My mid-Atlantic, public, liberal arts institution has gone through a great many changes in the last two years. Changes in the top-echelon leadership have inspired a curriculum overhaul, revisions of the ways in which faculty are evaluated, more robust opportunities for undergraduate research, a comprehensive first-year program featuring targeted advising and freshmen seminars, and will soon yield a new faculty governance system.

I have just learned that another major change is imminent: the elimination of our current, faculty-organized teaching development program and the creation of a new Center for Teaching Excellence. The new Center will integrate teaching and learning technologies and pedagogies in what I expect (and hope) will foster real organic exchange between faculty interested in the teaching commons and faculty using technology in innovative ways.

We have an opportunity to produce a model Center. Readers–if you had your druthers and could create the “Dream” Center for Teaching Excellence, what would you have it do? What services should it provide? How should it be organized?

I have never been good with my hands. All my life, my hands have seemed like interlopers with the wrong set of wiring. That smooth connection between hand and brain that graced seemingly everybody else never failed to catch my notice or inspire my dismay. I was horrible at sports, at art, at playing instruments–all those finer things in life might as well have been within the reach of the next galaxy. I accepted long ago that I’ll never roll over Beethoven or know what it feels like to hit a home run.

But, when my arthritic grandmother sat me down a couple of years ago with a crochet hook and bit of cheap yarn from Wal-Mart, things began to change. To my surprise, within a month I had made 2 afghans and a legion of scarves and hats.

I began to notice knitters everywhere–especially the really experienced knitters who glided through complicated patterns like poured milk. With sometimes four or five needles sticking out of their project and only 2 hands to negotiate the working yarn, all the loops, the points of the needles, and the masterpiece itself, all of this while working through a series of unforgiving combinations of stitches, well–my sense of accomplishment sort of fizzled. My sense of limitation grew along with the renewed awareness of my clunky hands. How do they do that???

One fine day in October, I bought more needles and books than I could ever need and sat down to finally face my opponent. I expected it would take months (if ever!) to be able to work the simplest stitch, but once again–to my surprise–within two weeks I had finished several projects. Two months later, nearly all my hand-knit Christmas presents are made and ready to be wrapped.

It is beginning to dawn on me how profoundly flimsy those gargantuan obstacles to learning are. The palimpsest-effect is so very strong: the erasures of possibility enacted by our own habits of thinking are self-reproducing, self-tracing, and self-limiting. But, throw away the palimpsest, and take out a clean page–why, anything is possible…

At the end of class the other day, a student who had some questions before an imminent midterm asked me when I would be available the next day for office hours. Now, I commute an hour each way to campus, and I had planned on good library time the next day.

I suggested a solution: “Why don’t you IM me if you have questions? I’ll be on-line most of the day?”

I have to say, the student’s response took me a little aback: “Why would I IM my professor? That’s just weird.”

My perspective came from thinking of IM-technology as a tool to enhance, enrich, and expand communication, one which is suitable for a variety of contexts, both personal and professional. While I certainly do use IM in a personal context, I am straining at the bit to think of viable ways in which to harness the “back-channel” potential of it in the classroom. And, while some meetings are best done face-to-face, during the busiest times of the year when every second seems to count, I must confess, I could be persuaded to hold a number of meetings electronically.

It occurred to me, though, that this student’s objections to holding conference via instant message conveyed an undercurrent of imputation–an imputation, in fact, of violation. I had unwittingly wandered into a DMZ between public and private domains. Although I, myself, never troll through Facebook, I have heard similar anecdotes about students expressing feelings of violation when their professors and administrators look them up or simply have a presence of their own on Facebook. I wonder how they will feel when future employers who have fewer qualms than I do about trodding into “private” public territory read about their undergraduate escapades? (Dean Dad has a great post about this! And Techist is using Facebook in very interesting ways…)

No doubt, there is a generational gap at work here, one in which notional boundaries between “public” and “private” are contestable. While I want to remain sensitive to students’ desire for privacy, it also seems to me to be the case that the academy can do more to embrace these tools and to help define the parameters of etiquette.

Readers, how do you tactfully negotiate the “public” and “private”?

