Friday, October 26, 2012

The trouble with inspiration

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Carl Bloch
I'm a bit of a curmudgeon.  People that only know me casually might be surprised to hear that, but those who know me well know that I am easily frustrated with "inspirational" stories, raw-raw presentations intended to "motivate," and short "inspirational" quotes (I've tried for years to be a "quote" person, but in all but one case the quotes I write down on a sticky note and stick on my wall seem disappointingly mundane a day or two after I am "inspired" by them--the single quote I have kept and still refer to comes from artist Carl Bloch in describing his struggles to create:  "God helps me--that's what I think, and then I am calm.").

I was reminded of this when I read an email this morning (which is actually a blog post that is sent out to a listserv) in which the author described being asked by a student to "define in one sentence what it means to be a 'true teacher.'"  The rest of the post went on to describe how he came to his "one sentence" that he eventually shared with her (you can read the post to find out what he told her).  Because I've read posts by this author before, I wasn't surprised at being underwhelmed by what he told this student.  It was a statement that sounds nice, but for me, has no real meaning because it is so abstruse and esoteric to provide no real guidance for someone who wants to be a good teacher.  So, while it may be initially inspirational to this student, it isn't likely to change anything about her teaching practice.

The reason I have appreciated and benefited so much from the Bloch quote above, I think, is that it has a concreteness that is helpful to me when I am feeling overwhelmed with a writing project, a troublesome situation with a student, or some other challenge that I don't know how to face.  At the same time, it isn't so explicit that it seems mechanical or restrictive.  Additionally, it has a narrative quality to it in that it calls up an image in my mind of a real person (Carl Bloch) struggling with a task and then thinking about the divine help that he is entitled to as an artist.  So, in that way it is both inspiring and instructive because it seems tied to someone's actual experience.

It occurs to me that we might often look in the wrong places for inspiration.  My experience suggests that it isn't found in philosophical statements or high-energy Joel Osteen-esque speeches.  Rather, inspiration comes when we have a window into the experiences of another.  What I might be arguing here (and which I've argued multiple times on this blog) is that rather than searching for one-sentence inspiration that is easily posted on the corner of our computer monitor, we should be searching for, telling, and listening to stories that have meaning because of their embeddedness in our actual experiences.  This takes time.  And, it also means entering into relationships with others in order to gain access to one another's stories.  It also means being vulnerable because anytime we tell a story about ourselves, we expose some part of our being that can then be evaluated, judged, or critiqued.  Telling a story is much more risky than giving an impersonal one-liner divorced from any of our actual experiences.

So, while the blog author whose post I referenced above (along with everyone else who has ever tried to say something inspirational) surely means well, his student would have been better served by a rich and personal story, as opposed to the sticky-note-ready quote that was likely forgotten as soon as the sticky on the note dried up.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Incentives & Risk-Taking in Admissions

One of the most interesting phenomena in higher education is the admissions process.  Students develop ulcers over it; parents shell out cash to hire professional admissions consultants to give their child the best shot at getting into their top-choice school, and those hearty souls who work in enrollment management stay up nights trying to figure the whole process out.  I have never worked in admissions and probably won't at any point in my career, so I realize the danger in commenting on something that I probably don't know enough about as I should.  That said, it seems that the ultimate objective of an admissions office or department is to admit those students who (a) will persist to graduation and (b) provide a good "value" for the institution in terms of the cost of providing an education to that particular student.  Consequently, the "golden egg" for a particular school is , so to speak, a highly academically qualified student who can pay the full sticker tuition price, whatever that might be.  Of course, this is an oversimplification and doesn't generalize to every type of school (e.g. an open admissions institution whose mission is to provide educational opportunity to populations that have, historically, been underrepresented in higher education.

But, for the sake of argument (and so that I have something to write about today), let's assume that the above situation holds for at least a hefty percentage of the mildly selective institutions in the U.S.  In this case,  there is an incentive for an institution to minimize risk by only admitting those students that (a) seem nearly certain to succeed or (b) are relatively likely to persist to graduation and won't cost the university too much money if they aren't retained.  Clearly, a system like this decreases the likelihood that certain students will be admitted.  And, it raises questions about these institutions' commitment to educating more than just a very narrow segment of the prospective student population.

