Monday, January 02, 2012

Progress and Cycles

As a writer, I’m a little jealous of the folks who write business books.  Most of them only need one idea to generate hundreds of pages.  I have to generate five ideas a week just to blog!

That said, every so often one of those business books actually has something useful to say.  Over the break I read The Progress Principle, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, and I have to admit that it unintentionally shed some useful light on academia.

The one idea of this book is that the feeling of “progress,” even when small, is a powerful motivator.  People who achieve little victories are far more likely to stay engaged with what they’re doing and put forth solid effort than people who don’t get those victories.  The major advice of the book was to structure work (and management) to recognize the value of small victories, and to encourage a sense of forward motion whenever possible.

And then I thought about semesters.

It’s hard to get a sense of progress as a teacher when you have to start all over again every few months.  Just when the students are starting to get the hang of it, they leave, and you have to face a fresh crop that puts you right back where you started.

That may be one of the major differences in faculty work between a community college and a research university.  Research projects can take years, and they typically have little victories along the way.  To the extent that your focus is on research, that sense of progress may not be terribly endangered by the semester schedule.  But if your job is focused on teaching, then your entire work world resets every few months.  Over the course of years, the sense of eternal recurrence can easily swamp any feelings of progress.  Add to that a hostile external climate – by which I mean chronic and worsening funding issues – and I could see where a certain snarky helplessness could quickly become a sort of cultural default mode.

I grew up in a town with a minor league baseball team, which I followed faithfully for years.  Following a minor league team is a very different enterprise than following a big league team.  In the bigs, you hope that your team stomps everybody else and that the players on your team improve.  In the minors, though, there’s a natural limit to that.  When a player gets too good, he gets called up.  Minor league playoffs are often terribly distorted by late-season callups; a team that played brilliantly in the early part of the year may be a materially different team by the end, since its best players got called up in the meantime.  In the minors, you couldn’t get too attached to any one star, since the better the star, the briefer the stay.  It was a more complex, and frustrating, style of fandom.

Teaching on the semester cycle can be a little like that.  Just when the students really start to shine, they move on, and you start all over again.  Everybody knows that going in, of course, but it still makes it harder to draw satisfaction over time.

The way I handled it as a fan was to separate the team from the players.  (As Jerry Seinfeld later put it, I rooted for the shirts.)  I’m hopeful that some faculty are able to do that.  Experiments in curriculum and instruction can take years to play out.  In some ways, that’s a bug, but it may also be a feature.  Getting some sort of temporal orientation beyond the semesterly reset may help replace some of the frustration or sense of futility with a sense of legible progress.

The book didn’t focus on academia, and I don’t know if the authors would accept my reading or not.  But it seems like a deliberate focus at the cc level on pedagogical and curricular experiments over time could pay off not only in the straightforward ways intended, but also in a greater sense of felt progress and continuity over time.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those with heavier teaching loads: how do you handle the lack of a sense of progress that attends the semesterly reset?