteller exiled to live with the artists, like I should have had my own bathroom.

diagramIn college administration for an entire campus, the difference is less stark: arts and humanities are typically grouped together, film courses can land with either group, and the two feel equally dissed by the public’s obsession with STEM, degree production, and gainful employment. We are united in beleagueredness; you can spot us by our short shrifts.

This post will add to the handwringing about the humanities, but in a different way.

Frankly I’m not as worried as others about the prospects for our departments of literature, languages, philosophy, and religion. We have all been stepchildren at least since the Athenian system office poured Socrates a glass of hemlock, and yet we’re all still here. Apparently there’s something inherently necessary about making meaning.

No matter their majors and eventual professions, our students need and want to know how to string together their experiences into something significant. They expect college to help them read purpose into their lives. At denominational institutions they learn one way to do that; at secular comprehensives like mine, they can learn them all.

That urge to assign significance marks my humanist colleagues at committee meetings. In my experience this is truest when they try to talk to social scientists who – burdened with insecurities of their own – resist embellishment of any kind. People in psychology, public policy, and sociology don’t want to make meaning so much as discover it. Crossing that line feels to them like fudging the findings.

Consider this sample paragraph from a text on a subject dear to my heart, student success:

Five years ago the California State University began requiring incoming students to take summer classes before the freshman year, whenever their test scores indicated they were short of college-level proficiency in English, math, or both. As the new policy has covered a greater share of the students who are eligible, the CSU has seen a dramatic reduction in rates of fall remediation. Other factors are also at play; for example, California high schools now encourage more of their students to take rigorous college prep courses. Still, these results suggest the policy is working.

If you take out the last sentence, then to humanists the argument feels incomplete.

But if you leave it in, social scientists will worry that you’ve said more than the evidence supports.

For much of this decade I’ve been a humanist among social scientists, who work in higher education research, learning science, and policy. Their writing often looks to me like all the last sentences are missing. I’ve gotten past longing for my own bathroom door, but I sometimes want a different color in Track Changes.

Yet in the long run these distinctions are a comfort. The urge to assign significance, to answer a why with a because, gives my tribe its staying power. Few may have the nerve to declare a major in philosophy, but we all need a dose.


So then where is the new threat?

Well, in my opinion, for much of our history when we get to the rest of the “because,” we have been kind of cheating.

If you back up to the scale of millennia, then you can see the answer to “why” evolving in a clear direction. As far as we can tell, the earliest humans thought deeply about their purpose and the meaning of their lives. Even before we took our current physical form as Cro-Magnons we were acknowledging our dead in burial rituals, signaling an awareness of our own mortality, and an urge to defy it.

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Most embryonic cultures, including a handful that persist to this day, have venerated the dead and especially their ancestors. Moving forward in time you see the addition of supernatural beings, whether one or many, and myths of origin and destiny. These conceptions of a broader context orient our lives while we’re on earth, setting the tone for business deals, codes of law, and good manners, for example.

In Europe you can mark the apex of this approach around the 13th century, with Aquinas on the eve of the Great Schism and other fissures that challenged the assumption of One True anything beyond our immediate perception – challenges that included contact with cultures elsewhere, who read the invisible universe very differently, yet thrived.

From that point on – roughly the Italian Renaissance and the beginning of secular humanism in its present form – the argument gets strangely circular. Why are humans worth helping? Because they’re human. Why do we work hard? To promote human happiness. Why is human happiness valuable? Uh, it just is, and we take these truths to be self-evident. ‘Nother words, don’t hold your breath waiting for proof.

At a time of disruption and upheaval, at the trading crossroads of dozens of civilizations and three continents, the Italian humanists were relieved to rediscover the ancient Greek resort to the one indisputable universal: Man is the Measure of All Things.

With a tweak since then for gender equality, the slogan has served us surprisingly well for the last six or seven centuries.

library__3153But I think its time is running out, probably within our lifetimes. And for the life of me I’m not seeing a ready replacement.

I worry.

But more on that later.

Image credits: airships.net, National Geographic, fourthdoor.org

dispatch from the trenches

pancakeSince leaving CSU headquarters for a job on one of our campuses, I’ve been attuned to the differences of working not with policy makers, but actual educators. A few insights, still in progress:

This is way more fun. My stint away from campus was a little over nine years, and even though I missed it constantly, I’d forgotten how really wonderful it is. A college campus is a microcosm of the world, with facilities for food, housing, work, play, and interaction, but oriented toward a noble purpose, the personal and intellectual development of ourselves and each other, even strangers. It’s life, but with more of the good parts, and less of the rest. Every day I go to work puts me in a good mood. No kidding. I take random walks across the campus just to be in it; last week the student government president noticed my third lap through the pancake breakfast and co-curricular tables, and called me on it.

The strains are different. There is something counterintuitive about work at a place like the Office of the Chancellor, which you would expect to mix the flabby ineffectiveness of the public sector with the flabby ineffectiveness of academic administration. Yet visitors are always struck by the sight of people doing work. They even comment on it. “Everyone here seems to be working all the time.” Well, yes. And as state support dwindles there are fewer of them in the office, to perform the same work or more.

Yet the relentless tilling on the cubicle farm didn’t prepare me for the qualitatively different strain of campus life. At my new job there are many signs of overworked colleagues well past their breaking point; two from this week will show you what I mean.

