Monday, October 03, 2011


Classroom Styles and College Styles

Though I’m a confessed agnostic on the subject of learning styles, I enjoyed this essay quite a bit. It suggests the danger of mismatching a style of teaching to a subject matter, so that the folks who do well in the course as taught are not necessarily the folks who actually have the best sense of the subject. An easy example might be a public speaking class in which the grade is based entirely on multiple choice exams. It could be done, but it wouldn’t make sense, and the people who do best on the exams may be an entirely different set than the people who can make the most effective presentations.

From this side of the desk, the same thing is true of colleges. Each has its own culture, even though it often doesn’t really know it. And a set of decisions or policies that might make a world of sense at one college might miss the mark badly at another, simply because it fits one culture better than another. Colleges have styles, and each style has its blind spots.

I’ll give some examples of styles I’ve seen and/or experienced, to make it concrete.

The Catholic School Style. In this culture, tut-tutting and tsk-tsking take the place of substantive dialogue. It usually rests on a foundation of hideously complex unwritten rules, for which the complexity and secrecy are precisely the point. For reasons I’ve never really understood, gift exchange is a major event in this style. In this style, time-in-place is prized, because it takes that much time to build gift credits and to suss out enough unwritten rules to become an enforcer. The preferred rhetorical mode is the argument from authority. Status is everything, and the way to get ahead is to back-stab without getting bloody. Passive aggression from the moral high ground is the preferred mode of attack.

In the Catholic School style, straightforward arguments from pragmatism are considered either suspect or naive. The relentlessly internal focus means that arguments with external referents are assumed to be some sort of code.

(To be clear, the Catholic School style can happen in public institutions.)

I’ve seen administrators handle the Catholic School culture in a few ways. One is to go native, and to try to out-intrigue the tut-tutters. Down that path lies madness. Another is to ignore it, and to just pretend everyone is rational. That works until it doesn’t. My eventual method was to leave.

The Corporate Style. I’ve seen this in both for-profit and non-profit forms. In the for-profit setting, its natural habitat, the corporate style is at its purest.

Traditional academics often caricature the corporate style as heartless, which I think misses the point. It’s actually closer to attention deficit disorder. If the Catholic School style is trapped by the past, the corporate style is markedly indifferent to it. The focus is unapologetically on the next thing.

The upside of the corporate style is that it lends itself to pragmatism and optimism. The downside is that it easily loses touch with reality, and the succession of flavors of the month can lead to a certain cynicism. In my time at Proprietary U, it once had three different generations of College Algebra running alongside each other simultaneously, each with different credit hours, to serve different curricula. The students frequently landed in the wrong place, and those of us on the front lines had to try to undo the damage that they had unknowingly done. The idea of giving an experiment a few years to work was simply foreign.

The administrators who did well there managed to compensate for institutional ADD with some personal stability. Those who simply went with the ADD tended to crash and burn quickly.

The Clock-Punchers. In a sense, this is the faculty analogue of the corporate style. In this culture, the faculty show up, teach, and go home, and leave the rest to the administration. In this style, an autocratic management style is actually an asset, since the culture places more value on time-saving than on inclusiveness. Though I have yet to work in this setting, I’ve seen it from the outside. The advantage of this culture is that remarkably little time is spent on navel-gazing. The tragic flaw of this approach is that it largely limits institutional wisdom to just a few people. The trains will run on time, but whether they’re going to the right places is an open question.

Elites in Exile. I’ve been on both sides of this one. The faculty largely believe that they were meant for better things, and they combine admirably high standards with a painful status anxiety and a simmering resentment that they aren’t at some unspecified “better” place. This culture can lead to wonderful innovations, but it also tends towards a chronic bitterness and a bad habit of proxy battles.

In this setting, the important tension for administration to notice is the seemingly infinite need for praise before anything can get done, on the one hand, and not feeding the sickness, on the other. Status anxiety can be temporarily distracted, but it can never really be satisfied. The only long-term method I can imagine for dealing with this is to try steadily to bring expectations in line with reality.

Each style is different. “Inclusion” works well for elites in exile, but falls flat with clock-punchers. Management-by-charisma works well in the Catholic School style, but clashes badly with the corporate style and falls flat with elites in exile. Command-and-control works well with the clock-punchers and acceptably with the corporates, but fails miserably in the Catholic School and the elites in exile. Management-by-favors can work well with the Catholic School, but will insult the elites in exile.

The trick is in adapting a given management style to what a particular culture can handle, or in recognizing when that’s just not possible. (There’s a great book waiting to be written about the middle manager caught between a faculty who wants to go one way and senior leadership who wants to go another.) People on administrative job searches would be well-advised to be honest with themselves about their own styles, and to try to select colleges at which they’re likely to succeed. In this sense, hiring is a lot like casting actors. The point isn’t necessarily to find the best overall actors and hire them; the point is to find the actors who will do the best jobs with the roles as written. If you hire Sean Penn to play a teenage girl, it’s not likely to work.

So no, I don’t know about the whole “learning styles” literature, but I’m convinced that there are cultural styles afoot at different colleges. And many of the issues of fit are the same.

Wise and worldly readers, what college cultures could be added to the list?

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