May 2007

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.