The first involved money, and the accidental transfer of a moderate sum into the wrong account. It’s no big deal, and we will fix it. But the shriek of protest was immediate and heartfelt, and not from the one whose money went missing, but from the one who got the windfall. She works ungodly hours at full tilt, and the prospect of taking on one more task, even a funded one, nearly prompted her resignation.

The second sign of materially different strain involved an invitation to lunch. My new campus home employs dozens of academic department chairs, and early assays of their inner stuff suggest remarkable quality in about a third of the cases: brilliant, dedicated, and almost eerily suited to edifying and motivating a very wide range of students. They are driven people.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised, but was, when my invitation to a lunch meeting was met in one case with protest. I mean, I was just asking for an hour, and I will provide the sandwich. It even comes with an apple and a cookie. But the response was a mix of tension and suspicion – what is this “lunch” going to evolve into? – and a plaintive close to the email: “I just can’t take on any more.”

That depth of emotion can mean only one thing: he wishes he could.

earth-day-2014And that’s what makes the strain here so different. In the system office I often had to appeal to the intrinsic motivation of my colleagues, and remember it in myself: the executive orders and coded memoranda and bar graphs represent real people trying to improve their lives, and we are charged by the public with helping them.

Here such appeals are unnecessary, because the real people are standing in front of us. We know them individually, we root for them. A lot of the time we even like them. And so for a significant number of my colleagues, the motivation is already keen, bottomless, and merciless. Coordinating their work is something I need to do differently than I used to, with fewer naked appeals to altruism and purpose. The colleagues whose help will make a difference already feel these things acutely, even painfully.

They don’t need our reminders, they just need our help.

Money isn’t always money. Most organizations, including the Office of the Chancellor, keep track of baseline or recurring dollars in one category, and one-time dollars in another. The one-time money could come from a grant, or a vacant salaried position, or residue from year before.

Campuses make this distinction too, but – at least on mine – the difference between them is a whole lot wider. Onetime money is a sinkhole of attention, effort, and coordination, consuming resources that won’t go to that precise use ever again. By contrast recurring dollars mean infrastructure, and staff support, and more full-time faculty to teach and govern the university before we burn out the handful who survived the recession. Recurring dollars are lifeblood.

mad-at-csu-live-performanceMy last few months at the system office included a tense, lengthy negotiation with the State of California for the support of our student success initiatives. They offered us millions of dollars above the typical enrollment budget, but it was onetime funding. We tried so hard and so often to explain why that wasn’t helpful, and why we really needed a baseline commitment, that the governor’s staff finally told us point blank to stop saying so. They were sick of hearing about it, and by then so was I.

But now that I’m on a campus, I think if anything we should have been more insistent. You don’t improve graduation rates and eliminate achievement gaps in temporary earmarks one year at a time. Instead you have to build it into your way of life. And the money to do that is so materially different from other money, it practically needs a different word.

That’s what I’m learning so far.

More field notes to follow.

Image credits: Union University, CSU Dominguez Hills

the interpersonal

tincantelephone_7099For a few reasons I’ve been thinking less these days about abstract policies, and more about how people interact with each other. One glaring example is in policing, and the problems we’ve had with officers and communities that misunderstand each other.  At least half a dozen experiments are now underway around the country to give law enforcement more of the skills and tools of social work.

Public higher ed is leaning further into a service role too, especially (in California, anyway) at the community colleges, where admission is open, and you really never know who’s going to walk in. The institutional mission includes English lessons for immigrants, job training, and re-entry for the recently incarcerated, as well as preparation for transfer to a university. There’s really no predicting the backstories and needs of the people you may be there to help.

And then there’s the broader world of work, and what our students will need to do after they graduate.

In the California State University system, we require “oral communication” coursework of every graduate – it’s built into the statewide general education pattern, and in fact you need it on your college transcript before we let you transfer in.

But tellingly, we define it narrowly as public speaking. I think that’s appropriate at access-oriented institutions like ours; first-generation students often need practice before they’re comfortable speaking up, or addressing large groups. But I wonder if we should really be rejecting all those interpersonal communication courses that are also proposed for transfer credit in this area, or if we’d be better off calling it a second kind of requirement.

The world keeps getting better and better connected, and our ability to get along – at the levels of law enforcement, or educators, or distant coworkers – lags the technology, as usual.

Personally, this is also on my mind lately because a few months ago I left my job at the CSU system office to work on one of our campuses. It was a move I’d been hoping to make for a while, but it’s still a stretch. I need to be attuned to small-scale interactions in a new way.

It’s as if I’ve spent many years at an extended family reunion, mingling with many people I know and like, but with light consequences for transgression: if I rubbed someone the wrong way I could usually find someone else to talk to.

By contrast, last fall I moved back into the single-family household of a campus. Going forward, different people here will enjoy my company or not, and we may not always want to team up for specific projects. But however it plays out, we’ll be seeing each other again the next day, and the day after that.

We’ll need to find enough common ground and interpersonal trust to get along with each other, navigate difference, and make progress. If we don’t, I can’t just go sit at another table.

It’s not a bad prospect, and even feels like a particularly useful 21st century skill set I’ll be refreshing.

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Image credits: tvtropes.org, CSU Dominguez Hills.