Monday, September 29, 2014


Code-Switching and Professional Development

Travel funding is even harder to come by these days than it used to be.  In the community college world, that’s saying something.

I mention it in light of this piece in the Chronicle about the Aspen Institute’s recommendations for search committees looking for community college presidents.  In a nutshell, the Aspen Institute recommends that search committees de-emphasize their usual focus on fundraising and networks, and instead focus on people who’ve shown the ability to improve student success, to take risks, and to get people to experiment.  

I agree strongly with the Aspen Institute, for reasons that won’t surprise anyone who knows me.  But in thinking about what it takes to cultivate both student success and the spirit of experimentation, I’m thinking we might need to look at a different kind of professional development.  Specifically, future leaders might want to think about conscious cross-fertilization in choosing which conferences to attend.

I’ve walked some of that walk, having attended the Council for Undergraduate Research national conference, as well as NEACRAO, NACCE, and the first CASE conference on community college development.  From personal experience, I can attest that the initial sense of the surreal fades after an hour or so, and before long you find yourself considering issues from perspectives that otherwise might never have occurred to you.  For future leaders of change, this is not a bad thing.

Because I have some pretty nerdish tendencies, one of my ‘bucket list’ goals involves attending the American Educational Research Association annual conference.  I’m a big fan of Institutional Research done well, and I can’t help but think that if top management at community colleges were more fluent in data, it might be a good thing.  (Putting the people who make decisions in touch with the people who have information seems like it has some potential.)  But in 2015, the AERA conference and the AACC (American Association of Community Colleges) conference overlap almost completely, in cities pretty far apart.  Grr.  Looks like AERA will have to wait at least another year.

Along similar lines, I’ve noticed that Educause doesn’t seem to draw much overlap from the non-technical side of colleges, either.  It should; making resource allocation decisions without being conversant in technical trends is high-risk, at best.  There, too, I see a pretty compelling argument for senior administrators to travel outside their fields to see what’s going on.

The first time I traveled outside my comfort zone was as faculty.  My dean sent me to the AAC&U conference to hear how other colleges were handling the issues around ‘general education.’  That was where I discovered that DeVry’s habit of using “general education” and “liberal arts” interchangeably was actually idiosyncratic; when I first heard liberal arts faculty complain about having to teach “gen ed” courses, I had no idea how to make sense of it.  After discovering what they meant -- and how most of higher education uses those terms -- suddenly much more of what I had to do around accreditation made sense.  I just needed immersion in someone else’s frame of reference.

Reading around -- by which I mean, reading outside your own industry -- can help, to some degree.  (Blogs and Twitter are great for that.)  But the immersive and disorienting experience of being surrounded by people whose assumptions and frames of reference are different is qualitatively distinct from just reading outside your field.  

The ability to shift frames of reference, and to hold them up against each other, is a key leadership skill.  Public education leaders need to be fluent not only in faculty-speak, but in media-speak, lawyer-speak, politics-speak, business-speak, and donor-speak, among others. It’s a kind of code-switching.  (The best leaders go beyond code-switching and reach all the way to translation, which is a radically inclusive act.)  It requires practice.  And the best language practice is immersion.  

That’s a hard sell in an era in which every travel request triggers strict scrutiny.  But as expensive as travel can be, it’s cheaper than the failures rooted in provincialism.

Wise and worldly readers, have you ever been to a conference outside your normal circles that made a real difference for you?

I went to SXSW 8 years ago. They had just started having a track for education--now there's SXSWEdu. Getting a glimpse of Silicon Valley up close was quite useful to me. I was able to go back and emphasize how far behind we were in terms of our use of technology. I also developed a healthy skepticism of SV optimism. Many of the tools/products didn't survive past the conference itself, but sometimes the ideas did. A precursor to FourSquare was on view there.

Another tech conference that same year reinforced that skepticism. I attended BlogHer in Silicon Valley itself. I have never felt more like someone being marketed to. I was just a demographic. It's good to remember that just because you're in education doesn't mean you aren't also seen as a market by someone. So when the vendors come to sell their latest wares, you need to get past the hype and make some good decisions. The Yahootinis were great, but more importantly, I learned to keep my head despite free drinks and Swag.
If you're really looking for institutional research as practiced on campus, go to AIR over AERA. SCUP has a broader focus, but looks increasingly at institutional effectiveness. Both AIR and SCUP have a visible - and growing - community college presence.
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