What if, however, institutions were rewarded for taking risks in the admissions process?  What if there was some kind of incentive for an institution to admit a slightly underprepared student, provide a high-quality experience to that student, and achieve some measurable level of success with that student (e.g. graduation, job placement, etc.)?  Not only would a system like this one change the admissions game dramatically and provide more students with access to institutions where, previously, they would never have been accepted.  It would also encourage institutions to be more thoughtful about the resources and initiatives they have in place to support students that may not be as academically prepared as others.

As it stands, there really isn't much incentive at all for institutions to take risks in the admissions process (outside of situations involving student-athletes).  And, often, the institutions that are viewed as most "prestigious" are those that rather than taking risks and seeking out students to whom they can add value, admit those who are a "good investment" and who are likely to make the institution look good.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Designing to preserve risk & ambiguity

Typically, risk and ambiguity are things that we try to eliminate from our lives.  We make our kids wear helmets when they ride their bikes to decrease the risk of head injury.  We're given detailed instructions for how to put together complex appliances or pieces of furniture.  And, we make sure plastic storage tubs come with explicit warnings like this, to make sure there isn't any question about the inappropriateness of storing children in such containers.  Clearly, I'm being a bit facetious here, but the point is that most of us operate from the assumption that the more we can get rid of risk and ambiguity, the better things will go.

While this is true in some parts of our lives, there are some aspects of our experience where moderate degrees of risk and ambiguity actually improve our behavior and performance.  Take the design of roads as an example, as reported here and in much more depth in Tom Vanderbilt's interesting book, Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us).  The essence of the argument is that drivers are more cautious, more aware, more considerate, and ultimately more safe when roads are stripped of the features we've long believed make them safer (e.g. signs, dividing lines, large distances between roads and sidewalks, and width to name a few).  Road designers (largely in Europe, those West Palm Beach, Florida has seemed to catch on) have realized this and started to design roads that are just risky enough that drivers have to slow down and drive skillfully (which most of us can do when we are actually thinking about it--the problems occur when we are lulled into autopilot by the "safety" of the road).  It is an incredibly interesting approach and one that will likely revolutionize urban planning and road design in the future (it is a philosophy first pioneered by a Dutch traffic engineer--Hans Monderman)

Risk is a theme I've taken on in this blog a number of times.  I think it has tremendous implications for learning.  My current wondering has to do with what it might mean for higher education institutions to embrace risk and ambiguity in calculated ways.  College campuses are full of the equivalent of road signs and safety features, meant to "protect" students and get them where they're going in a metaphorical sense (be it a job, graduation, or just becoming an engaged citizen).  We have advisement centers and student support services that notify students that they are on academic warning, reminders about graduation deadlines, policies preventing students from enrolling in more than a specified number of credit hours, and course catalogs that attempt to remove ambiguity by clarifying and outlining hundreds of policies and processes relevant to a particular campus.  I'm not ready to say that we should think about getting rid of any or all of those things.  However, I wonder if in our effort to protect students through our various policies, support services, and "clarifications" we might actually be causing more problems than we're solving.  And, are there "risks" that we might allow to become more visible and instructive so students approach their experience with a bit more caution and concern than they might otherwise?

