Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Three Visions

The new academic year is about to start.  Every year, around this time, I reflect on how I’d like to see community colleges work.  

In my perfect world, a community college would be a collection of mad scientists experimenting with the best ways to help students learn.  They’d hail from all sorts of disciplines, and presumably some of them would have better grooming than the traditional mad scientist, but they’d share the excitement and focus on the task at hand.  The college would be a constant cauldron of experimentation and communication of results.  In this view, academic freedom exists to enable experimentation.  Over time, as results accumulated, the effects for the students would get progressively better.

I used to think that my vision was so obvious and universally shared that there wasn’t much point in spelling it out, any more than there would be in calling attention to the fact that people breathe.  But experience has taught me otherwise.

Plenty of other visions are in play, each with different assumptions.  When assumptions crash into each other, conflict ensues.

For example, the “college as church” vision still holds sway in some quarters.  In that vision, a privileged group with unique access to The Text sits in judgment of all others.  Adherents to this vision tend to be intensely status-conscious, and are often quick to take umbrage at any hint that things could be better than they already are.  

Some of the trappings (and history) of higher education enable this perspective to survive.  The academic freedom that I think should be used to try new things can be perverted and recast as an entitlement to be left alone.  A background condition that should enable constructive action is read, instead, as license for inaction.  And the various ranks and ceremonies that characterize academic life are consistent with both a churchly past and a churchly vision.

The ‘mad scientist’ vision and the ‘church’ vision don’t mesh terribly well.  Among other reasons, part of the appeal of the ‘mad scientist’ vision (substitute “jam session” if you like that better) is that it subordinates any one person’s ideas to actual results.  The job of the scientist is to follow the results where they lead (just as the job of the musician is to follow the groove where it goes).  There’s certainly room for creativity, but the creativity is in response to things that actually happen, or actually fail to happen.

In the ‘church’ vision, though, if an implementation of the One True Faith doesn’t work, the answer is to Try Harder.  A square peg can fit into a round hole, if you’re just willing to push hard enough.  Bad results don’t call The Truth into question; if anything, they suggest a character flaw in whomever got the results.  If students aren’t learning, it must be because kids today lack moral fiber, or they dress funny, or their music sucks.

These aren’t the only visions.  In our national politics, the “personnel office” vision has gained great traction lately.  In that vision, colleges are assembly lines designed to pump out graduates for various product lines (called “occupations”).  You judge a college by the efficiency with which it produces graduates; in this vision, the job of the people who work at the college is to reduce errors and otherwise fulfill orders.

In this vision, workers are basically interchangeable parts, and colleges differ only in their product lines and the efficiency with which they work.  We assume that the task at hand is obvious, and that the only questions are around leaner and more airtight implementation.

The personnel office vision is as authoritarian as the churchly vision, but it locates the source of authority differently.  Instead of inhering in text and tradition, in this view, authority derives from the external job marketplace.  The market says what it wants, and the task of the college is to provide it.  End of story.

Yes, these are all overdrawn, oversimplified, and extreme.  Granted.  But I see plenty of people falling into each of these camps, with varying degrees of purity or self-awareness, and their respective senses of the rules of the game follow.  Is academic freedom in the service of trying new things (the mad scientist), protecting the sacred from the profane (the church), or simply anachronistic (the personnel office)?  Are faculty creative workers (the mad scientist), the chosen people (the church), or widgets (the personnel office)?  Is teaching a creative profession (the mad scientist), a calling (the church), or a deliverable (the personnel office)?

The mad scientist vision strikes the churchly as irreverent, which, in a sense, it is.  And it strikes the personnel office folk as error-prone and kind of loose, which, again, it is.  You can’t have trial and error without error.  But to my mind, it’s both the most humble and the most future-oriented approach.  Job markets change quickly, and reducing the future to the size of the present is a crime against progress.  I don’t know what the hot occupation will be ten years from now, but I’m willing to guess that the abilities to communicate, to synthesize difficult and disparate information, and to adapt will still be relevant.  What better way to learn those things than to stew in them, in a place that does exactly that?