In a recent post entitled “The Battle is (or Will be) Lost”, Will Richardson relates a story that Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, told at the Personal Democracy Forum. Disappointed that in weekly meetings his staff had their faces in their computers, he banned computers. The following week, thinking that his staff were all leaning forward in deep engagement, he came to find that they were all using their blackberries under the table. Richardson quoted Schmidt: “This is a battle that we have lost, and I think it’s fine” because it shows just how important these technologies are.

I found this story very interesting for a number of reasons. First, the CEO of Google, a company that has made all kinds of web-based interconnectedness and sharing of information possible, banned computers from meetings, rather than harnessing and capitalizing on the “back-channel” potential.

 

Second, his use of militarized language expresses more than just an experience of generational gap; he acknowledges that we are standing in the midst of a cultural and technological revolution that has happened, is happening, and will continue to change and shape the ways in which we communicate, explore ideas, and share information.

In this brave new world, what are our expectations for behavior? Should I assume, for example, that a student is not “paying attention” when his face is focused on his laptop? What if he is actually looking up the the floorplan of the Boule in the Athenian agora and instant messaging that link to another student who just made a very interesting comment on the relationship between civic space and citizen participation in the world’s first democracy?

Moreover, what if teachers and leaders were to encourage the using of these tools to foster interaction, independence, initiative, and collaboration within a learning community?

In his post, Will Richardson draws the proverbial line in the sand:

 

And so there it is. There is really the crux of this. We. Cannot. Win. This battle has been lost, the problem is most parents, and most educators just don’t get it yet. All this banning of cell phones and taking down wikis and filtering out blogs…all of it is our own little Iraq. It’s not working. It’s not going to work…More restrictions, more blocking, more battening down the information hatches is only going to drive it all underground and make the world of our kids less safe. And, it will deny us a chance to help our kids develop and employ the literacies they are going to need to succeed in their future.

 

I would only add that when we restrict, block, and batten down, we serve only to isolate ourselves. Rather, what we can do is embrace the possibilities by forging a new code of behavioral expectations that supports each contributing member of a community (a staff-meeting; a classroom) bringing her network and all the information and approaches to problem-solving that are expressed within it to the table.

 

 

In my last post, I attempted to summarize what I thought were some of the most salient points of Karen Stephenson’s brilliant, complex, and far-reaching keynote address to Faculty Academy on Thurs. May 18th. I also suggested six possible “take-away” points for deliberation, which I intended to be a starting point for conversation. So stimulating, cogent, and compelling was Stephenson’s presentation that I’d like to take the opportunity to develop some of those “take-away” points in a series of posts.

What are the hierarchical and network, formal and informal relationships that exist between faculty? This question alone seems dauntingly huge, and can shift from dept. to dept., from committee to committee, and from year to year within depts., committees, and faculty governing bodies. One small piece of this pertains to the way in which hierarchical and trust-based relationships express themselves in the interactions between un-tenured and tenured faculty as they work together to develop and enrich the social and intellectual capital of the institution.

Relationships between junior and senior faculty may be articulated in (at least) the following ways:

1. formally and hierarchically (as when, for example, senior/junior co-teachers function in the classroom as lecturer/discussant; senior faculty has full control of planning the course, while junior faculty performs student assessment)

2. informally and hierarchically (I would argue that has the potential to be the most awkward one for junior faculty, because it “walks and talks” like a trust-based relationship, but is in fact an authoritatively-based one)

3. formally within a network model (I’m thinking specifically of fruitful and fully realized mentorships)

4. informally within a network model (junior faculty, for example, seeking occasional advice from trusted senior faculty whom the junior faculty perceive as “pulsetakers”).

So, across a campus at large, and even within a single dept., a junior faculty member may experience a wide range of authoritative and trust-based relationships with senior colleagues.

Committees, therefore, are particularly interesting, not only because they are cells of activity within the larger “sub-organization” of faculty, but also because there exists such a dynamic range of formal and informal, authoritative and trust-based relationships in the composition of each committee, and the composition of each committee changes every year. And, then, not every committee is equal either, in terms of the nature of the work it does, whom that work effects, and the points of contact it utilizes to complete its social, intellectual, and transactional obligations (the question “obligations to whom?” is another nettled and complicated question…). Because these committees perform a great deal of policy development and often work as ambassadors between a faculty governing body and the administration, the tacit relationships within committees can have far-reaching consequences (positive, negative, and mixed).