A quick example--the course syllabus.  This great column from Inside Higher Ed (you really should read it, if nothing else, you'll laugh) illuminates the tension instructors face between including so much information that the document becomes laughably long and painfully detailed, and failing to outline the course w/ enough clarity so as to avoid "scandals" that arise when students question policies or procedures.  There is an inherent risk in a faculty member having a thin syllabus.  If the expectations for the course, course policies, and schedule aren't made unambiguous, students may not learn what they need to, we may have an argument with them about absences, or they may not know what to do in the event there is a Tsunami and they aren't able to get to campus for class.  But, when a course is so structured that the syllabus comes to be viewed as a recipe, that if followed leads to learning, we're in trouble.  From my own experience, I can say that when the syllabus outlined exactly what I had to do to earn my "A," I did that and nothing more.  Typically, the course became a hoop jumping exercise.  It was clear and safe, but I didn't learn much.  In contrast, I have had a few classes where ambiguity reigned supreme.  Initially, it was very frustrating for me as a learner because I wanted to know what to do, when to do it, and how to report back that I had done it.  But, the ironic thing is that the ambiguity increased risk and often nudged me to do much more and better work than I would have otherwise.  I don't know that this type of course design is a universal solution; however, designing for learner autonomy can lead to great motivation for some populations of students, particularly high-achieving or self-directed students (see Dan Pink's book Drive for a great discussion of this idea).

Of course, campuses must still be physically safe spaces and be structured in ways that allow students to feel comfortable enough that they aren't perpetually thinking about leaving; however, a little risk might go a long way in improving overall outcomes.

Friday, October 5, 2012

What is the equivalent of the opening hymn for a campus community?

Recently, I've spent a fair amount of time exploring this website, dedicated to phenomenology.  Yesterday I stumbled across an essay with the intriguing title "The Experience of Singing Together in Christian Worship."  One aspect of the "singing together" experience that is explored in the essay is the potential for the act of singing to bring together the members of a worship community.  This vignette captures it well:

"When I enter the chruch, I see that most people in the pews are sitting and talking to their friends, probably getting caught up on the news of each other's lives.  It is an interesting sight and sound; a sort of gian living room with people relating plitely to each other, their voices creating a gentle rumble.  At 11:00, the worship leader announces, 'Let's stand and sing our praises to God,' and the musical introduction begins.  It's amazing the change in atmosphere as the chatter stops and we begin to focus.  One kind of sound stops and another begins as we start to sing.  The individual conversations stop and we sing the opening hymn as one great, united proclamation."

As I read that description of one worshiper's experience, I immediately thought of a similar thing I have witnessed on my own campus.  We are a faith-based institution and, as is common among institutions of this type, we have a weekly devotional service (Tuesdays @ 11:05 a.m.) where the campus community comes together to hear a speaker or view some kind of cultural performance.  One thing that has always fascinated me is the way these meetings begin.  Just like a church bustles with conversation and action before the beginning of a service, the large building where BYU's devotionals are held is alive with students pouring in the doors and lively conversations.  However, when the clock hits five after the hour and it is time to formally start the meeting, there is no formal pronouncement from anyone (e.g. "Let us begin," etc.).  Rather, the organist begins playing, the text to that morning's hymn appears on a video screen in the center of the assembly hall, and we begin to sing.  It's a remarkably simple and effective way of focusing the attention of a fairly large group (I would guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 - 4,000 students & faculty most Tuesday mornings).

There is something selfless about hymn singing in a congregation of worshipers.  We shift attention from our individual concerns, and join together in singing a hymn we haven't chosen (unless you happen to be the person who has that assignment).  We each contribute in our own unique way, but our voices come together to form a unified chorus.  And, at times, it can be an incredibly sublime and uplifting experience for individuals as well as the collective group.  Perhaps the selfless nature of the act has something to do with this.

As I read the essay I found myself wondering whether their is anything that happens on a college campus (aside from faith-based institutions who sponsor devotionals or "chapel hour" as it was referred to at my first alma mater).  Academic institutions have an inherently selfish tone in many respects.  Students pursue their own academic majors, faculty members conduct their own research, and each department generally has its own set of concerns and challenges.  At times, there is very little drawing us together as a campus community.

Part of me wonders whether this is much of a concern for academia.  Is it even true that one of the purposes of an academic institution is or should be to draw its members together?  That's a question that can only be answered by individual institutions.  But, if unifying students, faculty members, and others on a campus is one of our aims, we should take care to find ways of doing so on a regular basis.  And, whatever we come up with should be something that invites us to give up a bit of our selves and join with others in working towards a common goal.