Perhaps some of the supposed clergy are in fact scientists who are aware of things like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Uncertainty Principle, and the fact that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. So, they look at people who are chasing around trying to do MORE! BETTER! MORE! AND MORE! AND BETTER! and suspect that maybe the perennial problems are stubborn for a reason.

Maybe we realize that sometimes the most we can do for people is make opportunities available and work closely with those who reach out and try to take advantage, and any effort to go beyond that timeless model is usually a gimmick.

Maybe we realize that when some enthusiast is all excited about something that they got to work, the real key is not their approach but their excitement, akin to the way that in many areas of social science (note the word "Science!" in there, Mr. Mad Scientist Enthusiast!) the mere act of doing something different with people tends to lead to better results if everybody is enthused. It's basically a placebo effect. The real question is what happens when that fired-up mad scientist hands it off to somebody with a totally different philosophy. Will they get the same great results if they haven't first gotten all fired up and drunk the same kool-aid?

To the outsider, what I'm writing might appear to be religion, but in fact it's science.
@Alex, I think your second paragraph is very in line with what Dean Dad is encouraging. (Perhaps his "Jam session" motif is more useful here, or removing "Mad" from the scientist label.)

... making opportunities available ... to reach out to try (something) ... sounds a lot like experimentation to me.

One point is the ability to have an idea fail without a severe repercussion. Eventually an experiment will reveal a good breakthrough that facilitates learning. Certainly there were a bunch of little steps and failures before someone in the mid-90s marked up text so much that it was beyond or "hyper" text and was considered a form of a language. That innovation has certainly encouraged learning.

As an engineer, I certainly prefer an environment that allows some experimentation rather than requiring strict adherence to dogma. We need protocols, sure; so we have safety committees, standard lab operating procedures, and processes for introducing new courses and temporary experimental courses. (At my school they are even called X courses.)

Re: vision 3, public radio remix recently introduced me to this Dan Pink Ted talk (and its commentary) about creativity and rewards. (Does that show really have a use for me now?) The talk reveals new ideas about creativity that were learned through (safe) social experiments.

DD, I hope your vision is pursued this year, and not only at DDCC.
It seems to me that different segments of CC's (and other post-secondary schools) adhere to each paradigm (with overlap of course). There is a dire need for experimentation in the realm of developmental classes (or the whole enterprise of remediating students so they can take college-level classes). Pretty much everyone is unhappy with the results that are being gotten so far -- but the good news is that there is experimentation going on. Maybe not enough, though. The church paradigm actually works well for some traditional liberal arts disciplines. Yes, they get stuck in the mud at times -- and the most recent disciplinary theories are the most stuck, often. And the personnel office function is not going away anytime soon. It has actually been around since US universities were founded to train the clergy starting in the 1600's. Yes, it can be too responsive to temporary workforce needs, but only the delusional think that we can attempt to get 40% of our young people through a 2- or 4-year program without addressing their need to become employable.

Dean Dad, I think this paradigm could equally as well be applied to our K-12 system, with the caveat that the personnel office function should be held at bay until late high school, and should never be responsive to the requests of specific employers at that level. But the pressure on developmental education at the post-secondary level would be greatly relieved, I think, if the K-12 schools were more committed and successfull in experimenting around better mastery of math, reading, and writing at their levels.
Of these three models, the church is cheapest, the personnel office is most politically popular (outside of the CC) and the mad scientist just irritates everyone.

Tenure and funding favor the church.
There are different end goals also.
The Mad scientist and the edu-priest both want to educate because that’s a self-evident good.
The personnel office is educating people to go and do /something/. The goal is to make them better prepared for some specific thing.

Off topic, but was this The Replacements concert why you took a Friday blog holiday?
Sadly, no. Wish it had been!
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