Navigating this nexus of relationships is probably something that some people do better than others, and here’s where department chairs who want their junior faculty to succeed can have real impact early on. Appoint senior faculty members who tend to function well in trust-based relationships to serve as mentors; in the absence of a formal mentoring system, encourage connection between junior faculty and trusted and trust-enabling senior faculty.

Readers, what have your experiences of mentoring been?

UMW’s Faculty Academy this year was more inspirational than ever, and that’s saying something!!

Having earnestly listened to every highly tuned word of Karen Stephenson’s presentation on the topic of trust within institutions, it occurred to me that the faculty at my institution should take a full year to digest, reflect upon, and engage her advice. She argued that there are essentially three kinds of relationships within institutions–transactional relationships, authoritative relationships defined by differential statuses of power, and relationships of trust. Those which are based on trust function through collaboration and “can absorb great amounts of ambiguity and uncertainty.”

Moreover, she argued, in any network, there are three kinds of “nodal” employees, all three of which are typically unaware of the fact that they are nodal: the hub is the “clearinghouse of information” and thrives at on pulling in strains of information from disparate parts of the organization; the gatekeeper serves as a link in the traffic of information between two elements of an organization; and the pulsetaker is one to whom other people turn when seeking advice about strategies or policies, because he or she has his/her “fingers on the pulse of the organization.” If the hubs, gatekeepers, and pulsetakers of the organization are misaligned with the organization, the organization is must realign them or risk failure. Even more urgently, if the relationship which governs any of these three nodal employees is defined by betrayal (i.e., betrayal of trust), it cannot be salvaged.

It occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to reflect long and hard about: 1. the kinds of relationships that exist between faculty, between faculty and administration, and between our larger organizations; 2. the relationship between our institution at large and the public (i.e., the taxpayers of this mid-Atlantic state); 3. who the hubs, the gatekeepers, and the pulsetakers of our organization are; 4. the degree to which they value, exemplify, and promote trust; 5. (and this is the hardest and potentially most contentious one) identify and address where and why relationships based on betrayal exist; and 6. deliberate how to contain or reorganize accordingly. Our institution, having experienced lately a series of radical shifts in the top echelon of leadership, could truly benefit from such an analysis.

Readers, how might such an analysis benefit an institution, and how would you organize and engage in such an analysis?

In a workshop at Faculty Academy yesterday, Barbara Ganley drove home a message she had delivered with no little conviction during her plenary presentation. Borrowing a poignant phrase from E.M. Forrester (“how do I know what I think until I see what I say?”), she judiciously argued that every teacher should be modelling the process of thinking, of becoming, of deep-learning through writing. How can we use the social dynamic of a community, she poignantly asked, to encourage narrative reflection that moves through “cycles of disruption and repair”?

One of the best-kept and endemically experienced secrets in academia is that we scholar-teachers tend to fear exposure. We fear being proven wrong. We fear flopping under scrutiny. And, good heavens, we most certainly fear doing so publicly! Barbara encouraged her audience “to fail, oh, to fail gloriously and (*gasp*) in front of our students!” Why? Because failing leads to a sensation of utter disorientation and of dismay. In an exercise in the workshop, she led us to reveal to ourselves that disorientation and dismay are exactly the experiential prerequisites for deep learning, and if we are not life-long learners, how can we expect our students to be?

Some friends of mine (most notably Pedablogy and Gardner Writes), have been encouraging me to jump off the dock and say something–anything–publicly and for the record. I confess, the thought of doing so has inspired no little trepidation on my part. What could I possibly have to say that anyone at all would care to read about? To paraphrase Wodehouse’s most inimitable Jeeves, it seems a given to me that I am in real danger of generating material that would be better put aside to be read at some later date along with the gas bill.

Whether it is whimsy or courage or inspiration that wags its finger at my lesser inclinations, I am here to join the “caravan” into the company of which Gardner has aptly and with “senses variously drawn out” invited me.

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