Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Academic Earworms

The term “earworm” usually refers to songs so catchy that you can’t get them out of your head.  They get into your brain through your ear, and won’t get out. (I’ve had Kirsty MacColl’s “He’s on the Beach” on a loop in my head for about two weeks now.  Why that song wasn’t a monster hit in the 80’s is entirely beyond me.) Or, occasionally, it refers to a particularly nasty scene in Star Trek II. But as a category, I apply the term to any random little thing I can’t get out of my head.  

Over the last few weeks, I’ve encountered a few academic earworms.

For instance, at a meeting of my counterparts from across the state, one college presented on how it went from nearly no awareness of OER to an entire zero-textbook-cost degree in one year.  The catalyst was a trip to the OER conference at UMass-Amherst to which the college sent a delegation of 28 administrators, faculty, and staff.

At the AACC, Ken Ender, the president of Harper College, urged us all to send teams to Germany to see how the apprenticeship model is done right.

On the same panel, Steve Johnson, the president of Sinclair Community College, mentioned that his college either is sending or recently sent (my notes aren’t clear) a dozen people to Germany for that exact reason.

At a panel on what makes a college a great place to work, someone shared a line from G.K. Chesterton: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution.  It’s that they can’t see the problem.” (To be fair, Chesterton is a reliable source of great lines. My favorite was his response to the customs agent who asked, upon Chesterton’s arrival in America, whether he advocated the violent overthrow of the government.  Chesterton responded that he’d like to see the place first before making that decision.)

Finally, at a workshop on diversity, the facilitator shared a flowchart.  Step three of the flowchart was “create a culture of equity.” That was step three.  It reminded me of the question mark in the “underwear gnomes” bit on South Park. (Next step: profit!)

The commonality of the earworms, I think, is that they’re all predicated on shifting a frame of reference through large-scale intervention.  Sending one or two people to a conference, or even a country, doesn’t give you critical mass. You need to send dozens. If it’s the right idea, it’ll resonate, but it needs critical mass.  Which means setting aside the resources in the first place, before you know it will work.

If ideas were all mattered, that wouldn’t be true; a great idea is a great idea even if only one person holds it.  But to move from an idea to a fact on the ground, it helps to have allies. Multiple sets of eyes on an idea will improve it, and multiple advocates for an idea make it harder to write it off as somebody’s pet project.  

When budgets get cut, travel is one of the first things to go.  It shouldn’t be. It’s sort of like eliminating research and development.  In the very short term, you may get a savings, but you’re cutting down the future to the size of the present.  The places that have made significant leaps forward have done it by being audacious, not flinty. They rightly understand targeted professional development as an investment in future performance.  Let it slide for too long, and you’ll find yourself in a self-reinforcing rut. You can’t cut your way to greatness.

I couldn’t help but notice how many breakthroughs happened after large groups traveled.  I’ve seen it myself when I was at Holyoke, and the League for Innovation held its conference in Boston.  I was able to send a decent-sized team who went to Tidewater’s presentation on the z-degree; that cohort became the vanguard of OER at HCC thereafter.  

Musical earworms usually fade after a while.  Sometimes they get replaced by new ones, and sometimes life doesn’t give you room for one at all.  (In the case of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” it was more the look of mortification on the kids’ faces when I’d sing it.  Whatever works.) But I suspect these earworms will stick around longer. The only way to get rid of them is to make them unnecessary.